“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.