Colombia’s youngest elected president was sworn in to office on Tuesday, promising to “make corrections” to a peace deal with leftist rebels that has divided the country and to crack down on lingering armed groups still roaming the countryside.
Ivan Duque, the 42-year-old protégé of a powerful right-wing former president, now faces the task of implementing the historic accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia 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,” 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 demobilization, 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.
In another nod to conservatives who have demanded tougher negotiation terms with rebel groups, Duque said he will push for a constitutional reform that makes it impossible for the government to grant amnesty to individuals who have been involved in drug trafficking and kidnappings.
Duque will have to lead peace negotiations with the National Liberation Army, a guerrilla army of some 2,000 fighters that began talks with 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,” Duque said as he spoke on a large blue stage on Bogota’s largest public square.
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. Uribe is still backed by millions of Colombians, though he is perhaps equally detested by legions who decry human rights abuses during his administration.
On Tuesday, hours before the inauguration ceremony, thousands gathered at public squares in Bogota and a dozen more cities across Colombia to express their opposition to Duque. 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 Sen. Ivan Cepeda, one of Duque’s and Uribe’s fiercest critics. “But we are also ready to mobilize and exert our opposition if he enacts policies that limit peoples’ rights.”
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 Uribe.
Just four years ago, Duque was a Washington suburbanite with a job at an international development bank. It was there that he developed close ties to Uribe, assisting the former president when he taught a course at Georgetown University. In 2014, Uribe propelled 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.
Within Uribe’s conservative Democratic Center party, Duque’s reputation as a more moderate voice can at times put him at odds with the solidly right-wing faction. Uribe’s support is thus considered crucial for Duque to rule with the full backing of his party. But he will need to build a broader alliance to pass laws in Congress.