HomeInvestigationsThe Reality of the FARC Peace Talks in Havana

The Reality of the FARC Peace Talks in Havana


If we are to believe the Colombian government, the question is not if, but rather when, an end to 50 years of civil conflict will be reached. Yet the promise of President Juan Manuel Santos that peace can be achieved before the end of 2014 is simply an electoral mirage.

The results of the first round of voting in the May 25 presidential elections showed that the peace process was not the magic electoral ticket that Santos hoped it would be. While he will still enter the second round, his opponent Oscar Ivan Zuluaga polled over 29 percent of the vote to his nearly 26 percent. And the prospects for peace under a Zuluaga administration are dim indeed.

Part of the problem is that negotiations have been hermetically sealed, with only controlled and bland statements being released from Havana that give little hope that real progress is being made. And indeed, after InSight Crime visited Havana and spoke to negotiators from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), it seemed the government line of unbridled optimism and progress did not correspond to the reality.

So far, according to the government, three of the six points on the negotiating agenda have been resolved. These are the "Integrated Agricultural Development Policy," which deals with all issues concerning land; "Political Participation"; and, most recently, the "Solution to the Problem of Illicit Drugs."

The drug issue was certainly forced through quickly in order to show some sort of progress on this crucial theme before the first round of voting. However, the other two are also far from resolved -- it seems that the thorniest issues have been left for discussion further down the line.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Drug Policy

One can understand why the government would want to first find as much common ground as possible and build trust before getting to the real meat of the talks. However, that is not the way things have been presented to the Colombian public. FARC negotiators also told InSight Crime that there were still 20 items outstanding from the first two points on the agenda.

The three remaining topics on the agenda are "Ending the Conflict" (demobilization and transitional justice), "Victims of the Conflict," and "Implementation, Verification, and Legalization of Accords."


The first official report issued on the negotiations, published on June 21, 2013, entitled the "First Joint Report of the Negotiating Table," was little more than a list of good intentions. It included few concrete measures and had the proviso inserted: "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed."

A return to the first agenda point is necessitated by the FARC's demand for the creation of Peasant Reserve Zones (Zonas de Reserva Campesina - ZRC). While the June report recognized the importance of such zones, it contained nothing regarding the FARC request for the granting of some 40 ZRCs, comprising up to nine million hectares, which would enjoy some of the privileges of indigenous reservations, with a certain degree of autonomy. Putumayo already has one ZRC. The FARC will certainly request more in this department and in the other provinces in which it has interests and a significant presence.

This issue alone could prove to be a major sticking point for the peace process. For the FARC it would be a way of legalizing control of land that the group already holds, a way of employing and protecting its members in a post-conflict scenario, and -- with anything up to two million Colombians within the zones -- a way to secure at least eight seats in Congress during elections. For the opponents of the talks, foremost among them former President Alvaro Uribe and his presidential candidate Zuluaga, this would be akin to simply handing over large areas of the country to the FARC, and would again raise the specter of the safe haven that ex-President Andres Pastrana granted the FARC during the last round of peace talks (1999-2002). This ended up becoming the training camp for the FARC war machine and a center for drug negotiations.

Political participation

The last time the FARC participated in the legal political arena was in 1985, when they formed a political party, the Patriotic Union (Union Patriotica - UP). The UP participated in elections in 1986 and won five seats in the Senate and nine in the House of Representatives -- with chief FARC negotiator Luciano Marin Arango, alias "Ivan Marquez," one of those elected. However, as many as 4,000 UP candidates, members, and supporters were then murdered by right-wing paramilitaries and their allies in the security forces.

This experience casts a long shadow over talks and any post-conflict scenario. The FARC fear being picked off as soon as they leave the relative safety of their mountain and jungle strongholds. And the killing of left-wing activists is not something consigned to the past. Those agitating for the restitution of land have been assassinated in areas like Cordoba and Antioquia, while the Patriotic March (Marcha Patriotica), a left-wing party identified as sympathetic to, if not supported by, the FARC, has seen 48 of its members assassinated over the last two years.


This brings us to a point that is a deal breaker for the FARC: the handover of weapons. The FARC will not disarm immediately. Rebel negotiators talked of an implementation period of up to ten years, in which they would retain their weapons to defend themselves should the government not honor the pledges made in any agreement. For Uribe and Zuluaga, and perhaps the majority of Colombians, this is unlikely to be palatable, as it would mean that the FARC could re-launch their military struggle at any moment.

Furthermore, the FARC cannot be expected to create a political party immediately and compete in the current political arena. The creation of an open, as opposed to their currently clandestine, political apparatus, will take time, but they expect some political power immediately. The only way the FARC will sign a peace agreement and make the transition from a military to a political organization is if they are guaranteed a measure of political power while the transition takes place. There is, however, resistance to FARC leaders being eligible for political posts from opponents of the peace process, who have cited the convictions in absentia that most of the group's high command have for criminal acts, particularly for crimes against humanity.

The government made much of the agreement on drugs in the lead up to the recent presidential vote. And indeed the FARC could have a pivotal role in containing the drug trade in Colombia (see The FARC and the Drug Trade: Siamese Twins?).

There are other key issues currently being brushed under the carpet. One is that of jail time. The FARC negotiators were very clear on this. Prison time is a deal breaker. "We will not spend a day, not a single second in jail," said a senior FARC commander. The legal framework for any peace deal has also not yet been completed. An agreement could be signed tomorrow, but implementation remains impossible.

Another two potential sticking points are the issue of a Constitutional Assembly, which the FARC insist is necessary to build the conditions for a lasting peace, and the inclusion of their smaller cousins and allies of the National Liberation Army (ELN). President Santos has promised to establish a dialogue with the ELN, but neither a venue nor a concrete start date have yet been announced.

The FARC today

The other telling sign from the May 25 presidential vote was an abstention rate of almost 60 percent. One of the reasons that the peace process is not a more pressing political issue is the perception on the part of the Colombian public, fomented by this government, that the rebels are all but defeated. They are still clearly a bit of a nuisance, it would seem, but no longer threaten the integrity of the state. Add to this the Uribe line that the FARC can be defeated militarily and you have a public that does not see a FARC deal as their most pressing concern.

What is also clear is that there is a misunderstanding of the FARC today. Most Colombians are still in the 2008 mindset, when the FARC lost three members of the Secretariat, Ingrid Betancourt and the other hostages held by the guerrillas were freed in a daring rescue operation, and it seemed the days of the insurgents were numbered.

The death of FARC founder and supreme commander Pedro Marin, alias "Manuel Marulanda," was in a way the best thing that could have happened to the FARC, which at that time was stuck in the past, unwilling to adapt to the changing military and political conditions in Colombia. All that changed with the promotion of Guillermo Leon Saenz Vargas, alias "Alfonso Cano." Cano redesigned rebel strategy with his Plan Renacer (Plan Rebirth) and Plan 2010. He forced the guerrillas to return to their roots and political work. The military conditions no longer allowed for the concentration of large numbers of fighters against traditional security force targets. It was now the age of the militiaman, hidden among the civilian population, able to set off a bomb when a patrol passes, or kill an isolated member of the security forces.

The government takes great delight in charting the decline of the FARC's guerrilla fighters, down from 16,000 in 2002 to just over 7,000 today, according to the latest statistics from the Ministry of Defense. But these are the unformed rural guerrilla fighters. There is no mention of the militias, which may number as many as 30,000 today, and have become the primary offensive weapon of the FARC.

This concentration on political work and the building up of militias could be seen as a positive thing should an agreement be signed. This is exactly the kind of work that could aid the FARC in the move from an irregular guerrilla army into a political force. However, if the peace process collapses, the growing strength of these militias presents a security threat that Colombia is ill-equipped to confront. These are no uniformed rebels that the army can take on -- these are rebels hidden among a civilian population that, in FARC strongholds, shields and protects them. There are no targets for the army; it is a slow and laborious intelligence job for the police to identify and disarticulate these networks. And, in many rural areas under FARC control, the police do not even leave their heavily fortified stations.

The conditions for a real peace agreement are in place. The environment is perhaps more propitious for a deal than ever before in the last 50 years. Yet it is clear that the talks in Havana are not what the government has been selling, and that peace is not around the corner.

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