Events

Peace Initiatives in Colombia's Armed Conflict

April 03, 2008 // 9:00am4:30pm

As part of a continuing effort to monitor Colombia's internal armed conflict and its consequences, the Latin American Program joined with Bogotá's Fundación Ideas para la Paz on April 3, 2008, to take stock of peace initiatives with guerrilla as well as paramilitary actors. The conference took place in the wake of several major setbacks for the FARC guerrillas. In the month of March alone, the FARC's second-in-command, Raúl Reyes, was killed during a Colombian military raid into Ecuadoran territory, an incursion that inflamed regional tensions. Then, another member of the FARC secretariat was killed by a member of his own security detail. Finally, in May the FARC acknowledged that its historic leader, Manuel Marulanda, had died in the jungle in March, apparently of natural causes.

 Aldo Cívico , director of the Center for International Conflict Resolution at Columbia University, discussed the peace negotiations with the ELN guerrillas. He said that in 2005, the administration of President Álvaro Uribe signaled its readiness to negotiate with the ELN, with only a cease-fire as a prerequisite. The ELN agreed to an exploratory dialogue; subsequently, in Cuba, an exploratory committee drafted a framework for negotiations based on the participation of civil society, a cease-fire (including an end to kidnapping), and the involvement of the international community. Negotiations broke down after international facilitators were blocked from the negotiations. The ELN also refused to accede to the government's demand that they concentrate in areas where they could be monitored. Civico argued that international facilitators are essential for the success of the peace talks. They can help bridge the gap between the government, which sees negotiations as a solution to a security problem, and the ELN, which sees talks as a strategy to affect structural change.

 Román Ortiz , director for the Security and Post-Conflict Area at Fundación Ideas para la Paz, argued that understanding the prospects for any future negotiations with the FARC depends on an understanding of how they function. He described the FARC as decentralized, with each bloc commander in control of funds, fighters, and logistics. It is essentially a rural organization, and a significant number of the fighters are dedicated to illegal activities rather than to operations against the government. He also said that the FARC is plagued by high levels of corruption and crime. Observers generally overestimate the FARC's capabilities, Ortiz argued, but underestimate its internationalization. Ortiz said that there are two probable alternatives for the future of the FARC: to negotiate demobilization in exchange for amnesty, or to radicalize, either by shifting to urban terrorism or by taking refuge in a neighboring country and intensifying activities in border areas. He noted that in the long run it will be difficult for the FARC to overcome internal fractures. One part of the organization may opt for negotiations, while the other might radicalize.

 Father Darío Echeverri , secretary-general of the National Reconciliation Commission, emphasized the humanitarian mission of the Church. Values such as the right to life and the dignity of life come before political calculations, he said; thus, the Church's work on behalf of a humanitarian exchange is beyond political or military considerations. The Church considers respect for human rights as an essential condition for peace, and the release of all kidnapped persons as an important goal in the peace process. Echeverri discussed the proposal presented by the Church to leaders of both the government and the guerrillas, to create a "zone of encounter" to establish lines of communication, thereby improving the chances for an agreement. He emphasized the clergy's goal of keeping a humanitarian agreement at the top of the agenda.

 Rodrigo Pardo , of the weekly magazine Cambio assessed Colombia's foreign policy. He emphasized that President Uribe was elected with a mandate to fight the FARC, and has thus made security the center of his agenda. Uribe has two foreign policy goals: the primary goal of democratic security, for which he has situated Colombia's internal fight against guerrilla forces within the global war on terror and has deepened his relationship with the United States, and the secondary goal of humanitarian exchange, for which he has engaged countries in Europe and Latin America. Pardo noted that Colombia's rhetoric of "war on terror" does not resonate well in Latin America; thus, following the Colombian military attack inside Ecuadoran territory, the region showed itself to be more receptive to Ecuador's claim of national sovereignty. He said that Colombia can improve its foreign relations by emphasizing pragmatism, including by recognizing that the importance of the Colombian-Venezuela relationship and separating it from Colombia's relationship with the United States. Furthermore, he argued, Colombia must realize that its discourse on terrorism has closed doors for Colombian diplomacy in Latin America. Bilateral relationships need to be based on issues of common importance to the hemisphere, such as the protection of democracy.

 Eduardo González , of the Office of the High Commissioner for Peace said that President Uribe's goals have been to strengthen democratic institutions, regain a state monopoly on the use of force, and respect human rights. Individual demobilization and improved security, coupled with information gathering on demobilized populations, has been part of the implementation of the Justice and Peace Law. González argued that the demobilization of paramilitaries has eliminated a substantial obstacle to peace. As for negotiations with the ELN, he said that the interaction between the government and the ELN has been interrupted, but can still be recovered; at the same time, the government's insistence on a cease-fire as an essential precondition for the peace process still stands. He said that the government has offered a new proposal to continue talks that envisions roles for both the national and international communities. The framework agreement contains key features regarding the participation of civil society and the international community, the cease-fire, and an end to kidnappings. The issues he sees as pending in the negotiations include the temporary nature of the cease-fire, a law with mechanisms for justice and reparations, and an initial verification zone. Finally, on the subject of negotiations with the FARC concerning a humanitarian exchange, González noted that Uribe had accepted the Church's proposal for a meeting zone in a rural area, free of government and guerrilla forces, with international observes to negotiate a humanitarian exchange.

 Juan Carlos Garzón , director of the Analysis Unit of the OAS Mission to Support the Peace Process in Colombia (MAPP/OEA), discussed the challenges of dismantling paramilitary structures. He argued that although the demobilization of 30,000 paramilitaries is a positive step, questions remain about the permanence of the reduction and the continued existence of paramilitary structures. Colombia is at a moment of transition in dealing with the paramilitaries; it is difficult now to delineate between paramilitaries and organized crime, as both have links to narco-trafficking. The new generation of paramilitaries in Colombia, often referred to as "emergent bands," has important political and judicial implications, showing that the demobilization has not thoroughly eliminated threats to society. One difference between paramilitary and organized crime networks is that the "emergent bands" are less of a counterinsurgency force than the traditional paramilitaries. Garzón said that the MAPP/OEA has had a difficult time verifying the government's claim that only 13 to 15 percent of the "emergent bands" are demobilized paramilitaries. They are also concerned with links between the "emergent bands" and leaders of the AUC, especially those that are not in jail.

 Javier Ciurlizza of the Colombia Program for the International Center for Transitional Justice noted that transitional justice envisions a set of mechanisms that aim to harmonize the rights of victims with the needs of the political regime. He argued that although Colombia has made a number of important advances in recent years, there are still limits to constructing an objective, common memory of the violence, creating a formal space for victims' voices, and guaranteeing the integration of various policies aimed at transitional justice. Prosecutors have made important progress in registering victims and holding hearings, Ciurlizza said, but state agencies are not prepared to deal with the volume of information that has come out of the process. The prosecution of soldiers involved in a massacre and of politicians linked to the paramilitaries represent positive steps towards changing Colombia's tradition of impunity, he said. In the area of reparations to victims, he argued that the government should do more to create symmetry between the benefits for victims and those given to demobilized paramilitaries. He also asserted that the international community has not promoted reforms that favor of victims and that the implementation of Plan Colombia had distorted the strengthening of democratic institutions.

 María Teresa Ronderos , director of Semana.com, discussed links between paramilitaries and political elites in Colombia. She said that paramilitaries were motivated by a desire to control the drug business and capture rents. In order to do so, they needed either direct or indirect political power. The scandal known as "parapolitics" involves the multiple ways that paramilitaries manipulated or held political power, including by controlling local governments, holding positions in the federal government, gaining access to state funds, or obtaining state concessions. Ronderos indicated that numerous politicians are being investigated and that the victims of paramilitaries are more visible than ever. However, she noted concerns about the weakness of the Supreme Court and prosecutors who are investigating paramilitary political influence; moreover, some politicians involved have not suffered electorally as a result of the scandal. International pressure on Colombia is needed in order to move investigations and prosecutions forward. Ronderos proposed that political parties with 80 or 100 percent of their politicians in jail should be barred from participating in future elections. Finally, she commented that because Uribe has given so much support to parties involved in the parapolitics scandal, for him to win a third term and thereby concentrate power would be detrimental to combating parapolitics and represent a threat to Colombian democracy.

BBC Colombia correspondent  Jeremy McDermott gave an overview of the implications of paramilitary demobilization for the drug trade. He argued that the demobilization of the AUC constitutes a new chapter for narcotics trafficking in Colombia, as the AUC were not only traffickers in their own right but also provided services to other traffickers. With the AUC's demobilization, narco-traffickers lost the political cover, quasi-legitimacy, and ideological façade that the group provided. These things will be very difficult for a new generation of traffickers to recover. McDermott claimed that the drug trafficking business has superseded anti-guerrilla sentiment on the part of the paramilitaries. He argued that all sides in the conflict in Colombia are becoming more similar, losing their political façades, and working—in the interest of the drug trade—toward the common goal of weakening the central government.

 

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