Successful negotiations in the past between the Colombian government and Colombian guerrilla groups provide some reason for cautious optimism about the ongoing peace process between the government and the FARC guerrillas.
There is certainly good reason to distrust the rebels, but I do believe that a deal between the Juan Manuel Santos administration and the FARC’s Secretariat can be reached. Nevertheless, even if a deal is struck with the Secretariat, it is debatable whether all of their fighting units will respect it.
The positive precedents
Over the past quarter of a century, there have been other successful peace agreements between the Colombian government and guerrilla movements that ended in demobilization. For example, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Colombian governmentstruck dealswith the April 19 Movement (M-19) and Ejército Popular de Liberación (EPL) rebel groups.
It is also worth mentioning the demobilization of non-left leaning armed groups. Namely, President Alvaro Uribe reached a deal in 2006 to demobilize theAutodefensas Unidas de Colombia(AUC). The paramilitaries, under the leadership of Carlos Castaño (now deceased), had been a vital ally of the Colombian armed forces in their struggle against the guerrillas, but several blocs themselves became involved in drug trafficking.
Reasons to distrust the FARC
In spite of some successes with other guerilla movements, there are certainly valid reasons to distrust the FARC should an agreement be reached.
The Andrés Pastrana administration reached a peace agreement with the FARC in the late 1990s. However, rather than utilizing the agreement as a stepping stone to a lasting cease fire and demobilization, the FARC used the territory they controlled thanks to the deal to launch a new offensive.
And therein lies a major cause for apprehension: Can the Colombian government, armed forces, and civilian population really trust that the FARC will stay true to their word?
I remain “cautiously optimistic” about the likelihood of a FARC-Bogota agreement. But the problem is not so much whether the Colombian government and the Secretariat can agree to a permanent cease fire — the issue is whether the FARC’s 8,000 troops, particularly the commanders of its fighting units, which are divided intoBloquesandFrentes, will respect such a deal. Some FARC groups are heavily involved in drug trafficking and profit handsomely from it, particularly theBloque Sur.
Should a peace agreement be reached, there is doubt that we can trust all of the guerrilla commanders to demobilize. We will likely see the fractionalization of the FARC into smaller violent organizations that are financed by drug trafficking andextortionof mining operations.
The Colombian government has often hailed the successful demobilization of rebels over the past decades, including high-ranking FARC commanders such as Alberto de Jesús Morales (aka ”El Pajaro”), commander of theFrente 36, who demobilized in February 2011. Indeed, the FARC may only currently be willing to join the negotiation table because they are severely weakened, as they have seen a decrease to 8,000 fighters from 16,000 a decade ago.
Bogota is capable of handling the demobilization of the FARC’s current fighting force so that it reintegrates into society, but it is questionable if all of the guerillas will want to demobilize and give up their criminal activities. A precedent for this occurred with the AUC.
After the paramilitaries demobilized, many of its members created smaller criminal organizations, known in Colombia as theBandas Criminales(BACRIM). Such groups includeLos RastrojosandLos Urabeños. This supports the argument that FARCFrentesmight not respect a peace agreement but rather continue their criminal operations.
A precedent for the future
President Santos is under pressure to accomplish some kind of peace deal with the FARC before 2014, when Colombia will have new presidential elections. He is planning to run for re-election and hopes to utilize a successful agreement with Colombia’s largest insurgent movement as an electoral weapon. Theoretically, such an accomplishment would secure his re-election bid.
However, the FARC know this very well, and have made it clear that they will not be pressured into a peace agreement or be forced to follow any deadlines set by Bogota. If the government fails to reach some agreement, this may arguably undercut Santos’ bid for re-election, as he has made the peace negotiations the cornerstone of his presidency.
Colombia is enjoying huge economic growth and has become a darling of the international community, as exemplified by the creation of the Pacific Alliance (which recently hosted a summit in the Colombian city of Cali). But economic success alone may not be enough to secure Santos a new presidential term.
Meanwhile, even if some kind oflasting agreementis reached with the FARC, it is questionable whether all of the FARC’s field commanders will abide by it. As previously discussed, we may see the FARC fraction, which may or may not be more of a security problem than if the FARC continues to exist as a single entity.
Moreover, the FARC is only one of many criminal organizations operating in Colombia, including the previously mentioned BACRIM. In addition, there is the question of whether the possible success of the peace negotiations between Bogota and the FARC may set the stage for a similar future agreement between the government and theEjercito de Liberacion Nacional(ELN), Colombia’s other guerrilla movement — which has around 3,000 fighters.
The Colombian peace process is a complicated and sensitive issue. Nevertheless, one can only hope that a negotiated and peaceful solution can be achieved in this decades-long conflict.