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On March 30, 2016, the Colombian government announced that it had begun formal negotiations over disarmament with the National Liberation Army (ELN), the country’s second-largest armed group. The start of official talks with the ELN gave new impetus to the government’s peace efforts, which had stalled after three and a half years of inconclusive talks with the country’s main resistance group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
Yet there is reason to remain cautious. The written framework for the negotiation refers only to broad subject areas such as “Democracy for Peace” or “Reforms for Peace.” It does not specifically address the demobilization of the armed group. It only mentions that after a cease-fire, “an agreement on the arms of the ELN will be built.” Such wording leaves open significant ambiguity about whether once the talks are over, the guerrilla group will be disarmed. Not easing tensions are the ELN’s radical public statements. One of the organization’s leaders defended kidnapping as “a normal policy. Every government in the world deprives individuals of liberty and has jails.” What’s more, talks are expected to be held in five countries—Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Ecuador, and Venezuela—leaving little doubt that the dialogue will be long and its outcome uncertain.
Meanwhile, the end of negotiations with the FARC and the armed group’s demobilization remain a distant prospect. Over the past 20 months, negotiating teams have focused on reaching an agreement about the terms of a cease-fire, which they hope will eventually give way to the final disarmament of the guerrilla group that the late Manuel Marulanda Vélez (“Tirofijo”) founded 52 years ago. However, the FARC and the Colombian government disagree sharply over what form the truce should take. The FARC demands the creation of numerous large demilitarized zones—around 70—to assemble their combatants during the truce. And the guerrillas have refused to set a precise date for completing their disarmament. By contrast, the Colombian government wants to provide fewer, smaller zones. The government also wants a clear deadline for the complete surrender of the organization’s weapons. To a large extent, the FARC’s resistance to disarming is due to the group’s political weakness. The rural population has widely rejected its leadership, and the FARC fears the loss of the military capability that has allowed it to control peasant communities and pressure the government.
Even if the parties reach a truce soon, they will need to overcome a number of key differences if they are to definitively conclude the talks. The most important one is the FARC’s demand to convene a constituent assembly in order to amend Colombia’s political and economic system to increase its political clout and implement part of its radical populist agenda. So far, the administration of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has rejected this demand because it would grant too much influence to a radical group that has used terrorism to compensate for its lack of popular support. The armed group also wants to discuss canceling Colombia’s Free Trade Agreements with commercial partners such as the United States and the European Union and the government’s ban on land purchases by foreigners. The Santos administration argues that these moves would isolate the Colombian economy and thwart agricultural modernization, dealing a crippling blow to the country’s economic prospects.
For the Colombian government, the biggest challenge will be how to implement the commitments made at the negotiating table until the FARC agrees to a complete and irreversible demobilization. At the moment, the partial agreements reached on agrarian development, political participation, illicit drugs, and victims and transitional justice are vague and do not provide details about where they will be implemented or how many resources they will require. Without such details, the current negotiation will remain incomplete, and another round will likely become necessary. This “negotiation about the negotiation” will probably take place in the context of a cease-fire between the government and the FARC, during which the government will confine guerrilla fighters inside certain areas. Meanwhile, the ELN guerrillas and criminal gangs will remain active throughout the rest of Colombia.
The armed group’s demobilization still remains a distant prospect.
Several additional factors will make things even more difficult. For starters, the dramatic fall in Colombia’s oil revenues will limit the resources available to the state to finance the implementation of any agreement. Likewise, the economic crisis will restrict the government’s ability to sustain its security apparatus and protect the demobilization process. At the same time, the proliferation of coca crops—which increased from 80,500 hectares in 2013 to 159,000 in 2015—will create powerful incentives for a new spiral of violence. In fact, an estimated 420 tons of cocaine production is a big enough reason for some members of the FARC to renounce demobilization to maintain control of the business and for some ELN guerrillas and criminal gangs to launch a violent escalation to seize the illegal industry that until now has largely remained under the control of the FARC. Finally, what happens in Venezuela will bleed over into Colombia; if the neighboring country suffers a collapse in law and order and the government loses control of light weapons stockpiles accumulated by the regime of former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, chaos in Venezuela could destabilize the demobilization of the guerrillas, particularly in border regions.
So the prospects for the peace talks in Colombia are grim. The Santos administration has intended the talks with the FARC and the ELN to open a transition process that will demobilize both organizations and reduce violence. But two serious obstacles stand in the way. First, deteriorating economic conditions and security—driven by the fall in the country’s oil revenues as well as the expansion of coca crops—have reduced the attractiveness of the government’s peace offer. Second, the two armed groups now have incentives to delay the dialogue to gain political influence before abandoning weapons to avoid the risk of political humiliation.
Unfortunately, the Santos administration has also made several key mistakes. The administration was overly optimistic in its assessment of the willingness of the FARC and the ELN to disarm. As a result, it created false expectations that it would reach an agreement quickly. At the same time, the government failed to sustain military pressure on the guerrillas after the start of Santos’ second term in 2014, just when the critical phase of the talks was beginning. Finally, the government politicized the negotiations unnecessarily, for example, by announcing an agreement on transitional justice with the FARC prematurely. This announcement left the government less room to establish an effective system to judge the FARC’s human rights abuses.
Ultimately, what started as a sure bet to lead the country toward peace now seems doomed to harvest more modest results. If the talks lead to a viable agreement that is implemented effectively, the result could be the demobilization of a significant faction of the guerrillas as the state continues to wage a military campaign against the remaining factions. If the commitments made in the negotiations are poorly designed, however, or if inefficiency and corruption undermine their implementation, they will be deeply destabilizing and give the FARC and the ELN reason to break the peace agreement and open opportunities for criminal gangs to gain territorial influence. The outcome would be an escalation of violence in Colombia’s rural areas.
To avoid such an outcome, the Santos administration should increase political and military pressure on the FARC until it abandons its attempt to use the negotiations to change Colombia’s entire political and economic model. The government should look for an agreement that guarantees the FARC’s rapid demobilization and prevents the group from retaining its military capabilities during a prolonged cease-fire. At the same time, the Colombian state should step up the fight against coca cultivation and drug trafficking. But for now, it remains unclear whether the talks will put an end to the mixture of insurgency, organized crime, and vigilante violence that has plagued Colombia for years or whether they will instead unleash a spiral of instability that will plunge the country into a deeper security crisis.