By: Erica Illingworth, and Melanie Diaz Research Associates at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.
For more than 50 years, Colombians have been affected by the armed conflict between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia or FARC) and the military forces of the Colombian government. The effects of this armed conflict have included economic turmoil, governmental corruption, a rise in crime rates, and human rights violations. In 2012, the two entities began informal peace negotiations, and by December 2014, the FARC declared a unilateral ceasefire. It has already been two years and two months since commencement of the peace talks between the two powerful entities, and the negotiations seem to have stalled. This standstill is reminiscent of past failed peace talks between Bogotá and the rebel group. The two sides, however, are determined to make this the last time they meet, and with the lasting ceasefire, the parties illustrate their commitment to making peace a reality. The FARC’s cordial invitation of newly-crowned Miss Universe, Paulina Vega, to the peace table, may also amplify the situation on the international stage, pushing both groups to find common ground and whip out a peace deal. However, the issue of granting complete amnesty to FARC members is a tough pill for the Colombian government to swallow, and it may create further barriers for peace efforts to prosper.
The FARC has been engaged in guerrilla warfare with the Colombian government for over five decades. The origins of the internal conflict in the South American country can be traced back to April 9, 1948 with the assassination of Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, the popular leftist leader and mayor of Bogotá. Gaitan had symbolized hope for Colombia by focusing on a delicate balance between social classes, land reform, moderate nationalism, and a more left-leaning agenda to promote the representation of all of its citizens. To this day, there have been no arrests made in connection with his assassination. Gaitan’s murder led to a period of internal unrest known as La Violencia, and the FARC would then appear as we know them in 1964.
When the latest round of peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC began in 2012, it was not the first attempt at negotiations. In the 1980s, the FARC co-founded the leftist political party Unión Patriótica (UP) in an atmosphere where it was subjected to systematic disappearances and assassinations of the party’s leaders and members. While the UP is not as popular as it was during its heyday, it still stands on its leftist principals. With the current peace negotiations, and President Santos agreeing to award the FARC political recognition, the UP has regained some of its once high political prominence, due to the fact that its leaders have become more understanding and sympathetic to the party’s earlier principles.
Past peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC have been unsuccessful, most memorably the 1998 peace negotiations. During this attempt, then-Colombian President Andres Pastrana, created a demilitarized zone (which was slightly larger than Switzerland) for the rebel group to use as a haven.[i] Unfortunately, the FARC took advantage of this generous deal and used the haven as a space to build up its military and carry out menacing attacks, causing the peace talks to end.[ii]
During these years, the residents of the demilitarized zone suffered attacks from the FARC and were left defenseless by the government. In the municipality of San Vicente del Caguán, Colombians fell victim to murders and kidnappings committed by the FARC.[iii] Colombia’s State Council, however, is blaming the state for its failure to protect the citizens of the demilitarized zone during the peace talks. The failure of the state to protect the inhabitants of San Vicente del Caguán has brought a series of convictions against the state. For example, on May 31, 2013, the State Council ordered the Ministry of Defense to pay more than $260,000 in compensation to the family of a taxi driver who was killed by the FARC during an illegal roadblock in 2001.[iv] This failure of the government to protect its people against the crimes of the FARC has contributed to the break-down of past peace talks and creates further hesitation, on both sides, toward current peace talks.
Current Status of Peace Talks
Since his election in August 2010, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has been actively, but often informally, negotiating with the FARC. Bringing peace to Colombia is the main issue of his agenda, and he surely does not want to be included in the list of failed attempts.[v] Unlike past peace talks, both sides currently seem determined to put an end to the 50 year conflict, which is illustrated in their lasting commitment to the ceasefire.
Negotiations between Bogotá and the FARC, in 2012, initiated “the start of direct exploratory talks with the rebels’ representatives in the Cuban capital.”[vi] During these peace talks, the Colombian government signed an agreement with the FARC to negotiate the precise terms of a six-point agenda. The terms of the agenda include land reform, political participation, anti-drug trafficking initiatives, the rights of victims, disarmament of the rebels, and an implementation of a peace arrangement.
On 17 December 2014, the FARC declared an indefinite and unilateral ceasefire with the Colombian government, but “warned that it would end if its forces were attacked by government forces.”[vii] Bogotá respected their decision, but some skepticism remained due to the FARC’s actions in 1998. In January 2015, President Santos began to explore the idea of turning the FARC’s unilateral ceasefire into a bilateral truths.[viii] However, continued U.S. military support of the peace terms could hinder peace talks with the FARC.
Washington’s Eternal Involvement
Historically, the U.S. has had a spirit of conviviality with the Colombian government. In part, this relationship has been sustained through a close cooperation between the U.S. and Colombian governments’ policy over the “War on Drugs.” Colombia has remained a bountiful source of cocaine production over the past few decades, with the country producing more than 90 percent of the cocaine found in the U.S. In 2001, the Clinton administration began working with then- President Pastrana on the so-called Plan Colombia to more effectively fight drug trafficking. Plan Colombia directly focused on decreasing the power of the country’s numerous guerrilla groups, such as the FARC, since the rebel group became increasingly involved in drug trafficking in order to finance its political agenda.[ix] While the plan focused on decreasing Colombia’s production capabilities by 50 percent in six years, it also aimed to expand and consolidate government presence, and to improve livelihoods in local communities, with U.S. funding.[x] And with this help of U.S. funding, the Colombian government has been able to take back large regions of Colombia that were once controlled by the FARC.
Given the FARC’s opposition to foreign intervention in Colombian affairs, however, the U.S. should proceed with caution when sending military and monetary aid to Bogotá. Moreover, the U.S. should be acute to the fact that its aid is likely to be utilized by the Colombian military in ways that could result in more human rights abuses, which will negatively affect the ongoing peace negotiations between the FARC and Bogotá.
The year 2013 saw the release of a six-year report documenting the human rights abuses that have been committed in the nation since 1958, by both the Colombian military and the rebel forces. Gonzalo Sanchez, the head of the official investigation team, commented on the current state of the conflict: “It’s a war whose victims are, in vast majority, non-combatant civilians. It’s a depraved war that has broken all humanitarian rules.”[xi] Unfortunately Sanchez’ words rang true as the report reveals that 80 percent of the 220,000 Colombian lives lost in the conflict belonged to civilians.[xii] The report also estimated that the documented number of forcibly displaced civilians, between 1996 and 2013, were around 4.7 million persons, which emphasizes the issue of the huge number of displacement brought on by the Colombian conflict.[xiii]
Since this report was published in 2013, Washington has been a target of increasing criticism for providing financial and military support to the Colombian government, without requiring Bogotá to be more cautious in guarding against the harming of Colombian civilians. As Sarah Lazare, a staff writer for CommonDreams, points out, “Since 2000, the U.S. has dumped over $8 billion [USD] into ‘Plan Colombia,’ while the U.S. War on Drugs escalates military violence throughout Colombia.”[xiv] This escalation is due to the fact that the FARC needs the money from this illegal trade to fund its fight against the government.
Moreover, despite credible evidence of human rights violations throughout the country, the Obama administration is still planning to continue giving aid to Colombia.[xv] Despite the 12 percent decrease in U.S. aid since 2014, the U.S. will still provide Colombia with $240 million USD in 2015.[xvi] With these figures, the amount of U.S. funds will be able to buy a good deal of influence in Bogotá, creating barriers for the FARC to reach common ground in current peace talks. For example, in the late 90s, peace talks taking place during Plan Colombia became more episodic, due to the FARC’s high degree of distrust of U.S. involvement in the talks. In light of the 2013 Colombian report, however, many human rights advocates have intensified the call for U.S. involvement in the ongoing peace talks. U.S. involvement, however, is not the only factor stagnating peace efforts.
In relation to the Colombian military, it does not have a history of mutinous sentiments toward the Colombian government, but a number of senior military officials have revealed that they have deep reservations over the peace talks.[xvii] Consequently, the military has been under continuous scrutiny of President Santos, due to its actions and customs. According to the U.S. publication, Colombia Reports, the military has conducted an entire range of illegal wiretapping of peace talks with the FARC, has embezzled the government funds, and has shown little tolerance toward government officials supporting the Santos agenda. [xviii] President Santos however, has shown that he will not tolerate a mutinous military. For example, when Admiral Edgar Cely, Chief of the Armed Forces, was accused of corrupt actions jeopardizing the peace talks, Santos had him replaced.[xix] President Santos remains adamant in creating successful results from the peace talks, assuring that the current military will be at his side in bringing a peace of mind to the country.[xx]
It is of no surprise that the Colombian military has committed its own violations of human rights, which highlights the reason for its stance against the peace talks.[xxi] The Economist states that there has already been convictions of military personnel in 890 cases of which have become known in Colombia as the ‘false positives.’ This term is used to label civilians, erroneously killed by the military, but later presented as guerrilla insurgents who were killed in staged combat.[xxii] President Santos wants the military to reinforce its commitment to protecting the civilian population, which has been the cornerstone of his presidency.[xxiii] It is the utmost importance that the military gets on track with Santos’ plan for peace with the FARC because, without its support, current peace talks will continue to be stagnant and prospects for peace will be aborted.
Image by Ronald Dueñas, “Fuerzas Especiales del Ejército,” Taken on July 20, 2010. Via Flickr.
The latest round of peace talks have been going on for two years now, and have seem to hit a road block. Amnesty is the road block for the FARCs peace with the government. The Colombian government is not willing to give the rebels amnesty on all of the human rights violations it has committed. A staunch supporter of this position is former president Alvaro Uribe, who argues that giving the rebels amnesty will be the same as them getting away with murder.[xxiv] A large percentage of Colombians subscribe to Uribe’s position, and they show their support by attending a series of rallies that he led in December 2014. In these rallies Uribe called for “Peace without Impunity.”[xxv] The issue here is that the FARC has not been the only one committing human rights violations. The government and its military forces, as well as right-wing paramilitary forces, have all been guilty of committing a number of violations, which even outweigh those committed by the FARC.
According to a report by Colombia’s National Centre for Historical Memory, more than 220,000 people have been killed in the armed conflict, and 80 percent of these victims were civilians.[xxvi] The people that have been affected the most are not even involved in the fighting, and most victims’ reports go underreported. According to the same report, more than seven million people have been internally displaced by the violence, and many have been forcibly removed from their households, kidnapped, threatened, or injured by landmines.[xxvii] This is not all the FARC’s doing. More than half of these massacres have been carried out by the paramilitaries, which were created to combat the FARC rebels.[xxviii]
These numbers are astonishing, and shows that if Bogotá does not grant the rebels amnesty, then the peace talks may arguably fail, and the war will continue. It does not make sense to only hold the FARC accountable for humanitarian violations, when Colombia’s military and paramilitary forces have committed most of the violence and have not had to face accountability.[xxix] Both groups either have to be held responsible for the violent crimes or both have to be granted amnesty, it is the only fair outcome. The most ideal outcome is to grant a certain degree of amnesty to the FARC, but one cannot forget the countless lives lost and affected by both sides; the military and paramilitary should also face consequences for their actions. It is clear that no deal between the Colombian government and the FARC will bring peace to its part of the violence for which it is responsible.
The New Component
In recent developments, Miss Universe Paulina Vega, stated her willingness to contribute to the negotiations with the FARC, with this, it seems that the peace talks will forge onward. It was in the first week of February 2015, that the FARC formally invited the new Miss Universe Paulina Vega to sit in on the peace talks in Cuba.[xxx] In a formal letter addressed to the beauty queen, the FARC expressed that they wanted to take into account Vega’s opinion “as a valuable contribution to peace.”[xxxi] Since its founding in 1952, the winner of the Miss Universe Pageant has always been a symbol for world peace, and Vega’s willingness to aid in the Colombian peace talks may transform this symbol into a reality.
The peace talks is not just between the Colombian government and the FARC; although oftentimes overlooked, the Colombian people also play a role in the dilemma. When Fox News Latino asked Miss Universe Paulina Vega about the FARC’s invitation she stated, “The security of my country and peace within our borders remains a very big concern for me, my family, and all Colombians.”[xxxii] Miss Universe can very well be the voice and face of the Colombian people who are advocating for peace. But most importantly, her participation provides the opportunity to bring this issue to an international level, pressuring both the FARC and the Colombian government to finally decide on putting aside their differences and reaching an agreement. For these reasons President Santos should consider allowing the pageant queen to attend current peace talks.
Colombia: 50 Shades of Negotiations
The 50-year war between the Colombian government and the FARC is hopefully nearing its end. The peace process has been ongoing, but the continuation of the ceasefire keeps hope alive that both sides will reach an agreement and end the violence. The troublesome spot, which has now put a stall in the talks, is the question of a pardon. The government does not seem willing to grant the pardon to the rebel groups believing that the violations they have committed should not go unpunished. Maybe the government will reconsider the terms of amnesty, since their military and the right-wing paramilitary groups, which the government has funded, have committed the majority of the crimes that rattled Colombia in the 50-year-long war. Miss Universe’s role in the scenario also adds to the hope of successful peace talks, by magnifying the issue and pressuring both the FARC and the government to settle their disagreements on the international stage. So long as the ceasefire remains, and international pressure exists, there is a good chance that an agreement will be reached by the end of this year, and peace will finally come to Colombia.
By: Erica Illingworth, and Melanie Diaz, Research Associates at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.
Please accept this article as a free contribution from COHA, but if re-posting, please afford authorial and institutional attribution. Exclusive rights can be negotiated. For additional news and analysis on Latin America, please go to: LatinNews.com and Rights Action.
Featured image: “Miss Colombia Paulina Vega es nieta del famoso tenor Gastón Vega. Su madre, Elvira Castillo, fue Miss Atlántico 1953 (Colombia),” Foto Reuters republished by el Colombiano, http://www.elcolombiano.com/
[i] Mariano Castillo, “Time is Right, but Past Failures Haunt Colombia Peace Talks,” CNN, August 29, 2012, http://www.cnn.com/2012/08/28/world/americas/colombia-farc-peace-talks/index.html.
[iii] Hannah Mead, “State Council Brings Second Conviction Against Colombian State,” Colombia Reports, June 7, 2013, http://colombiareports.co/state-council-brings-second-conviction-against-colombian-state/.
[v] “Colombian President Warns Army Against Sabotaging Peace Process,” Telesur, December 2, 2014, http://www.telesurtv.net/english/news/Colombian-President-Warns-Army-Against-Sabotaging-Peace-Process-20141202-0054.html.
[vi], “Q&A: Colombia Peace Talks,” BBC News Latin America and Caribbean, November 18, 2014, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-19875363.
[vii] “Farc Declares Ceasefire but Warns of Retribution if Attacked.” The Guardian, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/dec/17/farc-rebels-declare-ceasefire.
[viii] “Colombia ready for truce talks with Farc – President Santos,” BBC News, January 14, 2015, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-30825962.
[ix] Daniel Pécaut, “La Tragedia Colombiana: Guerra, Violencia, Tráfico de Droga,” Revista Sociedad y Economiá, (2001): 140-146, Accessed January 12, 2015, http://www.redalyc.org/resumen.oa?id=99617827006.
[x] Vanda Felbab-Brown, “The Violent Drug Market in Mexico and Lessons from Colombia,” Foreign Policy Paper Series, no. 12 (2009): 5-10, Accessed January 7, 2015, http://www.brookings.edu/research/papers/2009/03/mexico-drug-market-felbabbrown.
[xi] Helen Murphy, “Colombia report reveals deadly extent of five-decade conflict,” Reuters, Published July 24, 2013, Accessed January 7, 2014, http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/07/24/us-colombia-conflict-idUSBRE96N1EI20130724.
[xiii] Sarah Lazare, “Report Recounts US-Backed Atrocities in Colombian Civil War,” CommonDreams, Published July 25, 2013, Accessed January 7, 2015, http://www.commondreams.org/news/2013/07/25/report-recounts-us-backed-atrocities-colombian-civil-war.
[xv] Connor Paige, “Obama proposes reducing U.S. aid funds to Colombia in 2015,” Colombia Reports, Published March 4, 2014, Accessed January 12, 2015, http://colombiareports.co/us-president-proposes-reducing-aid-funds-colombia-2015/.
[xvii] Robin Llewellyn, “How Loyal is Colombia’s army to Santos’ Peace Efforts?” Colombia Reports, Published December 11, 2014, Accessed January 7, 2015, http://colombiareports.co/loyal-colombias-army-santos-peace-efforts/.
[xix] “Colombia: Santos Shakes up Military Leadership,” Latin American News Dispatch, September 7, 2011. http://latindispatch.com/2011/09/07/colombia-santos-shakes-up-military-leadership/.
[xxi] Robin Llewellyn, “How Loyal is Colombia’s army to Santos’ Peace Efforts?” Colombia Reports, Published December 11, 2014, Accessed January 7, 2015, http://colombiareports.co/loyal-colombias-army-santos-peace-efforts/.
[xxii]“General Exit,” The Economist, Published February 22, 2014, Accessed January 8, 2015, http://www.economist.com/news/americas/21596962-ousting-countrys-military-chief-may-help-peace-negotiations-general-exit.
[xxiii] Robin Llewellyn, “How Loyal is Colombia’s army to Santos’ Peace Efforts?” Colombia Reports, Published December 11, 2014, Accessed January 7, 2015, http://colombiareports.co/loyal-colombias-army-santos-peace-efforts/.
[xxiv] “What is at Stake in the Colombian Peace Process,” BBC News, January 15, 2015, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-19875363.
[xxvi] Grupo de Memoria Histórica, “¡Basta Ya! Colombia: Memorias de Guerra y Dignidad,” http://www.centrodememoriahistorica.gov.co/descargas/informes2013/bastaYa/BYColombiaMemoriasGuerraDignidadAgosto2014.pdf.
[xxx] Ernesto Londoño, “Colombia’s Guerrilla Group Extends Olive Branch to Miss Universe,” The New York Times, February 9, 2015, http://takingnote.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/02/09/colombias-guerrilla-group-extends-olive-branch-to-miss-universe/?_r=1.
[xxxii] “Miss Universe Says Yes, She’s Willing to Assist FARC Peace Talks in Colombia,” Fox News Latino, February 9, 2015, http://latino.foxnews.com/latino/news/2015/02/09/colombian-rebel-group-invites-new-miss-universe-paulina-vega-to-peace-talks-in/.