From Plan Colombia to Peace Colombia…will the US remove the FARC’s terrorism status?

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President Santos and President Obama hold meeting commemorating Plan Colombia.  Photo from OP Cancillería used by Finance Colombia

On Thursday President Obama and President Santos held a meeting at the White House, in commemoration of 15 years of bilateral cooperation through Plan Colombia.  As one of the meeting’s outcomes, President Obama announced that he will ask congress for $US 450 million in aid to help the Colombian government implement a final peace deal with the FARC.  Plan Colombia has notoriously been shrouded in controversy, however the new strategy ‘Peace Colombia’ will actually mark an further increase in funding.  From 2000-2015, the US provided Colombia $10 billion in funding under ‘Plan Colombia’ towards the country’s military and social programmes.  The new strategy, if approved, will provide about 25 percent more US funding compared to 2016 levels.

According to the White House, the Peace Colombia framework will build on existing efforts and scale up ‘catalytic support to help Colombia win the peace’.  The framework will focus future US assistance under three key pillars, theoretically re-tailoring funding to deal with a post-conflict environment.  These are-

  1. Consolidating and expanding progress on security and counternarcotics while reintegrating the FARC into society
  2. Expanding state presence and institutions to strengthen the rule of law and rural economies, especially in former conflict areas; and
  3. Promoting justice and other essential services for conflict victim

Furthermore, the Obama administration advised that it would also request funds in FY 2017 for other ongoing programmes that would contribute to Peace Colombia’s goals.  This included funding for humanitarian assistance to vulnerable populations and, importantly, the Department of Defense’s counternarcotics programmes if enacted by Congress.  Given that these counternarcotics programmes are closely linked to counterinsurgency strategy and combined with the three points mentioned above, it becomes clear that near future US policy towards Colombia will continue to be substantially influenced by COIN rationale.

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SAN VICENTE, COLOMBIA: Two guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) stand guard on a highway next to a billboard with propaganda against the US-backed Colombia Plan in San Vicente, Colombia 30 January 2001. AFP PHOTO/Luis ACOSTA )

This then begs the question of how much Peace Colombia will truly differ to Plan Colombia.  Initially, Plan Colombia was also framed as a peace building initiative.  On January 11, 2000 the Clinton administration announced a $US 1.6 billion package to fund Plan Colombia, with roughly $1US billion of the total specifically designated for military and police aid.  The funding towards the military component of the strategy consisted principally of the supply of Huey and Black Hawk helicopters designated for anti narcotics operations, and the creation of two more military counternarcotics battalions.  This conveniently coincided with President Pastrana’s $US 7.5 billion plan to revive the Colombian economy, promote social development, eradicate illicit crops, and to continue stalled peace talks with the guerrillas at the time.  As a result, Plan Colombia was sold emphasising its political and social objectives, rather than its militaristic.

In an interview leading up to the meeting with Obama, Santos had asked that the US remove the FARC from its list of Foreign Designated Terrorist Organisations.  As quoted by the Guardian, Santos stated that-

‘If they sign it’s because we have a timetable for their disarmament and they have committed themselves to lay down their arms and make this transition to legal life. So I would say yes, I hope that they would be eliminated from the terror list’

Yet the US said on Thursday that it would be ‘premature’ and ‘inappropriate’ to take the FARC off the list before a final peace deal had been signed and implemented.  The FARC was placed on the US’s foreign terrorist organisation list in 1997 and the end of the Samper administration.  Whilst it is evident that the FARC has committed acts of terrorism, it wasn’t until the events of 9/11 that rhetoric of the FARC as ‘terrorists,’ rather than guerrillas, was significantly amplified within both Colombia and the US.  Given the nature of the ‘War in Terror’, it is really no surprise that the US Congress approved a $28 billion counterterrorism bill in July 2002 that included a further $35 million in supplemental aid for Colombia.  More importantly though, the new bill eliminated the conditions regarding the restrictions of US military aid to Colombian counternarcotics programmes solely.  This allowed the military aid that had constituted more than 70 percent in Plan Colombia counternarcotics funding since 2000 to be used towards COIN operations specifically.

There is no doubt that Colombia faces significant post-conflict challenges.  In terms of Peace Colombia, it is cautiously positive to see a commitment to funding that will be directed towards the implementation of a peace agreement after its signing.  However, in relation to how much it would significantly depart from the controversial Plan Colombia- it is still very much unclear given similar parallels between its objectives.  Whilst Santos has asked the US to remove the FARC from its designated terrorist organisations list, it is also unlikely that the US will do this in the near future until the outcomes of a successful peace deal implementation become more apparent.  Despite the AUC’s demobilisation between 2006-2008, it wasn’t until 2014 that it was delisted.  Moreover, peace talks with the ELN have not yet been finalised, which means that the future of the country’s second largest insurgency is not at all yet clear.  Terms of demobilisation have not been established, nor has potential entry into the country’s political arena.  Consequently, it is also likely to remain on the list.  More importantly than the label however, the designation of both the FARC and the ELN now justifies that amount of military aid that the US directs towards Colombia- particularly due to the lifting of restrictions on sole counternarcotics direction.  As a result it is unlikely that both the FARC and the ELN will be delisted until there is a substantial improvement in security, especially within the areas the insurgency’s maintain a significant degree of influence.  Despite the March 2016 peace deadline rapidly approaching, this increase in aid suggests an acceptance that Colombia faces many challenges yet to come in a post-conflict environment.

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The final stages towards peace in Colombia, but what of politics and plebiscite?

Uribe Santos

November has marked a productive month in terms of peace negotiations between the Santos administration and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of  Colombia (the FARC).  Whilst under pressure to reach a final peace settlement before the agreed upon date of March 23rd 2016, on Monday the government and the FARC agreed to 74 of 75 points on a transitional justice deal.  As elaborated on in my previous post, some of the more controversial points include the granting of amnesty for FARC combatants, state agents and military officials who co-operate in terms of admission to their involvement in violence, and the nature of the FARC’s political involvement after a final deal is signed.

On Sunday, the government announced that it is granting pardons to 30 FARC members as part of a broader confidence building measure between the state and the insurgency. The FARC had urged the administration to release 81 of its jailed combatants based on health grounds. This was alongside imprisoned members of the insurgency protesting with a hunger strike to demand the release of injured combatants and appropriate medical treatment supplied.  Santos’ department guaranteed that none of the combatants being pardoned were imprisoned for serious crimes, and that they will be entitled to receive help in finding employment and receiving social support once they leave prison.

Moreover, the FARC’s Commander-in-Chief, Rodrigo Londono Echeverri alias ‘Timochenko’, announced that he had ordered the insurgency in September to stop buying weaponry as part of a ‘good will gesture’.  Of course, the complexity in disarmament continues to remain, with no clear process yet established to obtain the arsenal the combatants currently hold.

However, whilst it appears quite evident that a final deal between the government and the FARC will be in fact reached, the outcome of a plebiscite still remains.  In an interview with President Santos by BBC’s ‘HARDTalk Programme’ (audio available here), Santos stated that it is easier to make war than peace, and admitted that he will be ‘in serious difficulty’ if the Colombian population rejects the peace agreement put before them.  The question was posed to the President that many influential figures, including former President Álvaro Uribe Vélez, continued to remain staunch opposers to the process. It was addressed that Uribe had formally stated, ‘it is not peace that is near, it is surrender to the FARC’.  In the context of Uribe stating that the FARC was literally getting away with murder, Santos later responded that ‘if you analyse what President Uribe is saying, you will come to the conclusion that he is being a bit…emotional’.  To which the interviewer reclaimed, ‘well the Colombian people are emotional! Of course they are emotional, 220000 people died in this war!’

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In staunch criticism of the peace process, Uribe often takes to Twitter to vent his frustrations.  Photo Javier de la Torre, taken from Semana

It is clear to followers of Colombian politics that Uribe continues to remain a controversial figure, but it is hard to argue against the point that he was a strong president.  Under his administration, there were crucial  improvements in the securitisation of the country (not without its controversy).  These were policies that are remembered, and were largely supported by portions of the Colombian population.  Whilst Uribe has accused Santos of selling out to terrorists, he still wields significant influence over the Democratic Center (CD) party, who continue to opposed components of the package.

Furthermore, from a legislative perspective, not all has been smooth sailing for Santos.  In a surprising move in early November, the Colombian Senate voted against a constitutional reform that would allow for FARC leaders to participate in national politics, particularly in terms of the enforcement of peace.  As quoted in a Colombian Reports article, the Minister of the Interior, Juan Fernando Cristo, stated that-

‘We took the decision to eliminate the issue of political participation from Senate approval due to some modifications that were incorporated. The truth is it will be worth it to give it more debate and make more profound reflections concerning the issue’

Whilst this also surprised the Congress, it is indeed a move that draws attention to the fact that despite good intentions, there are a variety of legal issues that could influence the implementation of a peace agreement without support. The FARC has been pushing for guaranteed seats in Colombia’s Congress a part of the ‘political participation’ and ‘end of conflict’ agenda items.  Although the government is believed to support this motion, there is various division within the legislative bodies as to how this will technically occur.

Agreement to a political solution in ending the conflict with the FARC is one thing, but agreement to allow the FARC Secretariat’s involvement in Colombian politics is another- an issue that indeed is ’emotional’, and has the potential to influence a referendum vote.  Last week Colombia’s Senate approved a plebiscite, allowing the Colombian population to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the implementation of the peace deal with the FARC.  Proposed by members of Santos’ political party as the method of ratification, the final settlement cannot be implemented without the agreement of the Colombian population despite the March 23rd deadline.

Santos is confident that there will be a ‘yes’ vote to a final settlement, and what could work in his favour is that a 13% ‘yes’ vote could ratify the peace deal, rather than a 51% majority.  Despite it being argued that such a low threshold may need to be applied to all future plebiscites, this was set as a result of  historically low turnout rates in the country.  Not surprisingly this passed in the absence of the DC, as there as disagreement with the 13% threshold.  Despite his confidence, Uribe’s influence can not be forgotten- both within official politics, and the memory of the Colombian people.

Fundamentally, a plebiscite does indeed allow a vote of emotion.  I hold high hope that a ‘yes’ majority will pass, however when dealing with such a protracted and violent conflict, historical memory comes into affect.  Should there be a ‘yes’ vote, so starts the process towards peace.  Should there be a ‘no’, I suspect we’ll have a resignation.

Colombia and the FARC reach a breakthrough deal

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Picture from Flickr, user FARIANA

Announcing on Twitter that he will meet in Havana to accelerate the end of the conflict with the insurgency, President Santos declared twelve hours later that the FARC and Colombian government have reached an agreement to sign a definitive peace deal by March 23, 2016. According to the agreement, the FARC will have to disarm within a maximum of 60 days after signing a final peace accord. With this, so commenced the hashtag, #LaPazEstáCerca, met with a bombardment of cynicism and apathy.

Photo from Twitter

Photo from Twitter


Photo from Twitter

Photo from Twitter

Whilst Colombians have become accustomed to peace processes with both the FARC and the ELN failing, in terms of advancements within other negotiation periods this most recent agreement marks a historic breakthrough.  In a handshake between Santos and ‘Timochenko’ (the FARC’s current commander-in-chief) overseen by Cuban President Raúl Castro, the Colombian government and the insurgency have agreed to a final agenda item of the negotiation framework- a formula to compensate victims and punish those responsible for human rights abuses.

The two sides agreed upon investigations and the creation of special tribunals that will be responsible for processing crimes.  Combatants that immediately confess the nature of their crimes, provide information and compensate victims will be treated with a degree of leniency.  Should they promise not to take up arms again, they will receive up to eight years of restrictions on their liberty and face confinement in designated areas that are yet to be determined.  Those that confess once the trial has started will be eligible for reduced sentences to be served in jail.  Finally, those who do not cooperate, and who are convicted of crimes against humanity, will receive up to 20 years in jail.

These tribunals will be responsible for multiple actors including members of the FARC, state agents and military officials who committed crimes in direct relation to the conflict with the insurgency.  Moreover, it will also be applied to the conflict’s ‘funders’, such as businessmen and industrialists who played a role in providing finances to the insurgency based on their vested interests.

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Photo from Flickr, user Maria Carvajal Alcivar

The Colombian government and the FARC had already agreed upon other agenda items, including agrarian reform, political participation for demobilised combatants and joint efforts to combat the drug industry.  The parts of the FARC’s proposals on political participation and solutions to the drug industry were incorporated into the agreements.  However, the issue of kinds of penalties that were to applied to the guerrillas had always been one of the most difficult parts of the agenda, including issues of transitional justice.  From the outset of negotiations, the FARC had made it clear that it would not accept a condition that resulted in jail time for leaders and combatants.  Consequently, a final agreement on judicial processing marks a significant move in overcoming the last hurdle in terms of agenda.

However, there are two outstanding hurdles before peace can finally be achieved.  Understandably, many Colombians have expressed disenchantment with the current policy towards the insurgency, arguing that Santos has made too many concessions towards the guerrillas.  In a consequent Twitter post, Santos made it clear that Colombians will have the final say in endorsing the agreement with the insurgency.  This means that there will likely have to be a referendum for the final peace agreement to pass, that will give Colombians the opportunity to voice their opinions through popular vote.  Any peace deal will also have to pass the Colombian congress.  Moreover, the practicalities of disarmament and demobilisation have not yet been specifically agreed upon, despite being implied in both a 60 day deadline and opportunities for voluntary crime admission as mentioned above.  The next step for both sides is then to turn to the final stage of the implementation, verification and signing of a framework that ensures the non-reoccurrance of conflict between both parties, and a clearer structure for disarmament and demobilisation processes.

Photo from Twitter

Photo from Twitter

The agreement over one of the most difficult and controversial agenda item is a pivotal move in finally securing peace between the Colombian government and the FARC.  Whilst this can be seen as a positive step in achieving peace, it faces a tired population.  Hopefully, March 2016 will mark the end of a conflict spanning over fifty years.

FARC and Colombian Government Agree to Bilateral Ceasefire

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On July 13, Santos states an important announcement will be made. Image courtesy of official account, Twitter

On Sunday, President Santos tweeted that negotiators were making an important step in the advancing agreements with the FARC.  Shortly after, a bilateral ceasefire was agreed upon between the government and the insurgency, as long as the FARC upholds their unilateral ceasefire.  Commencing 20 July (the day that the FARC declared its commencement of a unilateral ceasefire), the ceasefire will initially last a month, with both the government and FARC to tentatively agreeing to extend it for another four months.

Whilst not a surprising move given mounting international pressure, the last time a bilateral ceasefire had been agreed upon in negotiations was those commenced under the Betancur administration in 1982.  However, this can be seen as a major step towards easing tensions between the Colombian government and the FARC, and a commitment to the de-escalation of conflict.  Furthermore, this demonstrates that peace talks are being accelerated with both parties pushing for a political solution.

A copy of the press release regarding the bilateral ceasefire can be found here.  The stated objectives of such a move include to strengthen the confidence of the Colombian population in the peace process and trust amongst delegations; to speed up the construction of agreements on all remaining aspects of the Agenda of General Agreement, and to create the conditions for the implementation of the ceasefire and Bilateral and Final Hostilities, the third point of the ‘End of Conflict’ agenda item. Commitment to a bilateral ceasefire is a positive move in keeping negotiations on track, and hopefully all FARC Fronts will abide to the conditions of a unilateral ceasefire.

The FARC’s new ceasefire

On Wednesday the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia declared a second unilateral ceasefire during the current round of negotiations with the Santos administration.  According to the insurgency’s chief negotiator, Ivan Marquez, it was stated that ‘we announce our willingness to to order a unilateral ceasefire from July 20, for a month…through this, we’re looking to create favourable conditions with our counterpart to advance a definitive and bilateral ceasefire‘.

The timing of this decision comes after two announcements at this stage of the process- a declaration by Santos that the government will intensify an offensive military strategy against the FARC, and pressure from ‘guarantor’ countries Norway and Cuba, and ‘escort’ countries Venezuela and Chile to ‘strictly restrict any actions that cause victims or suffering in Colombia, and to step up the implementation of confidence-building measures‘. Moreover, according to Reuters, the government’s chief negotiator Humberto de la Calle stated that ‘the peace process is at its worst moment since we began talks…I want to tell the FARC in all seriousness, this could end.  Some day, it’s probable that they won’t find us around the table in Havana‘.  He went further to suggest that the government would be willing to consider a bilateral ceasefire before a final peace deal is signed, if the insurgency accepts judicial responsibility for the violence it has perpetrated and only if it abstains from extortion and the drug industry.

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Humberto de la Calle, Chief Negotiator for the Colombian government in talks with the FARC. Photo courtesy of ICP Colombia, Flickr

There is no doubt that negotiations under the Santos administration have produced the most progress of any effort to end violence with the FARC since the first attempt by the Betancur administration in 1982, despite their decreasing popularity amongst the Colombian population. Whilst this is the case, it is really quite unprecedented that the peace process has become incredibly strained in the past few months, given that agreements have been made on most of the negotiation agenda items. The FARC’s declaration of a month-long unilateral ceasefire can be viewed through both an optimistic and cautious lens, as strategic intentions become increasingly blurred given recent insurgent activity against police, military and infrastructure.  There is no doubt that the FARC’s declaration of a unilateral ceasefire is an attempt to draw the Colombian government into a bilateral ceasefire.  From an optimistic standpoint, this could be seen as a demonstration of commitment by the FARC to continue to current round of negotiations, and to temporarily cease its military activities.  Given the nature of such attacks over the past weeks, this can be seen as a commitment to the de-escalation of violence.  From a cautious stance, the FARC has been accused of utilising ceasefires as a guise to recuperate and rearm.  Given vows by the Colombian government to increase an offensive against the insurgency, combined by de la Calle’s stance that it is very possible the government will walk away from negotiations, there is viability in a cautious approach to the intention behind the current ceasefire.  Lessons learned from the Pastrana administration granting the insurgency a ‘demilitarised zone’ during its round of negotiations presents a somewhat painful picture, where it became evident that the movement was utilising the space for building up military capacity and training.

Recently, I have been conducting in depth research into the peace process attempts under the Pastrana and Uribe administrations, engaging with the specifics of the negotiations themselves, factors that helped and hindered the processes, and engaging with an array of primary material that I was able to access through archives.  Whilst the Uribe negotiation attempt with the FARC during his first term (2002-2006) never really eventuated, what is clear is that during these two administrations, the FARC really had no need to arrive at a political solution to the conflict.  During the Pastrana administration, the FARC was at its strongest in terms of territorial control, military capacity and capability, and financing coming in through the coca boom.  Paramilitaries were mobilised and exacerbating violence, creating a vicious cycle during negotiations in that the FARC refused to demobilise or cease military activity if the paramilitary groups were not addressed.  Peace attempts during the Pastrana administration also collapsed as a result of other factors, however never progressed further than minor procedural agreements with the insurgency.  In terms of FARC demobilisation, it would have been unlikely that the peace process resulted in success unless significant concession were made due to the insurgency’s strength. The FARC’s strength impacted on Uribe’s attempts to negotiations in that they refused to agree to a ceasefire as a condition of entering into negotiations.  Whilst Uribe demonstrated ‘success’ in the demobilisation of paramilitaries (including the AUC), and made minor progress initially with the ELN, there was no need for the FARC to negotiate under such conditions.  It wasn’t until Uribe’s second term (2006-2010) where military offensives against the insurgency resulted it capacity degradation and deaths of key leaders that the FARC began to show signs of weakening.  A key indicator of this was the fact that around 2008, the FARC returned to a strategy of ‘hit-and-run’ tactics throughout the rural population, avoiding full blown confrontations with the military in small cities.

Despite the current turbulence, these strains can perhaps shed light on why this current round of negotiation has been comparatively effective.  The insurgency is experiencing dwindling numbers, though currently mobilised at between 8000-10000 combatants.  The threat of a military offensive would not be a positive outcome for the insurgency in this late stage of the peace process, and I would argue that this has shaped the FARC’s decision to declare a second temporary ceasefire. I’m not convinced this is an attempt to rearm, though the possibility is there. Should the FARC desire a political settlement, I believe that this round of negotiations would have the highest success in achieving such an objective- particularly given the consensus on key agenda issues. I also believe that the FARC knows this, and despite recent aggression throughout the past weeks has declared this unilateral ceasefire to keep negotiations on track in an attempt to hold on to a political outcome. What is going to be interesting to monitor is the issue of ‘time’- Santos has entered into his second term, and unless a final settlement begins to take form soon, the actual implementation of a peace agreement may have to take place under the next administration.  As such, progression will have to be made very soon to prevent talks from falling through, with both sides attempting to secure what they can to enhance their own standing post-settlement.  The next few months will likely be the final ‘make or break’ stage, and I am interested to see what concessions will be made, including a potential bilateral ceasefire.

Violence, lasting peace and the Truth Commission: what could be its realistic impact for Colombian society?

In early June, the Colombian government and the FARC agreed to form a Truth Commission should a final peace settlement be reached between the two actors.  As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, the general purpose of truth commissions in post-conflict environments is to construct an in depth history of the conflict, including addressing crimes and mass atrocities that have been carried out by actors involved.  In the context of Colombia and due to the nature of the conflict’s protraction, one of pertinent issues will not only be an examination of government, FARC and ELN activities, but also an investigation into the relationship between the Colombian military and paramilitary groups.

An article published by Vice news entitled ‘Can a Truth Commission in Colombia help heal the wounds of wars atrocities?’ caught my attention the other day.  Within the article, there were references to an interview Vice had conducted with Colombian senator Sofia Gaviria, who is the sister of Guillermo Gaviria.  A former governor of Antioquia, Guillermo Gaviria was kidnapped in April 2002, which inevitably led to the final cessation of peace negotiations with the FARC under the Pastrana administration (1998-2002).  After an unsuccessful rescue mission carried out by the Colombian armed forces, Gaviria was killed alongside eight other hostages.

A supporter of the peace process, Sofia Gaviria is quoted as saying-

‘I do not believe in relativism of truth, I believe there is only one truth, but several ways of accepting it or not…but the truth is that such a person was taken from home, abducted, killed, or displaced by a group that operates outside the law. All victims want that truth’

Gaviria is referring to the FARC in the later part of this statement, a truth for victims is key in aiding lasting reconciliation.  However, what originally brought my attention to the article was an assumption behind that title- can a Truth Commission in Colombia help heal the wounds of war’s atrocities.  The establishment of a commission was announced in terms of the agenda item dealing with victims, specifically their rights to justice, reparation, and truth.  In dealing with the Colombian conflict, there is an assumption that a Truth Commission will investigate the incredibly long period of serious mass human rights violations carried out throughout the conflict, and a micro-examination of these crimes.  Overlaid onto the notion of constructing a history of the conflict, there is a further assumption that there will be a investigation into the structural causes of this. What role did all actors play in the exacerbation of violence, and what led to their emergence?

It is highly unlikely that a Truth Commission will be able to achieve all that is expected, particularly due to the nature of the Colombian context.  Apart from the complexities in forensic evidence, the general attribute of responsibility for perpetrated violence is far from clear cut.  For example, there is a significant degree of autonomy amongst most armed actors in the Colombian environment.  Whereas the ELN’s command-and-control structure has always been much stronger than the FARC’s, FARC fronts have operated with a higher degree of ‘flexibility’, particularly throughout the 1990s with the coca boom.  There have been incidents where attacks were carried out by fronts that the FARC leadership didn’t take responsibility for, and whilst this may be deliberate denial by the insurgency, forensic truth regardless will be incredibly difficult to establish. In a similar fashion, whilst there has been evident collusion between the Colombian military and paramilitary groups that operated throughout the country, these groups were also privatised and utilised by an array of actors with differing stakes in the conflict, including large landowners, drug trafficking organisations and business owners.  Whilst a Truth Commission should deal with the shadowy issue of paramilitaries, attribution of responsibility will again be difficult to establish. For a Truth Commission to demonstrate signs of success, there needs to be a realistic expectation of its function.  It can not be considered as a mechanism to facilitate judicial processes, and as a means of attributing legal responsibility for actions. What it should be considered as is a mechanism to provide formal recognition of the atrocities carried out against victims of the conflict. It is a imperative means of having their experiences heard and recognised, and can play a role in contributing to the establishment of lasting peace constructing historical memory.

I state, ‘can play a role in contributing to the establishment of lasting peace’ very deliberately.  A Truth Commission will be but one factor that is important for building peace in Colombia.  Recently, the Observatory of Democracy at the Universidad de los Andes published an excellent report on the Political Culture of Democracy in Colombia for 2015.  Extensive interviews were conducted with 1390 people in 40 municipalities on a range of issues including democratic attitudes, governance, participation, confidence in local institutions, insecurity and corruption, the protection of rights, armed conflict and the peace process.  In terms of FARC demobilisation, Colombia Reports has provided a breakdown in English of key observations in terms of combatant reintegration back into Colombian society. This report provides so many telling findings, but for my own research purposes on legitimacy, I found Chapter Two on democratic attitudes, governance and political participation to be quite interesting- particularly in terms of findings throughout other chapters, and issues that are being brought to the forefront of media currently.  These reflect on the complexities of the Colombian conflict environment, but also those of the overall Colombian state.

Marcha en Colombia: no mas FARC

Colombians march against the FARC insurgency. Photo courtesy of AlCortés, Flickr

Whilst Santos’ approval rating continues to sink in urban areas, perceptions of the Colombian political system’s overall legitimacy has risen since the beginning of Santos’ term.  Whilst political tolerance and satisfaction with democracy are not as strong, Santos’ overall approval level has increased quite substantially since 2011 in areas experiencing violence.  Having said this, according to these surveys, Santos is far from the high levels of approval that Uribe enjoyed during his eight year term.  In contrast to Santos, Uribe pursued a strong policy of securitisation and ‘state-building’ without negotiations with the FARC and ELN, yet was unable to defeat the insurgencies by military means alone.  In terms of conflict and the peace process, the report demonstrates that support for the negotiations themselves is much higher in the municipalities experiencing violence, in comparison with the rest of the country.  At the same time, there are low expectations that talks will result in lasting peace.

This is not surprising, and is a realistic observation.  A Truth Commission will provide a mechanism for mass human rights violations to be discussed, and their effects on victims recognised.  However, two facets that are critical in the maintenance of peace will be the two hardest- the provision of security to all areas of the state, most pressingly those affected by violence, and the enhancing popular perceptions of state legitimacy.  Whilst Uribe was perceived as a strong leader and arguably demonstrated some success in his ‘securitisation policies’, his term was also marked by mass human rights violations, ‘false positive killings‘, and ties to paramilitaries.  Moreover, despite expanding the Colombian military and police forces, both insurgencies survived with substantial numbers of combatants still mobilised.  Successful negotiations and demobilisation of both the FARC and ELN will be the best start for the achievement of peace, where resources can then be turned towards dealing with, amongst other things, the issues of neo-paramilitaries, BACRIMS, and general crime and corruption still plaguing Colombian society, contributing an environment of insecurity.  ‘Healing wounds’ will require much more than a Truth Commission.  Should the current round be successful, it will even require more than a peace settlement.  Long-term, lasting peace requires more than just successful negotiations- it requires the development of state legitimacy, of which the provision of security throughout the whole country is a critical starting point.

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.

Pushing too far? FARC steps up infrastructure attacks

The FARC has stepped up the intensity of its infrastructure strikes. On Thursday the insurgency shot dead three policemen patrolling part of the Pan-American Highway. Utilising explosives, it then brought down an energy pylon in its latest significant attack, leaving roughly 500000 without power in the southern region of Caqueta.  These attacks come after the infrastructure strike in Buenaventura, and the insurgency’s ambush in Cauca in April, killing 11 soldiers.

President Santos has called the latest attacks ‘irrational’, and according to Colombia Reports stated-

‘Nobody can explain this type of actions…if this is the way to seek peace, if this is the way to seek support for these peace talks, they are entirely mistaken because what this generates is exactly the opposite’

Santos is right in this statement- these attacks are further contributing to the diminishment of popular support for negotiations.  It is obvious that these recent attacks on infrastructure serve a particular purpose.  They mark an attempt by the FARC to draw the Colombian government into agreeing to a bilateral ceasefire in this current round of peace negotiations.  They are also a deliberate attempt to anger the Colombian population, in order to mount pressure on the Colombian government to declare this.  As I have noted in a previous blog post, bilateral ceasefires have been rarely agreed upon in previous rounds of negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC, with a key exception occurring with negotiations under the Betancur administration (1982-1986).  Whilst there has been mounting pressure for a bilateral ceasefire to be declared, Santos has continuously stressed that this will be unlikely- despite it being potentially necessary in order to boost current negotiations.

Given the present stage of negotiations, the FARC is engaging in a risky strategy with such significant attacks on infrastructure. In this current climate, is likely that such attacks will backfire.  Granted, this strategy is not new for the insurgency, who have been engaging in military strikes against infrastructure and government targets for many years.  However in recent times, arguably the FARC is pushing too far in terms of its current choice of targeting.  Whilst there have been positive achievements in these rounds of negotiation, it is evident that many Colombians are beginning to become disenchanted with current peace process attempts.  According to an April survey by Gallup, there has been a large decrease in support for the process, falling 17 points from the previous poll from 69 percent to 52 percent.  Given that Santos won his second term in office riding on support for peace, this is a worrying sign. It is also detrimental to popular perceptions towards the insurgency.  With diminishing popular support, no current ceasefires in place, and the present state of the insurgency, such attacks are not the strongest strategy by the FARC to keep the peace process on track.

On a slightly more positive note, on Wednesday the EU vowed to provide a fund to aid in the implementation of a peace deal, announcing it will contribute roughly $29M to projects should the process be successful.  This is imperative for successful DDR, and necessary in promoting the appeasement of agrarian grievances.  In the press release, it was stated that-

‘a programme worth almost €21 million will aim to overcoming the social and economic disadvantage of the marginalised and conflict affected regions. The programme will support local sustainable development in remote areas. It is expected to foster income generation opportunities for almost 2000 peasant families and improved livelihoods of around 3000 indigenous and Afro-Colombian families living in National Parks, where all kinds of social and environmental conflicts rule. This action will constitute the first building block of the EU’s support to the Colombian peace process’

The FARC is engaging in a huge risk by attacking infrastructure largely affecting the Colombian population, one that likely won’t directly result in a bilateral ceasefire. The FARC and the government have been in negotiations since November 2012, and there are still two agenda items to be agreed upon- the victims and the end of the conflict.   Given that there hasn’t been a common consensus yet as to how to adequately punish war crimes committed in the past five decades, nor how to compensate the millions of victims affected by the protracted conflict, it appears that unfortunately another hurdle in the process has been reached.

A complex construction of history: Colombian Government and the FARC to create Truth Commission

On Thursday June 4, the Colombian Government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombian (the FARC) agreed to form a Peace Commission to investigate abuses and crimes carried out during Colombia’s five-decade long war.  Both the government and the insurgency agreed to set up an ‘independent and impartial body’ as soon as the final peace settlement has been reached.

Agreeing to establish a Truth Commission is a further step forward in this current round of negotiations, and demonstrates that talks are still on track.  Thus far, the two parties have tentatively agreed to other elements on the 6 point agenda, including issues pertaining to agrarian reform and compensation, illicit drug policy and the nature of political participation.  Moreover, in late May the FARC and the government commenced the removal of land mines– an imperative move as Colombia is one of the most mined countries in the world.

The FARC has been calling for the establishment of a truth commission since the early phases of negotiation.  Iván Márquez, the FARC’s chief negotiator, stated

‘We wonder: how to establish responsibilities, or how to address the issue of victims at the peace talks, repair them, and make a commitment of ‘never again’, if we don’t establish how the violence, which resulted in six decades or more of armed conflict, began?…without truth, there’s no history; without history, there’s no national consciousness.  If the truth of the past is not known, we won’t be able to build a lasting peace’

The latter point in Márquez’s statement holds truth in the Colombian context.  As in other countries that have established truth commission post-conflict, the intention is to construct an in-depth history of the conflict spanning over fifty years.  These are generally implemented after the political and social conflicts have been resolved.  Whilst other Latin American countries, such as Peru and Argentina, have created truth commissions in the past to build peace, no country in the region has had to contend with such a protracted conflict.  The Colombian conflict has its roots in La Violencia a period of violent conflict that occurred from 1948-1958 that swept across much of Colombia.  Many non-state actors that the Colombian government has traditionally faced can be broadly linked back to this period, particularly in terms of the development of ‘self-defence’ enclaves and ‘independent republics’.  The FARC is one such movement, as is Colombia’s second largest insurgency, the National Liberation Army (the ELN).

The FARC has argued that the state’s role in the conflict needs to be more closely examined, particularly in terms of the responsibility to the victims.  Whilst the FARC sees itself as a victim of systematic violence by the state (just as the government sees itself as a victim of systematic violence by the FARC), the role of paramilitaries will be a likely issue engaged with during the commission. Like the FARC, paramilitaries (autodefensas, ‘self-defense’ groups) within Colombia have partial roots within the ‘self-defense’ units that were established within the rural communities during La Violencia.  Formed partly as a response to government policy, many paramilitary groups espouse a narrative that they have taken up arms to defend against the insurgents. Whilst paramilitaries were legalised by adoption of Law 48 in 1968 as part of the broader US-sponsored National Security Doctrine, the use of paramilitaries by the military, drug traffickers and large landowners expanded significantly during the 1980s and 1990s.

As a result of various massacres and human rights abuses, President Virgilio Barco Vargas (1986-1990) rendered these private armies as being temporarily illegal through Decrees 815 and 1194.  However, segments of the Colombian state (with pressure from the US) successfully reformulated the legislation. In 1991, the Ministry of Defense issued Order 200-05/91 and these private armies were reinstated into the army’s intelligence apparatus, albeit based on an illegal, covert partnership. In 1997 the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (the AUC) was created and can be thought of as an umbrella organisation of a loose coalition of private armies.  The AUC was designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation by the US in 2001, and subsequently delisted in 2014 after the Uribe administration ‘successfully’ negotiated a mass demobilisation of over 30,000 paramilitaries beginning in 2003.  Despite this, the legacies of the AUC and other paramilitaries have provided Colombia with a host of other security issues, with the government expressing concerns regarding former paramilitaries joining BACRIMS.

Both the Colombian government and the FARC will need to be culpable for their actions in development of ‘the truth’.  This is particularly important in terms of victims coming forward for reparation, and also in terms of the admission of gross human rights violations during the conflict.  Moreover, it is key in building ‘peace’ throughout Colombian society.  This commission will have a incredibly complex task in constructing a history of events, particularly in terms of attributing responsibility to all actors involved.

Buenaventura Attack: the need for a bilateral ceasefire?

The FARC carried out an attack on infrastructure on Sunday, leaving 400000 thousand people without power in Buenaventura, Colombia’s main Pacific port city.  Whilst Colombia’s defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon referred to the attack as an act of ‘terrorism’, this demonstrates the FARC’s reengagement with strategic military attacks on critical infrastructure following its suspension of a unilateral ceasefire.

The attack follows the Colombian army’s airstrike attack on the Cauca province, killing 27 FARC guerrillas including Jairo Martínez.  Martínez had been a member of the FARC delegate for two separate peace processes, and was allegedly at the FARC camp informing combatants of progress in the current rounds.

The last few months have seen a significant escalation of tensions between the Colombian and the FARC, particularly after the FARC attack in Cauca leaving 11 soldiers dead.  As attacks on both sides continue, the question remains: is a bilateral ceasefire necessary at this stage of negotiations?

Given the amount of time that has passed since the commencement of the current round, there are mounting concerns that the peace process may collapse.  However, this is the furthest that any Colombian administration has come to achieving a settlement with the FARC, including significant agreement on key agenda items.  Moreover, bilateral ceasefires have rarely been agreed upon by the Colombian government, with a key exception being during the Betancur (1982-1986) peace process.

This being said, given mounting pressure it is becoming evident that the Colombian government may have to agree to a bilateral ceasefire, as called on by the FARC.  With Colombia’s Attorney General and ombudsman showing their support, as well as Cuba and Norway urging for a bilateral ceasefire, it seems as though this potentially would give the current peace negotiations the boost it needs