Five Common Misunderstandings of War and Peace in Colombia

A child walks in a peace parade in Colombia 14 June as part of preparations for the release of 70 soldiers being held by FARC. Photo: AFP

Ten years after the end of the last serious attempt to reach a political settlement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), fresh peace negotiations between the government and the guerrillas will begin in Oslo later this month. The talks have better chances to prosper than past peace attempts, but there are some daunting obstacles, including political resistance or possible violence from spoilers (as analysed in our recent Colombia: Peace at Last?).

A set of commonly held ideas over the driving forces behind the five-decades-old conflict, its effects on the country, and the reasons for the repeated failure of peace talks could make success even harder to achieve. Misunderstandings such as the ones discussed below are not just unwarranted simplifications; they have practical implications too, as they condition what could and should be offered to the guerrillas as well as which steps should be taken to build the lasting peace which has proven elusive for so long.

1. FARC are Terrorists and Drug traffickers

The idea that FARC are a criminal group, rather than a politically motivated guerrilla movement, has been gaining ground since the 1980s. On the back of FARC’s increasing involvement in the illegal drug-economy, the group have since been referred to as “narco-guerrillas”. In 1997, the US designated FARC a terrorist organisation, a move that was followed by the EU in 2002. This has allowed Colombian governments (and their international partners) to link the counter-guerrilla warfare to the global war on terrorism, and it has further curtailed FARC’s political space. Critics of the upcoming peace talks regularly refer to the FARC’s organised criminal activities and its classification as a terrorist group to reject any attempt at negotiations that go beyond an agreement on the terms of demobilisation, disarmament and reintegration.

There is little doubt that the guerrillas are involved in the drug economy well beyond the imposition of a tax on buyers of coca paste, the only link to the drugs trade to which FARC leaders have admitted. FARC has also partially used tactics that could be labelled “terrorist”. But this does not imply that FARC is an entirely criminal group. In fact, the involvement in drug-trafficking activities and other organised criminal operations, such as extortion or illegal gold mining, is uneven across the organisation. Unlike a purely criminal organisation, FARC invests at least part of the profits derived from those activities into financing military operations directed against state institutions. Moreover, FARC’s leadership and some of its Front commanders have maintained an intensely political discourse, and they have been unequivocal that they will not consider simply surrendering.

Recognising that there is more to the conflict with FARC than just greed and crime ultimately suggests a different path to conflict resolution. Under this perspective, talks are not exclusively aimed at the demise of the guerrillas. Rather, upcoming talks should be seen as a necessary step to end the armed confrontations and thus create the conditions under which sustainable peace can be constructed in a participatory effort.

2. Conflict is rooted in drug trafficking dynamics

Income derived from drug-trafficking has been instrumental in financing the activities of all illegal armed groups, including FARC. This has fostered the impression that, as long there is drug-trafficking, Colombia cannot be at peace.

Drug-trafficking is doubtless an important factor in explaining the increase in violence since the 1980s, but the drug-economy is not a cause of the conflict. In many regions, for instance in the Caguán area of the southern Caquetá department, coca cultivation had begun before the guerrillas had consolidated their territorial control. Illicit cultivation could generally prosper in marginalised areas of Colombia’s vast agricultural frontier on land that lacked market access and which was often barely suitable for food production. These regions were often populated to a large degree by peasants who, since the 1950s, have fled their home regions over partisan political violence. Coca cultivations should therefore ultimately been seen in part as a consequence of Colombia’s failed rural development, itself one of the origins of the conflict.

This is not to deny that the drug-economy will likely be an obstacle for ending violence. As in past demobilisation processes, a deal with the government is likely to fail to convince some FARC elements who might show little enthusiasm for exchanging a viable business for an uncertain future in the legal economy, for which a large number of fighters are utterly unprepared. But if this happens, it would not necessarily invalidate the peace process. The demise of the guerrillas as an armed group with political grievances and their transformation into regular political actors would just make Colombia look a lot like other countries in South and Central America, where violence is overwhelmingly criminal in nature and often linked to drug-trafficking.

3. The prospect of new peace talks has caused security to deteriorate

The new negotiations come against the background of a deteriorated security situation. The number of offensive military operations from FARC has increased. Sabotage acts from the guerrillas have hit the oil industry particularly hard, and extortion throughout the economic sector remains rampant in FARC strongholds. According to one widespread interpretation, this is because President Santos has, since his first day in office, stressed that he was open to new peace talks. This prospect has supposedly reinvigorated the guerrillas, while at the same time reducing the combat morale of regular troops, who reportedly no longer see any point in putting their lives on the line.

This is based on a selective interpretation of security developments. In fact, some central indicators of violence show continued improvement. The homicide rate in 2011 — 32 100,000 inhabitants — was the lowest in decades, even though it remains above the regional average. Moreover, the trend of increasing FARC attacks had already started during the last years of the Uribe administration and thus precedes Santos’s move to peace talks. What this trend reflects is not so much a weakening of the government war effort as the capacity of the guerrillas to adapt to a new strategic environment and the failure of government to solve the economic and social problems that bese t Colombia’s conflict regions.

4. The conflict is no longer a major burden on the country.

Independently of the success of the Oslo and Cuba talks, there is a perception that Colombia is already on the way to the post-conflict stage. Foreign investment, mostly in the booming primary sector, has reached record levels. Rating agencies have again awarded Colombia the coveted investment grade status. And being fought in increasingly remote rural areas, the conflict seemingly no longer impacts the urban centres of the country’s Andean valleys in which are concentrated the bulk of population and economic power. The often only visible consequences of the conflict are the extended marginalised urban neighbourhoods where a large number of displaced people live having fled the violence in the countryside.

Although security policies under Uribe and Santos have reduced the economic burden of the conflict on the country, the confrontation continues to be very costly for all involved. Relative to the size of its economy,Colombia is (together with Chile) Latin America’s top military spender.  Violence associated with the conflict has impeded the consolidation of a truly pluralistic democracy, in particular at the local level. Land purchases by drug-traffickers and forced displacements carried out by paramilitaries have violently reconfigured Colombia’s countryside, exacerbating long-standing problems of inequitable land tenure and rural development. The violence has also had a large negative impact on human development, making it even harder to reduce the sky high social and economic inequalities that have formed the backdrop of the conflict.

These problems can hardly be redressed overnight, but a peace deal with FARC would likely give the country a far better chance of coming to grips with them.

5. Previous negotiations failed because FARC lacked the willingness to make peace

Since 1982, all Colombian presidents have undertaken more or less far-reaching efforts to strike a political deal with FARC to no avail. The repeated failure has left deep scars, entrenching the distrust towards the guerrillas, who are overwhelmingly blamed for the breakdown of successive peace attempts (in stark contrast to FARC’s own narrative that scapegoats the government for peace failures).  Possibly the most traumatic failure was that of the Caguán talks (1999-2002), when FARC used a vast demilitarised zone to rest, build combat strength and launch operations. The Pastrana administration (1998-2002) ended these talks following the kidnapping, at the hand of FARC, of the Senate’s peace commission president.

FARC doubtless misused the opportunity of peace talks for its own strategic purposes. There is no guarantee that this will not happen again, but there are also reasons to think FARC might behave differently this time around. Following a decade of intense counterinsurgency warfare, the government’s military advantage is possibly irreversible, a stark contrast to the situation during the Caguán talks, which took place at the height of FARC’s military power. For both sides, there is much at stake, but the current correlation of forces means that FARC has arguably more to lose than the government: should these negotiations run aground and should the failure be blamed on FARC, the guerrillas can anticipate a future of increased military pressure, internal tensions and possibly complete political irrelevance.

It is also important to acknowledge that FARC’s intransigence has not been the only cause for the failure of previous peace attempts. Government mistakes in the handling of negotiations, violence from spoilers, including from paramilitaries supported by rogue parts of security forces, coordination problems between politicians and the armed forces, as well as competition between different guerrilla groups have also contributed to the failure of previous talks.

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Christian Voelkel

Author: Christian Voelkel

Christian Voelkel is the Colombia/Andes Analyst based in Bogotá. He joined Crisis Group in January 2011 as an analyst with the Colombia/Andes Project. Previously, he was a Latin America analyst in the Security, Economics and Country Risk Group at IHS Global Insight in London. Christian studied at the universities of Leipzig and Berlin and the École normale supérieure in Paris. He completed his Ph.D. dissertation in political science at Bremen University.