Issue 14 - December 2011
Colombia: Peace…going, going, gone?
The killing on November 4 of Guillermo León Sáenz (alias Alfonso Cano), the leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) leftist guerrilla group, initially triggered speculation that peace talks with the government could be in the offing, particularly as President Juan Manuel Santos had offered qualified support for dialogue and in October tabled legislation providing a constitutional framework for “transitional justice.”
The government’s initiative represented an attempt to secure explicit constitutional recognition of the viability of extraordinary or “transitional” justice as part of a peace process that would bring the country’s long-running internal armed conflict to an end. In marked contrast to existing legal norms, the proposal allows for victims’ rights to truth and reparations to be satisfied by extra-judicial means, and prioritizes prosecution for the most serious crimes without requiring trials of thousands of rank-and-file militants. The government anticipated that the measure, if approved, would allow it to introduce new legislation pertaining to future peace processes and the demobilization of armed groups.
However, the execution on November 26 of four hostages held by the FARC has met with widespread opprobrium, and immediately hardened public opinion against the FARC and weakened incipient momentum towards dialogue with the group. There will now be added urgency to calls for the security forces to intensify their operations against the FARC and in pursuit of new FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño (alias Timochenko).
This is not to say that a chance for some kind of dialogue has been completely lost, nor that Santos was eager to pursue peace at any price. Santos is eager not to repeat the mistakes of his predecessors and knows that most voters will not support risky negotiations conducted on the guerrillas’ own terms. In fact, by calling – as Santos has consistently done – for the FARC and ELN to abandon terrorism, drug-trafficking and recruiting minors, and by refusing to consider anything but the most restricted third-party mediation, the government appears to be relying on militarily weakening the groups sufficiently to force them to adopt a genuine and more flexible stance. Santos is unlikely to reach this threshold – in the absence of which the introduction of the “legal framework for peace” this year is unlikely to make any difference – before 2014.
The recent election as mayor of the capital Bogotá of Gustavo Petro, a former member of the now defunct M-19 leftist guerrilla group, has provided a boost for those advocating peace talks. Petro assumed the position – generally regarded as the second-most important political post after the presidency – stating that he was living proof that “peace and reconciliation are possible” in Colombia. The contrast between Petro, the leftist guerrilla-turned-elected-politician, and Cano, the recalcitrant leftist ideologue who died an outlaw, is a neat one, and offers hope that peaceful politics will eventually overcome insurgency and conflict. However, the “keys to peace” that Santos recently said he held “in his pocket” are therefore unlikely to see the light of day for the foreseeable future.
Whether the security situation improves during this period will largely depend on the government’s ability to regain the security initiative as part of the strategic review it is currently undertaking. However, either way, the guerrillas’ alliances with criminal groups and dependence on criminal activities for revenue will continue to pose challenges for foreign companies, particularly those with extractive-sector operations in remote areas. This is particularly the case with regard to kidnaps-for-ransom. While the practice is unlikely to return to the levels seen a decade ago, guerrillas will not acquiesce to government demands to permanently relinquish kidnap-for-ransom as a precondition for peace talks. Meanwhile, the drawn-out timeline for the “legal framework for peace” will take Santos close to the end of his term of office, increasing the likelihood that the conflict will be continuing as he seeks reelection in 2014.
In the meantime, it seems that FARC is more likely to become a criminal gang without a political focus or leader. Even if the FARC carries out limited hostage releases in the coming weeks or months as a sign of goodwill, the group is unlikely to definitively end its use of kidnapping and drug trafficking. Violence and terrorism will likely arise in some areas in response to their powerlessness.
Back to the top