What Are They Thinking?

The last seven months have seen the pendulum of Colombia’s peace process swing back and forth rather wildly. The year began with optimism: the FARC was observing a unilateral ceasefire that began on December 20. Armed violence dropped to levels not seen since the early 1980s.

An April 15 FARC attack on a military column in Cauca, in southwestern Colombia, dashed this optimism. The three months that followed were marked by a dramatic re-escalation of the conflict, with June the most violent month since talks began in October 2012.

Then—almost as abruptly—the FARC declared a new unilateral ceasefire on July 8, for one month starting July 20 (Colombia’s independence day). Government and FARC negotiators went further four days later, signing an accord making the FARC ceasefire indefinite and committing the government to de-escalating its own military actions if the FARC maintains its ceasefire. The July 12 accord raises the priority of negotiating a bilateral ceasefire (something the government had resisted) and accelerating discussions of what remains to be negotiated, especially transitional justice for the worst human rights violators.

This is a positive development, though perhaps not a breakthrough. We can expect real progress in the next few months, but not miracles. There will likely be further setbacks as the pendulum inevitably swings back. As we contemplate the next few months, it’s worth looking at the volatile swings of 2015 from both sides’ on-the-record perspectives.

The December-May unilateral ceasefire

FARC: Government:

We want a bilateral ceasefire as soon as possible, so that the talks may proceed without battlefield distractions. To that end, we declared a unilateral ceasefire of our own in December. We warned that we would end our ceasefire if the government continued to attack us. Though the government called a halt to aerial bombings in March, ground attacks continued. During our truce, the heads of the 57th and 66th Fronts, and the number-two commander of the 17th Front, were killed in attacks.

We have been reluctant to enter into a bilateral ceasefire because we fear the FARC will use the respite from battlefield pressure to strengthen itself militarily. When the FARC declared its unilateral ceasefire in December, we took a “wait and see” attitude, with modest steps toward de-escalation. And in fact, though there was an important drop in FARC attacks, the guerrillas did not cease all hostilities or illegal activity. During their truce, they continued to traffic drugs, to extort legal businesses, and to lay landmines. We could not justify pulling back a military that is reluctant to be restrained.

The April 15 attack in Cauca

FARC: Government:

This action wan’t exactly something that we ordered our fighters to carry out, but it fits within the general orders we gave: the column that launched the attack was being pursued by the military unit it attacked, so we regard their response to be self-defense. (Alternatively: our fighters were finding the unilateral ceasefire intolerable because of the government’s continued attacks, and with this incident we provoked a massive response—a mid-May wave of aerial bombings that killed over 40 guerrillas—that served as a pretext for calling an end to our ceasefire.)

Though the military unit that suffered the attack may not have followed security protocols, the attack itself shows why a unilateral ceasefire with no credible verification was a bad idea. Incidents like this are why we won’t accept a bilateral ceasefire without real verification, some concentration of guerrilla forces in specific areas, and a cessation of all hostilities, not just offensive attacks.

The FARC counter-offensive: May 22-early July

FARC: Government:

After lifting our ceasefire, it was time to remind the Colombian government—and the Colombian people—what we are capable of. We chose to hit almost entirely military and economic targets: rather than kill civilians in populated areas, we turned their lights out. As oil is Colombia’s largest source of foreign exchange, we especially hit the oil sector. Our offensive did some damage to the peace process, but while we bent it, we did not break it. When serious cracks started to show, we declared a new ceasefire and won a government commitment to respond with promises of de-escalation and intensified bilateral ceasefire talks.

The FARC offensive was reckless and counter to the guerrillas’ own self-interest. It increased Colombians’ anger not just against the FARC, but against the whole idea of negotiating with them. After a month of FARC attacks dominating the headlines, political pressures on us are so great that one more serious incident, or one more long period with no progress to show, and—as chief government negotiator Humberto de la Calle said—“This could end. One day, it’s likely that they won’t find us at the table in Havana.”

The next four months (after which the parties agree to review whether to continue the peace talks)

FARC: Government:

We want a bilateral ceasefire and accept the involvement of the UN and UNASUR in verifying de-escalation, as agreed on July 12. We want that ceasefire to give us the maximum amount of freedom, mobility, and ability to remain funded and equipped in case the talks fail.

We do not intend to sign a peace accord only to see our leaders go straight to a prison for past human rights crimes: that has never happened in any peace process, only in surrender negotiations. However, if Colombia applies a similar punishment standard to military personnel, and to civilians who sponsored paramilitary groups, we could contemplate some form of confinement for a reduced period of time, along with confessions and reparations.

We would prefer a bilateral ceasefire at the very end of the talks, but if it allows the sensitive negotiations over transitional justice to proceed in a calmer atmosphere, we are open to negotiating that bilateral ceasefire now. This ceasefire must have credible, capable verification: while we would rather those verifiers be Colombian, we will allow some international role. The ceasefire must include some concentration of FARC forces in specific zones. In those zones—which must have little population and little economic importance—perhaps the FARC can remain armed and receive financial support to sustain its members. The ceasefire must include a halt to all illegal activity, including extortion, narcotrafficking, laying landmines, and child recruitment.

We are willing to consider lighter alternative sentences—perhaps not even confinement—for the worst FARC human rights violators, and we would prefer that Colombia’s justice system take charge of the prosecution and sentencing. Colombia’s justice system might issue similarly light penalties, including a requirement of confessions and reparations, to members of the military who ordered or committed serious human rights crimes.

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