Struggling for Peace in Colombia

Exclusive: Normally, peace negotiators end a conflict first and then examine the war crimes later. But the long-running civil war in Colombia has such a secretive and brutal history that efforts to cease the fighting began with an investigation of the slaughter,  writes Andrés Cala.

By Andrés Cala

After more than half a century of civil war with 220,000 dead and millions of others wounded or displaced Colombia has entered what can be described as a year of reckoning before it has to decide whether to pursue a lasting peace or to resume running up its infamous tally of bloodshed.

The one-year time frame refers to the time in office left for President Juan Manuel Santos, unless he’s reelected. That is not to say he’s the savior of peace. Reconciliation doesn’t depend solely on him, although he has become a vital player.  The timing relates more to the political realities of Colombia.

Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos.

Its citizens will not accept another endless peace process with the country’s strongest insurgents, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (or FARC). And peace efforts, with the FARC and others, could end Aug. 7, 2014, when the victor of next May elections is sworn in.

But the real deadline is even closer. Santos and all other actors, including those from the civil society, set a timeframe at the onset of peace talks with the FARC which expires by the end of this year at the latest, and November is the target to announce an agreement. Anything after that would just drag negotiations into the political campaign, strengthening the anti-peace front led by former President Alvaro Uribe who has promised to break off talks and defeat the FARC through military means.

“There are some who apparently prefer more years of conflict, more years of pain and death, to the possibility of peace,” Santos said this week in clear reference to Uribe.

There have been three failed peace negotiations with the FARC, each of them ending in intensified war and strengthening those who favor a military endgame. The FARC is an 8,000-strong, well-armed and well-trained guerrilla army that since the end of the last peace process in 2002 has lost most of its top leaders. But it hasn’t capitulated and while its chances of victory are slim to impossible it could rely on the flow of drug money to prolong the war for years.

Moreover, the FARC is just one of dozens of actors in Colombia’s conflict that are financed, in one way or another, by the drug trade. The conflict is often less ideological than economic with the various sides competing for control of territory.

As difficult as any negotiation would be, a peace deal with the FARC would mark just the beginning of a demobilization and integration into the nation’s political process. An agreement also would set in motion other parts of the complex process of pacifying Colombia, starting with the unanswered question of what to do about gross human rights violators, of which there are hundreds, if not thousands, many of whom remain involved in decision-making in the political and military spheres.

The state is not strong enough to pacify the country alone after decades of constant bloodshed and a long list of failed remedies. But peace must start somewhere and somehow, even in Colombia. And that will require a political mandate that has to be arranged before the year ends.

Mea Culpa

Unlike most other peace processes in modern history, Santos decided to start with truth, otherwise called historic memory, rather than with an end to the conflict first followed by a truth commission, the course that is most common in Latin America. Colombia, especially the state, refused for years to face its past, with millions of people denied the very basic acknowledgement that they have been victims, not just combatants.

It also must be accepted that the violence in Colombia has sprung from economic and social disparities. It won’t matter if the FARC combatants sign a peace deal if the root causes of the conflict remain unresolved. That means addressing land reform, institutionally-sanctioned inequality, and a vicious cycle of hate and revenge.

Bluntly put, the FARC has not been the cause of Colombia’s conflict, as Uribe and his supporters insist, but a byproduct of the state’s inability to address structural inequities that have given rise to right-wing paramilitaries, organized crime and other guerrilla forces.

The United States, United Nations, European Union, Latin American neighbors and just about all rational observers have long recognized this, but getting the message through to Colombians and their leadership has been next to impossible because those who benefit from war have controlled the debate much more than those who work for peace.

That is why Santos’s decision to commission an independent report on Colombia’s conflict was a prerequisite to any lasting peace with the FARC and other actors.

The nearly 500-page document delivered in July about the horrors of the war since 1958 estimated 220,000 dead, almost 180,000 of them civilians; nearly 5 million displaced; 25,000 disappeared; and 28,000 kidnappings. The report also included gruesome testimonies from victims and concluded that the worst of the war began in 1990 and covered the two administrations of Uribe, starting in 2002.

By far, most atrocities were committed by paramilitary forces, followed by guerrillas, and the state. But the report is also unequivocal is pointing to the state’s complicity in paramilitary crimes by allowing armed groups sponsored by rich landlord patrons to purge 65,000 square kilometers, an area larger than West Virginia.

The report highlights that 80 percent of congressmen investigated for paramilitary crimes belonged to Uribe’s coalition, including his cousin. Most of Uribe’s closest aides are being investigated or have been already convicted, although Uribe himself retains immunity from courts as a former president for any crime, even before he was president.

The Road Ahead

No two wars are the same, but the complexities of Colombia’s conflict have made peace especially illusive. It’s not as simple as negotiating an end to brutal communist insurgencies and right-wing paramilitaries, which itself would not be simple.

Peace in Colombia requires monumental economic, political, institutional and societal corrections, from land reform and income distribution to disarming literally tens of thousands of battle-hardened combatants, generations of them in fact, defending a wide spectrum of causes and economic interests. And most of them have little or no incentive to give up their arms, especially following a history of targeted assassination of those who do.

Even with a FARC accord, violence will continue, especially during the election year. It’s no coincidence that during first half of 2013 more human rights activists and civil society leaders have been assassinated as paramilitaries have tried to derail peace talks. Peace needs momentum and oxygen or else it will collapse under the pressure of so many parties that would benefit from simply extending the bloody status quo, most importantly the multi-billion-dollar narcotic and arms industries.

Around 60 percent of Colombians support peace talks, according to polls, but the support is conditional on a deal being signed this year. Santos, who won the presidency largely thanks to Uribe’s support, remains personally popular though most Colombians oppose his reelection.

Uribe, who can’t seek election again, retains his own substantial popularity and has severed ties with Santos. Uribe has vowed to field a candidate to end peace talks. So, ultimately, the elections will become a referendum on peace.

Andrés Cala is an award-winning Colombian journalist, columnist and analyst specializing in geopolitics and energy. He is the lead author of America’s Blind Spot: Chávez, Energy, and US Security.