Negotiations with the FARC Hit One-Year Mark

Today marks the one-year anniversary of the inception of peace talks with the FARC. Last week, the Colombian government and the FARC signed a deal to allow for the FARC’s participation in the country’s political system should a final agreement be reached in the peace negotiations. As President Santos put it, “Never before have we gone so far down the road to end[ing] our conflict.”

After the agreement on land reform measures in May of this year, this is the second big step forward since the talks began. Nothing will actually take effect until a full agreement is reached, but basically, things were looking pretty good. That is, until Reuters and other outlets reported that Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon said that a FARC unit was planning hits on former President Álvaro Uribe – whose father, Alberto, was killed in 1983 during a kidnapping attempt by the FARC – as well as targeting the country’s top prosecutor. The government’s lead negotiator, Humberto de la Calle (correctly) noted that “An attack of this nature would destroy the viability of the [peace] process.”

It’s unclear if the FARC’s official leadership, which is representing the group in the negotiations, were involved in this alleged plot. It’s estimated that up to 20% of the rebels could defect if a settlement is reached, so it’s not like they’re all on the same page all the time. Furthermore, it’s not even clear what evidence there is for that allegation beyond Pinzon’s say-so. El Espectador recently reported that back in April, the government rounded up 17 FARC members from the unit that was supposedly planning this attack. According to the article, those arrested provided some info that led the cops to send two agents to infiltrate the FARC unit. The agents were eventually outed and killed, but not before relaying details of the planned assassinations back to Bogotá.

The whole history of these negotiations – especially this latest 2012-2013 cycle, but also earlier rounds – has consisted of “two baby steps forward, one full step back” developments. For example, the FARC offered a two-month ceasefire at the start of the talks as a gesture of goodwill, which Santos rejected, leading to continued fighting on both sides. In 1998, as part of an earlier round of negotiations, President Andres Pastrana offered the FARC a 16,200 sq mi “safe haven” zone, also as a gesture of goodwill. The rebels said, “muchas gracias,” turned around, and used it for growing cocaine, holding hostages, and building up their forces to the strongest levels ever.

Uribe was elected by running on a hard-line anti-FARC platform. He rolled back a lot of the military gains made by the rebels in the late ’90s and early 2000’s, but at the expense of lots of bloodshed and massive internal displacement of civilian populations. Santos was elected in 2010 and he generally continued the hard-line policies of his former boss and oversaw a military offensive that killed two top FARC commanders in two years (2010 and 2011).

In late 2011, “Timochenko” took over the top job and quickly called for a re-initiation of the peace process. Santos accepted. Despite their public overtures, FARC attacks on infrastructure and other targets spiked in 2012, possibly as a show of strength to achieve bargaining power in the forthcoming negotiations. Late last month, in the wake of a series of attacks on oil infrastructure, Santos warned that FARC was looking to attack “emblematic sites.” The next day, he ordered another big surge against the rebels.

The US and Colombia have largely been committed to a militarized approach to ending the conflict, which is fast falling out of favor with a war-weary populace. Still, I get the impression that the government views the FARC’s willingness to compromise as proportional to its military weakness. I don’t necessarily think that’s necessarily wrong, but I also think the FARC leadership recognize that they have no way of achieving a military victory and the best they can hope for is a deal that allows top leaders to avoid prosecution for atrocities they and their comrades may have committed.

The last time FARC tested the political waters during peace negotiations in the 1980s, they performed so well that right-wing elements violently forced them out of the political arena. Since the details of the agreements on land reform and political participation remain confidential, there’s no good way to assess who’s giving more ground. From the information that is available, it would appear that the FARC has realized that their chances for survival (and impunity from prosecution) are much better as an alternative, leftist political party than as a Marxist revolutionary militia.

The remaining issues on the table include the topics of illicit drugs, compensation for victims of the decades-long hostilities, and actually ending the fighting. These are all going to be difficult to navigate, but it’s encouraging to know that the FARC see a potential political future for themselves. They will want to appear strong, but not intransigent – and it certainly wouldn’t be in the leadership’s interest to go around whacking former presidents. The assassination plot could’ve been the work of a rogue unit, but I certainly don’t think (and Santos, Pinzon, and company haven’t intimated) that the orders came from the top.

Santos is up for reelection in May 2014 and he’s due to announce his candidacy this month. Despite de la Calle’s statements, I think these assassination “revelations” are largely nothing more than political theater by the Santos administration. They’re trying to show voters that the government is on top of the security situation, while remaining “reasonable” and not completely tanking the negotiations over a relatively minor dust-up.

The next round of talks is scheduled to start in a few weeks and drugs will be the issue at hand. Considering that Santos actually agrees with the FARC position on legalizing drugs and seeing as both parties seem to genuinely want an end to hostilities, I expect that providing justice for human rights violations, both by the rebels as well as security forces, will be major sticking point.

Since nothing unless a comprehensive agreement is reached and ratified by voters, the whole process is on extremely shaky ground. The will to end the conflict is there, on both sides of the negotiating table as well as in the streets, and there has been progress on some issues, but there are still so many ways the negotiations could fall apart.


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