Though the near half century of conflict with Colombia’s longest running guerilla insurgency may soon come to an end, the FARC are just one player in a much larger field of violent actors.
A New Dialogue with a Long Past
After two months of negotiations between the Colombian Government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the prospects for peace are more promising than ever before. October talks in Oslo and November meetings in Havana have focused on the establishment of guerrilla demobilization, in exchange for government efforts at agrarian reform. Additional provisions would allow the rebels a space to participate in civilian political life. These most recent talks may finally bring the 48-year-old conflict with the Marxist guerillas to an end.
In a sign of progress, Jesús Santrich, a rebel commander involved in the talks, noted optimistically that "there has been agreement [on both sides]. We are on the same wavelength."
His comments came after the Colombian Government agreed to convene a separate conference this December on land redistribution and agrarian reform. Despite a few disruptions in the unilateral rebel cease fire, the temporary truce holds firm.
The current dialogue represents the culmination of more than six months of secret negotiations in Cuba between the FARC Secretariat and the presidential advisors for Reintegration and Security. President Juan Manuel Santos has borrowed this strategy of secret consultations from El Salvador, which successfully negotiated a ceasefire between the ruthless street gangs of MS-13 and Barrio 18. Concealing the initial phases of consultation protected the process from public backlash.
Although the negotiations will only include the FARC, Colombia’s most prominent guerrilla group, the government has opened the door to possible future talks with the National Liberation Army (ELN). The ELN commander, alias Gabino has expressed that if the current negations between FARC and the Government are successful, then his organization may consider joining the table.
The opportunity for peace in Colombia raises many expectations and hopes, but also many fears from the previous efforts of the 1980s and 1990s. The most notable peace attempt occurred during the government of President Andrés Pastrana Arango (1998-2002). In the resulting agreement, the FARC exploited government concessions by using a 42,000 sq. km demilitarized area as a haven for arms and drug trafficking, among other illicit activities.
Nevertheless, the flaws were far from one-sided. The government failed to grant proper guarantees to protect demobilized FARC combatants from emergent right-wing paramilitary forces and drug lords. Many FARC deserters became the victims of reprisals and the rest watched as their legitimate political party, the Patriotic Union (UP) disappeared.
Many experts hope that the major concerns raised by the FARC may be remedied by current proposals for agrarian reform. These proposals would return property to those displaced by the decades of political violence. Unfortunately, many landlords oppose this redistribution of land.
On the other side of the political spectrum, many Colombians worry about resource exploitation by national and multinational firms without proper worker compensation or regard for the external costs of environmental contamination. Protesters have demonstrated against President Santos for ignoring the environmental perils of some concessions granted for mining in once protected nature preserves.
One of the most delicate issues will be the mechanism for transitional justice, leading many to question whether members of FARC will be prosecuted as criminals. It still remains unclear how the government will balance the legal protection of the FARC, necessary to kick-start negotiations, with calls to compensate the victims of war crimes. Once again, the government will have to juggle rebel impunity with the process of truth and reconciliation for the victims. Though a legal framework for peace will serve as a guide in the transitional justice process, congress has yet to debate the specifics of which crimes will be granted amnesty.
Challenges and Spoilers
Negotiating without a Ceasefire
Given previous experiences, demilitarizing Colombian territory will not likely serve as a viable option. Though in the past, security experts argued that territorial concessions to the FARC were essential to bringing the rebels to the table, this move is complicated by the process of monitoring compliance with the principles of the negotiation. A ceasefire is very difficult to monitor and violations by any of the involved parties can jeopardize the entire process, as witnessed in the last agreement. In this new dialogue, the country is still at war, despite the ongoing negotiations. Though FARC leadership agreed to cease all subversive activity, the government did not agree to suspend its military campaign against the rebels. This issue is particularly crucial at a moment where the fighting has intensified and the FARC have suffered severe losses among members of its top leadership.
Success or failure on the battlefield will have an impact on the dynamics of the negotiation table. Dialogue does not mean peace, but at least this time, both parties have stated that they will not to back down until a solution to the conflict has been reached. This promise is a huge advance, especially after the failed negotiations of 1998-2002, in which many Colombians felt that the FARC entered the process without genuinely desiring a peaceful solution.
Colombia’s problems will not end with signatures from the FARC or the ELN. New criminal organizations formed from the remnants of demobilized paramilitaries have emerged as powerful actors, working in conjunction with the drug cartels. Without sanctioned paramilitaries and anti-government guerrillas as intermediaries, organized crime may coopt the portion of the narcotics supply chain, now dominated by the FARC. These criminals could seize a larger share of profits from the cultivation of Coca, currently managed by the guerillas.
At the moment, two main criminal organizations, Los Urabeños and Los Rastrojos have divided the country, absorbing smaller local crime syndicates in the cities and a establishing a significant rural presence.
Some demobilized members of FARC and ELN might even end up reinforcing the existing organized crime structure. Currently 11% to 15% of ex-paramilitary fighters relapse into a life of crime.
In near 60 years of conflict, there arose a radical faction in the military, unwilling to negotiate with the guerrillas. Over the last 14 years, US military assistance has strengthened this hardline movement, which may act as a potential spoiler.
Colombia’s armed forces have become one of the strongest and best trained in the region, capable of adapting to the changing dynamics of guerilla warfare. Under Former President Álvaro Uribe and current President Santos, the army has achieved major victories against the leftist rebels. Now, negotiations may appear as a sign of weakness – a waste of momentum gained along the warpath. Many Colombians question whether the army will scale back its size, as a part of a Security Sector Reform (SSR). More concerns surround the limited opportunities available to the unemployed soldiers. Colombia´s military numbers 446,000 active duty personnel, the second largest in Latin America after Brazil. Would transitional justice cover the military forces and the crimes attributed to them? Will they face military tribunals or be sent to the Inter-American Court or the International Court of Justice
The First Step on a Long Road
Together, President Santos and the guerrilla leader Timochenko have initiated the first step on a long road towards lasting peace. However, neither the Colombians nor the international community hold the naïve fantasy that peace with the FARC will ensure universal peace for the country. Other criminal organizations have become powerful enemies of law and order throughout Latin America and will continue to thrive in Colombia. On the bright-side, achieving peace with the FARC would eliminate a dangerous actor that has perpetuated war in Colombia for nearly 50 years.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.