Far from Paradise: Talking Peace in Colombia

by Russell Crandall and Paul DiFiore on March 24, 2013

The Colombia of the 1990s and early 2000s was known worldwide for little besides seemingly endless narco-driven violence. In recent years, however, newfound economic vitality and a remarkable shift toward security and stability—measured in part through drastically diminished murder and kidnapping rates—have earned the country well-deserved encomiums. Although its government and people are still plagued by an increasingly anachronistic Cold War–era guerrilla conflict that has lasted a half-century and inflicted untold human and economic tolls, the end may be on the horizon.

Peace discussions, launched last year in Havana, Cuba, provide the context in which the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia), the country’s oldest and largest rebel group, is playing a characteristically paradoxical game: negotiating with the government while perpetuating its guerrilla insurgency and narcotics trafficking in Colombia’s vast jungle regions. These discussions have reminded the international community that talking peace and making peace are not the same. In fact, even if these peace talks are successful, lasting peace in Colombia will not yet have been achieved.

Nonetheless, progress in these negotiations is promising. Despite firefights and kidnappings in recent weeks, along with aggressively negative rhetoric from both sides about leaving the table and the need to “save” the talks, a breakthrough occurred on March 3. At last, a concrete agreement on land emerged that includes a large-scale seizure of land from drug traffickers, a much-needed update of land records (called a cadastre), and a limit on agricultural development. This accord is the most positive advance since negotiations began five months ago. According to the deadline set by President Juan Manuel Santos, all five items on the agenda—land reform, political participation, disarmament, reparations for victims, and, amazingly, illegal drugs—are expected to be resolved by November 2013. 

The Colombian government has tried and failed several times in the past to bring an end to the conflict with the FARC, a (now largely nominally) Marxist insurgency that has been perpetuating violence and instability since 1964. In the most recent set of talks (1998–2002), the FARC was granted a Maryland-sized territory known as the despeje but only used it to train guerrillas, amass drug-financed weaponry, and cultivate coca and process cocaine; the result was a nation torn apart by war and increasingly sick of the FARC’s brutality and perfidy.

However, the administration of the past decade, under hard-line conservative Álvaro Uribe, did a controversial but ultimately successful job of regaining control of the country with the help of billions of dollars from both his own wealthy citizens and the U.S. Under his watch, mission after mission of precision-guided missiles and commando raids from the better-trained and far more lethal Colombian military decimated the FARC’s leadership ranks, once believed invulnerable.

Uribe’s hawkish Minister of Defense and successor, Juan Manuel Santos, announced in the fall of 2012 his intent to make peace with the FARC. Both sides are mindful of previous negotiations; the Colombian government has vowed not to repeat the despeje catastrophe of a decade ago, while the FARC is fearful of post-peace reprisals that they believe led to the deaths of so many of their comrades in the aftermath of negotiations in the 1980s. 

If the talks succeed, the Colombian government will earn a place in the history books—and possibly even a well-deserved Nobel Prize for Santos—despite the somber reality that a formal peace ensures neither social stability nor less criminality. Colombia has come a long way in the past decade, but it is far from paradise. Even in the event that the FARC signs a peace agreement and many of its combatants lay down their weapons, the consensus view among analysts and policymakers during recent conversations in Bogotá is that upwards of one-third of the “former” insurgent ranks will continue their illicit ways through narcotics trafficking, illegal mining, and the like. FARC leaders also sense that the threat of prison for life is real. The FARC currently enjoys infinitesimal public support and has unequivocally lost the hearts and minds of Colombians, although some observers contend that the guerrillas have made overtures to remote civilian populations in order to win their allegiance as the talks unfold. Moreover, the FARC has shown that, despite greatly decreased military strength, it still has the ability to act as a spoiler for the government, as evidenced by its newfound habit of attacking infrastructure such as oil and gas pipelines and electricity towers, critical drivers of the country’s tenuous economic upswing.

In truth, the Santos government, ever mindful of the May 2014 presidential election, cannot lose here; even if the peace talks flounder, Santos will have a mandate to scale up military operations and attempt to destroy the FARC. But peace, albeit tenuous, would undoubtedly be preferable. Exactly how much the Colombian government is willing to forgo justice in pursuit of that peace, then, becomes the crucial question.

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