Colombia's Peace Processes: Multiple Negotiations, Multiple Actors
Colombia's multiple negotiations with different armed actors--the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN), and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) were the subject of a March 27, 2006, seminar on the peace process in Colombia. At the time, talks between the government of President Álvaro Uribe and the AUC had resulted in the demobilization of some 28,000 combatants and sporadic attempts were underway to jump-start negotiations with the ELN. Efforts by third parties to broker a humanitarian exchange with the FARC, however, had not borne fruit, presaging the continuation of conflict into Uribe's second term (Uribe was re-elected President on May 28, 2006.)
Military analyst Alfredo Rangel Suárez, president of the Fundación Seguridad y Democracia, said that negotiations with the AUC had brought the country significantly closer to peace. He said that much of the criticism of the AUC process had been unfair, noting that the paramilitaries were at the height of their military, political, and economic power when negotiations with the government began. Rangel defended the legislative framework for demobilization, the Peace and Justice Law of 2005, saying that it imposed more stringent conditions for demobilization than any other previous peace process in Colombia; had sentences for paramilitary criminals been more severe, the negotiations would have failed. Demobilizing some 90 percent of the AUC's military structure was not enough, however. Rangel argued that their mafia-like economic, social, and political networks remain intact, and that eradicating their organized crime structures poses a significant challenge for Colombia's weak and precarious judicial system.
Regarding peace talks with the ELN, Rangel noted growing signs of flexibility on both sides. The government agreed to direct talks with ELN commanders in Cuba prior to a cease-fire, reversing a long-standing position; meanwhile, the ELN declared a unilateral cease-fire prior to the March 2006 legislative elections and called for a political alliance between the left-leaning Polo Democrático and the Liberal Party. According to Rangel, these actions on the part of the ELN suggest a recouping of political and strategic independence vis-à-vis the FARC. Rangel also observed that, despite the FARC's rejection of the idea of peace talks with the Uribe government, the administration itself had become more flexible. For example, the government announced that it would call for a National Constituent Assembly at the conclusion of peace talks, and would agree to a demilitarized zone, to be verified by international observers, in order to facilitate a humanitarian exchange of hostages held by the FARC for prisoners held by the government.
Padre Darío Echeverri, secretary-general of the National Conciliation Commission, a member of the Church's Peace Commission, and a key figure in talks with the ELN and the FARC, noted that the Church has functioned as a facilitator rather than mediator of peace talks. At times, however, given the gravity of the humanitarian crisis in Colombia, some members of the Church have served as actual negotiators--brokering of the release of ELN hostages in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, for example. Despite movement in peace talks between the government and the ELN, Echeverri said that many among the ELN's rank-and-file as well as their social base remain unconvinced that negotiations are desirable. In meetings with the ELN, Church officials have emphasized the advantages of talking with the government, stressing the possibilities of working for structural change through peaceful means. In an October 2005 meeting, Echeverri said that the ELN had acknowledged its role in the murder or kidnapping of two bishops, the assassination of priests, and the taking of hostages in a church in Cali, acts for which the ELN had asked the Church for pardon. In attempting to convince the ELN of the desirability of negotiations, Echeverri said that Church officials had offered to enlist the help of the Vatican in exploring with the international community ways by which the ELN could end its designation as an international terrorist organization.
Echeverri underscored the significance of the government's acceptance of a December 13, 2005, proposal by Switzerland, Spain, and France for a humanitarian accord with the FARC, which, as noted by Alfredo Rangel, represented a change in the government's position; while the government has rejected the FARC's demand for a demilitarization of the departments of Caquetá and Putumayo as a pre-condition for future peace talks, it has accepted a proposal for a small demilitarized zone to facilitate the release of hostages held by the FARC. FARC communiqué's, meanwhile, had called dialogue with the government "impossible" as long as it characterizes the insurgents as a narco-terrorist organization and continues to treat protest as a criminal activity.
León Valencia, a columnist for El Tiempo and a former ELN combatant, said that the ELN's interest in dialogue arose at a time when left-leaning governments were coming to power throughout South America; in addition, the left's electoral successes at the municipal level in Colombia represented opportunities for political action. ELN leaders hoped to shift the focus of the 2006 presidential campaign in Colombia, away from its emphasis on a military solution to the conflict and toward the concept of negotiations. At the same time, sitting down with the ELN held advantages for the government, demonstrating that it was talking not just to the AUC but also to the guerrillas. The agendas of the ELN and the government remain widely divergent, however, with the government wishing to move rapidly toward an end in hostilities and the demobilization and reintegration of combatants; the guerrillas, meanwhile, were seeking humanitarian agreements leading to a cessation of hostilities, to be followed by negotiations on an ambitious agenda of political and social reform. While the parties remain deeply divided, certain factors favor the negotiations, Valencia argued, including the fact that the ELN has not been deeply involved in narcotrafficking.
According to Valencia, the Uribe administration was following a coherent strategy, aiming to pacify northern Colombia through negotiating with the paramilitaries and to defeat the guerrillas—particularly the FARC--in the south, with U.S. help. But the approach to negotiations with the paramilitary involved a first phase—demobilizing the visible armed paramilitary structures—which, according to senior government representatives, was to be followed by a second phase aimed at the broader paramilitary phenomenon, including drug trafficking, political penetration at the local level, and growing power in the economy, particularly in the rural sector. The paramilitaries are changing the political map in eleven of Colombia's departments, Valencia argued, and the demobilization of the AUC's visible military apparatus has left 80 percent of paramilitary structures untouched.
Jaime Bermúdez, Office of the Presidency, and a close advisor to President Uribe, described several defining aspects of Colombia's security and economic situation when President Uribe took office. He compared the sheer numbers of guerrillas and paramilitaries—some 50,000 including militias—to the approximately 1,000 combatants of Northern Ireland's IRA or Spain's ETA. In the late 1990s Colombia suffered upwards of 30,000 homicides per year as well as thousands of kidnappings and scores of massacres. During the economic crisis of 1999, GDP contracted by nine percent and unemployment rose to a staggering 20 percent. The government thus needed to rebuild confidence in security as well as economic terms. Uribe's democratic security policy was aimed at establishing military superiority over internal armed groups, which Bermúdez described as a pre-condition for successful negotiations. At the same time, the government would respond generously to those willing to lay down their arms and reintegrate into society.
Noting the demobilization of some 28,000 members of the AUC paramilitary coalition by the end of March 2006, Bermúdez said that the number of arms relinquished by combatants compared favorably with the ratio of demobilized combatants to weapons in previous demobilizations of guerrilla groups. He claimed that paramilitary influence in the Congress as a result of the March 2006 legislative elections should not be exaggerated, and pointed to several instances of the defeat of candidates with symbolic links to the AUC. Bermúdez said that government policy regarding a humanitarian exchange with the ELN and FARC had become more flexible: no longer did the government insist on a prior cease-fire. But the government did insist that FARC or ELN members released from prison either enter the government's reinsertion program or relocate to a third country, not return to the guerrilla movement. He mentioned two cases in which the International Committee of the Red Cross had discreetly facilitated the release of policemen kidnapped by the FARC and ELN, and reiterated the government's interest in a proposal for a humanitarian accord advanced by France, Switzerland and Spain.
David Henifin, deputy director for Andean Affairs, U.S. Department of State, called the peace process a key element of Colombia's transformation, emphasizing the advances in demobilizing the AUC even while the guerrilla conflict continued. He called the AUC process "complicated and unprecedented" as well as imperfect; even though the AUC has been deeply involved in drug trafficking and other criminal activities, the Justice and Peace Law approved in 2005 provides a workable framework for AUC demobilization and reintegration. Henifin echoed concerns raised by the OAS Mission in Colombia regarding the appearance of new paramilitary groups and the continuation of violence and criminal activities, adding that human rights concerns are a core issue in the U.S.-Colombian relationship. The United States has provided small amounts of funding to support AUC demobilization and the OAS Mission, and is prepared to help bolster Colombia's ability to investigate and prosecute cases under the Peace and Justice Law.
Henfin described the FARC as a terrorist organization fueled subsisting on income from drug trafficking, kidnapping, and extortion, and referred to the U.S. Attorney General's March 2006 indictment of 50 top FARC leaders on drug trafficking charges. As a result of military initiatives by the Uribe government, Henifin said, the FARC is no longer the threat it once was, and younger leaders have lost their ideological edge. Meanwhile, Henifin described the ELN, the "smallest and weakest" of the armed groups, as perhaps best placed to transform itself from a terrorist to a political organization.