Fragile Peace in Colombia

Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share on LinkedIn Share in Email Print article
Written by Uddipan Mukherjee

Will March 23 be a historic day for Colombia? The possibility is not high. President Juan Manuel Santos was curt in saying that he prefers a no deal rather than a bad one, referring to the peace negotiations with the Communist guerrilla group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or FARC. Most of the issues have been chalked out but one – the contentious issue in any insurgency rolling into peaceful transition – that is, disarming the erstwhile ‘rebels’. The peace deal is being mediated by Cuba and the initial announcement of March 23 deadline nicely dovetailed with the extraordinary visit by the US President Barack Obama to Cuba on March 21 – 22.

“Colombia Reports,” a poll conducted in October 2015, quite interestingly shows that majority of the Colombian people have expressed optimism in the peace negotiations with the country’s oldest and, by reasonable estimates, largest guerrilla group. The peace talks began rather secretly in late 2010 after President Juan Manuel Santos assumed authority in Colombia. The death of FARC’s military commander ‘Mono Jojoy’ was another reason that pushed the rebels to the discussion table. They were expected to gain some breathing time, which is a natural tactical component in protracted guerrilla warfare.  The talks, however, continued despite the elimination of rebel leader Alfonso Cano in 2011 and, consequently, a sharp increase in retaliatory attacks by FARC.

On the psychological turf, President Santos openly proclaimed that Cano’s death was a big blow to FARC and it should be prudent for the leftist rebels to seek refuge in peace talks. Journalist Jeremy McDermott writing for BBC News from Bogota shared that although the psychological impact of Cano’s death for the Marxist rebel movement was huge, it was unlikely to destroy the group or, indeed, even cause a serious interruption in its operations. McDermott opined that the structure of the FARC was designed to withstand the loss of leaders. Since 2008, four member of the guerrillas’ seven-man ruling body, the Secretariat, have died or been killed. Nevertheless, every time a leader died, another stepped into his place.

Maybe McDermott was theoretically correct, but Santos’ tactics worked in the long run – at least in the present circumstances, it seems so since ultimately the guerrillas have zeroed in on the discussion table with the state. In August 2012, Santos and the FARC announced they would be moving onto formal peace talks by October. In fact, by November that year, the rebels sent a number of top commanders to Cuba where the two conflicting parties would work out the specifics of a general accord to be formalised before the final talks. However, this was not the first attempt to draw a peace accord with the ultras. Several forays since 1980s had failed and – on occasion – gave rise to renewed conflicts with more violence.

Against that backdrop, media images flashed of Cuban President Raúl Castro holding the hands of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and top leader of FARC, Rodrigo Londono ‘Timochenko’ as they announced the culmination of an agreement in the last week of September 2015. While this evoked usual doubts in the minds of ordinary Colombians, it was a pleasing sight nonetheless. Both sides had said in March last year that the transitional justice process was the hardest to negotiate. Talks nearly broke down within a month over arrangements for trials and a reconciliation framework. In September 2015, however, only one of six elements, decommissioning and disarmament, in the talks remained to be finalised. The parties affirmed that once the likely final accord is signed, FARC will lay down its arms within 60 days. Furthermore, FARC’s commander, Timoleón Jiménez, posted an interview saying: “We are willing to take responsibility for our actions during the period of resistance.” The documents pertaining to the peace agreement clearly spelt out that there will be no special consideration for drug-trafficking crimes that are “unrelated to rebellion.”

The [Un]Civil War

As gleaned from the fact sheet published by ‘Colombia Reports’ on the Peace Process in Colombia, the conflict between the FARC and the Colombian government began in 1964. But political violence closely related to the current conflict has its roots decades earlier. Historically speaking, Colombia has never had much of a stable democracy. In its more than 200 years of existence, the former Spanish colony has had more than a dozen constitutions. Attempts to consolidate political and economic power by the two major political parties of Colombia – the Conservative Party and the Liberal Party– led to several violent confrontations, wars, and periods of political exclusion between the late 19th century and the 1940s. The violence with far more radical leftist forces did not take place until after World War II, when a populist liberal politician, Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, opposed the Conservative government and began initiating a mass movement that threatened the status quo.

Gaitan’s murder in 1948 sparked a period called ‘La Violencia,’ a decade-long brutality during which more than 200,000 Colombians were killed. The streak of violence ended in 1958 when the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party agreed to divide power – to hold public office and control the economy every four years. This agreement was called the National Front. However, the left wing of the Liberal Party, along with the communists influenced by a wave of socialism-influenced revolts across the continent, did not accept this National Front. In the countryside, where inequality was a perennial problem, farmers began revolting against the Bogota-based political elite. And it was from this movement that the FARC germinated. Initially, they were a handful of peasants. In 1964, FARC declared itself independent, forming ‘The Republic of Marquetalia’ in a tiny village on the foot of the Nevada de Huila mountain range.

The conflict further escalated in the 1980s when several leftist rebel groups became active. Drug trafficking revenue was financing weapons across the country, and right-wing self-defense forces began to protect private interests from the increasingly powerful guerrillas. In alliance with the Colombian Communist Party, the strengthened FARC began to have political ambitions at a national level, posing a serious challenge to the political status quo. In 1985, the Colombian government began peace talks with different rebel groups.

Peace Talks

The current peace talks are following an agenda that is made up of six issues.  These aspects attempt to cover both the causes and the effects of the conflict that exclusively may not have involved the FARC and the state. The issues regarding rural reform and political participation can be seen as an attempt to solve the fundamental causes of the conflict. Drug trafficking, one of the main pillars of the insurgency-related violence, is also a part of the agenda. Each agenda point needs to be signed by both the parties before a final peace deal can be reached. The FARC, later followed by the Colombian government, began publishing the partial agreements on rural reform, political participation, and illicit drugs in mid-2014. The government and the rebel body then made the documents publicly available. Partial agreements have been inked on rural reforms, political participation and illicit drugs.

According to the United Nations, Colombia’s conflict has left more than 7 million victims. Political violence has been wreaking havoc since the 1940s and has left at least half a million Colombians dead. This matter on the victims of the civil war is being negotiated. Further, while negotiating the end of conflict, the two parties have to discuss the abandonment of arms by the FARC and the measures to be adopted in order to help reintegrate the rank and file of FARC. The most contentious issue now longing to see the logical end is the demobilization, disarmament and reintegration of some estimated 20,000 FARC fighters and non-armed activists. When the implementation phase begins, Colombia’s government will ask the public to approve the peace deal in a formal vote or plebiscite. Once the electorate approves of the agreement, the government can formally sign peace with the FARC and all previously arranged deals will become valid.

In fact, Colombia’s attempt to end five decades of bloodshed was about to be derailed, after FARC units appeared to have breached a four-month-old unilateral ceasefire by ambushing a military patrol on 14 April 2015, reportedly killing eleven soldiers and wounding another twenty. According to official sources, the soldiers were ambushed with grenades, explosives, and firearms near the municipality of Buenos Aires (Cauca), while carrying out an unspecified night-time “territorial control” mission. FARC did not give an alternative account of the incident, but justified their actions as a “legitimate reaction” to continued counter-insurgency operations against their troops.

The incident led many in Colombia to speculate that FARC may have tried to use an ambush to pressure the government into an immediate bilateral ceasefire. This, however, was relatively unlikely. The government had repeatedly rejected such a deal ahead of a final agreement. But things were at least moving in the right direction in March when President Santos temporarily stopped air attacks on guerrilla camps and renewed that decision just days ahead of the ambush. The immediate and predictable consequence of the Cauca attack was that Santos declared it a clear rupture of the ceasefire and ordered the bombing to resume.

Most analysts had then opined that it was rather unlikely that the crisis would lead to collapse of the negotiations. “It’s one of the most difficult moments in the entire negotiations process,” said Markus Shultze-Kraft, a conflict analyst at the Icesi University in Cali. “However I would say it is above all a big political issue. It’s not a military issue, it’s not a security issue, it’s a political issue, and as such it should be dealt with politically,” he said.

On behalf of the Colombian government, Sergio Jaramillo was the chief interlocutor. “You need to be incredibly aware and lucid. So it is useful sometimes to read challenging things that keep you sharp, like difficult poetry, Rilke or Mallarmé,” said the 48-year-old academic-turned-politician.

“First of all, you have to have a plan. You need from the very beginning to have the clearest vision of where you want to get to,” he says. But then “As Sun Tzu would say, study your enemy,” he opines. “I had studied the FARC quite thoroughly and spoken to hundreds of demobilised members, so I have a reasonably good idea of what makes them tick . . . they are very cunning and wily negotiators.”

Jaramillo contented that wide reading, and lessons from successful peace processes in South Africa and El Salvador, helped him to shape up the modalities of the talks. Advice from other peace negotiators, such as Jonathan Powell, the British civil servant who led the Good Friday agreements in Northern Ireland, also provided him the necessary intellectual wherewithal. Colombia’s breakthrough came in September 2012, when the government and the FARC announced after seven months of secret talks that they had agreed on a road map. With the Havana-brokered negotiations reaching a climax, it appears that breakthrough is finally reaching fruition.

Any lessons to be learned?

The future disarmament and reintegration program with FARC has its perhaps closest historical antecedents both within Colombia and without. In the early 1990s when Colombia clinched deals with five guerrilla forces, such modality had to be undergone. The 1990 agreement of the Colombian government with the M19 paved the way for accelerating talks and eventual peace deals with the Revolutionary Workers Party (PRT), the Popular Liberation Army (EPL), and the Quintín Lame Armed Movement (MAQL), signed between January and May 1991. Some three years later, the Socialist Renovation Current (CRS), a dissident group of the National Liberation Army (ELN), followed their steps. In addition to this, Medellín-based urban militia groups also agreed to give up arms in 1994 and 1998.

An important instance outside the Colombian territory, and yet contemporary, is the disarmament and consequent reintegration of the Maoist rebels in Nepal – a process which definitely was jittery, but nonetheless path-breaking. A successful reintegration can by all means serve as a pioneer solution provider to similar conflict situations in the world.

Another strategic lesson to be gleaned from these peace talks is the fact that rebels – especially communist ultras who believe in protracted guerrilla warfare – come to the negotiating table either when they see a victory on the horizon or are cornered in the military sphere and find peace as the viable alternative to survive as well as to exist. The Maoists in India coming to talk with the authorities under the tagline of the famous 2004 ‘Andhra Talks’ is an instance of the latter, while the Nepali Maoists’ peace offer was a typical example of the former situation. In the Colombian case, an unprecedented military offensive – first under President Álvaro Uribe from 2002 to 2010 and continued with minor adjustments under Santos – reduced FARC’s total strength. The military onslaught has also dramatically reduced FARC’s territorial control, pushing the guerrillas into ever more remote and sparsely populated hideouts, often close to territorial or internal border regions.

Now, the moot question is whether such a nuanced combination of hard-line security approach, along with an option for talks being kept open only when the Indian government is in a ‘position of strength,’ will work on the sub-continent to tame the communist insurgency, which following a similar time frame as the FARC rebellion. Nonetheless, the Colombian peace process, if finally found successful at least to the point of laying down of arms by the FARC, can serve as a Conflict Resolution Model for the sub-continent. One issue, however, is worth to be noted here. Though the strength of the FARC rebels diminished over the years, the civil war was still very much ongoing. It created ripples down the Santos administration and that meant Colombian government was way too eager to resolve the conflict, even through negotiations mediated by a third party – in this case, Cuba. On the other hand, the Maoists in India are cornered due to loss of leaders and cadres. They are stretching and attempting to spread their tentacles to other parts of the country in the north-east and south, but it is more with a long term perspective. The Indian government is not under any serious threat so as to even sit near the discussion table.

Moreover, the authorities appear confident to weed out the insurgency through security-cum-development model. The Maoists too are not eager to ‘talk’ because the government has laid down the condition of ‘laying down arms’ as a pre-condition for talks. Hence, the ultras are not keen to put across the idea of talks suo-moto and lose grounds in the negotiation at the very outset. And above all, third party mediation is out of question now – at least the issue has not snowballed into a Kashmir-esque problem so as to pull in world’s major powers. All said, the peace process in Colombia will be closely watched by journalists, analysts, and policy makers across the world – especially from insurgency affected states. Whether the Colombian peace lasts or turns out to be fragile will surely provide empirical evidence to benefit conflict resolution on the whole.

 

About the author:  Dr Uddipan Mukherjee, IOFS, is Deputy Director, Ordnance Factory Board, under Ministry of Defence, Govt. of India. Views expressed, if any, are personal.