Peace Talks with the FARC: A Good Idea?

Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos said yesterday that his government will start “exploratory” peace talks with the FARC guerrillas, the oldest insurgency in the Americas. The announcement, which was widely expected in recent weeks, is highly controversial in Colombia. Is the Santos administration moving toward ending an armed conflict that has lasted over half a century and cost the lives of ten of thousands of Colombians? Or is the government agreeing to negotiate with terrorists, giving them a chance to regroup and continue their criminal activities such as drug trafficking?

There are many reasons not to trust the FARC. In 1998, then-president Andrés Pastrana opened high profile peace talks with the Marxist rebels. As a concession, Pastrana ceded the FARC control of a territory the size of Switzerland. The rebels used that neutral zone as a stronghold to consolidate their cocaine business—which gives them revenues of approximately $500 million a year—strengthen their recruitment, and launch deadly attacks against Colombia’s largest cities. By 2002, the peace talks had gone nowhere and the question among many officials in Washington and elsewhere was whether the Colombian government would survive.

Enter Álvaro Uribe, who was inaugurated as president in 2002 under rocket fire in Bogotá. Supported with military aid from Washington under Plan Colombia, Uribe launched a massive offensive against the FARC and struck several important blows to its leadership. During these years, most Colombians came to the realization that they were dealing with full blown terrorists and not simply with an ideologically driven peasant insurgency. The FARC rebels kidnapped hundreds of civilians, politicians and security forces for ransom, keeping some of them under inhumane conditions in the jungle for over a decade. Many died in captivity. They also attacked civilian targets in cities with bombs, killing scores of people. On February 4, 2008, millions of Colombians took to the streets under the chant “No Más FARC.”

Uribe’s military strategy proved successful in greatly diminishing violence in Colombia and severely weakening the FARC, whose troops halved in the last decade to approximately 8,000.

In 2010, Juan Manuel Santos, Uribe’s former defense minister who conducted some of the most successful attacks against the FARC guerrillas, was overwhelmingly elected president of Colombia. However, unlike Uribe’s hard-line approach, Santos from the beginning showed willingness to engage the FARC in peace talks, even though his government continued to pound on the guerrillas, killing its head Alfonso Cano last November.

Notwithstanding losing most of its old guard, the FARC rebels have been able to step up their attacks in the last year, inflicting painful losses on the armed forces and targeting the country’s energy infrastructure. The wave of attacks has led many Colombians to wonder whether the hard-fought security gains under Uribe are slipping away. This also raises questions about president Santos’ leadership. It is worth noting that over a year ago, Uribe—who remains very popular among a majority of Colombians—broke with Santos, accusing him of, among other things, being weak toward what he and many Colombians still regard as a terrorist group.

Thus the conundrum: Some Colombians see what WOLA’s Adam Isacson has described as a “hurting stalemate.” The Santos administration would be wise to give peace one more chance, the argument goes. It does so under very different conditions from a decade ago. The armed forces still have the upper hand on the ground. The economy grows at a very healthy pace (although it’s increasingly becoming dependent on oil and mining). And the cities and their surroundings are far safer now. The government’s strategy under this theory is pushing the FARC to the limit and then forcing the guerrillas to negotiate a peace settlement.

However, other Colombians think that Juan Manuel Santos is proving to be another puny president just like Andrés Pastrana. They feel that the current president’s well-known appetite for popularity and jet-setting around the world is driving his push for peace talks, and that the latest wave of attacks from the FARC are the result of the guerrillas’ realization that they are dealing with a weak president. They point out that the army hasn’t dealt an important blow to the rebels in more than six months, perhaps at Santos’ behest. Moreover, they note that nowadays the FARC is mostly a drug trafficking organization with a decentralized command structure. As long as cocaine production remains a highly profitable industry, most of the armed units that compose the FARC will remain in the business, regardless of the peace process. Something similar happened to the demobilized right-wing paramilitary groups, some of which have reemerged as regular criminal bands known as “bacrim.” I would add that violent drug trafficking groups are a plague that will haunt Colombia until drugs are legalized.

Both sides have solid arguments. But I tend to agree more with the skeptical wing. Ending one of the longest and bloodiest conflicts on the continent is a goal worth pursuing. However, there is no reason to believe that this is what the FARC want. Let’s hope I’m wrong.