John Vizcaino / Reuters Demonstrators protest against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) as they ask for changes to a peace agreement between FARC and President Juan Manuel Santos' government in Bogota, Colombia, April 2016.

No Cheap Talk

Colombia's Risky Push for Peace

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,

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