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Colombia's Risky Bet on Total Peace

COLOMBIA / 13 SEP 2022 BY JUAN DIEGO POSADA EN

The “Total Peace” proposal put forth by Colombia’s President Gustavo Petro is focused on convincing criminal groups to lay down their arms. Still, whether the project has accounted for all the variables involved in that process is yet to be seen.

Presented to the Colombian House of Representatives in August, the “Total Peace” project has opened the door to peace talks with 26 criminal groups of various sizes.

SEE ALSO: Five Security Challenges for Gustavo Petro, Colombia’s Next President

Aware of how much controversy such an approach would cause, Petro rapidly explained the plan’s broad strokes. Ceasefires could be achieved with all groups involved. Any members of criminal groups who negotiated with the government would not be extradited to the United States, according to the new president. In a gesture of good faith, Petro also suspended arrest warrants and extradition requests for certain members of the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN), the most prominent non-state armed actor in Colombia.

"We are going to do everything necessary to open these dialogues and advance them to the fullest. Achieving total peace is an ambitious goal," Iván Cepeda, a senator with the Alternative Democratic Pole (Polo Democrático Alternativo) party and a leading supporter of the Total Peace plan, told InSight Crime.

According to the senator, the plan provides a “general framework” for these peace processes. While some groups, such as the ELN, will be welcomed to negotiating tables with teams of envoys, talks would be started with other groups through authorized spokespersons. Cepeda did not specify which criminal gangs would fall into each category.  

Petro’s plan also gives powers to regional political leaders, allowing them to initiate humanitarian dialogues with criminal groups and create temporary relocation zones for members willing to demobilize.

According to Cepeda, those criminal groups exclusively linked to drug trafficking will be the focus of another proposal to be presented in the near future.  

InSight Crime Analysis

Petro's peace proposal is undoubtedly ambitious. But what happens when things go wrong?

An overarching focus on cooperation by criminal groups leaves plenty of room for error, which may force Petro to use similar security policies to his predecessors.

For Total Peace to work, illegal groups in Colombia must agree to negotiate and submit themselves to the country’s judicial process. While Petro’s government has laid out the legal benefits available to those who do lay down their arms, these have not always been attractive to criminal groups and do not resolve the factors that led to Colombia’s continuing cycle of violence.

"The country does not really know who these groups are and how they operate ... We have [groups like] the Gulf Clan (Clan del Golfo, also known as the Urabeños or the Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia). They have particular structures associated with corruption. We do not know to what extent these organizations, especially the Gulf Clan, can guarantee collective compliance [from members],” Jorge Mantilla, director of the conflict and organized violence research at Fundación Ideas para la Paz (FIP), a Colombian think tank, told InSight Crime.

There are other crucial factors that will help or hinder groups’ willingness to demobilize, such as the presence of Colombian authorities in remote regions where they operate, and the range of criminal economies these groups participate in.  

While drug trafficking and armed violence are at the heart of Petro’s proposals, Colombian criminal groups are actively involved in a wide range of illicit economies.

SEE ALSO: Exploring Illegal Mining in Colombia’s Amazon

"We have very little information about illegal mining, deforestation, extortion,” added Mantilla. “As long as there is no possibility of deactivating or containing these economies, we will continue this recycling process [where new groups take over]. It will be very difficult to diminish the phenomenon of organized crime,” he said.

Colombia’s recent history proves this. Since the demobilization of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Revolucionarias Armadas de Colombia – FARC) in 2017, thousands of former guerrillas have refused to lay down their arms. This led to a network of loosely connected criminal groups known as the ex-FARC Mafia. These groups have often shifted their alliances and rivalries, varyingly fighting side by side or against each other for control of criminal economies left behind by the FARC. Worse, this has only increased the number of groups present in Colombia, further complicating Petro’s task.

Mantilla noted that processes with goals similar to Total Peace have existed in Central America. But while they led to short-term decreases in violence, a return to high levels of violence can be seen if they are not successfully completed.

In Colombia, there appears to be a high risk of eventual failure. Criminal recycling, the fragmentation of existing groups, internecine warfare between those laying down their arms and those refusing to do so -- there remain many risk factors that could see a return to the violent norm.

And what can Petro do? There has been little attention given to what will happen to those who refuse to comply.

Challenges to his vision have already begun. Seven police officers were gunned down in the department of Huila in early September allegedly by an ex-FARC Mafia group while a rivalry between the Gulf Clan and a smaller rival recently left over a dozen dead in northern Colombia in two days.

These gruesome events will continue to dog the Total Peace process.

For Cepeda, the answer is clear. There is no Plan B for those who do not lay down their arms, and those who do not comply will face military retaliation, he explained to InSight Crime.

And while Petro has changed the rhetoric around the Colombian armed forces, pledging that it will be an “army of peace,” this may not be possible.

One false step in the Total Peace project may see Petro forced to mobilize his army to chase down criminal targets, returning to the policies of his predecessors, which he once lambasted.

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