The popular decision, or the one that may work?

Colombia Report’s editor, Adriaan Alsema, has published quite a colourful opinion piece entitled ‘why everybody opposing a bilateral ceasefire in Colombia is wrong’– one that, fundamentally, I tend to agree with.  As eluded to in previous blog posts, given the current climate I also share the view that a bilateral ceasefire is imperative in this stage of negotiations.  I believe that despite positive progress in the talks, these negotiations may be severely strained with recent events- if not completely fall through – should a bilateral ceasefire not be agreed upon.

President Santos announced on Saturday that the Colombian armed forces will intensify their offensive against the country’s insurgencies.  On Sunday, the Colombian armed forces killed ELN leader Jose Amin Hernandez alias ‘Marquitos’ in the northern department of Antioquia.  The ELN continues to operate in 9 of the 32 Colombian provinces, with Marquitos commanding 13 units within both Antioquia and Bolivar.

Alsema’s opinion piece highlights a key point that is often not brought up when addressing the current peace process- the fact that there has been ‘war fatigue’ developing throughout the Colombian military.  Alsema dates this back to 2004, which coincides with the ‘securitisation’ policies being pursued under the Uribe administration (2002-2010).  Well-known for his hardline approach and regarded as a ‘strong leader’, Uribe essentially vowed to annihilate the FARC and the ELN by military means whilst simultaneously pursuing the demobilisation of the AUC in 2006.  As the piece notes, there was a significant shift in the FARC’s military and political strategy in 2008, when there was a leadership move within the insurgency to adopt a more defensive approach.  Partly as a response to some major military crackdowns against the insurgency during Uribe’s second term (including the deaths of key FARC leaders), this lead to a move away from mobile combat with emphasis on territory control, to a retreat back to ‘hit-and-run’ strategy within the insurgency.  Consequently, as Alsema notes, this lead to an increase in offensive strategy by the Colombian military and pressure for results.  Whilst the opinion piece highlights some staggering statistics to support this, another indicator was multiple allegations of fake demobilisations- including that of the ‘Cacica Gaitana Front‘, that turned out never to actually exist.

It is evident that Santos’ popularity is dwindling in the polls.  There is a growing sentiment of disenchantment, and much of the Colombian population is becoming fed up with the peace process and its slow progress.  The idea of bilateral ceasefire implementation then comes into question. Although unpopular and could be considered by some as a sign of weakness from the government, is bilateral ceasefire imperative to achieving a signed peace agreement?  Since the beginning of negotiations, I have tended to agree with the acknowledgement that Santos was well aware of this ‘war fatigue’ amongst the military- particularly during his time as Uribe’s defence minister before becoming President.  Moreover, and as I’ve mentioned before, I do believe that there is a conscious acknowledgment that both the government and FARC have reached a military ‘mutually hurting stalemate’.  It’s unlikely that the Colombian military will be able to defeat the FARC, or even the ELN with military means alone.  Put bluntly, money and aid provided under Plan Colombia haven’t had success in destroying the insurgencies.  At the same time, the guerrillas will obviously never be able to achieve their political goals militarily.  Alsema presents a strongly-worded conclusion-

‘If his objective is peace, the president should declare an indefinite and bilateral ceasefire right this minute. If he does not want peace, he should stop pretending and focus on making sure the military doesn’t collapse under the weight of his presidential incompetence’

The crossroad has been met, and something has to give if these negotiations are to keep on track.  More importantly, something has to be done to minimise further violence and conflict.  Given an investigation noted the FARC’s military activity dropped 90% with its self-imposed unilateral ceasefire, a bilateral ceasefire will likely be the move that holds this peace process together.

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