Hope for Peace in Colombia: Reasons for Optimism, Awareness of Obstacles

By Adam Isacson*

It is official now. For the fourth time in 30 years, and the first time in 10 years, the government of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla group have launched a negotiation that will attempt to end Latin America’s longest armed conflict.

On September 4, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos confirmed that, after more than 6 months of exploratory talks in Havana, Cuba, the government and guerrillas had agreed on a framework for more formal negotiations. These negotiations will begin during the first half of October (most likely the 8th) in Oslo, Norway, and move later to Havana.

FARC representatives, meeting in Havana, confirmed the same information and insisted that they would not get up from the table until a peace agreement is reached. On the 5th and 6th, both the government and the FARC named their negotiating teams. The agenda for talks [PDF] is to cover three thematic issues and three logistical issues, in this order:

  • Rural development policy (including land tenure)
  • Political participation (including the FARC’s possible political future)
  • Ending the conflict (including a cease-fire, demobilization, and paramilitarism)
  • Solving the illicit drug problem (including alternative development)
  • Victims
  • Implementation and verification

In WOLA’s view, there are several reasons to be more optimistic about this peace process than about past attempts.

1. The state of the conflict. In the 10 years since the last peace talks failed, Colombia’s security forces grew by about two-thirds, about 23,000 people died in combat alone, and the FARC has been weakened. The group has shrunk in size by about half, and has lost several of its most senior leaders. Ten years ago, the FARC may have felt some momentum; today it must not. However, the FARC’s ability to persist – and evidence that guerrilla actions have increased since 2008 – make clear that Colombia’s conflict is nowhere near ending on the battlefield. The “home stretch” remains far off. For both sides, the cost of negotiating may appear to be lower than the cost of continued fighting.

2. The FARC appears more flexible. Most of the guerrilla leaders who managed the FARC’s intransigent positions during the failed 1998–2002 peace process have been killed or captured. The new leadership appears somewhat more pragmatic. The guerrillas have abandoned a longstanding demand (which was met during failed 1998–2002 talks) that talks occur on Colombian soil, in a territory free of military presence. Talks will instead take place in other countries. The agenda indicates that the guerrillas are willing to contemplate disarming after an accord is reached; in earlier processes they had declared their intention to keep their weapons. The FARC pledged in February (though without verification of compliance) that it would halt the practice of kidnapping civilians for ransom, and publicly expressed willingness to negotiate even after its top leader was killed in late 2011.

Prospects for renewed peace talks in Colombia

Yesterday in Colombia, news leaked – and then President Juan Manuel Santos confirmed – that the Colombian government has been quietly holding talks with the country’s largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), about how to end nearly 50 years of fighting. This would be the first significant attempt at government-guerrilla dialogue in ten years.

What appears to be happening

In statements corroborated by other news reports, journalist Jorge Enrique Botero revealed that since May, Colombian government and FARC representatives have held exploratory talks in Havana, facilitated by Cuba, Venezuela and Norway. The two sides reportedly agreed Monday to begin a more formal negotiation process, which could begin in Oslo, Norway, in October.

No DMZ: With this agreement to hold talks outside of Colombia, the FARC may have dropped a longtime pre-condition that any dialogues take place in Colombian territory, in an area cleared of military and police presence. This demand for a demilitarized zone, which the Colombian government agreed to during a failed 1998–2002 peace process, made that process unpopular inside Colombia and has been a big obstacle to any initiation of new talks.

Negotiating team: According to news reports, the Colombian government has been represented in these talks by President Santos’s national security advisor, Sergio Jaramillo, a former vice-minister of defense; the environment minister, Frank Pearl, a former director of the government’s program for demobilizing ex-combatants; and the President’s brother, Enrique Santos, a former editor-in-chief of Colombia’s most-circulated newspaper. According to the same news reports, the FARC’s representatives in the talks are Jaime Alberto Parra, alias Mauricio Jaramillo or “El Médico,” a member of the guerrillas’ seven-person Secretariat; Rodrigo Granda, often referred to as the FARC’s “foreign minister,” Luis Alberto Albán, alias “Marcos Calarcá,” who ran the FARC’s international office in Mexico until its 2002 closure; and Jesús Emilio Carvajalino, alias “Andres París,” the guerrillas’ chief spokesman during the 1998–2002 peace talks. It is encouraging to see both sides represented at such a high level. The ultimate success of more “formal” negotiations, however, would require a more diverse negotiating team. Particularly important are a better gender balance and the participation of a retired military officer.