Colombia’s New Plan for Peace

Daniel Crump 

Image © pablodf

After months of suggestion and speculation, Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos has laid out a plan for peace talks with the government’s long time adversary, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The first round of talks will take place in Oslo, Norway in October before moving to Cuba at a later date. Meaningful dialogue between the two groups has not occurred in Colombia since 2002 as a result of former President Alvaro Uribe’s anti-FARC policies which focused exclusively on restoring Colombia’s economic and social confidence through the eradication of FARC.

There are numerous reasons why many in Colombia believe the time is not right to embark on peace talks with FARC, and others believe that the right time may never come. They believe the guerrilla movement has all but lost its original central message and thus has nothing to meaningfully argue for in negotiations with the government. They also recognise that given their previous links with Colombia’s Communist Party, they do not share the view that Colombia’s recent economic growth is necessarily the best course for the country. This, coupled with the movement’s appalling human rights record means that Santos’s move towards talks are rightly being viewed with some suspicion, perhaps most notably by Uribe himself.

A blood-soaked history

The origins of the FARC movement can be traced back to the 1950’s and the creation of the National Front, a Liberal-Conservative coalition that sought to share power after years of civil war. Because of the NF’s support for wealthy landowners and the overseeing of the capturing of peasant land, a number of Guerrilla movements rose up to oppose the widespread corruption. One of the groups to benefit most from the anti-government feeling of the time was the Colombian Communist Party (PCC) which acted as an umbrella organisation for the different sections of Colombian society looking to claw back power from the National Front and improve living conditions for the poor.

The FARC was formed in 1964 by Manuel Velez and other PCC members after the Colombian government directed attacks on several ‘self-defence’ territories set up by the PCC. Velez and 47 of his followers would engage in combat with government forces at Marquetalia, a PCC stronghold and FARC numbers would grow considerably from there. 

FARC have made other attempts to enter into mainstream Colombian politics, most notably their involvement with the Patriotic Union (UP), whose main aims were large scale nationalisation of Colombian business, decentralisation of power and the ending of the National Front’s dominance of Colombian political life. The UP was itself an umbrella group which included PCC members and trade unionists. FARC’s involvement was noticeable yet comparatively low.

Despite these somewhat commendable beginnings, the current organisation is a shadow of its former self. FARC still insists on creating a Marxist-Leninist state in Colombia through armed revolution and the overthrow of the current government, but its recent history has alienated even the most left leaning of Colombian nationals and the group increasingly resembles a criminal network rather than a political movement.

Fool me once…

Another reason to be fearful of a return to peace talks is that other attempts have simply failed to achieve anything other than the growth of the FARC and an increase in violence. During Andres Pastrana’s Presidency, FARC were granted a 42,000km sq safe haven as a precondition for talks to take place. During this time, FARC would continue its terror campaign, hijacking aircrafts and kidnapping several political figures. As a result, peace talks were ended in 2002 and Colombian armed forces would begin to recapture FARC territory.

One of the biggest blows to the movement’s credibility in the eyes of many Colombians has been their involvement in narco-trafficking. The drug trade has been one of FARC’s main sources of funding, along with the mafia-like behaviour of demanding payment protection from Colombian businesses. In a 2010 interview with Colombian newspaper, El Tiempo, the anti-narcotics division of the Colombia police force expressed their concerns about the links between FARC and high profile Mexican drug cartels. There has been evidence of the two groups working together and FARC have been instrumental in selling large quantities of cocaine to Mexico. Well known Mexican drug lord Edgar Valdez Villareal admitted after being arrested to having ‘investments’ in Colombia which he later revealed were drug deals.

Human Rights Watch has also uncovered evidence that over a quarter of the FARC’s guerrilla forces are under 18. Child soldiers are usually attracted to the movement because of a lack of other opportunities or the desire to escape domestic violence. It is rare for child soldiers to join FARC through force, but once they are in, it is incredibly difficult for them to leave.

Where is this going?

A surprising development over the past couple of days has seen Colombian TV broadcast a message from FARC’s leader, ‘Timochenko’ which ended a decade long ban on FARC members communicating via mainstream Colombian media.  FARC still have sympathetic allies in the outskirts of Colombian politics such as Piedad Cordoba, a former Liberal Senator and critic of Uribe. She has expressed optimism regarding the talks and applauds the fact that FARC do not currently hold any political hostages. Although far from being trusted to participate in political life, it ought to be viewed as a positive that certain bridges are still in place for those FARC members who wish to renounce violence and join in peaceful debate with other political parties.

The apprehension shown by the former President and his supporters is understandable, yet past examples, such as Britain’s conflict with the IRA or current policy towards the Afghan Taliban, show that the complete eradication of a terrorist network is a virtually impossible task. Santos has stated that past mistakes will not be repeated, and these talks are subject to the group rejecting armed conflict absolutely. Also, no safe haven will be granted to FARC this time around. This is encouraging, but direct peace talks and integration ought to be one of many options the government is willing to take.

It’s the economy…

Perhaps the most pressing issue for the government to focus on is creating the incentives for Colombia’s youth to turn them away from armed conflict and cut off FARC’s supply of manpower at the source. In 2010, Colombia introduced ‘Ley 1492’, a scheme designed to reduce youth unemployment which has been hovering around 24% over the past decade. The plan rewards companies who take on young first time workers, whilst making money available for young people to start their own business. It is this kind of thinking that is needed now more than ever.

For peace talks to succeed, FARC must cease their coordinated attacks on oil pipelines and coal mines and allow the Colombian economy to grow. Uribe’s decade long war with FARC has made Colombia one of the world’s fastest growing economies with some already predicting that it will overtake Argentina as Latin America’s second largest economy. These advances must be protected at all costs if Colombia has any chance of long lasting peace. The worry for many is that FARC simply do not share this vision for Colombia’s future.

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