New Colombian president promises ‘corrections’ to peace deal


Colombia’s youngest elected president has been sworn in to office, promising to “make corrections” to a peace deal with leftist rebels that has divided the country.

Ivan Duque, the 42-year-old protege of a powerful right-wing former president, now faces the task of implementing the historic accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) that ended a half century bloody conflict, but which remains on shaky ground.

He will also have to deal with burgeoning coca and cocaine production that has strained relations with key ally Washington and negotiate a peace with a holdout guerrilla army.

“The moment has come for all of us to unite to fight against illegal groups,” Mr Duque said in his inauguration speech to more than a dozen heads of state, promising to get tough on crime, drug trafficking groups and other armed and rebel groups.

The new president said he believed in “the demobilisation, disarmament and reinsertion of the guerrilla base” into society under the accord with the Farc.

But he added that “we will make corrections to ensure that the victims receive truth, proportional justice, reparations and not a repetition” after a conflict that left at least 260,000 dead, some 60,000 missing and millions displaced.

Colombia Presidential Inauguration
Colombia’s newly sworn-in president Ivan Duque reviews the guard of honour (Fernando Vergara/AP)

Mr Duque will have to lead peace negotiations with the National Liberation Army (ELN), a guerrilla army of some 2,000 fighters that began talks with Mr Duque’s predecessor, Juan Manuel Santos.

He said the talks with the ELN will hinge on whether the group ceases its attacks on Colombia’s military and accepts international monitoring.

“We have to construct a culture that respects the rule of law,” Mr Duque said as he spoke on a large blue stage on Bogota’s largest public square.

Mr Duque’s detractors fear he will be little more than a puppet for Alvaro Uribe, the ex-president who led a referendum defeat of the initial version of a peace accord with the Farc rebels.

Mr Uribe is still backed by millions of Colombians, though he is perhaps equally detested by legions who decry human rights abuses during his administration.

Colombia Presidential Inauguration
A man holds a sign reading in Spanish “Stop War, Continue with Peace” during an opposition protest (Ivan Valencia/AP)

At the rallies, protesters bore white flags and signs that called for the preservation of the peace deal.

“We are ready for dialogue,” said opposition Senator Ivan Cepeda, one of Mr Duque’s and Mr Uribe’s fiercest critics.

“But we are also ready to mobilise and exert our opposition if he enacts policies that limit people’s rights.”

Mr Duque is taking office as a spate of attacks and the killings of social activists have underlined that peace remains a relative term.

On Monday night, a motorcycle bomb exploded outside a police station in the western province of Cauca.

The National Liberation Army, a smaller guerrilla group that is still in peace talks, last week kidnapped three policemen and a soldier in an attack that highlighted the government’s struggle to bring law and order to Colombia’s most remote areas.

“If Duque is not able to solve this problem and find a way to bring the state into the countryside, we’re going to keep having the same problems we’ve had for decades,” said Jorge Gallego, a professor at Colombia’s Rosario University.

Colombia Presidential Inauguration
Colombia’s outgoing president Juan Manuel Santos welcomes newly sworn-in president Ivan Duque at the presidential palace (Colombia’s presidential press office via AP)

Cocaine production has doubled in Colombia over the past two years, according to US government estimates.

Mr Duque has undergone a quick transformation from unknown technocrat to president of South America’s second most populous nation, thanks in large part to the support of Mr Uribe.

Just four years ago, Mr Duque was a Washington suburbanite with a job at an international development bank.

It was there that he developed close ties to MrUribe, assisting the former president when he taught a course at Georgetown University.

In 2014, Mr Uribe propelled Mr Duque into the political limelight when he encouraged him to return to Colombia to run for a Senate seat and placed him on a list of newcomer candidates that he urged his multitude of supporters to elect.


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