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Is Colombia Ready for Peace?

Agreement to hold talks is important, but fighting continues and there is massive distrust between government and rebel guerrillas.
By Rodrigo Sandoval Araujo

Since the announcement that the Colombian government had signed an agreement to launch peace talks with the rebel FARC movement, even journalists have not dared ask the most important question – is the country really ready for peace?

The preliminary agreement, brokered by Cuba and Norway and signed on August 27, could bring an end to an insurgency pursued since the 1960s by FARC, whose full title is the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army or FARC-EP. At this early stage, however, there are no plans for a ceasefire.

The decade from 1985 and 1995 saw a shift towards peace and democracy in Latin America. Civil war died down in Central America, and dictatorships further south crumbled.

Colombia was the exception. Over the same decade, it too became more democratic, as people began electing their mayors and governors. The adoption of a new constitution in 1991 brought about an impressive decentralisation of power and a complete reorganisation of government.

Yet the long-drawn-out conflict carried on. It is not an easy conflict to explain. Colombia is an almost completely urban society – 80 per cent of the population lives in towns. The insurgency, however, is rooted in rural areas. While it was originally driven by contested ownership of land, it developed strong connections with cocaine production and trafficking.

Even a democratic Colombian state was incapable of making agrarian reforms work – they had failed previously in 1936, in 1958 and again in 1968. It was also incapable of improving life for people in the countryside, who instead fled to the cities in search of better opportunities.

Unresolved conflict over land ownership led to the emergence of guerrilla movements seeking a redistribution of wealth and land to those who worked the fields.

Alarmed by this socialist agenda and the prospect of Colombia turning into another Cuba, the political classes and other elite groups set about defending their substantial landholdings. The result was the formation of paramilitary units and “self-defence groups” which operated either autonomously or with the knowledge and support of politicians, police and the military, and created reign of terror in the countryside.

As both the FARC-EP guerrillas and the paramilitaries ran short of money to pay their combatants and buy weapons, they turned to the drug trade, kidnapping and extortion as ways of raising revenue.

The rise of guerrilla groups and right-wing paramilitaries in the 1980s and 1990s was astonishing. The paramilitaries, for example, assassinated nearly 3,500 members of the Patriotic Front, a political party linked to FARC-EP. For their part, the guerrillas carried out huge military operations, taking over the city of Mitú and capturing the army’s Las Delicias base, used for counter-narcotics operation. In the latter attack, they killed police, soldiers and civilians indiscriminately.

From 1954 and 2000, it was state policy to keep the Colombian army weak in order to avoid the risk of a military coup and then a dictatorship, a familiar pattern in the rest of Latin America. This changed after 2000, when the military and police were strengthened and the state began to contain the warfare between guerrillas and paramilitaries.

A peace process targeting the main paramilitary groups ran between 2003 and 2005. As a result, 30,000 fighters were demobilised and almost all the top paramilitary leaders were brought to justice. As operations against FARC-EP continued, most of the group’s leading figures were killed between 2008 and 2012.

If the proposed negotiations go ahead, creating an atmosphere in which real dialogue, reconciliation, justice and reparations become possible will be a complicated business.

The guerrillas assert that the paramilitaries are just an illegal branch of government, but this is not entirely true. The close relationship between the army, police and paramilitaries has been well documented, but the state has not really exerted authority over these armed groups operating on the margins – running their own anti-guerrilla campaigns and engaging in criminal activities outside anyone’s control.

Similarly, the government makes the assumption that all guerrillas are involved in drug trafficking, while the wealthy elite believe that much of the money it has paid in ransoms and extortion rackets goes towards funding the guerrillas.

With such mistrust on all sides, it will not be easy to build confidence. Talks have yielded mixed results so far. Paramilitary leaders have been extradited to the United States against their will. Conflict-related killings have fallen to 3,000 a year – although estimates vary wildly between 1,500 and 5,000. But at the same time, FARC-EP took advantage of the peace process between 1998 and 2002 to strengthen its military capacity. Negotiating peace while conflict continues is not easy.

It is good news that the government and FARC-EO EP have sat down together and put down on paper some points on which they could agree. Although conflict continues, this initial understanding is important. There is at least a basis on which negotiations can go forward, unlike past efforts.

We Colombians have lived with the realities of war for many years now. We have seen the state on the verge of succumbing to armed force more times than we care to remember. Talk of peace inspires optimism, but also raises questions, for example about how we will overcome our sense of horror at the countless deaths and the destruction of the very fabric of society.

Rodrigo Sandoval Araujo is a Colombian blogger whose background is in studied communications and political science. (Blog: El bayabuyiba)

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