Suspending Bombings, a Common-Sense Step

“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.

Tags: Cease-Fire, De-escalation

March 12, 2015

The “Transitional Justice” Debate Heats Up

César Gaviria’s “transitional justice for all” proposal has generated a lot of discussion.

The Colombian government-FARC peace talks have begun to tackle what could be their most difficult subject. Transitional justice, especially the question of what to do with the armed conflict’s worst human rights violators, dominated coverage of the talks in Colombia’s media during the break between their 32nd and 33rd rounds (February 13–24).

This period was punctuated by two statements, both publicized on February 22.

  • The FARC’s lead negotiator, Iván Márquez, told an interviewer, “For the guerrillas, zero jail. No peace process in the world has ended with the insurgency’s leaders behind bars.” Márquez has said almost the same thing before, but his words hit harder now because the talks have now begun tackling this issue. The Colombian government’s high commissioner for peace, Sergio Jaramillo, responded, “The guerrillas think that if we don’t guarantee them impunity, they won’t put down their weapons. If that is their thinking, there won’t be an agreement, there won’t be peace.”
  • Cesar Gaviria, Colombia’s president from 1990 to 1994 and later secretary-general of the Organization of American States, issued a proposal to impose “transitional justice for all.” Gaviria suggests requiring not just guerrillas and soldiers, but also politicians, businesspople, landowners, and civilian officials, to confess their involvement in the most serious human rights abuses committed during the conflict. In exchange for such confessions and efforts to make amends to victims, Gaviria’s proposal would exempt non-combatants from serving prison sentences (it is vaguer about combatants). Among the Colombian military, the proposal would exempt lower-ranking officers, as well as those who committed crimes by “omission” (deliberate failure to prevent a human rights abuse committed by others).

Let’s look at these two statements.

Iván Márquez may technically be right when he says FARC members won’t spend a day in “jail.” The worst human rights violators among its members might not end up in regular prisons administered by Colombia’s National Prisons Institute. Nonetheless, guerrillas most responsible for the most serious abuses may end up in some sort of facility that deprives them of liberty. This facility might not be administered solely by the Colombian government: in order to avoid the appearance of “surrender,” some international involvement could be involved. While FARC leaders held there would be confined to the facility, the length and austerity of their detention would probably be significantly shorter than a normal criminal prison sentence for such serious crimes.

Last week, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan visited Colombia and spoke to the FARC negotiators in Cuba. Rodrigo Pardo of Semana magazine asked him whether he thought the International Criminal Court would require prison for guerrilla leaders responsible for the worst human rights crimes. Annan more or less said yes:

“I think the determination here—obviously, judges will have to make it—but the determination will be to bring to account all those who are most responsible for the most serious crimes. So it will not be for the organization you belong to, but have you committed a crime or not? Obviously one is not going to be able to bring everyone to trial, but those most responsible will have to be held to account.”

Former President Gaviria’s proposal, meanwhile, made big waves in Colombia: it’s highly unusual for a heavyweight of the country’s political class to recognize that civilian elites bear some judicial responsibility for crimes committed during the conflict. (“My surprise was enormous,” wrote León Valencia, a demobilized ELN guerrilla leader who is now one of Colombia’s most-cited conflict analysts.) FARC leaders “hailed” the proposal as a good starting point.

Gaviria deserves praise for seeking to extend accountability to Colombia’s ruling elite. Civilian non-combatants played a large role—often larger than that of combatants—in ordering, planning, funding, and preparing some of the worst abuses committed during Colombia’s conflict, and they shouldn’t avoid accountability. Their participation in confessions, amends, reparations, and truth-telling could help Colombia make a historic break with generations of political violence.

Gaviria’s “transitional justice for all” proposal raises three questions, though:

Tags: Transitional Justice

March 2, 2015

Washington Names a Special Envoy. What Can He Do?

On February 20, Secretary of State John Kerry presented Bernard Aronson, the United States’ first special envoy to the Colombian peace process. This is a welcome move.

Since talks between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrillas began in 2012, U.S. support has been consistent, but distant. Its usual manifestation has been public declarations of U.S. backing—a general statement every two months or so—from a high-ranking official. But with Aronson’s appointment, a senior official will be engaged with the process on a full-time basis. U.S. support for the talks is likely to take a qualitative leap forward.

A Colombian Request

The move, Secretary Kerry said, is the result of a direct request from Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos.

“In December I met with President Santos in Bogota, and he asked me directly whether or not the time had come for the United States to perhaps take a more direct role, and be more directly supportive of the peace process.”

What prompted President Santos to make this request in December is unclear. Timing was a likely factor: the FARC’s quick November 30 release of a captured Colombian general, and its mid-December declaration of a unilateral ceasefire, gave fresh momentum to the talks, leaving a clear impression that they had moved to a more advanced phase. President Santos no doubt calculated that a more explicit show of U.S. backing was appropriate at this stage. But it is uncertain what additional roles or duties he wishes U.S. diplomats to fulfill at this time.

A change in U.S. posture

Even six months ago, in our interactions with U.S. officials, the idea of a special envoy to the peace talks didn’t quite fail the “laugh test,” but was certainly viewed as premature. A series of recent events—Santos’s reelection victory, the captured general’s release, the ceasefire, steps toward de-escalation of the conflict—changed that calculation.

Changed U.S.-Cuban relations

The December 2014 diplomatic opening to Cuba also likely made the idea of a special envoy more practical. It eased, both politically and diplomatically, the presence of a U.S. government representative in Havana on a mission unrelated to the bilateral relationship with Cuba.

A qualified envoy

Bernard Aronson served as assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs during the George H.W. Bush (41) administration. There, he oversaw a shift away from the Reagan administration’s opposition to negotiations in El Salvador, toward a stance of support for UN-brokered peace talks.

The choice of Aronson is, on balance, smart. He is experienced with U.S. support for peace negotiations in Latin America. And, since he served in a Republican administration (though himself active in Democratic politics), he has more credibility with Republican legislators, whose support is important as they now control both houses of Congress.

Aronson’s efforts were vital to encouraging El Salvador’s rightist government to stay at the negotiating table. But he is not a reserved, conciliatory career diplomat. Álvaro de Soto, the UN official who mediated the El Salvador peace talks, described Aronson as “browbeating me” about issues like negotiation deadlines and imposing a cease-fire, and criticized his State Department for the impatience with which it approached the talks and occasionally undercut his work. Investigative journalist Juanita León, meanwhile, points out that Aronson’s private-equity firm, which he founded in 1996, has investments in oil extraction projects in Putumayo and Meta, two conflictive zones with a heavy FARC presence.

The FARC is delighted

In Havana, guerrilla negotiators quickly issued a statement “hailing” Aronson’s appointment as U.S. special envoy. They voiced a view that more direct U.S. involvement in the peace process is “a necessity, given the permanent presence and impact that the United States has in Colombia’s political, economic, and social life.”

Tags: U.S. Policy

February 23, 2015

Prison, or “Deprivation of Liberty,” for Human Rights Violators

International Criminal Court Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda has warned Colombia against amnesties or suspended sentences for serious guerrilla human rights violators.

In December, FARC peace negotiators met in Havana with representatives of Bojayá, a town in northwestern Colombia. There, during a 2002 confrontation with paramilitary fighters, the FARC had catapulted a homemade bomb into a church where much of the population was hiding, killing 119 of them. Following the Havana meeting, the guerrilla negotiators issued a humbly worded apology, in which they committed to

“seeking ways we can possibly compensate, not just by recognizing the damage caused then, but by developing a series of proposals directed toward dialogue, acts of reparations, and to offer and agree on non-repetition measures.”

The December document was important, not only as the FARC’s most explicit expression of contrition to date, but because in it the guerrillas recognized their responsibility to tell victims the truth about their own human rights abuses and to contribute to reparations.

The statement said nothing, though, about punishment. The FARC continues to insist that it not be, in President Juan Manuel Santos’s words, “the first [guerrillas] in history to hand in their weapons only to go to a prison.”

An Emerging Consensus on “Deprivation of Liberty”

However, the FARC—or at least some of its members—may end up having that distinction. Those in the group most responsible for serious human rights violations could end up spending some time in prison, or in something like prison.

A few possibilities have been tossed about for how to hold demobilized guerrillas accountable for their human rights crimes. Virtually all agree that ex-guerrillas must engage in truth-telling or confession, usually as part of a formal trial or tribunal, along with amends or reparations to victims, and guarantees of non-repetition.

On punishment, though, a variety of views exist. The FARC continues to insist on its leaders avoiding punishment. “We haven’t fought our entire lives for peace with social justice and the dignity of Colombians only to end up locked up in the victimizers’ jails,” chief negotiator Iván Márquez said in 2013.

For his part, Colombia’s prosecutor-general (fiscal general), Eduardo Montealegre, has floated the idea of suspended sentences or “substitution of sentences that deprive liberty for other types of alternative penalties, like clearing landmines.” Communications from the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor have suggested that Montealegre’s proposals would not satisfy Colombia’s international human rights commitments.

Away from the negotiating table, though, a consensus is emerging that crimes against humanity and serious war crimes can neither be amnestied nor pardoned following a trial. The length and severity of punitive detention can be reduced after truth-telling, reparations, and non-repetition guarantees. But there must be some “deprivation of liberty.”

“The particularities of the Colombian case suggest that those maximally responsible for the most serious and representative crimes should have a dose of punishment that implies an effective deprivation of liberty,” reads a 2013 monograph from DeJusticia, a Bogotá-based legal think-tank that has extensively explored this question.

“From the philosophical perspective, specifically with respect to reflections about the purposes of the punishment, it becomes necessary to have a minimum of retribution as a recognition of the suffering of the victims, and as an affirmation of the values that were negated by the serious human rights violations.”

Even if consensus is emerging around the “deprivation of liberty” issue, though, at least four questions remain.

1. How to select cases?

Tags: Human Rights, Transitional Justice, Victims

February 15, 2015

Interview on Colombia’s Peace Process with Danny Ramirez of the National Conference of Afro-Colombian Organizations

(Versión en español)

There are few Colombians whose lives have not been directly or indirectly unaffected by the armed conflict between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). However, throughout more than 50 years of conflict, the damages have disproportionately affected a particular segment of the Colombian population, as national and international human rights organizations frequently indicate in reports. These reports unanimously agree that it is Afro-Colombians who have borne the greatest cost of Colombia’s bloodiest war. To illustrate, two million out of the six million people who are currently internally displaced by the conflict are Afro-Colombian. This statistic is especially troubling considering that Afro-Colombians compose only 10 percent of Colombia’s total population. Given the magnitude of this disproportion, it is vital that the concerns and interests of this historically marginalized people are taken into consideration at the peace negotiations that are currently occurring between the government of President Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC in Havana, Cuba if lasting peace is to be achieved.

For this reason, WOLA interviewed Danny Maria Torres Ramirez, Coordinator of Women and Gender component of the National Conference of Afro-Colombian Organizations (Conferencia Nacional de Organizaciones Afrocolombianas, CNOA), a social organization working to protect human rights and to further the collective interests of Afro-Colombians. We had the opportunity to talk with Ramirez after her presentation, “Women and the Peace Process in Colombia”, at the United States Institute of Peace on 25 June 2014 in which she discussed the importance of addressing gender issues during the peace process. As a person with extensive knowledge of the problems affecting Afro-Colombian people, we interviewed Ramirez to learn more about the interests of Afro-Colombian communities in the peace process, the strategies that the CNOA is using to prepare communities to face the challenges of post-conflict, and the organization’s recommendations to President Santos’s administration to successfully overcome the major challenges facing Afro-Colombians.

Could you tell us about CNOA’s mission, and of the women’s component in particular?

The CNOA is the coming together of 246 organizations, which form a series of national support networks. Its members include organizations of women, youth, displaced persons, community councils, and urban organizations. Our mission is to protect the human rights of the Afro-Colombian people and to further their collective interests. We articulate these organizations’ proposals into political and legislative advocacy, organizational strengthening, advising on strategic communications, and territorial strengthening. All of these efforts are done with particular attention to gender issues (women’s rights) and generational issues (children and youth). In that sense, the women’s component focuses on constructing public policies that attempt to transform the adverse reality of Afro-Colombian women. Afro-Colombian women are a population that has been historically impoverished and marginalized; even by the armed conflict. CNOA’s work strategies vary widely, but its advocacy role in the executive and legislative levels of government is of high importance. Through advocacy, we seek to promote positive policies that help us solve structural problems such as political exclusion, lack of education and discrimination. We also work closely with our Afro-Colombian population base to help them develop their own proposals for local government and thereby bring about positive change.

As an organization that works with some one of the most vulnerable people to the conflict’s violence, what is the role of CNOA in building a sustainable peace process?

One of the most important roles of CNOA is to act as a bridge between Afro-Colombians and the state in order to establish a positive and constructive dialogue aimed at overcoming inequality gaps. We must continue to inform the government about many of the issues that affect our communities. A signed agreement will resolve a major social problem that has disproportionately affected our communities; we understand that a ceasefire between the government and the FARC will not end all problems, but it will lift a large burden of oppression and subjugation from our communities’ shoulders. CNOA continues to work to prepare communities to face some of the challenges what will arise in the post-conflict. If these challenges are not addressed adequately, their damage can be as bad as the war itself. In order to achieve this goal, we must conduct the relevant contextual and territorial assessments. For example, we have to be able to handle the reintegration of former combatants into civilian life. Similarly, we must prepare for the countersignature of the negotiation points because it is important to know, in the territories is where the war has been fought, how the final agreements have been established established. These are some of the challenges on which we must focus if the agreement is to be an actually framework for a sustainable and lasting peace, from this point onwards other challenges will unfold with time. Of course we must also continue to educate the general public on issues affecting Afro-Colombian communities and address the lack of economic and social opportunities that strip away our livelihoods and that continue to push us into the systematic violence that we have faced for many years.

Tags: Afro-Descendant Communities, Civil Society Peace Movement

January 29, 2015

Colombia’s Military and the Peace Process

President Santos and government peace negotiators meet with the high military and police command on January 23.

“Fifty-one years of war and we’re going to reach peace, a peace that is your victory,” President Juan Manuel Santos told Colombia’s army in a pre-Christmas speech. “That courage, that determination, have been responsible for us talking about peace, because the enemy finally noticed that you are invincible, and today we have the best Army in our history.”

President Santos, who served as defense minister in the previous administration, regularly offers effusive praise to the armed forces. Except on December 2, when he appeared on the TV station of Bogotá’s left-leaning city government and warned, “People who aren’t acting with loyalty are coming out, and any officer, no matter how important, showing the slightest sign of disloyalty or lack of discipline will be out of the military.”

This comment, which came a day after the resignation of an Army general who had been captured and released by the FARC guerrillas, raised eyebrows in Colombia and reportedly angered the military.

Santos’s words drew attention to a concern brewing below the surface of Colombia’s peace process: that a significant sector of the armed forces and its leadership disagrees with the civilian government’s handling of negotiations with the FARC.

It is impossible to know how large this sector is, as active-duty officers usually respect their constitutional mandate to be “non-deliberative,” avoiding public criticism of civilian leaders. We must rely on off-the-record comments, some of them made to us and some of them reported by a small number of Colombian investigative journalists, as well as the public words of retired officers and of politicians believed to be close to the military.

These comments indicate that military leaders and rank-and-file who are unhappy about the Havana talks aren’t opposed to “peace” or agitating to prolong the conflict. Their likely concerns, listed below, have more to do with the design of the process, or its implications for their institution.

Military discontent is important. Colombia’s armed forces have grown rapidly in this century: today, about 450,000 Colombians wear a military or police uniform, up from less than 300,000 in 2000. While the possibility of a military coup is near zero, opposition from the armed forces could manifest itself in ways that make peace negotiations, or subsequent accord implementation, inviable. Analysts cite military resistance as a key factor in the failure of a 1980s attempt to negotiate with the FARC and mid–1990s efforts to get negotiations started.

Elements in the armed forces can hinder or derail peace talks through what longtime Semana magazine columnist Antonio Caballero called “sometimes quiet and sometimes open opposition, sometimes almost en bloc and sometimes, like now, in the form of surreptitious ‘loose wheels’” within the institution. Methods can include private communications to politicians opposed to the process, incomplete compliance with orders, filtration of damaging allegations (true or invented) by military intelligence, or politically damaging public statements which, as they are rare, often come with high officers’ resignations. In extreme cases, some officers’ opposition could even be expressed through uncredited threats or intimidation against civilians involved in, or supportive of, negotiations.

Evidence of Military Unease

Military commanders insist, and some analysts agree, that the armed forces have stolidly supported President Santos’s peace effort. “The Army’s support for the peace process is proved, clearly, by our work,” Gen. Jaime Lasprilla, the chief of Colombia’s army, told El Espectador journalist Cecilia Orozco in November. “The fact that the transfer of 30 terrorists to Havana has occurred without any incident is a concrete and forceful piece of evidence.”

While the institution as a whole has gone along with the talks, there have been troubling incidents.

Tags: Civil-Military Relations

January 24, 2015

Bilateral Cease-Fire: What Must Be Negotiated?

President Santos last night, announcing his intention to negotiate a bilateral cease-fire with the FARC.

“I have given instructions to the negotiators that they start, as soon as possible, the discussion on the point of the bilateral and definitive cease-fire and cessation of hostilities.”

That was Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, making a rather surprising announcement in the first moments of his televised 2015 new year’s address.

In the nearly two and a half years since peace talks began, the Colombian government had refused the FARC guerrillas’ calls for a bilateral cease-fire, insisting on fighting while negotiations proceeded. Now, one month after the FARC declared a “unilateral, indefinite” but conditional cease-fire, President Santos is talking about making it bilateral. The talks are in such a mature phase, it seems, that the guns and bombs may soon go silent as both sides abstain from offensive actions.

This is a transcendental step. But one might reasonably ask: “If the FARC already wants and has declared a cease-fire, what is there to negotiate?”

There is much to define. “Cease fire” and “cessation of hostilities” are vague terms. When they return to the table on January 26, negotiators—especially the “end of conflict subcommittee” made up of Colombian military personnel and FARC leaders—will have to consider questions like the following.

  • Who would verify it? If the parties at the table in Havana lose time arguing over alleged cease-fire violations, the negotiating agenda could get derailed. Some trusted third party, perhaps an international entity, may be needed to investigate and rule on such allegations.
  • Can the Colombian security forces go after non-participants? In many areas, the FARC are not the only active armed or organized-crime group. The Colombian government is charged with protecting its citizens throughout the national territory and will insist on being able to confront these groups—as well as to confront FARC elements that, in its view, have gone rogue or broken away.
  • Will this be a “cease-fire in place?” The government might suggest that, in order to verify the cease-fire more easily, the FARC concentrate its members in specific locations. The guerrillas will reject this.
  • If guerrillas are not concentrated in specific locations, can the security forces carry out arrest warrants for wanted guerrilla leaders? If the authorities locate or encounter a known and wanted FARC leader, Colombia will insist on the ability to arrest that leader despite the cease-fire.

Tags: Cease-Fire

January 16, 2015

“There Are Other Circumstances Now”

Yesterday, from left to right: lead government negotiator Humberto de la Calle, President Juan Manuel Santos, and High Commissioner for Peace Sergio Jaramillo.

With his declaration about the FARC peace talks yesterday, President Juan Manuel Santos took a big step toward de-escalating Colombia’s conflict.

Santos was indirect, but hinted that—as long as current conditions prevail—the government and guerrillas are approaching a sort of undeclared, de facto cease-fire. Or at least, that the government is no longer insisting on total war on the battlefield while talks proceed at the table.

A translation of the key section:

Of course, we have taken very much into consideration the unilateral and indefinite cease-fire that the FARC declared. And on this point we must recognize that the FARC have complied.

We want to invite the ELN to join the initiative of a unilateral cease-fire, as the FARC did.

Until now, we have followed that maxim made famous by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, where he said that we must negotiate as though the war or conflict didn’t exist, and we had to maintain the military offensive as though the peace process didn’t exist.

But the advances in the negotiations indicate to us that there are other circumstances now, and that this disconnect is no longer applicable.

Colombia’s El Tiempo newspaper explained:

Sources close to the peace process confirmed to El Tiempo that, while this doesn’t refer directly to a “bilateral cease-fire,” which would imply a halt to the security forces’ offensive actions against the FARC, the message of “de-escalation” will begin to be reinforced so that society may understand that a definitive stage of the negotiations has been entered.

El Tiempo noted that the armed forces’ high command asked for clarification last night from Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón. The response came this afternoon in a tweet from the President: “Instructions to the Armed Forces have not changed. Bilateral cease-fire will be discussed when the appropriate moment arrives.”

If this sounds a bit contradictory, so is the situation on the ground. While not quite a bilateral cease-fire, the de facto battlefield status can be summed up in two events that took place on December 31:

  • That day, Colombia’s CERAC think-tank, which monitors conflict activity, reported: “CERAC’s violence monitoring has not registered a single offensive act attributable to the FARC that would violate its cease-fire. Nor have we registered any offensive action against the FARC on the security forces’ part.”
  • That evening, Army soldiers, police, and Prosecutors’ Office police captured Carlos Andrés Bustos Cortez, alias “Richard,” identified as the second-in-command of the FARC’s powerful Teófilo Forero Column in the southwestern department of Huila. “Richard” was located by a joint intelligence operation, and captured after a brief firefight in which he was wounded.

Tags: Cease-Fire, De-escalation

January 6, 2015

At Year’s End, It’s Clear: This Peace Process Is For Real

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.

Tags:

December 24, 2014

Before a Bilateral Ceasefire, “Humanitarian De-Escalation”

FARC negotiators meet with survivors of the 2002 Bojayá massacre on December 18.

El Tiempo Editor Marisol Gómez Giraldo offers a clear but largely optimistic overview today of where discussions of “de-escalation” stand, following the FARC’s declaration of a unilateral, conditional cease-fire and the government’s refusal to accept the guerrillas’ terms.

Key paragraphs:

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.

Tags: Cease-Fire, De-escalation

December 21, 2014

The FARC’s Unilateral Truce Offer: Good News, But New Questions

The FARC today released a potentially historic statement. The key sentences:

“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.

Tags: Cease-Fire, De-escalation

December 18, 2014

Drug Trafficking as a “Connected Political Crime”

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.”

Colombia’s prosecutor-general [fiscal general], Eduardo Montealegre, agreed.

“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.

Tags: Drug Policy, Extradition, Transitional Justice

December 6, 2014

As Talks Resume, “De-escalation” Is on the Table

Update 2:00PM: Negotiators in Havana have just announced that the peace talks will formally resume on December 10. Colombia’s El Tiempo reports, “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.”

Tags: Cease-Fire, Crises, De-escalation

December 3, 2014

An Advanced Peace Process Demanded a General’s Release

Las Mercedes, Chocó, where the FARC captured Gen. Rubén Darío Alzate on Sunday.

On their second anniversary, peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrillas are frozen. The impasse may soon be over, though: the peace process “guarantor” states, Cuba and Norway, announced a breakthrough on Wednesday evening.

A new round of talks was to begin in Cuba yesterday (November 18), but government negotiators refused to go to Havana until the FARC releases Gen. Ruben Darío Alzate, the chief of the Colombian military’s “Joint Task Force Titan” in the northwestern department (province) of Chocó. Guerrillas captured Gen. Alzate the afternoon of Sunday, November 16. It was the first time in 50 years of conflict that a general has fallen into guerrilla hands.

After several days of behind-the-scenes discussions involving Cuban and Norwegian diplomats and the International Committee of the Red Cross, the FARC appears to have agreed to release Gen. Alzate, along with a civilian lawyer and a corporal who were traveling with him, plus two soldiers captured a week earlier in the department of Arauca near the Venezuelan border. “The liberations will be carried out as soon as possible,” pending logistical arrangements, announced Cuban and Norwegian diplomats.

The Gen. Alzate affair shows us that as the peace talks have advanced, the ground rules governing them have tacitly changed. Taking a general prisoner did not violate the pre-conditions that FARC agreed for the talks. The guerrillas agreed to stop kidnapping civilians, not military personnel—and in warfare, adversaries capture and imprison the other side’s combatants all the time.

But the ground has shifted, in a positive direction. Ultimately, even if the FARC followed the peace process “rules,” its action left Colombian government negotiators with no choice. There is no way that Colombian public opinion, Colombia’s political class (including center-left politicians), and especially Colombia’s military would have allowed talks to go on while the FARC held an army general. Not because of rules, but because of a shifting political climate, the FARC had to choose between keeping Gen. Alzate or keeping the peace process alight. The government now faces similar informal constraints on its actions against top FARC leaders while talks continue.

This episode is also a consequence of negotiating amid war. As the Colombian government refused to declare a cease-fire, incidents like Gen. Alzate’s abduction were a foreseeable, and even probable, risk. On the other hand, negotiating amid a cease-fire has practical disadvantages: the parties could end up wasting time at the table disputing alleged cease-fire violations instead of attending to the points on the talks’ agenda.

Tags: Cease-Fire, Crises

November 20, 2014

Competing Views and “Trial Balloons”

Colombia’s most-circulated newspaper, El Tiempo, ran a series of articles Friday about a forum it co-hosted about the country’s peace talks with the FARC guerrillas. The event was noteworthy because its participants included several of the government’s negotiators, plus officials and legislators who would play a large role in a possible post-conflict period.

The speakers revealed much current government thinking about the peace process, and raised eyebrows with some “trial balloons”—statements perhaps intended to prepare public opinion for some tough decisions if the government and guerrillas reach an accord. Here are some standout examples.

Disarmament: whether the FARC will “stop using” or “turn in” its weapons

Disarmament is one of the main questions left to be negotiated in Havana. The FARC is reluctant to hand over its weapons immediately after an accord is signed. Doing so gives the appearance of defeat or surrender, and guerrillas also fear being killed if disarmed, as happened to thousands of members of a political party the FARC tried to form during a failed 1980s peace process. Instead, guerrillas wish to promise not to use weapons in the short term, and perhaps to give them up in the long term, once they are certain that the government is complying with its peace accord commitments.

Jaramillo

Debate at the forum centered on the difference between “abandonment” (dejación) of weapons and “surrender” (entrega) of weapons. Even a verifiable abandonment of weapons (like Northern Ireland, where the IRA kept weapons “beyond use” for nearly seven years after the 1998 Good Friday Accord) does not satisfy many in Colombian politics and public opinion, as it leaves open the option that the FARC might take them up again.

“Of course there has to be abandonment (dejación) of weapons,” said government negotiator Sergio Jaramillo, the Colombian Presidency’s high commissioner for peace. Jaramillo added that the distinction between abandoning and surrendering weapons is “a false dilemma,” noting, "The government said clearly in the secret stage, and will continue to insist, that there must be a verifiable abandonment of those weapons so they are out of use.”

Negotiator Jorge Mora, a retired general and former chief of Colombia’s armed forces, agreed. “Call it what you want: abandonment, surrender, destruction, whatever. What matters is what they will have to do. They will not practice politics with weapons. If it’s not like that, we simply won’t sign the accords. As soon as the guerrillas sign, they will have to do away with their strategy of combining all forms of struggle [violent and non-violent]. Demobilization is an implicit activity to end the conflict.”

Mora

Ángela Ospina, the vice-president of Colombia’s Conservative Party, disagreed: “abandonment and surrender of arms are different.” She wondered to whom the FARC would hand over its weapons, and whether the government has any idea how many weapons the guerrillas possess. “We are convinced that there must be a surrender of weapons and their destruction, to demonstrate that there is a genuine desire for peace,” she said.

Alfredo Rangel, a security analyst who is now a senator in ex-President Álvaro Uribe’s right-of-center political party, warned that if it merely “abandons” weapons, the FARC will end up conducting “armed oversight of the peace agreements.”

Whether human rights violators will go to prison or something else

Another pending issue for the negotiations is transitional justice. There is broad consensus—upheld by Colombia’s membership in the International Criminal Court—that there can be no amnesty for those who committed war crimes or crimes against humanity. What, then, must happen to the worst human rights violators in the FARC and in Colombia’s armed forces?

Tags: Disarmament, Ratification, Transitional Justice

November 16, 2014