Update (April 4, 2012): This week, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) released ten police and military hostages that it had been holding for more than thirteen years. This was an important step toward fulfilling President Juan Manuel Santos' preconditions for dialogue with the guerrillas. It is unclear whether those negotiations will start soon, but even relative progress on this front could reduce the suffering of civilians caught in the crossfire of the insurgency -- an objective worthy of pursuing even if a full peace agreement cannot reached.


Ten years ago, in February 2002, former Colombian President Andrés Pastrana broke off negotiations with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a group of Marxist guerrillas that had been fighting the government since 1964, and ordered security forces back on the attack. That May, Bogotá then suspended dialogue with the country's other major Marxist insurgency, the National Liberation Army (ELN). The public, military command, and business community had lost faith in the deliberations; atrocities at the hands of paramilitary forces with links to politicians and the armed forces had poisoned the process. For their parts, the insurgents had proven unreliable negotiators, with skirmishes and kidnappings continuing throughout the talks.

As negotiations broke down, Bogotá and Washington decided to focus instead on the U.S. assistance package to Colombia known as Plan Colombia. Originally conceived in 1998, it was designed as a kind of "Marshall Plan" for addressing the social and economic inequities that fuel the insurgency. The original $1.3 billion package also contained a sizeable military training component, which was intended to modernize the Colombian security forces.

Ten years, $8 billion of U.S. assistance, and a renewed focus on the counterinsurgency and counternarcotics aspects of the program later, Plan Colombia has made some progress on the tactical front. The Colombian armed forces -- which have grown to over 400,000 -- are no longer perceived, as they were in the final days of the talks, to be losing the war. The Colombian military has targeted and eliminated key insurgent leaders and the country appears relatively stable. Both insurgencies have issued repeated public calls for dialogue.

But the progress has come at a tremendous social cost. In the last decade, the violence has taken an awful toll on Afro-Colombians, indigenous people, peasants, and the urban poor. Colombia now has five million internally displaced persons, more than any other country in the world. They are mostly from rural areas and have fled to urban shantytowns to escape rampant drug-related violence and fumigation. Meanwhile, Colombian courts are investigating some 2,547 cases in which the armed forces recruited civilians, murdered them, and then disguised them as guerrillas and claimed their deaths as combat kills -- all to give the appearance of battlefield success. Prosecutors are investigating 27,000 cases of forced disappearances, a crime against humanity (under the Rome Statute of the International Court) that occurs when a person is secretly abducted by the government and is usually murdered. Impunity remains the norm for up to half a million Colombian women who have been victims of rampant sexual violence.

Beyond that, guerrilla operations by the insurgencies never ended. And today, the country's security situation is deteriorating as FARC continues to demonstrate broad, if indecisive, operational capacity. It recently killed eleven soldiers in Arauca and has conducted several attacks in the departments of Caquetá, Cauca, Chocó, and Nariño over the last month. Last week, Colombian security forces responded with surgical strikes that left 32 guerrillas dead in Arauca and 36 in Meta. The upsurge in combat occurred even though both sides agreed to a brief ceasefire next week during which the FARC is supposed to release the remaining ten police and military hostages it has held since 1998. 

For his part, Juan Manuel Santos, Colombia's current president, has attempted to supplement the military strategy with attempts to address the social underpinnings of the conflict. He personally worked toward the 2011 passage of the Land Restitution and Victims' Law, to redress human rights violations of the last decades and, in a refreshing display of leadership, has skirted the inflammatory language of his predecessor, who often associated civil society, peace, and human rights advocacy with support for the insurgents. In addition, although there is still much work to be done, Bogotá has developed considerable social programs, including Acción Social and the Departamento para la Prosperidad Social, to lessen the suffering of the millions of displaced persons.

Meanwhile, Santos has kept the possibility of peace talks alive. In his August 2010 inaugural address, he stated that the "door to peace is not closed." Since then, he has articulated a series of preconditions for dialogue, including that the FARC free all its hostages and hold to a cease-fire. (Of course, these would normally be achievements of a negotiation process, not prerequisites to one.) Twenty months into his first term, however, Santos insists that he alone will determine the appropriate time to pursue peace. This position unfortunately precludes Colombian civil society from participation in a process that could positively reshape national political life, as has occurred in Guatemala, Northern Ireland, and South Africa.

With approval ratings consistently topping 80 percent (with the exception of a recent short-lived dip to 67 percent following a series of FARC attacks in February) Santos would seem to have the political capital to lead the negotiations debate. But not acting may prove costly: a recent Gallup poll indicated that public disapproval over his handling of the insurgencies has risen, from 18 percent when he took office to 55 percent today, as has disapproval of his attempts to address public insecurity (from 36 percent to 68 percent). And 53 percent of Colombians polled noted their support for a negotiated solution. In other words, with Colombians supporting dialogue, former presidents and opposition parties proposing engagement, and both FARC and ELN calling for a negotiated solution, Santos cannot stall forever. He could risk losing out on a second term if voters perceive him as failing to protect Colombians while waiting for just the right political conditions for dialogue.

The Obama administration, too, has been slow to revise Washington's long-standing strategy toward the insurgency. To date, it has focused mainly on passing a Free Trade Agreement, which is one of Bogotá's policy priorities, and coordinates most of its development assistance with the Colombian government's own military consolidation programs. Washington has also followed Santos' lead regarding negotiations. With reason, U.S. policymakers have had deep doubts about FARC's seriousness in pursuing a negotiated solution. In February 1999, FARC murdered three U.S. citizens who were working with indigenous groups in Boyacá as the peace talks began. The ELN has a similar history, including kidnapping and cooperating with drug traffickers. 

But with the conflict drawing on and both insurgencies weakened, it is time to work seriously toward a negotiated solution. The benefits -- for both Colombia and the United States -- are many. First, an orderly demobilization of the 8,000 FARC and up to 2,000 ELN fighters is preferable to their fragmenting into potentially hundreds more criminal, drug-trafficking groups. Second, unlike in 2002, Colombia would now be negotiating with the insurgents from a position of strength. FARC is no longer demanding a combat-free zone and has recently declared that it will end the practice of kidnapping (something that will need to be demonstrated and verified). Finally, the Colombian government estimates that two percent of growth is lost each year due to the armed conflict. With that money freed up, the government could better address the country's social ills.

The United States, too, could benefit from reconsidering its stance on Colombia. As a longtime ally of Colombia with a substantial investment in Plan Colombia, Washington is susceptible to criticism for the current state of the country. Engaging in dialogue would be both a better long-term policy and a more publicly justifiable undertaking. Dialogue could also help the United States focus on its own goal of reducing the illicit narcotics industry, which could be separated out from the mission of ending the insurgencies. In addition, negotiations could encourage a less polarized political culture with less violence against trade unionists (progress on which is a stipulation for free-trade certification).

Without a peace agenda, the world will continue to witness unnecessary human suffering from a conflict that prevents Colombia and the United States from achieving their social development, antinarcotics, free-trade, human rights, and democratization goals. Colombians have demonstrated their capacity to negotiate with and demobilize insurgencies. Even an initial agreement, enforced by international monitoring, could reduce the effects of the conflict on civilians, as the Comprehensive Agreement did in Guatemala in 1994. With conditions now favoring renewed dialogue, both the Colombian and U.S. governments should stop putting off developing an encompassing, multilateral peace strategy to end the 50-year civil war.

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  • MILBURN LINE is Executive Director of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice at the University of San Diego. From 2007-2009 he managed a U.S. government funded human rights project in Colombia that directly supported Colombian government, state, and civil society organizations working to protect human rights.
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