Peace talks between Colombia’s government and the country’s largest rebel group FARC began in November 2012 with the aim of ending a conflict that has left some 220,000 dead. Thus far, agreements have been reached on land reform, guerilla’s political participation, and the illegal drugs trade. Until now, the conflict had seen significant de-escalation since the FARC’s unilateral cease-fire declaration in December 2014 and the unprecedented joint humanitarian demining agreement of March 2015. Developments since the Cauca attack last April suggest Colombia’s peace process is facing a potentially devastating setback: the army’s offensive on 21 May killed 26 rebels, prompting the FARC’s decision to suspend its ceasefire on 23 May and President Santos’s call for accelerated talks point to a peace process on the brink of collapse.
This backgrounder will explore the larger military dimension of the peace process and how it remains a major sticking point towards reaching a final and sustainable peace agreement. The first section will examine the challenges of disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) of such decentralized guerilla organization. The second section will explore the military fundamental distrust of the peace process and possible explanations for their ongoing resistance to a final agreement.
FARC’s decentralized structure and possibilities for demobilization and reintegration
Analysts view recent clashes as troubling evidence FARC negotiators in Havana may have limited capacity to prevent their troops from reacting to ongoing military operations as rounds of talks produce few tangible guarantees for the rebels’ security and survival in a post-conflict Colombia. The “end of conflict” committee, composed of FARC negotiators and several active duty military officers, is tasked with addressing disarmament and demobilization. Two key obstacles remain to a sustainable peace agreement with FARC rebels: challenges to disarmament and demobilization, and challenges of rebels’ reintegration into civilian life.
Disarmament and demobilization of FARC rebels in the Colombian context is one of the most challenging aspects of the Havana talks, with commentators noting the real possibility of fragmentation of the guerilla as a central challenge to demobilization and disarmament. While the FARC traditionally is a vertical structure, with rigid codes of conduct and strict disciplinary measures, some commentators have begun to question whether FARC negotiators in Havana still accurately represent the guerrillas on the ground. In fact, the FARC is reportedly divided into seven regional blocs composed of 67 fighting groups. The question then becomes whether if an agreement is signed, FARC negotiators in Havana will be able to bring their rank-and-file, and mid-level commanders on board for full demobilization. The potential for the group to fracture along generational lines might also impact the DDR process, with younger members possibly less dedicated to the FARC ideological cause and resisting this process to continue profitable ventures in the illicit drug trade. FARC factions are reportedly currently most active in areas with an active and lucrative criminal economy and FARCrebels in the Cauca region, a strategically important region give the proliferation of drug crops and unlicensed mining activities, are said to be particularly vulnerable to deserting the peace process entirely.
Security is also a key factor for the reintegration process: former combatants may fear revenge attacks by members of the community or members of the security forces, ex-paramilitary members or victims. Without viable security guarantees, FARC members may have little incentive, or rather be deterred from disarming and reintegration, from fear of retaliatory attacks. Compounding this fear is the government’s continued refusal to discuss security sector reform, despite the fact that a reduction of the security forces remains a FARC demand.
The army’s fundamental distrust of the peace process
Conservative factions of Colombia’s military and political spectrum have in turn been distrustful of the civilian-led peace talks since they began. Recent attacks have only further eroded the military’s already tenuous trust in the FARC’s commitment to peace, and has also prompted considerable criticisms from conservative politicians, namely former President Alvaro Uribe, an already outspoken critic of the talks. Resistance to talks by the military could very well become an impossible challenge to the implementation of a peace agreement. Some 450,000 Colombians hold police and military positions today, making sustainable peace challenging without their support. Indeed, the military has proved a powerful spoiler in peace negotiations in the past, specifically their involvement in failed peace attempts in the 1980s and their role in the inability to start talks in the 1990s. This section will thus explore the military’s distrust of the peace talks, looking first at possible grievances held by military forces, then looking to evidence of the impact of their resistance on talks.
While the military’s opposition to talks is rarely overt, there are rumours that President Santos has implemented a number of policies aimed supposedly to appease the military’s resistance and guarantee their engagement with the peace process. These concessions include the continued refusal to agree to a bilateral ceasefire and the decision to grant jurisdiction for crimes committed by members of the security forces to military courts, among others. Analysts note the military nevertheless continues to doubt the peace process. Recent analysis highlights three primary sets of concerns that fuel the military’s distrust of peace talks. The first is a concern that the post-conflict agreement would grant amnesty to FARC members, in exchange of disarmament and cooperation, while members of the armed forces would face long jail terms. President Santos’s statements to the contrary have not yet abated these fears. A second concern is the possibility of the reduction of the armed forces in peacetime, as it would cut short the military careers of high-ranking officers, despite statements to the contrary by government officials. The third is an ideological disagreement wherein traditionally conservative members of the armed forces, who have seen fellow soldiers die on the battlefield, fundamentally reject negotiations with leftist guerillas.
As noted above, even if overt military resistance is rare, observers have nevertheless noted instances of the military’s possible role in undermining progress and eroding trust of FARC members, effectively compelling guerilla retaliation and further undermining the peace process. For example, in April 2013, when a helicopter mission was carried out by the Red Cross to transport FARC negotiators from the Colombian jungle to peace talks in Havana, a high-ranking military member reportedly gave the geographic coordinates of the pickup zone with former President Uribe, who then posted the top secret information to his Twitter account. In addition to these more covert actions, as noted above, former President Uribe , an influential figure among security forces actively fosters opposition to the Havana talks. Indeed, reports suggest he has more support from within the military than does President Santos. Uribe has embarked on an active campaign to undermine the government’s legitimacy in the eyes of armed forces. Indeed, in recent months Uribe has published tweets accusing President Santos of “forever staining the noble sacrifice of soldiers and police”, among other accusations.
Understanding the security sector dimension of peace talks in Colombia is central to understanding the state of affairs in the wake of recently intensified clashes between military and FARC forces. The FARC’s decentralized nature, and the group’s ties to illicit activities, in addition to the challenge of rebels’ individual security and political integration of guerrillas into a post-conflict Colombia are central issues to establishing a final and sustainable peace agreement in Havana, The military on the other hand has always had serious reservations about the FARC’s commitment to peace, as well as several fears concerning their future survival in a post-agreement context, reservations that have in fact manifested themselves on many occasions, and embodied by conservative critic and former President Uribe.
Stéphanie Le Saux-Famer completed her MA in Conflict, Security and Development from King’s College London in 2014. She is currently a research associate working with International Crisis Group, and was previously an intern at the Centre for Security Governance.