The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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Dancing With the Devil
Published on March 26, 2013

One or two decades ago, Colombia’s seeming endless narco-driven violence topped headlines around the world. But in recent years the country has been receiving much deserved accolades for its economic dynamism and, remarkably, for its sharp turn toward normalcy, measured in part through drastically diminished murder and kidnapping rates. This seemingly transformed country, however, is also attempting to end an increasingly anachronistic guerrilla conflict that has inflicted untold human and economic tolls over the past half-century.

Colombia’s oldest and largest insurgency group, the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia), is now playing a familiar game: sitting down at the negotiating table with the government while continuing its guerrilla warfare out in the country’s vast jungle regions. It’s a bitter reminder that talking peace and making peace are two separate acts. Yet there are deeper and perhaps simpler things at stake—namely the vision of Colombia’s post conflict society—that will determine the outcome of the ongoing peace talks in Havana, Cuba.

In the most recent and most controversial attack carried out by the FARC since it formally ended its 60-day unilateral ceasefire in January, the group kidnapped two police officers, who are still awaiting release as of this writing. Chief FARC negotiator Iván Márquez (his real name is Luciano Marín Arango) had expressed “pain” in his heart at the thought of renewed fighting. Now he defends the guerrilla group’s actions despite its pledge to cease taking hostages for ransom in March 2012. Márquez posits a distinction between economically motivated kidnappings and the capture of “security forces”: Just as in any other conflict, taking “prisoners of war” is fair play.

The Colombian military responded aggressively by killing the commander of FARC’s 5th Front, Jacobo Arango, who was apparently close to Márquez. After the dust settled, the widely read Colombian daily El Tiempo described that time as a “hurricane” for the talks. The abductions have sparked fury among Colombian government officials and distracted all parties from the issues on the multiple-point agenda, which include land reform, political participation, disarmament, reparations for victims and, amazingly, counternarcotics.

Firefights and kidnappings aside, the peace talks are not on the verge of collapse, despite aggressively negative rhetoric from both sides about leaving the table and the need to “save” the talks. The chances for a successful outcome did look bleak indeed, until a breakthrough on Sunday, March 3. Discussions surrounding the issue of agrarian reform alone had bogged negotiators down, but finally a concrete agreement emerged that includes a large-scale seizure of land from drug traffickers; a much needed update of the records (called a “cadastre”) of lands in the country; and a limit on agricultural development. FARC and the government have now been at this complicated and delicate dance for five months, and until the recent accord it had been proceeding at a pace comparable to the rhythm of the mambo, according to FARC spokesman Jesus Santrich. Perhaps this description is fitting not only because the mambo is originally a Cuban baile, but also because its tempo is known to be “subdued but accelerated.” Call it confusing or even oxymoronic, but given that each side is keen on preserving a dignified public image, such veiled language can enable real diplomatic solutions. Neither side wants to appear to be sacrificing too much, too soon. A crucial part of this dance, like any other, is timing, and each side has its own vision of how the process should unfold.

All of the frustrating rhetorical give-and-take has led a seasoned U.S. diplomat at the embassy in Bogotá to accuse the FARC of “living in a time-capsule”, talking as though they are still in the heady ideological days of 1960s and 70s. However, this attitude—along with the casual dress code that accompanies it—has worked to the FARC’s advantage in the public relations battle, attracting the attention of the international media and contrasting sharply with the starched, bureaucratic look of the government negotiators. Another U.S. official noted that to make any real progress toward peace, the FARC needs to stop throwing insults and begin talking about concrete next steps regarding disarmament or demobilization, and solid agreements need to come out of each negotiation block. The recent accord on agrarian reform was the certainly the most positive development to date. El Tiempo had called that issue the “Gordian knot” of the peace talks. However, it is only the first of the five items on the official agenda of the dialogue. According to the deadline set by President Juan Manuel Santos, all are to be resolved by November of this year.

This is certainly not the first time that a Colombian government has tried to bring an end to the conflict with the FARC, a Marxist insurgency that has been causing trouble since 1964. Its bloody struggle with paramilitary enemies for decades killed thousands and displaced hundreds of thousands of Colombians. It also echoed the even older, seemingly endless rivalry between the two traditional political factions, the liberals and conservatives. With this historical context of violent conflict perhaps ingrained into Colombian identity, perhaps it is no surprise that the three previous attempts at peace have utterly failed.

There was some apparent success in talks during the administration of President Belisario Betancur (1982–86), in which the FARC formed a legitimate political party called the Unión Patriótica under the terms of the Uribe Accords. But the subsequent years saw over 1,000 of its followers massacred, mostly by narco-financed paramilitary squads. In the most recent set of talks (1998–2002), the FARC was granted a Maryland-sized territory known as the despeje, but only used it to train members and amass weaponry; the result was a nation torn apart by war and increasingly sick of the FARC’s brutality and deception. Despite the sort of lofty rhetoric that could have been cropped from the publications of human rights groups like Amnesty International, the FARC currently enjoy infinitesimal public support. That is, in this conflict they have unequivocally lost the hearts and minds of Colombians.

However, the administration of the past decade under hard-line conservative Álvaro Uribe did a controversial but ultimately successful job of regaining control of the country, undeniably with the help of immense sums of money. In 2002 he levied a “war tax” on the Colombian elites that raised almost $4 billion over four years, and received close to $8 billion in U.S. aid as part of a joint U.S.-Colombian strategy called Plan Colombia. That’s a substantial amount of money, but it pales in comparison to the $800 billion that the U.S. spent in Iraq since the invasion in 2003. And if Washington didn’t have a willing and capable local counterpart in the Colombian government, even $800 billion wouldn’t have made the dent in violence that $8 billion did. Even at its peak, though, U.S. aid never provided more than 6 percent of the Colombian government’s “hard” (military) budget, and now that number has dropped to less than 2 percent. As counterintuitive as it may seem, it is in the interest of U.S. policy for Colombians to receive the bulk of the credit, which, remarkably, they in fact deserve. The source of the funding notwithstanding, it is clear that the Colombian military swelled in both size and lethality during Uribe’s time as president. Under his watch, mission after mission deployed precision-guided missiles and commando raids to decimate the FARC’s leadership ranks, once believed to be impregnable.

Uribe’s decidedly hawkish Minister of Defense, Juan Manuel Santos, succeeded him in 2010 and officially announced two years later that the time was right yet again to try to make peace with the FARC. One could interpret this as an indirect vindication of the initially maligned Plan Colombia approach. The plan’s detractors perhaps failed to understand that Colombia desperately needed to swallow the bitter pill of militarization to truly set the FARC on its heels before peace could be so close at hand. However, the two sides have taken conflicting lessons from previous attempts at making amends. The Colombian government has vowed not repeat the naive mistake of the despeje debacle from a decade ago that allowed the guerrillas to run wild with no reciprocal concessions on their part. The FARC is fearful of post-peace reprisals that they believe lead to the deaths of so many of their comrades in the 1980s.

The two sides may yet come to a peace accord, and precedents such as the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland or the ETA disarmament in Spain give a sense of what it might look like. But no one should harbor illusions that this would mean lasting peace in Colombia. Following their official demobilization in 2003, legions of the country’s reprehensible paramilitary forces simply regrouped as far less political but highly criminal bandas criminales (called “bacrim”). Even if the FARC signs a formal agreement and many of its legions lay down their weapons, analysts estimate that upwards of a third of the “former” guerrilla ranks will continue their illicit ways in narcotics trafficking, illegal mining and the like. The FARC representatives who would enter politics and contest for office are unlikely to win much popular support given their already low esteem in the public eye, but the activities of the legions of unofficial FARC rank-and-file are more worrisome and more lethal.

An astute observer might ask why Bogotá is even sitting down to talks when the FARC has been so severely set back on the battlefield. Indeed, the military power of the FARC has been more than halved since its apogee in 2001 (from about 16,000 fighters to fewer than 8,000 now, according to Colombia’s Defense Ministry), and natural causes and targeted Colombian military strikes have taken out four members of the seven-man Secretariat. However, the FARC has shown that it can still be a spoiler for the government, especially with regard to the Santos administration’s herculean task of expanding what it calls “consolidation”, bringing the rule-of-law to previously ungoverned territory (what the U.S government refers to in Afghanistan as “clear, hold and build”). The nature of the guerrilla threat has changed, as evidenced by the FARC’s newfound habit of attacking infrastructure such as oil and gas pipelines and electricity towers, which are critical drivers of the country’s tenuous economic upswing. In that respect, the Colombia of the future ought to downsize its military and upgrade its police capacity in order to properly confront the shifting menace.

Wary of a bad outcome amid so many mixed signals, most commentators speak of the peace talks with sober optimism rather than mild pessimism. The deeper, age-old tension, however, is between peace and justice. How much justice or truth is Colombia willing to forgo for the sake of an expedient end to the violence? Where must the government draw the line between punishing guerrillas for their crimes and giving them a chance to demobilize and re-enter society? It is in balancing justice and peace, retribution and amnesty, that we will necessarily find the convergence of the goals of both sides of the table.

What the FARC says it wants, primarily, is the assurance of both safety for its members (to avoid the catastrophe of the 1980s) and of a place in the political game (at least the veneer of power and relevance). A deep-seated fear lies beneath all of their posturing. FARC leaders certainly sense that the threat of prison for life is real, perhaps even as likely as the possibility of civilian life and political participation. The Colombian government stands to earn a place in the history books—and a Nobel Prize for Santos—despite the somber reality that a formal peace ensures neither social stability nor less criminality. Colombia has come a long way in the past decade, but it is still Colombia, not Copenhagen or even Costa Rica.

In truth, the Santos government, with one eye ever watchful of a May 2014 presidential election date, cannot lose here. If these peace talks founder, Santos will have a mandate to heavily scale up military operations and destroy the FARC. But peace would undoubtedly be preferable. After all, among the agenda items the critical issues are disarmament and political participation; the drug trade simply isn’t going away, and last year Santos shrewdly took the political high ground with laws pertaining to land reform and victims reparation. As the FARC and the Colombian government attempt to solve those two, they will inevitably be wrestling with the tension between justice and peace. And although there are sure to be more moments of pain ahead for the government and guerrilla negotiators, let us hope that none of them ends in heartbreak.

Russell Crandall has returned to his teaching post at Davidson College after a stint as Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs at the National Security Council. His latest book is The United States and Latin America After the Cold War (Cambridge University Press, 2008). Paul DiFiore, a political science major at Davidson, is researching the nexus between international criminal organizations and guerrilla insurgencies in Latin America and the Middle East. Their research for this article, conducted in Colombia, was generously supported by the Duke Endowment’s Group Investigations Program.