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Colombia’s Returnees Infographic
Colombia’s Returnees Infographic
Report 45 / Latin America & Caribbean

Colombia: Peace at Last?

After decades of failed attempts to defeat the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) militarily and flawed negotiations, a political solution to the Western Hemisphere’s oldest conflict may finally be possible.

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Executive Summary

After decades of failed negotiations and attempts to defeat the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas and the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN) militarily, a political solution to the Western Hemisphere’s oldest conflict may be in sight. Following a year of secret contacts, formal peace talks with FARC are to open in Oslo in October 2012 and continue in Havana. They may be extended to the ELN. There seems a firmer willingness to reach an agreement, as the government realises military means alone cannot end the conflict and FARC appears to recognise that the armed struggle permits survival but little else. With no ceasefire in place, both sides must act with restraint on the battlefield to generate immediate humanitarian improvements. And they will need to balance the requirements of fast, discreet negotiations and those of representativeness and inclusion. The government and the guerrillas have the historic responsibility to strike a deal, but only strong social and political ownership of that deal can guarantee that it leads to the lasting peace that has been elusive for so long.

There are many challenges, but they are, on balance, less formidable than on previous occasions. Scepticism towards the guerrillas remains widespread, and there is political opposition to the talks, most vocally and radically articulated by former President Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010). His discourse resonates strongly among large landowners and other powerful regional actors with significant stakes and a historical proclivity for using violence to defend their interests. But the large majority of Colombians back a peace process, and mainstream political forces have endorsed it, though a failure to secure quick results could breathe new life into political resistance. The security forces are better aligned with the civilian leadership than in the past and represented at the negotiation table, reducing risk of the coordination failures between political and military agendas that have marred previous peace attempts. 

Broader conflict dynamics also encourage a political settlement. With neither side likely to win by arms alone, both have a strong incentive to negotiate. FARC is weakened militarily, but an entire generation of its leaders now has possibly its last opportunity to vindicate decades of struggle in a peace deal that responds to some of the issues that spawned the insurgency and that allows the guerrillas to participate in the construction of peace as social and political actors. The government operates from a position of strength. Its military advantage, if not decisive nevertheless appears irreversible; Santos, who is more sensitive than his predecessor to victims’ rights, has started to tackle problems such as rural development that are of direct concern for the guerrillas, and his administration has acknowledged the state’s responsibility for some key human rights violations. It also still has a reasonably cohesive partner to deal with, avoiding the problems that can be envisaged if more years of heavy military pressure were to cause FARC to splinter. 

Nevertheless, the outcome depends on more than the will and negotiating skill of the parties. After 50 years of guerrilla warfare, systematic human rights violations and indifference by both to the plight of rural areas, communities in conflict regions no longer consider the guerrillas defenders of their interests and have lost faith in the state’s capacity and willingness to solve their problems. Negotiations thus need to be sustained by the active participation and endorsement of civil society, notably of rural and indigenous communities. To lay the foundations for durable peace, talks will ultimately need to lead into a wider social process aimed at tackling the problems affecting the countryside that provide the backdrop for the conflict. Lasting peace is also only possible on the basis of accountability for the many grave abuses committed by all sides in the conflict. The international community, represented during the talks primarily by Norway, Cuba, Venezuela and Chile, will need to stand by Colombia throughout, including as it takes up the challenges of a post-conflict society. 

Fears over peace talks are tactically exaggerated by their opponents. But those promoting a political settlement also need to keep expectations in check. A deal would not eliminate violence. It likely would fail to convince some FARC elements to lay down arms, notably those deeply involved in the drugs trade. There would still be significant security threats from illegal armed groups rooted in the officially demobilised paramilitaries and from other organised criminal gangs. Nor can the socio-economic problems underlying the conflict be solved overnight. But ending the conflict with the guerrillas would give Colombia the best prospect yet to come to grips with all these issues. Crisis Group will accompany the process with analysis and recommendations on the substance of the agenda. 

Ten years of intense counter-insurgency warfare have greatly weakened the combat strength of the guerrillas and pushed them into ever more remote rural hideouts, substantially reducing the impact on the major urban centres. But the conflict still costs lives on a daily basis, holds back socio-economic development and impedes the consolidation of a truly inclusive and pluralistic democracy. The road ahead will not be short or smooth, but Colombia cannot afford to muff this chance for peace.

Bogotá/Brussels, 25 September 2012