Why Colombia’s Negotiators Couldn’t Manage a Cease-Fire by March 23

(2,686 words / 11.5 minute read time)

It sounded over-ambitious when Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced last September 23, during a historic handshake meeting in Havana with the FARC guerrilla leadership, that both sides’ negotiators would sign a final peace accord in just six months—that is, by today, March 23, 2016.

The slow-moving FARC-government negotiations still had a lot of ground to cover. It then took nearly three more months just to finish the talks’ “Victims” agenda item, of which the September 23 agreement, on transitional justice, was only a part. During that period, several FARC spokespeople warned that the March 23 deadline would not be met.

A more realistic hope was that the negotiators could agree by March 23 on something more modest than a final accord, but still tremendously important: a bilateral ceasefire. This would be a genuine, full cessation of all hostilities—all forms of violence, from extortion to recruitment of new fighters—with UN verification, as laid out in a January Security Council resolution).

The “ceasefire by March 23” scenario had seemed likely. When WOLA staff visited Bogotá during the first week of March, a strong majority of experts and officials we interviewed saw the sides as “almost there” on the details. “Something will be signed on March 23,” Colombia’s foreign minister said earlier this month. President Santos warned on February 19 that if a ceasefire and precise timeline for laying down arms weren’t ready by March 23, he would see it as evidence that “the FARC aren’t prepared for peace.”

A ceasefire by this week would have been important enough for President Obama to alter his Cuba visit schedule to appear in the photo frame, along with Santos, Raúl Castro, and FARC leader “Timochenko,” at a triumphant signing ceremony. Such a photo could have had huge symbolic value for U.S.-Latin American relations, a break with a history punctuated by gunboat diplomacy, cold war proxy conflicts, and the war on drugs.

But there was no ceasefire accord, despite last-ditch efforts by President Santos’s older brother to break an impasse. So there was no photo opportunity by the time President Obama boarded Air Force One bound for Argentina on March 22. Instead, on March 21 the negotiators got the “participation award” of separate meetings (and photos) with Secretary of State John Kerry.

Secretary of State Kerry meets with FARC negotiators.

So, what happened?

In order to protect guerrillas during a ceasefire, and to guarantee both sides’ compliance, it is necessary to gather FARC fighters in specific zones around the country. Colombia’s security forces would be absent from these zones (though they would guard the perimeter), and the government would suspend outstanding arrest warrants for all guerrillas assembled there.

Agreement on these “concentration zones” remains elusive. They are the main point standing in the way of a ceasefire. In fact, the parties may be more distant on the concentration zones issue today than they were two months ago.

On January 23, the negotiators’ “End of Conflict Subcommittee”—an expert group made up of five senior active-duty military officers and five of the FARC’s most battle-hardened commanders—submitted a confidential consensus document recommending how these zones would operate. Things appeared to be on the right track.

Then, in February, the negotiators took a break to allow FARC leaders, transported by the International Committee of the Red Cross, to visit guerrilla encampments inside Colombia to explain the peace accords to their fighters. During that break, top FARC leaders got caught on camera taking liberties with the ground rules of their visits. In the village of El Conejo, in Colombia’s far northeastern department of La Guajira, FARC negotiators, including lead negotiator Iván Márquez, gave a political address while guarded by a coterie of armed guerrillas. The images from El Conejo (and reports of similar “armed politics” events in other parts of the country) swept across Colombia’s media, giving fuel to opponents of the peace process, who cited the episode as proof that the FARC are untrustworthy and do not intend to disarm.

Iván Márquez with an armed retinue in El Conejo.

When the negotiators returned to the table in Havana at the beginning of March, the government suggested new limits on the guerrilla concentration zones, adjusting the consensus recommendations of the End of Conflict Subcommittee. According to the Colombian newsweekly Semana:

On March 6, after the FARC delegation heard these considerations [from the government negotiators], the negotiations came to a halt, and the negotiators did not meet again. Shortly afterward, Timochenko sent a letter to the guerrillas that said: 1) That the government had thrown back everything agreed in the End of Conflict Subcommittee, and produced a new document basically seeking a surrender. 2) That the government intends the concentration zones to be prisons from which they cannot leave. 3) That they want to make the UN police the guerrillas.

Positions hardened after March 9, when Colombia’s Senate approved a new Public Order Law suggesting conditions on the concentration zones—that they be “prudent and reduced,” and include no coca crops or illicit mines—that the FARC equated to establishing “open-air jails.” As journalist Juanita León put it at Colombia’s La Silla Vacía website: “the sight of all pro-government parties, along with [right-wing opposition leader and former President] Álvaro Uribe, asking the government to impose unilateral limits on the zones, strengthened the FARC’s conviction that the purpose is to force them to give themselves up.”

Colombian senators, including ex-president Uribe, negotiate the Public Order Law.

The disagreement over the concentration zones cuts across several dimensions.

The Zones’ Very Nature

The government expects FARC fighters to be present in the concentration zones for a few months, or less than a year at most: long enough to demobilize, to disarm (a process verified by the UN mission), and to begin their reintegration into civilian life. During this period, the government would prohibit FARC members from leaving each zone until disarmament and demobilization have verifiably happened: only then would it lift outstanding arrest warrants for guerrillas.

The FARC, however, views the zones as longer-term bases for its future political movement. It calls them “terrepaz,” or peace territories, and foresees its leaders and fighters using them for a disarmament process that could take years, for the payment of five to eight-year “restriction of liberty” penalties for human rights crimes, and to organize their future non-violent political party or movement.

The Zones’ Size and Location

In recent interviews, officials close to the Colombian government side of the talks indicated, perhaps with some exaggeration, that the FARC’s initial demand was for concentration zones encompassing “nearly half the country.” Meanwhile, the government’s offer to the FARC was “peace territories in 500-hectare [2 square mile] farms,” according to journalist Alfredo Molano, who has maintained contact with FARC negotiators.

The size issue is critical and complicated. FARC leaders are strongly concerned about their physical security: once they begin to disarm, they will be vulnerable to attacks from right-wing paramilitary militias and other enemies. The UN mission verifying the accords will be unarmed, so protecting ex-FARC will be up to Colombia’s security forces. If the concentration zones are smaller, it will be far easier for these forces to protect the ex-guerillas gathered within.

On the other hand, FARC leaders are also concerned about losing contact with their historic political base. “The smaller these zones are,” Molano explains, “the less political influence the movement that emerges after laying aside arms will be able to exercise. Concentration in these ‘corrals’ means that the FARC would abandon territories from which the government has not been able to remove them for 50 years like, for example, southern Tolima, northern Cauca, and the eastern piedmont.”

The government also insists that these zones not include towns, that they be as isolated as possible from population centers. Because there will inevitably be some existing communities in these territories—often Afro-Colombian and indigenous lands—the government proposal calls for some sort of local community police structure to be in place to defend them.

Indigenous and Afro-Colombian groups, meeting in March, demand more say in the establishment of concentration zones in their territories.

The FARC, again, wants to have access to communities where it has held influence for decades, whose residents it views as the base for its future political movement. “They can’t locate us where we can’t talk to the communities,” a guerrilla negotiator told León of La Silla Vacía. It would be absurd, this individual said, if a ceasefire meant “uprooting the guerrilla force” instead of consolidating its regional political base. Guerrillas are also concerned about protecting communities in areas of longtime influence, who could be very vulnerable if other armed groups rush in to fill the territorial power vacuum that “concentrated” FARC members leave behind.

Guerrillas also want the zones to include some population centers because they equate isolation with vulnerability to attack. Having a population center, with communications infrastructure, in the zone increases the likelihood of early warning if, for instance, a paramilitary band is planning an aggression in a concentration zone. Guerrillas fear that their calls for help could go ignored if they are left by themselves, exposed to attack in remote jungle areas.

The “El Conejo” effect

It appears that a turning point in the “concentration zones” discussion was the political firestorm that erupted from the FARC negotiators’ armed public event in the town of El Conejo. (It’s unfortunate that “conejo,” which is Spanish for “rabbit,” is also part of the Colombian expression “dar conejo,” which means to swindle—often, to leave a restaurant without paying. Commentators made much of this expression to highlight the FARC’s untrustworthiness.)

The episode changed the political reality for the Santos government, which was already facing mounting skepticism about the peace talks’ slow pace. It made a more generous deal on concentration zones nearly impossible. “Conejo changed the perspective because it made evident things that had not been thought about,” a member of the government negotiating team told León, who adds that the negotiators “concluded that they couldn’t accept 10 or 20 permanent conejos.” The negotiator called the episode “a shot of reality.”

Mounting Concerns About Territorial Control

The concentration zones discussion is also happening at a moment marked by a palpable sense in Colombia that the government’s territorial control—and thus its ability to protect demobilizing guerrillas—is slipping.

There have been almost no incidents of government-FARC combat since last July. The conflict is at its least intense since the mid-1960s, and Colombia’s homicide rate has fallen to levels not seen since before Pablo Escobar’s rise. Nonetheless, Colombian media are full of disturbing headlines:

  • The U.S. government measured 159,000 hectares (613 square miles) of territory planted with coca bushes in 2015, the third-highest annual amount ever.
  • New paramilitary groups, often tied to narcotrafficking, large landowners, and corrupt officials, are increasing their activity and operating more openly. “In northern Urabá, in southern Tolima and southern Cauca, in Putumayo, in Nariño, they are moving, in uniforms and armed, as they did before, now perhaps without as much protection from the security forces,” writes Molano. “They have dusted off and oiled their long weapons and have once again sewn armbands onto their uniforms.”
  • The month of March has seen a terrifying spike in killings and threats against human rights defenders, most of them in rural zones or marginal urban areas.
  • The smaller ELN guerrilla group, which has yet to begin formal peace talks with the Colombian government, has carried out more attacks recently, and appears to be increasing its presence in zones of FARC influence.

Concerns about territorial control cut both ways. For the government, they make it harder for the Santos government to be seen ceding territory where illicit activity might occur, demilitarizing large areas for a group that hasn’t fully disarmed, or withdrawing protection from existing communities in the zones. The political cost is higher, even with UN supervision and military personnel guarding the zones’ perimeter. Meanwhile, the Colombian government fears being demolished politically by a possible explosion of coca-growing in concentration zones, which would revive memories of the coca bonanza in the zone from which the state pulled out for failed 1998-2002 peace talks.

“The paramilitary specter returns.” (From Semana magazine.)

On the FARC side, perceptions that territorial control is slipping just add to the guerrillas’ fear that the government will not be able (or willing) to protect them after they demobilize. The paramilitary advance, and the worsening climate for human rights defenders, give fuel to FARC negotiators’ argument that the government’s proposal for the concentration zones leaves them more vulnerable. “Some macabre photos have been circulating among the guerrilla negotiators of a civil-society leader in [the Pacific port city of] Buenaventura, who had survived torture at the hands of paramilitaries,” León writes. “It was the portrait of their deepest fear.”

What now? Reach a Compromise on the Zones, and Protect Human Rights Defenders

In order to get things “unstuck,” last week FARC negotiators presented President Santos’s brother with a proposal for a “roadmap” for finishing the rest of the negotiations. The FARC’s proposal “began to be discussed last Friday [March 18], when the dialogue table resumed activities. It is the most that is possible to achieve by March 23, but even this sounds difficult for many observers,” Semana reported.

“It is our intention to continue working resolutely in these few months that separate us from the Final Agreement,” reads a FARC statement after Monday’s meeting with Secretary of State Kerry. Very few observers doubt that a final agreement will happen sometime in the next few months—the talks are very far along—and that a ceasefire accord will be reached as soon as possible.

Still, the inability even to reach a ceasefire by the March 23 deadline deals a psychological blow, especially in Colombian public opinion, where a recent poll showed that 57 percent of the country (with 33 percent opposed) would vote “yes” in a hypothetical plebiscite on the FARC peace accord. The peace talks are 3 1/2 years old now, and their political opponents will make much of the missed deadline in order to capitalize on Colombians’ thinning patience.

Much hinges on finding a formula for the concentration zones. In order to get there, both sides will have to give ground. The FARC is not going to get entire municipalities (counties), or areas with small cities, a lot of coca, illicit mining, or known narcotrafficking corridors. The government is not going to get tiny, isolated, uninhabited camps.

Meanwhile, the government will have to improve the credibility of its security guarantees for demobilizing guerrillas. A key way to do that is to ramp up its protections for the countries’ beleaguered human rights defenders: to show that it can protect people who dare to pursue change peacefully. And not just by adding more bodyguards and armored cars (though these would be welcome): more important would be to identify, arrest, and prosecute the likely very small (but likely quite powerful) number of people who are issuing the threats and carrying out the killings of civil society activists.

Meanwhile, the government must act with more speed and energy to show its determination to dismantle Colombia’s persistent paramilitary-organized crime-landowner-politician-security force nexus, especially the ties of local corruption and political influence that sustain it. The credibility of post-conflict security guarantees requires not just the declaration of a new strategy with a dozen bullet points. It requires concrete results against would-be spoilers.

“I’m not going to sign a bad accord to meet a deadline,” President Santos said earlier this month. That is correct: setting deadlines seems to do more harm than good. But at this late but fragile moment in the peace process, speed is important. Both sides need to move more quickly to reach consensus on “concentration zones” and whatever else stands in the way of a bilateral cease-fire. And the government must move quickly to protect human rights defenders, thus proving that its security guarantees are genuine.

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