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A chance for real peace

Silke Pfeiffer, The Miami Herald  |   9 Mar 2012

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) announced recently that it would release all remaining military hostages and abandon its longstanding practice of kidnapping for ransom. The announcement comes after FARC, which has waged a half-century campaign against the Colombian state, had launched several attacks across Colombia, spurring the government to commit additional troops in the fight against the insurgents.

Nonetheless, President Santos should seize this opening to work toward a negotiated solution. The conflict with FARC and the ELN — the second, smaller Colombian insurgency — cannot be solved by military means alone.

For the past three years, FARC attacks have been on the rise in Colombia. The insurgents’ return to guerrilla-warfare tactics was a reaction to the unprecedented military offensive launched under former President Alvaro Uribe (2002-10). FARC’s intent was to wear out state forces with the massive use of explosives and landmines.

Now, the return on military action has declined. The Colombian military has one of the best war helicopter fleets in the world, first-grade technology and excellent intelligence, but the war is difficult to win militarily in a place where the guerrillas still enjoy support networks in some local communities. This, coupled with the constant influx of resources and weak state presence, allows the group to maintain its presence and influence over communities.

The war is also becoming more and more costly as it deteriorates. Weakened and cornered, FARC resorts to makeshift and imprecise weapons, which wreak huge collateral damage on the population.

Nor do state security forces escape these dynamics. Fighting against this invisible enemy, they often stigmatize communities by alleging links with the guerrillas. The militarization of huge territories exposes locals to new dangers as the collaboration with state forces generates serious risks of retaliation by the insurgents. In areas such as the south-western Cauca and Nariño departments, or the Catatumbo region on the Venezuela border, communities continue to see their schools and houses converted into warzones.

Last month’s attacks come against the backdrop of the 10th anniversary of the “Caguán” peace talks between President Andrés Pastrana’s government (1998-2004) and FARC. Then at the peak of its military strength, the guerrillas abused the process to gain oxygen.

Today, the balance of power has shifted — in all likelihood, for good — toward the government. But a military victory is still unlikely. Despite all resistance, it is therefore reasonable to look again for a political solution to Colombia’s nearly half-century old conflict in a very different context.

Today, the Colombian government operates from a position of strength and could control a potential peace process without being abused by the other side. Although the insurgency can still inflict major harm, it is unlikely to gain the upper hand militarily. Given its position, FARC should therefore have an interest in working toward an exit strategy in which they would still have the muscle to negotiate modest gains and leave the scene with their heads held high, instead of running the risk of losing control of a disintegrating organization.

Since taking office, President Santos has reiterated that he holds the key to peace. And indeed, he has been paving the way to peace through important reforms. Despite the challenges it faces, the Victims Law — which promises to compensate some 4 million victims and return some 3 million hectares of land stolen by right-wing paramilitaries — is a step in this direction. More steps need to follow to pay off the debt that the state owes to communities in conflict zones.

Clear signs that confirm the willingness of the guerrilla movement to work toward an end of violence are vital. Following its recent announcement, FARC now has an opportunity to build trust in society by proving that it can deliver. They should accept a credible verification mechanism and provide information on the many civilians still held captive.

More than anything, for a government peace policy to work, it will require a society open to the idea of a non-military end to the conflict. There will be no peace process without a population ready to ask itself the price it is willing to pay for peace, when the costs of war are so high.

Silke Pfeiffer is the Colombia/Andes Project Director at the International Crisis Group.

The Miami Herald

 
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