Roadblocks to peace – past and present challenges for a permanent peace in Colombia

Photo by Jan Boesten (copyright). Judicial Palace, Bogota. November 2012

Photo by Jan Boesten (copyright). Judicial Palace, Bogota. November 2012

June 24, 2013
By Jan Boesten, PhD Candidate, Department of Political Science at the University of British Columbia.

With Hugo Chavez’s election last year, the recurrence of his illness and eventual death from cancer, the world’s attention focused on questions over the future of the Bolivarian revolution when it came to Latin American issues. Consequently, somewhat less noticed was the process under way in Havana, which might have just as deep implications for the stability of the region: the peace process between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, better known by its Spanish acronym FARC, and the Colombian government.  For the first months – the negotiations started in October of last year – news reports on the peace process were pushed to the bottom of online news pages (or back pages, if you have a taste for vintage). Such neglect is surprising, given the tenacity of the “low intensity” conflict in Colombia.

As the dialogue in Havana made progress over the last couple months, we saw a resurgence of reports in several news magazines such as the Guardian, BBC, or the Economist. Unfortunately what is missing in some of these reports is the complex history of violence in Colombia; spanning more than six decades and tying different actors together and juxtaposing others in deadly opposition. This is inauspicious, because a more substantiated comprehension of Colombia’s violent history makes very obvious the potential pitfalls that lie in the peace process. The FARC’s pugnacious posture and its relation to the drug trade certainly are the most reiterated obstacles to peace, but they are far from the only ones. History has shown that the political reintegration and land reform benefitting the displaced population at the cost of large landowners are just as big barriers to overcome. The willingness of this sector of Colombian society and the ability of the state to apply the commitments made in Havana will soon come to a test. The negotiations started with a five point agenda involving land issues, participation in politics, drug trafficking, disarmament and reparation for conflict victims (the text can be found here). So far the biggest break through was announced on May 26 of this year, when both sides agreed on a plan regarding the issue of land reform (the declaration by the government’s chief negotiator Humberto de la Calle from May 26th, can be found here). Land reform is a crucial litmus test, because, historically, Colombia’s land owning elite has fought land reform with all possible means – including illegal ones such as paramilitary death squads – victimizing millions of Colombians. Time will tell whether the Colombian state has succeeded in becoming an autonomous actor that can impose its imperative even on vested powerful interests.

Understanding the relatively high level of mutual distrust, with which both parties view each other in Havana these days will not work without at least taking a quick glance at Colombia’s turbulent past. Violence dates back to the assassination of Liberal Presidential hopeful Jorge Elicier Gaítan in 1948. The death of the left-liberal populist divided the entire country along conservative and liberal party lines and left more than 200 000 people dead in what is known as La Violencia.

The fighting was appeased – but not terminated – by a power sharing deal between the two parties that itself had fundamental ramifications for the institutional history of Colombia. Occupation of the most important offices alternated between the two main parties. It gave the political system much needed stability and some legitimacy amongst elites, but excluded vast sectors of society that had begun to be politicized and mobilized by the commencing modernization of the country. In the inaccessible rural areas of the country, sections of the left wing of the liberal party formed autonomous communities that continued to be attacked by the armed forces. Fighters in these zones formed the nucleus of the FARC that officially formed in 1964 as a direct consequence of the exclusionary nature of the pacted “democracy”. Their ideological orientation turned from left liberal to openly communist as a reaction to the successful Cuban revolution five years earlier.

Another date of importance to understand the intricateness of the Colombian conflict followed 4 years later. In 1968, the Colombian state legalized, through Law 48, self-defense armies set up by land owning elites as a response to guerrilla attacks. This law was only repealed in 1989, when it became painfully obvious what damage such unaccountable armed groups can cause not only to civilians, but also to civil society and the democratic institutions rooted in its vibrancy.

The final caveat that makes reaching a permanent peace thus difficult is, of course, the impact the international narcotics trade has had and continues to have on the politics and lives of the citizens of the Andean nation. The profits that the export of cocaine generated where so high that drug king pins such as Pablo Escobar of the Medellín Cartel or the Orejuela brothers of the Calí Cartel could finance their own private armies that – utilizing structures built by land owning elites in the country side (legalized by the aforementioned law 64 of 1968) – morphed into the fastest growing armed group: the paramilitaries. The triad nature of the various factions of the conflict in Colombia are crucial for understanding the dynamics of the conflict and failure of the various attempts to reach a stable peace agreement. With the legalization of armed paramilitary groups, the Colombian state had conceded one of its core functions crucial for guaranteeing – among other things – the rule of law and the accountability of its democratic institutions: to establish a clear monopoly of violence.

The FARC, too, benefitted financially from the drug trade. From early on, it taxed narco-traffickers per kilo of cocaine that were exported from territory under its control. Several hundred million dollars generated thusly finance their armed struggle each year. It is possible that the FARC or some sections of the group have become involved more directly in the drug trade and actually organize the export of the narcotics, but this is a point of contention.

The suffering inflicted by this constellation is horrendous and the oftentimes unimaginable suffering behind the numbers of the conflict warrants that the world pays close attention to the peace negotiations that do have the potential to put an end to the world’s longest lasting internal conflict. Since the FARC’s founding in1964, more than 600 00 people were killed and 4 270 massacres took place, between 3.7 and 5 million were displaced, 48.585 people kidnapped (these numbers are from CINEP – a human rights NGO founded by Jesuit priests in 1972). The Colombian weekly La Semana puts the number of victims, who have suffered directly from the conflict since 1985, at 5.5 millions. This amounts to more than 10 percent of the entire Colombian population. In addition, according to the weekly, in 2012 alone 200 000 more Colombians were victimized as a direct consequence of the violence (you can find their victims project here).

This context is essential for understanding what is at stake and it is thus more than unfortunate that some articles that treat the peace discussions do not pay a whole lot of attention to the complexity of the conflict. The usually very well informed The Economist, wrote that “they [the FARC] twice used peace talks as a cynical tactic to regroup, only to try once again to seize power by force”. This is not only factually wrong, but also obfuscates the complicity parts of the Colombian state have had in undermining its own monopoly of violence, as well as attempts to reach a peace deal.

The two previous peace negotiations took place in the early 1980s until 1987 and from 1998 until 2002. While the latter clearly failed, because the FARC used the concessions made by the government to regroup and launch attacks against Colombia’s armed forces, the story was very different in the 1980s. Marc Chernick, Director of the Masters Program of Latin American studies at Georgetown University, wrote: “One of the shoals on which the Colombian process ran aground was the state’s inability to protect the lives of amnestied leaders and the steady descent into lawlessness signified by the assassination of hundreds of political and labor leaders during the cease-fire agreements and the period that followed”.

Prof. Chernick refers to the fate of the political party that could have paved the way for FARC guerrillas to return to civilian life and engage in legal politics – the Union Patriotica (UP). It consisted of demobilized guerrillas, left-wing politicians, union activists, and students from the left. In a politicide, over 3000 party activists were murdered in killing sprees that not only involved illegal elements from the drug trade, but also members of the state, such as the internal security service, DAS (Departamento Adminstrativo de Seguridad). Most FARC guerrillas returned to clandestiny when the second Presidential candidate, Bernadillo Amarillo, was assassinated by paramilitaries paid by drug lords associated with land owners. Repeatedly, the state was unable, and in many instances unwilling, to protect the demobilized guerrilla and live up to its commitments.

The history of the UP makes plausible, why the FARC is and has been reluctant to engage in a peace process. However, the Santos government, too, has reasons to be suspicious of the FARC, because of the fate of the peace negotiations from 1998 until 2002. The FARC let the peace negotiations fail due to its own hubris and arrogance. Delirious from its military strength, the FARC rejected even the Colombian constitution itself (which was the result with other guerrilla groups in 1990s and enjoyed far reaching legitimacy due to its progressive nature). Most infamously, the FARC lost all potential civil society support that might have been left by employing kidnapping and indiscriminate attacks (not only against the state, but also civil society organizations) as strategies of their struggle.

Thus, the question is: will the FARC’s hubris and intransigence pose the biggest threat to peace in the Andean republic or will the state’s debility be more harmful to lasting peace? A worrying detail of the last two decades is that Colombia has experienced a climax of parainstitutionalization, by which the functioning of its democratic institutions and, most importantly, the rule of law is gravely undermined by informal institutions rooted in particular interests. This co-optation undermined deliberative institution to the extent that they have become unable to solve collection problems. Only the remarkable independence of Colombia’s judicial institutions that have prosecuted legislators with ties to paramilitary forces, has prevented the worst. Nevertheless, it is far from clear that these informal institutions have vanished completely. In addition, one politician, long been accused of inappropriate closeness to these forces, has been playing a questionable role in the debates accompanying the peace process: Ex-President Álvaro Uribe. His reluctance as well as that of politicians and business interests associated with Uribismo fuel the fear that parainstitutionalization could indeed pose the gravest obstacle to peace.

The accusations against the former head of the state are not new. This is on the one hand due to this origin in a rich land-owning family, and, on the other hand, his closeness to persons directly involved in the drug trade and paramilitary groups. After the death of this father at the hands of FARC guerrillas (which motivated his strict opposition to the armed group), he served as a city council in the city infamous for the drug trade – Medellín. Photos from this period show his brother, Santiago Uribe, together with Fabian Ochoa of the Medellín cartel. In addition, a 1991 report by the Defense Intelligence Agency released in 2004, called Uribe a close friend of Pablo Escobar and as being involved in drug trafficking. Upon publication in 2004, the administration denied any such friendship and involvement. Neverthless, the Israeli mercenary, Yair Klein, who helped to train the evolving paramilitary groups, made a thinly veiled statement about who was the intellectual mastermind behind this: a powerful rancher, who would later become President of the Republic.

As Governor of Antioquia – a position he held from 1995 until 1997 – he strongly supported the CONVIVIR self-defense laws that – similar to la 48 from 1968 – encouraged the establishment of self-defense forces against guerrilla activity. Under the leadership of the Castaño brothers, who worked for Pablo Escobar and the Medellín Cartel and then turned against him in the search blocs organized by the Colombian state, these groups turned into the paramilitary umbrella group called the Autodefense Forces of Colombia (AUC). Finally, the former paramilitary leader, Salvatore Mancuso, has stated on several occasions that Uribe had won the elections that put him into the Palacio Nariño in Bogotá and secured his second term with the decisive help of the paramilitaries in rural areas, where they “campaigned” on his behalf – meaning coercing people to vote for him. Mancuso was extradited by the Uribe adminstration in 2008 and is in prison in the US on drug trafficking charges (but not for violating human rights).

Álvaro Uribe’s terms in the presidential palace in Bogotá are not an unequivocal success story either. While it is certainly true that his democratic security policy, which focused on the military component for appeasing the country, has played a crucial role in weakening the FARC and thus bringing them to the negotiating table, his second term in particular was also marred by political scandals. The revelations about the so-called DAS-gate and parapolitica scandals resulted in investigations by Colombia’s highest criminal court, which laid open the extent of infiltration and co-optation of the internal security apparatus and legislature.  Several high-ranking officers of DAS, Colombia’s internal security agency, were shown to be on the pay role of paramilitaries with direct relations to the drug trade. This included a former director. Parapolitica was the name given to the scandal that involved members of Congress (most of them part of Uribe’s coalition, but not exclusively), who had signed pacts of mutual support with the same paramilitaries. Their stated goal was the refounding of the nation. Both scandals are interdependent and reveal how informal institutions, rooted in particularistic interest, undermine the functioning of formal institutions. Ideally, those are supposed to provide a democratic system with accountability and security, instead they cannot ensure either. Not least, they indicate that some sectors of the Colombian political system and bureaucracy not only tolerated but protected the very forces that undermine the state’s ability to secure the monopoly of violence.

More than a few intellectuals and commentaries in Colombia have viewed Uribismo as the expression of the coexistence of these formal and informal institutions and had warned early on against a white washing of past crimes by paramilitaries in the course of the demobilization process, which Uribe initiated with the Justice and Peace law. In this regard, it is important to not that almost all stipulations protecting victims’ rights as well as the conditions for reducing prison sentences of confessing ex-paramilitaries were not in the original text of the law, but were only included after the Constitutional Court demanded them in its review of the law. Finally, the investigations by the Colombian Supreme Court have provided ample evidence that back-up the claims that deliberative institutions at all levels of government had been infiltrated by paramilitary interest. These inquiries have brought several high-ranking politicians from the Uribe administration behind iron bars; not least Álvaro Uribe’s cousin, Mario Uribe.

The ex-President’s fierce opposition to both, the land restitution process as well as the peace process with the FARC, feed the worries that legitimate critiques are rooted in more obscure intentions. In regards to the restitution process, Uribe has consistently critiqued the recognition of an internal conflict by the Colombian government. His administration only spoke of terrorists. Uribe claims that this recognition unduly legitimizes the FARC – a point reiterated by him and his political allies in the current Congress. When Uribe’s constant critique of these initiatives ignited the public fight between him and his successor Santos, the latter warned of the “dark forces” behind these attacks.

These “dark forces” have continued to show their negative influence on the application of the land restitution law. Security for the restituentes, people returning to their robbed land, remains precarious. Since the restitution law took effect in January 2012, there have been over 700 documented threats made against restituentes. Already before the law took effect, the Defensor del Pueblo counted over 71 assassinations of leaders of restituentes between 2006 and 2011; most often in areas where paramilitarism has been a historically strong force. In several cases, the victims had received death threats, but the state was unable or unwilling to provide the protection needed. Padre Alberto Franco of the human rights organization “Justicia y Paz” accompanies victims and endangered groups to their robbed lands to protect them from armed actors with the one thing they dread: publicness. He reported in a recent gathering organized by Amnesty International’s Berlin bureau that he and his colleagues receive constant attention by obscure persons. Their cars are followed and had even been shot at. Several other human rights organizations – national or international – report similar instances.

When the land restitution process angered Uribe, the peace process infuriated him. He went beyond simply uttering his displeasure with the current course of action: via twitter, he gave away sensitive military information. In a remote area, operations were halted to allow FARC members exit the area and attend the negotiations in Havana. Uribe tweeted the coordinates of this operation. Giving away sensitive military secrets is not a light matter and can be particularly devastating given the high levels of distrust between the government and the FARC. What is even more surprising and at the same time undermining Uribe’s position is that he critiques the Santos administration for legitimizing the FARC, even though the conditions for the talks and the continuation are the exact same as he had upheld as President for any negotiations involving a humanitarian exchange of prisoners: no demilitarized zone, no amnesty, and no unilateral cease fire. In addition, the point that it legitimizes a terrorist group is not very convincing, since potentially legitimizing a terrorist group did not defer Álvaro Uribe from negotiating and reaching an accord with the paramilitaries that resulted in the Justice and Peace process rooted in the law with the same name. Not only were they recognized as terrorists by the US and the EU, they have also been responsible for the majority of human rights violations, including horrendous massacres against civilians.

Finally, Uribismo and the forces associated with it have positioned themselves outside a quasi-consensus in Colombia that supports the land restitution process and the peace process with the FARC. In April of this year, all political parties were invited to the Universidad Nacional in Bogotá, Colombia’s biggest public university, to a forum jointly organized by the University and the United Nations in Colombia. The only important politicians missing were those associated with Uribe. The Federación Colombiana de Ganadores, under whose banner unite the producers of Colombia’s cash crop and agro-industrialists, lamented the announcement made on May 26th of this year, arguing that it legitimizes a terrorist group. This is the almost identical talking point that Uribe reiterates, the contradiction of which I already explained.

There is careful optimism in Colombia about the prospects of reaching peace. Many groups have come together and, while disagreeing on the specifics of the process, agree that the time is ripe to find a political solution to the conflict. This includes victims of the FARC such as Clara Rojas, who spent six years in captivity in the Colombian jungle along Ingrid Betancourt. Evidently, the experiences of the last (failed) peace negotiations with the FARC in Caguan are still very vivid and the distrust is (justifiably) high towards that armed group. In addition, the FARC must accept its responsibilities towards the victims of its actions. So far it only sees itself as a victim of state violence, but not as victimizer. A quick view at the pages on Colombia by Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International makes clear that that is not so: it has committed atrocities against civilians, even progressive civil society groups and not least has made a business of kidnapping people for ransom.

This is not a light point, since it raises fundamental legal questions. Colombia’s Constitutional Court has made it clear in its decision on President Uribe’s Justice and Peace law that any law of transitional justice cannot legalize impunity nor can the constitutional rights of victims to complete truth be relinquished. In addition, an agreement that would enable FARC leaders to move from the jungle directly to Colombia’s Congress without responding to their past crimes will not have the legitimacy amongst Colombians that is required for such a transformation. Consequently, there is still some ways to go and the FARC will have to move on these issues, if there is a chance for a lasting peace.

The difficulties with the FARC, which are not impossible to be solved politically, should not close the eyes before the dangers to peace that arise out of the parainstitutionalization the countries has experienced in the last two decades.  As shown, informal institutions born out of Colombia’s turbulent history have undermined the ability of the Colombian state to provide security and the rule of law from within. These continue to radiate influence with sometimes devastating effects on the lives of Colombians. It is in this regard where we as foreigners and observers outside of Colombia can help hold its government accountable. We must not tolerate that those who have suffered most gravely from the conflict, again face threats to their lives when they return to the lands that had been robbed before.

Post Comment

a place of mind, The University of British Columbia

UBC Department of Political Science
C425-1866 Main Mall,
Vancouver, BC, V6T 1Z1, Canada
Tel: 604.822.6079
Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions
C425-1866 Main Mall,
Vancouver, BC, V6T 1Z1, Canada
Tel: 604.827.4390

Emergency Procedures | Accessibility | Contact UBC | Creative Commons License