In the weeks before Christmas 2001, the FARC broke Colombia’s heart.
Andrés Felipe Pérez, a 12-year-old boy in a Bogotá hospital’s cancer ward, transfixed the country with his dying wish: to say farewell to his father. Police Corporal Norberto Pérez had spent the previous two years as one of dozens whom the FARC were holding hostage in Colombia’s jungles. As three-year-old peace talks with the government floundered, the guerrillas refused Andrés Felipe’s dying wish. The boy died a week before Christmas. He never saw his father. The next year, months after the peace talks’ collapse, FARC captors killed Corporal Pérez during an escape attempt.
A month ago, the FARC had another military captive, a far bigger prize: a Colombian Army general who wandered right into the guerrillas’ clutches. This time, though, the FARC let him go after just two weeks. Gen. Rubén Darío Alzate will spend Christmas at home with his family.
Why did the guerrillas’ behavior shift so radically? Again, they are in peace negotiations with the Colombian government. But this time, unlike 2001, they really don’t want them to end. A government suspension of the talks forced the guerrillas to choose between holding a general and continuing to talk peace. They chose peace.
This would seem like ironclad proof that today’s peace process is for real. Colombia has tried and failed to negotiate with the FARC three times in the past thirty years. But the current attempt in Havana, with three of six agenda items concluded in an orderly manner, might really be the one that ends fifty years of fighting.
Still, Colombian public opinion isn’t so sure. While polls show a clear majority of Colombians supporting the dialogues, a similar majority still doubts they will succeed.
If the Havana negotiations follow the logic that the parties expect, this clear gesture of peace from the FARC should be followed, in a gradual process, by the de-escalation of the conflict, a bilateral cease-fire, and the abandonment of arms. And that this depends, in principle, on the guerrilla group, because the results of their cessation of offensive operations should first be reflected among the civilian population.
At the outset, this means the diminution of the war’s intensity, reducing its impact on civilians. That is why the government, in a first phase, calls it “humanitarian de-escalation.” This is what the government and FARC negotiators have currently been talking about in Havana.
Military de-escalation, which also implies a withdrawal of the armed forces, is for a second phase. For when it has been proved that the guerrillas are not using the truce to prolong the peace negotiations.
It is, in fact, one of the reasons why President Juan Manuel Santos repeats that the bilateral cease-fire will only happen when abandonment of weapons has already begun to occur.
“We have resolved to declare a UNILATERAL CESSATION OF FIRE AND OF HOSTILITIES FOR AN INDEFINITE PERIOD, which should transform itself into an armistice. For the achievement of its full success, we aspire to count with the oversight of UNASUR, CELAC, the ICRC, and the Broad Front for Peace. This unilateral cease-fire, which we hope to prolong over time, would end only if it is proven that our guerrilla structures have been the object of attacks from the security forces.”
A full cease-fire and cessation of hostilities would be very welcome. Even just a cessation of force-on-force combat would be welcome. Since 2012, the FARC’s declarations of unilateral holiday and election-season cease-fires have reduced tensions and strengthened confidence in the peace process. To prolong this indefinitely—as long as government forces halt offensive operations—would give hundreds of communities a chance to know peace, in some cases for the first time in their citizens’ lifetimes.
The FARC statement, though, does not define the key phrase “cessation of fire and of hostilities.” What are “hostilities?” It’s virtually certain that the FARC intends to halt attacks on military and police targets, and presumably on civilian populations and public infrastructure. But what about other hostile acts?
Does the term cover extortion, perhaps the FARC “hostility” that Colombians feel the most?
Does it cover guerrilla recruitment (especially of minors)?
The laying of anti-personnel mines and IEDs?
Coca cultivation and cocaine production? Illegal mining? Illicit arms purchases?
Does a “cessation of hostilities” mean an end to threats against civilians? Does an individual threatened by FARC fighters—for instance, one whom the guerrillas accuse of being a “snitch”—suddenly have nothing to fear from them?
To cease committing these “other hostile acts” would be to bring an unprecedented level of tranquility to vast areas of Colombia. But doing so is far harder to verify than a more basic cease-fire, in which both sides merely abstain from attacking military targets. No organization has the capacity to investigate and certify that all guerrilla extortion, laying of landmines, and forced recruitment have truly ceased throughout the country.
Paramilitary leader “Julián Bolívar” won a vastly reduced sentence for his past drug trafficking, though he awaits a decision on extradition to the United States.
President Juan Manuel Santos caused a stir this week when he told an interviewer from Colombia’s RCN Radio network that the country would have to alter its laws to benefit FARC members who have trafficked drugs.
“For us to be able to apply justice in a more effective way will require broadening that concept of ‘political crimes,’ above all ‘connected crimes.’ Today it is too restrictive, and if we at least want to commute or pardon sentences, or in some way to legalize, thousands of FARC combatants, we’re going to have to be a little more flexible in the application of that concept.”
“It’s absolutely possible that narcotrafficking might be considered a crime connected with political crime, since ‘connectedness’ means something has a relation to something else, and it’s beyond discussion that in the Colombian armed conflict, narcotrafficking has been used in the guerrillas’ armed struggle.”
Their point is that negotiations with the FARC guerrillas will not succeed if, upon demobilizing, FARC leaders will face jail or even extradition to the United States because of their past involvement in the drug trade. Guerrillas simply won’t demobilize. It would seem apparent, then, that Colombia will have to offer ex-guerrillas reduced or waived penalties for past drug trafficking.
But many in Colombia are not prepared to accept that. Internal-Affairs Chief [Procurador] Alejandro Ordóñez alleged that calling narcotrafficking a “connected political crime” would “disguise criminals as politicians” and “shield FARC leaders from their status as capos” in the drug trade. Former President Álvaro Uribe, the talks’ most prominent critic, tweeted, “How could it be that they are going to classify as a political crime with altruistic motives an activity like narcotrafficking, which for many years in Colombia has only systematically financed horrors and atrocities?”
(Uribe is guilty of some hypocrisy here. In 2005, his administration introduced a legislative provision that would have classified paramilitary groups’ activities, including narcotrafficking, as “sedition”—a political crime.)
This week’s debate raised a question that remains unsettled in Colombia, where for decades illegal armed groups with political goals have supported themselves by participating in the drug trade. When it comes time for these groups’ members to demobilize, how should the legal system deal with their drug trafficking crimes? Can they be considered “connected” to the political crime of rebellion, or must they be considered separately as criminal offenses?
Colombia has already wrestled with these questions since the middle of the last decade, when thousands of paramilitary leaders demobilized via the so-called “Justice and Peace” process. The case of paramilitary leader “Julián Bolívar” is illustrative, if not emblematic, of the need for greater clarity.
Rodrigo Pérez Alzate, alias “Julian Bolívar,” was the terror of Colombia’s Magdalena Medio region at the beginning of the 2000s. He oversaw the paramilitaries’ bloody takeover of the oil-refining city of Barrancabermeja.
Pérez demobilized in 2005 as part of the “Justice and Peace” arrangement, which would give him a reduced prison sentence in exchange for a full confession of his crimes and reparations to victims. In 2006, Pérez was transferred to prison and his case slowly went to trial. In September 2013, the Justice and Peace Tribunal sentenced him to eight years imprisonment—most of which Pérez had already served—for a long list of human rights crimes.
Update 2:00PM: Negotiators in Havana have just announced that the peace talks will formally resume on December 10. Colombia’s El Tiemporeports, “Starting on December 10, they will dedicate themselves to discussing the issue of de-escalation of the conflict.”
On Sunday, FARC guerrillas released Gen. Rubén Darío Alzate and two others whom they had held for two weeks in Chocó, in northwestern Colombia. On Monday, the Colombian government ended its suspension of peace talks, sending four senior negotiators to Havana to meet with the guerrillas for two days. The sides met for four hours Tuesday, in “an atmosphere of cordiality and respect.” They are meeting again Wednesday.
But they are not picking up where they left off, continuing their discussion of “Victims,” the dialogues’ fourth agenda point. Instead, President Juan Manuel Santos explained, the negotiators are in Havana “for a couple of days to evaluate where the process is, where we’re going, and to do a cold, objective evaluation of the process, to see how we can continue.”
This probably means that we can expect some rewriting of the ground rules that have governed the peace talks since 2012. These specified that although the FARC had to abandon its practice of kidnapping civilians, the conflict could otherwise continue while talks proceed. There would be no cessation of hostilities, and what happens on the battlefield would not affect what happens at the table.
Dialogue amid conflict has not been easy. In July, after the FARC bombed several civilian energy infrastructure targets—a violation of International Humanitarian Law but not a violation of the talks’ "ground rules”—President Santos warned, “Keep this up and you are playing with fire and this process can end.” (The attacks died down.) And then on November 16, guerrillas captured Gen. Alzate. While this was an unplanned event—Gen. Alzate wandered, dressed as a civilian, into a town where FARC fighters were present—and although capturing enemy prisoners is a common act of war, the General’s capture proved too much for the Colombian government, which immediately suspended the peace talks.
The government has made clear that “negotiating amid conflict” has tacit limits. These limits have become tighter as the peace process has progressed. Today in Havana, the government likely wants to make them more formal.
The guerrillas likely agree with that, in broad terms. They probably expect some guarantees, or restraint, from the government in return for releasing Gen. Alzate. If capturing military officers is now “against the rules,” they will seek new rules that are more favorable to their fighters in the field.
“Those who suspended the conversations cannot return with the intention of imposing the date of their re-initiation, as though nothing has happened,” reads a FARC communiqué issued Monday. “The rules guiding the process will have to be re-made, since the government broke them, damaging the bridge of trust that we had built.”
The FARC wants a full, bilateral cease-fire. That is unlikely. The government argues that the FARC would use the resulting respite to re-arm and strengthen itself. It would be hard to get the Colombian military to go along with a bilateral truce. And it would be nearly impossible to verify: the talks’ agenda could be derailed as negotiators in Havana argue over reports of bombings, ambushes, killings and similar alleged cease-fire violations.
Instead, the word we are hearing most often right now is “de-escalation.”