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The chances of a historic peace accord between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the Marxist guerilla group with which it has been in a state of armed conflict since 1964, have never looked bleaker since the Havana negotiations commenced in October 2012.
As talks continued outside the country, the recent escalation of warfare within it is exhausting a nation that has seen its armed forces, infrastructure, and environment attacked by the FARC on 145 separate occasions since last May. After more than 1,000 days at the negotiating table, Colombians have lost hope in reaching a peace agreement.
In July, in a national televised address to the nation, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced that the FARC had again agreed to a unilateral ceasefire. This marked the FARC’s sixth attempt at a truce; they violated the most recent one in April when their guerrillas ambushed a Colombian squadron in Cauca, leaving 10 soldiers dead. Santos also, for the first, time announced orders to “de-escalate” military action by Colombian armed forces for a period of four months, subject to the FARC’s meeting the government’s conditions.
The announcement was greeted with skepticism, most notably by former President and current Senator Álvaro Uribe. Santos’ critics suggested this was a step toward a bilateral ceasefire, a concept they opposed absent the signing of an agreement. Additionally, the four-month period coincided with regional elections. Colombians recall the FARC agreeing to a unilateral ceasefire during the presidential campaign in 2014, only to ramp up attacks after Santos was re-elected. Santos argues, however, that the de-escalation will expedite the peace process, and that he will decide at the end of the term if there is enough movement on outstanding issues to warrant continued discussions.
The negotiations in Havana saw significant achievements, but the most critical issues –- justice, disarmament, and how the agreed points will be implemented — remain unresolved. The issue of justice is now receiving the most attention. According to a June Gallup poll, 85% of Colombians want the FARC’s leaders to serve prison time for their war crimes and their crimes against humanity before they can enter into politics. The FARC’s leaders have made it clear that they do not agree, stating repeatedly that they “will not spend a single day in prison.” Trying to strike a balance between the two has been costly for Santos, who has seen his approval ratings plummet to 25%. The Santos Administration has reiterated that the FARC’s leaders must accept transitional justice (administered by an international court), but it is also open to alternative forms of sentencing outside of a traditional prison cell.
Over the years, the FARC has reconstructed itself from a purely Marxist guerilla outfit into a narco-trafficking terrorist organization. The Medellín-based think tank, Insight Crime, estimates the FARC’s annual drug income to be between $150 million and $500 million, most of which is believed to fund their military efforts. The guerrilla group controls 70% of coca cultivation in the country and is involved in various levels of trafficking, although to what extent is unclear.
A June 2015 UN report revealed that Colombia has increased coca cultivation from 48,000 hectares to 69,000 hectares. Production has almost doubled in the past year, from 290 tons in 2014 to 442 tons now. The report was published a year after the FARC and the Colombian government reached an interim agreement calling for both sides to share the responsibility of eradicating coca and implementing crop-substitution for farmers, among other joint initiatives during the post-conflict period.
The UN report further complicates matters of justice. Negotiators for the FARC have attempted to classify narcotic activities as a political crime, which would ultimately shield those responsible from extradition by US authorities. The report fuels skepticism among Colombians, and raises questions about whether the FARC is serious about implementing the agreed measures to eliminate drug cultivation and trafficking in the post-conflict period.
After 50 years of conflict and multiple failed peace negotiations, it’s difficult to foresee anything but more conflict ahead. Negotiators are to be commended for the progress they’ve made, but the remaining issues are complex, and emotions about them run very deep. In the short term, the most likely outcome is that the FARC will make some concessions, perhaps in terms of reparations for victims. Both sides are reported to be nearing agreement on such a plan. This will probably give the Colombian government an incentive to make another pitch to the nation for extending the talks. Yet little progress will be made on justice and disarmament. As some analysts have said, describing the FARC, “Nobody negotiates a peace agreement only to serve prison time thereafter.”
There are probably three mid-term scenarios:
- Santos, aware he doesn’t have time on his side, goes to the nation with a referendum on a peace agreement that fails to ensure prison time for the FARC leaders;
- The Santos administration goes it alone and agrees to a special constitutional assembly, ratifying a flawed deal and bypassing a public referendum; or
- Talks fall apart and the conflict continues.
Opinion polls conducted now suggest the country will reject any agreement that does not guarantee prison time for the FARC’s leaders.
Aside from the uncertain constitutional legitimacy of the second scenario, foregoing a referendum would result in the exclusion of the voice of a nation that has seen more than 220,000 deaths and five million people displaced as a result of this conflict. With his approval rating hovering in the mid-20s, it’s difficult to imagine Santos going down this path.
That leaves us with the third scenario. Unless the FARC’s leaders capitulate at the negotiating table, a prospect no one is counting on, the talks will eventually halt, and the conflict will carry on.
Given last year’s increases in coca cultivation and production, the FARC may be preparing for exactly that.