(1,242 words, approximate reading time 6 minutes, 12 seconds)
Colombia’s peace process is still reeling from the blow dealt by a FARC unit in rural Cauca department, in the country’s southwest, in the pre-dawn hours of April 15. Guerrillas surrounded, threw grenades at, and opened fire on a military detachment taking refuge from a rainstorm under the roof of a sports facility in the village of La Esperanza. The attack killed 11 soldiers and 2 guerrillas; 17 soldiers were wounded.
The incident has set back much of the progress that guerrilla and government negotiators in Havana have made since December in de-escalating the conflict, and in building public support for talks. President Juan Manuel Santos immediately lifted a month-old suspension of bomb attacks on FARC targets, a move the U.S. government quickly supported. While FARC negotiators insisted on characterizing the attack as a response to military aggression, lead government negotiator Humberto de la Calle lamented that “hope has been fractured” by the incident. Critics of the talks on Colombia’s political right, like former President Álvaro Uribe and Inspector-General Alejandro Ordóñez, went on the attack. President Santos was booed at two public events.
This is shaping up to be the most damaging crisis that the FARC talks have faced in their two and a half years. At the same time, it is typical—almost a textbook case—of the sort of crisis that hits just about every effort to negotiate an end to armed conflict. It is a foreseeable consequence of negotiating without a cease-fire in place, or—since the FARC declared a unilateral cease-fire in December—of negotiating with a unilateral, barely verified cease-fire in place.
This is a setback, but it need not be permanent. Restoring momentum to the negotiation and the de-escalation effort will require action.
First, figure out what happened in La Esperanza. The evidence—witness testimony, forensics and ballistics—points to a cold-blooded, disproportionate guerrilla attack. Still, this characterization needs to be ratified, nuanced, or disproved by an independent investigation of what happened.
It is virtually certain that a review of the evidence will find that the FARC patrol used excessive force and violated the dictates of its own cease-fire. Having an impartial body say that, though, can make it possible for the FARC leadership to admit publicly that its fighters acted in error.
Right now, the guerrilla negotiators in Havana can’t do that. They risk leaving the impression that they are internally divided or have lost control over their fighters. To admit wrongdoing would call into question their ability to “deliver” the FARC membership upon signature of a peace accord.
After contact with authorities and with both soldiers and FARC fighters present at the incident, investigators—perhaps, as the International Crisis Group has suggested, from the guarantor countries, Cuba and Norway—could offer conclusions about why the FARC assailants acted as they did. Were they dissidents acting out, or did they truly believe they were respecting the top leadership’s order to desist from offensive attacks?
We need to know the answer to that. If the attackers were dissidents trying to damage the process, the FARC should recognize that and hold them accountable. If the attack owed to a commander’s poor judgment of his duties, the FARC should acknowledge it.