Colombia's peace process: three challenges

As peace talks begin between the FARC and the Colombian government, military victory is still espoused as a final solution by some, while other recall when past negotiations have failed. But there is historical success to learn from too.

Darynell Rodriguez Torres
15 October 2012

This week the Colombian government and the FARC guerrillas will officially launch a negotiation process aimed at putting an end to one of the longest armed conflicts in the world. The start of the process will be announced in Norway and further talks will continue in Havana, Cuba, towards the end of October. Both the Colombian government and the FARC have expressed their 'cautious optimism' for the positive outcome of this process. But after years of disappointments, growing mistrust and deep wounds, Colombians should expect the road to peace and reconciliation to be long and bumpy.  Aside from the inherent difficulties of these negotiations, there are three main obstacles that must be overcome: the 'Caguan syndrome', the belief that a military solution is possible and the need to design mechanisms of participation to make the process more inclusive, incorporating the views and concerns of the different actors that have been affected by the conflict during the past 50 years. 

The Caguan syndrome, the first major obstacle, refers to the frustration and mistrust created by the failed peace talks held in the late 1990s in the village of El Caguan, in south eastern Colombia. Many Colombians felt cheated because the FARC used the talks to strengthen itself militarily. Furthermore, the demilitarised zone established for the talks (a jungle area as big as Switzerland) was used to hide victims of kidnapping and increase the FARC’s control over drug trafficking and other illegal activities. Not surprisingly, El Caguan has become a symbol to those opposed to opening a new peace process with the FARC. The government is very conscious of this risk. President Santos was very clear in saying that the government will not make the same mistakes as in the past: not even one centimetre of Colombian territory will be demilitarised to talk to the guerrillas.   

While the failure of the talks in El Caguan weighs heavily in the collective consciousness of Colombians, it is unfair to reduce the results of previous peace processes to this particular case. Colombia has already gone through successful negotiations with different armed groups. Peace talks held during the late 1980s and early 1990s led to the demobilisation of guerrilla groups such as the EPL, the Quintin Lame Movement and the M19 guerrillas. Many of the former members of these groups have successfully reintegrated and some have even reached high profile public elected offices. For example, the current Mayor of Bogota, Gustavo Petro, is a former member of the M19 leftist guerrilla. While it is valuable to learn from the negative experience of El Caguan, successful processes of dialogue and reconciliation must also be remembered and valued.   

The second obstacle to engaging in a new process with the FARC is paradoxically linked to the military success that the Colombian armed forces have had during the past 10 years. The hard core approach carried out by the Alvaro Uribe administration after the failure of talks in El Caguan, was  rather successful from the military point of view. During the last decade the FARC has seen its military capacity seriously diminished and its mythical leadership practically dismantled after the death of the most prominent members of its Secretariat.   The feeling among many Colombians is that the Army has been able to turn the table and that it is actually capable of winning the war. Not surprisingly, the main opponent to a peace process is former President Alvaro Uribe who feels current President Santos is jeopardising the efforts of the Colombian armed forces in combating the FARC. President Santos responded to advocates of a military victory over the insurgence by stating that ‘peace is the victory.’ 

Although it is true that the FARC has been considerably weakened, it is not likely that they can be militarily defeated any time soon. According to the Colombian Think Tank ‘Nuevo Arcoiris’ which monitors the dynamics of the armed conflict, at the beginning of 2012 the FARC still had over 9,500 combatants, a relevant presence in 20 of the country’s 32 provinces (departamentos) and in 180 municipalities and maintained about 75 military structures which keep a strong discipline and cohesion. In other words, this rebel group still has significant military capacity and the resources to wage a guerrilla war for many years. Nonetheless, the idea that the FARC should be militarily defeated and that no negotiations should start before they put down their weapons is defended by some of the sectors more loyal to Ex-President Uribe. If progress towards that ‘peace victory’ that President Santos calls for does not become evident the voices of those opposed to the talks will become louder and won’t be easily dismissed. 

The third challenge is to make this process inclusive. While the negotiations will formally take place between the government and the FARC, it would be wrong to reduce the peace process to these two actors alone. After more than 50 years of conflict, thousands of casualties (many of them civilians) and one of the world’s largest numbers of internally displaced persons (IDPs), the process should find a mechanism to include the voices, perspectives and concerns of those who have been most affected by violence.  

This will not be an easy task. There is a tendency to regard civil society leaders as being sympathetic or even direct supporters of the guerrilla. This perception has been reinforced by recent episodes such as indigenous groups in the Cauca region expelling the Colombian military out of their territory. The argument given by the Association of Indigenous Governments of North Cauca, ACIN, is that they are fed up of being in the cross fire between the FARC and the Army and that they are simply demanding that both sides leave them alone.  According to them, since the Army would not move they decided to take action and force the soldiers out of their land. The picture of a member of the Colombian armed forces crying while being carried away by indigenous people provoked the indignation of many Colombians who accused these organisations of being infiltrated by the FARC or directly allied with this rebel group.    

An equally serious issue has to do with the instrumentalisation of civil society groups by the FARC. The government has recently said that it has evidence that a platform known as the ‘Patriotic March’ encompassing peasant groups, labour unions, student associations and other sectors, has been created and funded by the FARC to be its political arm.  While it can be understandable and even desirable that the FARC starts developing an outlet to participate in the formal political process, the Patriotic March has been very active in national and international forums demanding to be part of the negotiation as civil society representatives. By doing so, and if its nexus to the FARC are confirmed, they are undermining the space and the credibility of legitimate organisations who have been working for a peaceful resolution to the conflict for many years.  

Despite these difficulties, the voices of civil society can’t simply be dismissed. It is necessary to design mechanisms to allow the participation of different sectors of the Colombian society who have been affected by the conflict and who should also have some kind of ownership over this process. The wounds left by the war are deep and the path to peace will likely be long and difficult. Any agreement reached at the negotiating table will only be the first step in a long walk. Colombia has a strong civil society that has been promoting a number of innovative peace initiatives.  Civil society organisations can be key in building the road to peace, for example by working in the reintegration of ex-combatants and promoting reconciliation. They can also provide unique insights and point out risks and opportunities that may be overlooked. Many Colombians have been involuntarily put in the middle of a war allegedly fought on their behalf; it is not only fair but also necessary to make them now active participants in this effort to reach peace.  

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