(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.
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.
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.