Colombia’s Elusive Quest for Peace
Colombia’s Elusive Quest for Peace
Table of Contents
  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’s Elusive Quest for Peace

In February 2002, negotiations to end the most dangerous confrontation of Colombia's decades of civil war collapsed. Nearly four years earlier, the newly-inaugurated President Andrés Pastrana had opened talks with the country’s major remaining rebel groups, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia-Ejército del Pueblo (FARC) and the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN), with great enthusiasm and hope. But the fighting never ended while the talks sputtered on, and the country now appears headed for a new round of violence in its cities and against its infrastructure. The international community is concerned about the implications not only for Colombia’s people and its democratic institutions, but also wider regional stability.

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Looking Back. In February 2002, negotiations to end the most dangerous confrontation of Colombia's decades of civil war collapsed. Nearly four years earlier, the newly-inaugurated President Andrés Pastrana had opened talks with the country’s major remaining rebel groups, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia-Ejército del Pueblo (FARC) and the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN), with great enthusiasm and hope. But the fighting never ended while the talks sputtered on, and the country now appears headed for a new round of violence in its cities and against its infrastructure. The international community is concerned about the implications not only for Colombia’s people and its democratic institutions, but also wider regional stability.

With support from Europe, Latin America and the United States, President Pastrana granted the largest insurgent group, the FARC, a demilitarised zone (DMZ), the size of Switzerland, in the south of the country. Both he and the FARC, however, kept experienced third parties, Colombian and international, at arm’s length. The negotiations, courageous initiative though they were, appeared to lack a consistent strategy. By the time Pastrana declared them over and ordered the army to reoccupy the (DMZ), the endeavour looked to most Colombians like little more than a mirage. The international community has virtually unanimously supported his decision: in the post-11 September world, a strong stance against a terror organisation has been an easy call.

Throughout Pastrana’s tenure, all illegal armed organisations - the FARC, the ELN and the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC, or paramilitaries) - have intensified their attacks, regularly violating human rights and expanding the scope of suffering. The fighting that followed the breakdown of negotiations, while less intense than in the immediately preceding month, indicates that the FARC retains the capacity to operate effectively throughout much of the country and that there is little or no chance the government can impose a military solution in the foreseeable future.

At the same time, Colombia's importance as a source of narcotics has greatly increased, thereby magnifying the stake of the international community - including the country's neighbours and the U.S. - in finding a solution to the conflict. The legitimate rural economy has suffered greatly from war and price shocks over the last decade, making the grip of coca producers even stronger.

Colombia has a potentially strong economy and a long democratic tradition that, though undermined by a history of violence, is one of the proudest in Latin America. Its civil war has become inextricably intertwined with the narcotics trade, which not only fuels the conflict but also appears to have altered significantly the character of the insurgents and the paramilitaries, who now have a dependable source of income to fund weapons purchases and ensure their staying power.

The surge in Colombia’s illicit narcotics industry since the 1980s, combined with the ideological dislocations of the end of the Cold War, have made the FARC and ELN far different from earlier Latin American guerrilla groups. Many of their leaders have become “military entrepreneurs” who feel little need to cooperate and communicate with Colombian society and even less with the international community. They have lost most of their former popular support, and their power is now reflected almost exclusively in military capabilities financed by a lucrative kidnapping industry, the drug business and extortion.

The rebels’ sworn enemies, the right-wing paramilitaries, who appear to be gaining support in at least some rural areas threatened by the guerrillas, also have close and profitable links with the drug industry. With significant private sector backing and the support of regional political elites and Colombian military commanders, the paramilitaries’ numbers have grown ten-fold in the last decade. International pressure on the government and army to cut ties to the paramilitaries and punish their atrocities has had very limited results.

The government is unable to exercise authority throughout much of the country. It cannot extend even basic social services or – perhaps most damaging – guarantee the rule of law in much of rural Colombia. These shortcomings, combined with a military force inadequate in size, training and equipment, and a deeply compromised judicial system, have been a near-fatal handicap in the state’s efforts to govern, much less to defeat the guerrillas and counter the narcotics traffickers.

Colombia’s continuing conflict is of international concern not only because of its humanitarian costs, but also because it provides a nexus for weapons, drugs, cash, money-laundering, criminals and terrorists. It continues to be of immense regional concern. The end to the peace negotiations with the FARC (though they continue with the ELN) and the return to full military combat adds to the danger of the conflict spilling over to the states that border Colombia: Brazil, Ecuador, Panama, Peru and Venezuela.

Looking Forward. The Pastrana administration has lost any realistic chance to reach an accommodation with the FARC during its remaining months in office. However, circumstances do favour it making a major effort, with international support, to achieve a verifiable ceasefire with the smaller ELN, which could have wider implications for a resumed peace process eventually with the FARC. Beyond that, it will need to spend the remainder of its time attempting to limit security costs and doing everything possible to safeguard the integrity of the spring elections to choose its successor.

Everyone concerned with Colombia’s future now needs to take stock of the situation and rethink the strategies and priorities that should be pursued by the new administration, with international support. The key priorities in ICG’s judgement are to improve security protection for Colombians against insurgents and paramilitaries; to re-energise peace negotiations; to make a renewed effort to combat the drug trade; and to strengthen Colombia’s institutions, especially in the areas of security and justice. Each of these objectives will require new and more effective approaches if they are to be achieved, and each will require significant support from the region and wider international community.

This report, and the recommendations that follow, pick up a number of these themes, but our conclusions and prescriptions should be taken as preliminary at this stage. They will require further evaluation and development in the months ahead. The purpose of this first ICG report on Colombia has been to assess the background, successes and failures of the elusive quest for peace and to propose a broad framework within which Colombians and their friends can begin to think together about the hard choices and fresh ideas required. Forthcoming reports will explore the implications of the presidential elections for the peace process; the structure of the security forces and the challenges they face; how best to extend the rule of law and civilian security in rural areas; how to rebuild the devastated rural economy; strategies for restructuring the peace process and strategies for fighting drugs; and ways of preventing regional destabilisation.

Bogotá/Brussels, 26 March 2002

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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