Colombia’s Peace Talks with FARC Running Out of Time

The stakes are raised as Colombia and the FARC guerrilla near an historic peace accord.

Colombians march in protest to the FARC, July 20, 2008
Colombians march in protest to the FARC, July 20, 2008 (Alejandro Cortés)

A smattering of outbursts by the leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Rodrigo Londoño, also known as “Timochenko,” have suddenly cast doubt on the peace talks between the Colombian government and the still 8,000-strong rebel group.

The current negotiations, initiated in Cuba three years ago, are the fourth such talks since the conflict began in 1964. An agreement reached in September, on the controversial issue of transitional justice, was seen as a significant breakthrough.

The conflict has, at different stages, been characterized as a war on communism, a war on drugs and a war on terror. It has claimed an estimated 220,000 lives; a further five million people have been displaced.

There is no manifest clarity to this struggle, with involved parties ranging from the smaller National Liberation Army — yet to enter any kind of peace negotiations — to the right-wing paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), supposedly disbanded in 2003 and adjudged to be responsible for up to 80 percent of civilian casualties. The waters have been further muddied by a thriving drugs trade infiltrating all parties.

Two-thirds of the way

The six issues under negotiation are: political participation for rebels, land reform, drug trafficking, transitional justice, disarmament and the manner of implementation.

The first four points have for the most part been agreed and had looked to have been cemented by a symbolic handshake between Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos and Timochenko.

Since the FARC announced a ceasefire in July, recruitment has been brought to a halt, members are no longer undergoing combat training and instead are receiving cultural and political education. The government, despite suspending airstrikes, has continued “military operations.” Violence is at its lowest since 1975.

Now Timochenko wants a bilateral truce by next month and accuses Santos of dragging out the peace negotiations to gain the upper hand.

Running out of time

A final agreement is due in March next year, after which Santos aims to present it to the Colombian people in a referendum.

Santos was reelected last year on a promise to achieve a peace settlement. Support for the peace process has gone up from 29 percent in June to 52 percent now. But Santos is personally less popular. Should the peace agreement be rejected by the public, his political career would surely be over.

Doubts also remain about the rebels’ motives: The country has seen unsuccessful negotiations before and some victims want greater retribution. This is the view of Santos’ hardline predecessor, Álvaro Uribe, who equates the agreement on transitional justice with the rebels “getting away with murder.” An either-or referendum, he argues, oversimplifies the situation.

A victory for whom?

Should a plebiscite provide the desired stamp of approval, the FARC must give up its weapons within sixty days and enter the political realm.

The government would ignore calls from the United States to extradite rebel leaders. Most members would receive amnesty; only those guilty of war crimes (kidnapping, murder, forced displacement, disappearance and torture) would face trial by a special tribunal of international judges. Uribe calls this not peace but surrender to the FARC.

The public appears to agree. Although polls show 55 percent of Colombians believe peace would be a victory for the country, only 8 percent would see it as a government triumph. 29 percent believe it would be a victory for the FARC.

The FARC wants the agreement written into the Constitution, fearing a next government may go back on its word.

There are also concerns that once disarmed, the FARC rebels will be targeted by former AUC members.

Challenges ahead

A transition will not be cheap, with reintegration of vast swathes of the population, land reform and crop substitution required.

Nor is there a guarantee that both leaders speak for the entirety of their respective parties, with some groups more closely wedded to the lucrative cocaine trade than political ideals (a splinter cell of the FARC has already been formed).

Santos maintains that incorporating the FARC in the political system will enable Colombia to more effectively tackle the illicit drugs trade in the long term while protecting the civilian population from the violence that accompanies it. “We’re adversaries, but we are advancing in the same direction,” he recently said.

The challenge now is to stay the course and settle on a balance between justice and peace for all parties: government, rebels and a long-suffering public.

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