Colombia’s Peace Process: Some Frequently Asked Questions

(1,754 words, approximate reading time 8 minutes, 46 seconds)

For over 25 years, the Washington Office on Latin America has closely tracked Colombia’s armed conflict and efforts to end it. With the U.S. House of Representatives holding a hearing about Colombia’s peace process tomorrow, here is our assessment of the current moment.

How would a peace accord benefit U.S. interests in Colombia?

In the 12 years between the launch of “Plan Colombia” (2000) and the relaunch of talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas (2012), Colombia tripled its defense budget and increased its armed forces by about 75 percent. A long offensive decreased the FARC’s size by about two-thirds. Today, this means that the FARC still has about 7,000 members and 15,000 support personnel. Though the FARC has no hope of taking power by force, the past 12 years’ rate of reduction promises years of continued conflict.

After 51 years of fighting, negotiation offers a quicker way to end the FARC’s status as a cause of violence and drug production. A peace accord would dissolve a group on the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations, as thousands of its members move into legality. This would ease efforts to reduce production and transshipment of U.S.-bound illegal drugs. And it would offer an opportunity for improved governance over historically lawless territories that provide safe haven to terror groups and traffickers.

Is a peace accord likely?

Yes, but getting there will be slow. Formal negotiations began two and a half years ago, and could easily take another year. Nonetheless, negotiators at the table are working in a disciplined way with international accompaniment, respecting the ground rules and generating hundreds of pages of proposals and dozens of pages of draft accords.

Negotiators have signed preliminary accords on rural development, political participation for the opposition, reforms to drug policy, and a truth commission. They have taken some steps toward de-escalating the conflict: the FARC is cooperating with the government on initial de-mining projects, and has agreed to turn over any minors in its ranks under the age of 15.


Negotiators announce agreement on a Truth Commission in June.

Still, some of the most difficult questions remain unresolved. Negotiators must find a way to hold human rights abusers accountable while also persuading them to disarm. They still must come to agreement on reparations to victims, the nature of combatants’ disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration, and the method of ratifying a final agreement.

The negotiations are going on without a ceasefire, amid frequently intense combat. This is a deliberate choice of the Colombian government, which is concerned that the FARC might use a ceasefire to regroup and reinforce itself. President Juan Manuel Santos insists that a bilateral cease-fire must wait until the end of the process. In the meantime, acts of violence undermine public support for the dialogues, and affect the climate at the negotiating table.

Are the talks in a rough patch?

Yes. The FARC had declared a unilateral cease-fire effective December 20, 2014, which brought an approximately 85 percent reduction in guerrilla offensive actions (though guerrilla “fundraising” activities, like extortion and narcotrafficking, continued). The ceasefire was not reciprocal: though the government halted aerial bombings of FARC targets in March, the guerrillas complained of frequent military ground attacks.

On April 15, FARC fighters attacked a military column encamped in a rural town in southwestern Colombia, killing 11 soldiers. The guerrillas refused to acknowledge any wrongdoing, and the government responded by resuming aerial bombings, including three raids in May that killed over 40 FARC members. The FARC revoked its cease-fire on May 22, and has since carried out a steady campaign of attacks on civilian economic infrastructure. Attacks on oil pipelines and power lines are causing environmental damage and blackouts.


The aftermath of the April 15 FARC attack.

What does public opinion say?

The guerrilla offensive has dangerously drained support for the talks. In late February, during the guerrillas’ unilateral cease-fire, Colombia’s bimonthly Gallup poll found 72 percent of respondents supporting the government’s decision to negotiate with the FARC. For only the second time since the talks started, Gallup found a majority—53 percent—optimistic that an accord might be reached. Two months later, those numbers fell to 57 percent and 40 percent, respectively.

Would a ceasefire help?

Some analysts contend that the guerrillas are deliberately seeking to anger Colombians, in the belief that President Santos might agree to a bilateral cease-fire to save the peace process. This is a miscalculation: public fatigue with the peace process makes it more likely that the government might walk away from the talks completely.

What the “Truth Commission” Can, and Can’t, Do

(708 words, approximate reading time 3 minutes, 32 seconds)

Colombian government and FARC negotiators made a big announcement on June 4, at the end of their 37th round of talks in Havana. They had come to agreement on the nature and mandate of a Truth Commission, or “Commission for the Clarification of Truth, Coexistence, and Non-Repetition,” that would be charged with “clarifying and making known the truth about what happened in the conflict.”

This is the first point of agreement reached within the “Victims” agenda point, which the negotiators have been discussing for about a year. The announcement gives the peace process a badly needed shot of momentum at a time when, following the end of the FARC’s unilateral cease-fire, the pace of fighting has quickened.

According to the lengthy summary document both sides released on June 4, the “Clarification” Commission will have 11 members, 3 of whom can be foreigners. Upon the signing of a final peace accord, the Commission will have six months to establish itself, and the commissioners will have three years to perform their work. This is an appropriately long amount of time for a complex and politically charged task: the commissioners will not be rushed.

The Commission’s final report will not name the worst individual perpetrators. It will be limited to identifying “collective responsibilities.” The text explains that the commissioners will be directed to report on:

“The collective responsibilities of the State, including of the Government, and the other public powers, of the FARC-EP, of the paramilitaries, as well as of any other group, organization or institution, national or international, that has had any participation in the conflict, for the practices and acts referred to above.”

There will be no “naming names.” That will be the work of whatever transitional justice body that the negotiators agree to establish, which will operate independently of the Truth Commission.

The Commission’s report, though, can explore the responsibilities of a wide range of institutions and “collectivities,” including private corporations and foreign governments. Presumably, it could name the military units or FARC fronts that exhibited a pattern of committing the most serious violations.

An existing body, the Center for Historical Memory originally set up by the 2005 “Justice and Peace Law,” has already done this, to some extent, in its numerous published reports. One imagines that the “Clarification Commission” would have to be more explicit, detailed, and systematic than its predecessor in its naming of responsible institutions and groups.

The Commission will not recommend punishments, nor can it share evidence with the judicial system. The text reads:

What Now? De-Escalate. Consider a Bilateral Cease-Fire.

Poll data published in early May show 64% of Colombians favoring deadlines for peace talks, and 69% feeling pessimistic about the possibility of reaching an accord.

(2,008 words, approximate reading time 10 minutes, 2 seconds)

Colombia’s peace process with the FARC continues to wobble from the blow dealt by the April 15 guerrilla attack that killed 11 soldiers in southwestern Colombia. Just since May 21, Colombia’s military has launched retaliatory raids on FARC positions that have killed at least 40 guerrillas, including two who spent time as negotiators in Havana. The FARC has responded by revoking the unilateral cease-fire it had declared on December 20, and by launching attacks of its own.

On May 25, as negotiators sat down in Havana for a delayed start to their 37th round of talks, FARC negotiator Pablo Catatumbo told reporters, “The sorrowful events that occurred last week are a step backward in the advances made until now at the table.” Headlines in Colombia’s press now refer to “The Wounded Peace,” “A Return To Dialogue Amid War,” and (citing the Colombian government’s Inspector-General, a critic of the process) “Peace Process In Intensive Care.”

The fundamentals are sound, for now

The April 15 FARC attack was, for most Colombians, the unofficial end of the unilateral cease-fire that the guerrillas had declared on December 20 and canceled on May 22. Still, despite continued wobbles, this remains fundamentally the same peace process that it was on April 14, the day before the FARC attack.

  • On April 14, the negotiators were discussing transitional justice and disarmament, the last two substantive items (and likely the two most difficult) on their agenda. They were doing so in a disciplined manner, following agreed-upon ground rules, considering detailed proposals, working with international accompaniment, and respecting confidentiality. They are still doing that.
  • On April 14, a group of active-duty military personnel, part of an “end of conflict subcommittee,” was discussing the technical details of disarmament, as well as how to implement interim de-escalation measures, especially a joint de-mining program. They are still doing that. In fact, leading guerrilla negotiators quietly visited Antioquia and Meta departments recently to lay groundwork for the first landmine removal projects.
  • On April 14, outside observers and foreign governments were focusing not just on remaining negotiation items, but on preparation for post-conflict challenges. They remain focused on the post-conflict.

On the other hand:

  • On April 14, polls [PDF] were, for one the first times since talks began, showing a majority of Colombians believing that a peace accord with the FARC might be possible. Today, that is once again a minority view inside Colombia.
  • On April 14, the FARC was in its fourth month of a cease-fire that—though unilateral and barely verified, and thus fatally flawed—had brought measures of conflict-related violence down to lows not seen since 1984, according to CERAC, a Bogotá think-tank that closely monitors violence. The 153-day stoppage in guerrilla offensive actions may have prevented about 614 dead or wounded, estimated Bogotá’s Peace and Reconciliation Foundation. Still, CERAC points out, the temporary truce may have allowed FARC units “to maintain or improve their position in exploiting illegal income from illicit crops, narcotrafficking, illegal mining, illegal timber harvesting, and extortion.”

Either way, that flawed cease-fire is now over, and we are about to find out the extent to which events on the battlefield affect dynamics at the negotiating table. It is unclear how many more “wobbles” this process can sustain, yet the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation asserts that more are coming: “We have information that the FARC are ready to respond with actions against oil and energy infrastructure, which could end in confrontations in many zones of the country,” said the group’s director, León Valencia.

The push to “accelerate”

With no cease-fire in place and public opinion now skeptical, patience is wearing thin. A broad spectrum of actors—the Colombian government, the U.S. government, the United Nations, former FMLN and IRA fighters—are calling on both sides to speed the tempo of the dialogues, at a time when the negotiators are considering some of the most sensitive topics on the entire agenda.

At this moment, the negotiators in Havana face three options. All are very difficult.

Getting the FARC Process Back on Track: Cease-Fire Talks, Not Deadlines

(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.

The Extradition Issue

FARC leader “Simón Trinidad” at the federal maximum security prison in Florence, Colorado.

(1,956 words, approximate reading time 9 minutes, 46 seconds)

“I don’t believe that any guerrilla is going to turn in his weapon only to go and die in a U.S. jail,” Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said in early March. “It will be up to me to propose to the U.S. authorities some solution to this issue, which is complex and difficult, but has to be resolved.”

President Santos has much to discuss. Outstanding requests to extradite FARC guerrilla leaders to the United States could stand in the way of a final peace accord.

We have never seen a full list of U.S. courts’ indictments of FARC leaders (some of them may still be sealed), nor have we ever spoken to a U.S. official who could cite an exact number of outstanding extradition requests. But the following indictments are in the public record, and the number is large: they involve at least 60 living, at-large FARC members.

  • Six were indicted in 2001 for the 1999 killing of three U.S. indigenous rights activists in Arauca. (At least one of these six is now dead.)
  • Three were indicted in 2002 for narcotics and for kidnapping two U.S. oil workers in Venezuela. (At least two of these three are now dead.)
  • One was indicted in 2002 for the 1998 kidnapping of four U.S. citizen birdwatchers. (This individual, Henry Castellanos alias “Romaña,” is now a FARC negotiator in Havana.)
  • Two were indicted in 2004 for a 2003 grenade attack on a Bogotá bar, which injured five U.S. citizen customers.
  • Fifty were indicted in 2006 to face narcotics charges. (Several—we don’t know how many—are now dead, or captured and extradited. Some are on the guerrilla negotiating team in Havana.) This mass indictment was made possible by the USA PATRIOT Improvement and Reauthorization Act of 2005, which established the federal crime of “narco-terrorism,” or trafficking drugs to fund terrorist activity. This change in the law now applies worldwide: U.S. officials no longer need to prove that an individual intended to traffic drugs to the United States.
  • Eighteen were indicted in 2010 for their role in holding three U.S. defense contractors hostage between 2003 and 2008, and murdering their plane’s U.S. citizen pilot. (At least one of them, Dutch-born Tanja Nijmeijer, is part of the FARC delegation in Havana. Some others have been captured and extradited.)

U.S. authorities have also sought to extradite leaders of Colombia’s pro-government paramilitary groups to face narcotrafficking charges. In May 2008, then-President Álvaro Uribe extradited 14 of them at once, although all were participating in a negotiated demobilization and transitional justice process. As of February 2010, 30 ex-paramiltaries had been extradited to the United States.

FARC leaders have made clear that they will not let that happen to them. They will not agree to demobilize without a solid guarantee that the Colombian government will not extradite them to the United States for crimes committed before the signing of a peace accord.

The U.S. government cannot offer this guarantee. Once extradition requests are issued, it is almost impossible to call them back. The indictments listed above come from grand juries, presided by judges, and the U.S. government’s executive branch cannot interfere in the actions of the judicial branch. (While the President has the constitutional power to pardon individuals before a case goes to trial—as President Gerald Ford did for Richard Nixon after Watergate—such pre-trial pardons are exceedingly rare.)

The prosecutors in these cases may technically be part of the executive branch, working for the President, but they have wide-ranging independence to avoid any appearance that their work is politicized. (Witness the political firestorm that raged in 2007 when the Bush administration sought to fire and replace several U.S. attorneys.) Their superiors cannot force them to drop their cases for the good of “peace in Colombia.”

Extradition requests are issued by the Department of Justice Office of International Affairs. This Office’s mandate doesn’t include bringing peace to Colombia or achieving general U.S. foreign policy objectives. Its job is to bring perpetrators of crimes to justice. So these indictments and extradition requests aren’t going anywhere.

Within these constraints, it’s up to another part of the U.S. government—the Department of State, and if necessary the President—to decide whether a country’s non-fulfillment of an extradition request affects its relations with the United States.

Often, when U.S. diplomats consider the larger context, non-fulfillment of extradition requests has no effect at all on the bilateral relationship. This was the case when Colombia’s Supreme Court held up the extradition of paramilitary leader Daniel Rendón alias “Don Mario” in 2010. Nor did the U.S.-Colombia relationship suffer in 2011, when the Santos government extradited wanted Venezuelan drug trafficker Walid Makled to his home country—with which President Santos was seeking to repair troubled relations—instead of to the United States.

Suspending Bombings, a Common-Sense Step

“I have decided to give the order to the Minister of Defense and the commanders of the armed forces to cease bombings over the FARC’s encampments during one month,” Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced on the evening of March 10.

Santos based this decision on the “advances” of peace talks with the FARC, which are “entering in a definitive phase.” He also cited the guerrilla group’s compliance with a unilateral cease-fire that it declared on December 20.

This is the first time that the Colombian government has suspended aerial bombings since 1984. With U.S. support, Colombia’s military has relied on its “air superiority” to kill top FARC leaders, and in general to make conditions intolerable for FARC fighters. “For fear of being located and targeted, units no longer sleep in the same place two days in a row, so camps must be sparser,” noted an extensive 2013 Washington Post report on Colombia’s air campaign.

This campaign is now on hold. And that makes sense now, for five reasons.

  • It eases the de-escalation of Colombia’s conflict. In early December, after the FARC released a general whom it had captured two weeks earlier, negotiators agreed to begin discussing “the issue of the conflict’s de-escalation.” Since then, the FARC have declared a unilateral suspension of offensive attacks, modestly limited their recruitment of minors, and agreed to participate in a humanitarian demining project. The government has been unwilling to declare an immediate bilateral cease-fire, but has been quietly reducing the intensity of its military actions against the FARC. The halt to bombings announced on March 10 is the Colombian government’s first explicitly declared reciprocation. It gives fresh momentum to the drive to de-escalate.
  • It probably formalizes a de facto situation. President Santos’s announcement was the “formalization of the virtual bilateral cease-fire that has already existed since mid-December,” Jorge Restrepo of the conflict-monitoring group CERAC told Colombia’s El Tiempo newspaper. The guerrillas periodically issue statements listing military attacks on FARC targets during the cease-fire period; none have mentioned an aerial attack since early January. A de facto halt to aerial bombings may already exist.
  • It may have saved the FARC truce after a big Colombian military strike. On Sunday, Colombia’s army gave the FARC what El Tiempo called “the hardest blow against them of the past two years.” Troops killed José David Suárez, alias “Becerro,” the leader of the FARC’s 57th Front in northern Chocó, a strategic trafficking zone along the border with Panama. It was not an aerial attack: troops acting on a tip from police intelligence ambushed Becerro after “spending almost eight days camouflaged in the swamp” awaiting him. Last year, a report by the organized-crime monitoring group InsightCrime called the 57th “one of the FARC’s richest units.” This week, InsightCrime asked whether Becerro’s killing would “rock Colombia’s peace talks.”

    When the FARC declared its cease-fire in December, its statement warned that it would abandon it if the government kept attacking FARC targets. The Santos government’s decision to cease aerial bombings—announced two days after Becerro’s killing—should prevent the FARC from deciding to do that.

  • It eases FARC negotiators’ efforts to keep their rank and file supportive of peace talks. We don’t know to what extent FARC fighters in rural Colombia have actually bought into the Havana negotiations. It’s not hard to imagine them envying the safety that the negotiators enjoy; disagreeing with peace accords they view as insufficiently radical; or feeling constrained by the cease-fire. For them to continue going along with the peace process, the rank-and-file needs to see some benefits. The government moratorium on bombing gives guerrilla fighters a big psychological benefit: it is a guarantee that, if they remain on their encampments, they need not live under constant alert for the sound of approaching aircraft.

  • The FARC was adjusting to the aerial bombing strategy anyway. That, anyway, is the contention of an article in the Medellín daily El Colombiano that contends, “The regularity of this type of offensive has been diminished by the change in the guerrilla strategy in response to the state’s pursuit.” The FARC “changed its way of operating and its encampment culture,” explains Ariel Ávila of Bogotá’s Peace and Reconciliation Foundation think-tank.

The “Transitional Justice” Debate Heats Up

César Gaviria’s “transitional justice for all” proposal has generated a lot of discussion.

The Colombian government-FARC peace talks have begun to tackle what could be their most difficult subject. Transitional justice, especially the question of what to do with the armed conflict’s worst human rights violators, dominated coverage of the talks in Colombia’s media during the break between their 32nd and 33rd rounds (February 13–24).

This period was punctuated by two statements, both publicized on February 22.

  • The FARC’s lead negotiator, Iván Márquez, told an interviewer, “For the guerrillas, zero jail. No peace process in the world has ended with the insurgency’s leaders behind bars.” Márquez has said almost the same thing before, but his words hit harder now because the talks have now begun tackling this issue. The Colombian government’s high commissioner for peace, Sergio Jaramillo, responded, “The guerrillas think that if we don’t guarantee them impunity, they won’t put down their weapons. If that is their thinking, there won’t be an agreement, there won’t be peace.”
  • Cesar Gaviria, Colombia’s president from 1990 to 1994 and later secretary-general of the Organization of American States, issued a proposal to impose “transitional justice for all.” Gaviria suggests requiring not just guerrillas and soldiers, but also politicians, businesspople, landowners, and civilian officials, to confess their involvement in the most serious human rights abuses committed during the conflict. In exchange for such confessions and efforts to make amends to victims, Gaviria’s proposal would exempt non-combatants from serving prison sentences (it is vaguer about combatants). Among the Colombian military, the proposal would exempt lower-ranking officers, as well as those who committed crimes by “omission” (deliberate failure to prevent a human rights abuse committed by others).

Let’s look at these two statements.

Iván Márquez may technically be right when he says FARC members won’t spend a day in “jail.” The worst human rights violators among its members might not end up in regular prisons administered by Colombia’s National Prisons Institute. Nonetheless, guerrillas most responsible for the most serious abuses may end up in some sort of facility that deprives them of liberty. This facility might not be administered solely by the Colombian government: in order to avoid the appearance of “surrender,” some international involvement could be involved. While FARC leaders held there would be confined to the facility, the length and austerity of their detention would probably be significantly shorter than a normal criminal prison sentence for such serious crimes.

Last week, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan visited Colombia and spoke to the FARC negotiators in Cuba. Rodrigo Pardo of Semana magazine asked him whether he thought the International Criminal Court would require prison for guerrilla leaders responsible for the worst human rights crimes. Annan more or less said yes:

“I think the determination here—obviously, judges will have to make it—but the determination will be to bring to account all those who are most responsible for the most serious crimes. So it will not be for the organization you belong to, but have you committed a crime or not? Obviously one is not going to be able to bring everyone to trial, but those most responsible will have to be held to account.”

Former President Gaviria’s proposal, meanwhile, made big waves in Colombia: it’s highly unusual for a heavyweight of the country’s political class to recognize that civilian elites bear some judicial responsibility for crimes committed during the conflict. (“My surprise was enormous,” wrote León Valencia, a demobilized ELN guerrilla leader who is now one of Colombia’s most-cited conflict analysts.) FARC leaders “hailed” the proposal as a good starting point.

Gaviria deserves praise for seeking to extend accountability to Colombia’s ruling elite. Civilian non-combatants played a large role—often larger than that of combatants—in ordering, planning, funding, and preparing some of the worst abuses committed during Colombia’s conflict, and they shouldn’t avoid accountability. Their participation in confessions, amends, reparations, and truth-telling could help Colombia make a historic break with generations of political violence.

Gaviria’s “transitional justice for all” proposal raises three questions, though:

Washington Names a Special Envoy. What Can He Do?

On February 20, Secretary of State John Kerry presented Bernard Aronson, the United States’ first special envoy to the Colombian peace process. This is a welcome move.

Since talks between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrillas began in 2012, U.S. support has been consistent, but distant. Its usual manifestation has been public declarations of U.S. backing—a general statement every two months or so—from a high-ranking official. But with Aronson’s appointment, a senior official will be engaged with the process on a full-time basis. U.S. support for the talks is likely to take a qualitative leap forward.

A Colombian Request

The move, Secretary Kerry said, is the result of a direct request from Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos.

“In December I met with President Santos in Bogota, and he asked me directly whether or not the time had come for the United States to perhaps take a more direct role, and be more directly supportive of the peace process.”

What prompted President Santos to make this request in December is unclear. Timing was a likely factor: the FARC’s quick November 30 release of a captured Colombian general, and its mid-December declaration of a unilateral ceasefire, gave fresh momentum to the talks, leaving a clear impression that they had moved to a more advanced phase. President Santos no doubt calculated that a more explicit show of U.S. backing was appropriate at this stage. But it is uncertain what additional roles or duties he wishes U.S. diplomats to fulfill at this time.

A change in U.S. posture

Even six months ago, in our interactions with U.S. officials, the idea of a special envoy to the peace talks didn’t quite fail the “laugh test,” but was certainly viewed as premature. A series of recent events—Santos’s reelection victory, the captured general’s release, the ceasefire, steps toward de-escalation of the conflict—changed that calculation.

Changed U.S.-Cuban relations

The December 2014 diplomatic opening to Cuba also likely made the idea of a special envoy more practical. It eased, both politically and diplomatically, the presence of a U.S. government representative in Havana on a mission unrelated to the bilateral relationship with Cuba.

A qualified envoy

Bernard Aronson served as assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs during the George H.W. Bush (41) administration. There, he oversaw a shift away from the Reagan administration’s opposition to negotiations in El Salvador, toward a stance of support for UN-brokered peace talks.

The choice of Aronson is, on balance, smart. He is experienced with U.S. support for peace negotiations in Latin America. And, since he served in a Republican administration (though himself active in Democratic politics), he has more credibility with Republican legislators, whose support is important as they now control both houses of Congress.

Aronson’s efforts were vital to encouraging El Salvador’s rightist government to stay at the negotiating table. But he is not a reserved, conciliatory career diplomat. Álvaro de Soto, the UN official who mediated the El Salvador peace talks, described Aronson as “browbeating me” about issues like negotiation deadlines and imposing a cease-fire, and criticized his State Department for the impatience with which it approached the talks and occasionally undercut his work. Investigative journalist Juanita León, meanwhile, points out that Aronson’s private-equity firm, which he founded in 1996, has investments in oil extraction projects in Putumayo and Meta, two conflictive zones with a heavy FARC presence.

The FARC is delighted

In Havana, guerrilla negotiators quickly issued a statement “hailing” Aronson’s appointment as U.S. special envoy. They voiced a view that more direct U.S. involvement in the peace process is “a necessity, given the permanent presence and impact that the United States has in Colombia’s political, economic, and social life.”