Colombia: A fleeting chance to end the war
Colombia: A fleeting chance to end the war

Colombia: A fleeting chance to end the war

It has been a rough few weeks for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Colombia's largest rebel group -- and that is good news for Colombians. In September, Colombian forces killed FARC second-in-command, "Mono Jojoy,'' in a jungle raid south of Bogotá. President Juan Manuel Santos hailed the news saying, "This is the beginning of the end for the FARC.''

Santos has reason to be pleased. After winning the election last June with almost 70 percent of the vote, destroying the FARC camp demonstrated his determination to continue military pressure on the FARC and the National Liberation Army (ELN), another left-wing insurgent group. He also has an opportunity to implement a more-integrated strategy that might actually end Colombia's half century of conflict.

The military strategy under Santos' predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, saw impressive gains that weakened both the FARC and the ELN. Over the past decade, the deaths of FARC secretariat leader Manuel Marulanda Vélez and others had been hailed with similar jubilant statements as the one Santos made when Mono Jojoy was killed. Despite a series of setbacks, however, the FARC was able to maintain its ability to attack both military and civilian targets. It still enjoys a vast hinterland to hide in, a reserve of drug-trafficking money and continued active recruitment.

Military success has also come at a high cost.

In waging a campaign against the guerrillas, some Colombian security forces gained a reputation for committing gross human-rights abuses with impunity. Monitoring organizations have reported extrajudicial executions, rape, torture, looting, mass displacements and restrictions on freedom of movement for civilians. Only a tiny fraction of reported abuses have been investigated and prosecuted.

The result is that, in many formerly rebel-controlled areas, the local population is too distrustful to take advantage of new government institutions and services. Civilian officials are seen as clearly subordinate to the military. Many victims refuse to participate in transitional justice investigations out of fear that they again will become targets of illegal armed groups as has happened already.

The government's focus on the FARC and the ELN has also allowed new illegal armed groups to expand throughout the country. There have been reports of some government forces colluding with these groups in drug trafficking and human-rights abuses.

It is time for a more-integrated and comprehensive conflict resolution strategy, focused not only on the military, but also on advancing justice reforms to protect human rights, economic reforms to reduce inequalities and political reforms to strengthen the country's institutions. The roots of Colombia's conflict need to be frontally addressed.

Santos' legislative initiatives on land restitution, justice administration and victim rights -- including an expanded focus on internally displaced -- now have to be enacted and implemented.

Santos must guarantee that respect for human rights is more fully integrated into the fabric of Colombia's security forces, starting with pursuing the participants behind almost 2,300 civilian extra-judicial executions. Those crimes should be prosecuted vigorously in civilian, not military, courts.

The president must broaden his focus beyond the FARC and ELN to include combating new illegal armed groups. In particular, Santos should investigate ties between illegal armed groups and state security forces, which undermine government legitimacy. Crime prevention in urban areas should be a focus. Cooperation with Ecuador and Venezuela on border security is also crucial to success in the fight against insurgents and drug smugglers.

Santos' political support is at a peak during these first 100 days of his administration, and that backing, coupled with the relative weakness of the FARC and ELN, gives him a real chance to put a permanent end to the country's armed insurgency.

Convincing progress on key institutional and structural reforms could lay the groundwork for a negotiation with the guerrillas that ends the Colombian insurgency once and for all, and does so while respecting the rights of victims.

Contributors

Former Senior Adviser
Former Project Director, Colombia/Andes

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