Colombia: Presidential Politics and Peace Prospects
Colombia: Presidential Politics and Peace Prospects
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  1. Executive Summary
Atrapados por el conflicto: cómo reformar la estrategia militar para salvar vidas en Colombia (Bogotá, 27 September 2022)
Atrapados por el conflicto: cómo reformar la estrategia militar para salvar vidas en Colombia (Bogotá, 27 September 2022)

Colombia: Presidential Politics and Peace Prospects

President Álvaro Uribe's quest for re-election in 2006 by amending the constitution so a sitting president can run is a risky endeavour that could weaken democratic institutions.

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President Álvaro Uribe's quest for re-election in 2006 by amending the constitution so a sitting president can run is a risky endeavour that could weaken democratic institutions. In the face of unabated armed conflict with two insurgent groups, pending demobilisation of thousands of paramilitary fighters, and a flourishing narcotics industry, Colombia must sustain its military and police defences beyond the forthcoming election. However, it must also consolidate the rule of law by ending impunity and make strong headway in rural development and in protecting especially vulnerable groups in order to engage the insurgents on political grounds.

Over the next four years, Colombia needs to secure a monopoly of legitimate force across its territory, expand substantially its public services in previously abandoned or conflict-affected rural areas, and construct a better strategy to conduct serious peace negotiations. Uribe is both the country's strongest political figure and its most controversial. His real accomplishments, especially on security, have been diminished by serious blemishes, including the questionable decisions to seek constitutional amendment to permit his own re-election and to defend a highly contentious bill aimed at demobilising and reintegrating into society the extreme right paramilitary, the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC).

While maintaining an emphasis on strengthening the Colombian state's military and security capacity is undoubtedly necessary, the military option by itself is insufficient to end the armed conflict. Without greater balance to the government's near stand-alone military approach toward the largest insurgent organisation, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a second Uribe term could once more miss opportunities essential to bringing Colombia closer to peace.

AUC demobilisation is a parallel challenge which hinges on congressional adoption of the still weak draft Justice and Peace Law. It presumably would benefit the incumbent but Uribe must be careful not to submit to political blackmail from the AUC. There is a danger that a partial demobilisation could occur in a way that fails to dismantle fully the paramilitary structures, clashes with strong domestic demands for justice and avoids international human rights obligations, particularly with respect to victims' rights to truth, justice and reparation. Despite agreeing to a ceasefire in December 2002, the AUC has subsequently killed more than 2,000 people, and its share of the country's recent kidnappings has increased compared to that of the ELN and FARC. Deeply troubling, the paramilitaries are growing stronger, politically and economically.

Since early 2005, the FARC has again increased the frequency and viciousness of attacks on military as well as civilian targets. It can be expected to do everything in its power to undermine Uribe's re-election by demonstrating that his "democratic security policy" has not deprived it of the ability to strike widely around the country. The FARC also appears to be exercising greater influence over the National Liberation Army (ELN), which partly explains the government's repeated failures to move forward on negotiations with that much smaller insurgent group.

Hopes to succeed both in counter-insurgency and counter-drug efforts, to end the conflict and strengthen democracy must not be tied exclusively to the re-election of Uribe, regardless of whether or not the constitutional court eventually authorises his candidacy. In anticipation that the president will be permitted to run, his administration should seek now to strengthen the country's democratic institutions to ensure a fair playing field for opposition candidates and political party reforms. If the court rules against him, Uribe should press for a consensus among major parties to continue a strong security policy, though one matched by more attention to rural living conditions and negotiations with the insurgents.

It is vital for the government to complement its overwhelmingly military strategy toward the FARC and ELN with a political pillar that addresses longstanding structural inequities in rural Colombia that, in turn, benefit the insurgencies, the paramilitaries and the drug traffickers. The core elements of that pillar include strengthening the rule of law, rural public infrastructure and rural economic and social development. A national rural strategy can be implemented only where secure space has been won but not having the approach nationally known, funded and ready to go is a debilitating factor both politically and militarily.

As part of the political strategy the government should accept the utility of talks to achieve a prisoners/hostages swap with the FARC as a first step toward peace negotiations; and should press ahead seriously with the resumption of a rapprochement with the ELN (that with Mexican facilitation had looked promising until recently) with the ultimate aim of demobilising and reinserting its members into society.

The FARC has suffered enough military blows in the last several years to know it has no chance to achieve power through armed force. Engaging it politically now while keeping up military pressure is more promising than putting all efforts into massive offensives whose effectiveness and sustainability are open to serious question -- especially as the FARC retains the resources to conduct a guerrilla war for the foreseeable future.

Simple continuity in the present security policy will lead Colombia into a political dead end regardless of who becomes the next president.

Quito/Brussels, 16 June 2005

Atrapados por el conflicto: cómo reformar la estrategia militar para salvar vidas en Colombia (Bogotá, 27 September 2022)

Launch event of Crisis Group’s report Trapped in Conflict: Reforming Military Strategy to Save Lives in Colombia, based on extensive fieldwork in different regions of Colombia and dozens of interviews with the military and communities. It was held in Bogotá on Tuesday 27 September 2022 at 8:30 am. In the report, Crisis Group analyses why military strategy in Colombia’s rural areas has failed to contain the conflicts that arose following the 2016 peace accord with its largest guerrilla movement (FARC). Crisis Group also proposes new civilian government leaders to prioritise community protection in rural areas and embrace new indicators for gauging the military’s success. The panel was composed of Martha Maya, Latin America Program Director at the Institute for Integrated Transitions (IFI), Elizabeth Dickinson, Crisis Group's Senior Analyst for Colombia, and Ivan Briscoe, Crisis Group's Director for Latin America and the Caribbean. Alberto Lara Losada couldn't attend. 

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