The last time a Colombian president sat down to negotiate peace with an illegal armed group, the process took almost five years. This time, the difficulty has increased. President Gustavo Petro is seeking to negotiate with more than 20.
In 2016, the Colombian government, headed by then-President Juan Manuel Santos and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC) guerrillas signed their final peace agreement. Nearly 13,000 fighters from the longest-running guerrilla group in the Western Hemisphere surrendered their weapons. Santos won the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize for this accomplishment.
But since Santos left power in 2018, the FARC agreement has left Colombia facing its bitterly divided legacy.
Each president of Colombia must lay out their vision for peace. Upon coming to power in August 2022, he revealed the Paz Total (Total Peace) plan, which seeks to negotiate with around two dozen armed groups or criminal gangs of different sizes.
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To date, more than 25 armed groups, criminals or criminal gangs have expressed their willingness to join Total Peace, among them the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN), the Urabeños -- also known as the Gulf Clan (Clan del Golfo) and the Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia – AGC) -- and several FARC dissident groups that form part of a group of actors known collectively as the ex-FARC mafia.
Should these dialogues be carried out simultaneously, Colombia will be in uncharted territory. Sitting down for negotiations should lead, at least temporarily, to a change in the behavior of the groups involved and in the government's security policy.
But the Total Peace plan also has plenty of room for disappointment.
"If there is no Total Peace, there may be total frustration," Luis Fernando Trejos, a political analyst and professor at the Universidad del Norte, told InSight Crime.
Successful or not, Total Peace will unquestionably impact organized crime dynamics in Colombia over the next four years and beyond.
The Road Ahead
Peace Commissioner Danilo Rueda has traveled across Colombia, carrying the call of Total Peace to illegal groups. But after only four months in office, there is still much to be done for the Petro government.
The ELN, the country's largest armed group, is already in negotiations with the government. But the ELN has come to the table before: In 2017, the Colombian state and the ELN began peace talks that were abruptly ended in 2019 by the group's bombing of a police academy in Bogotá, which killed more than 20 people.
The so-called Southeastern Bloc of the ex-FARC mafia, formerly commanded by the deceased Miguel Botache Santillana, alias "Gentil Duarte," signed a joint communiqué with the Colombian peace commissioner, where they set out the conditions for dialogue, including a bilateral ceasefire and the participation of neutral third parties.
The leadership of this bloc and the armed structures associated with it were inherited by Néstor Gregorio Vera, alias "Iván Mordisco," following Gentil Duarte's death in May 2022. In mid-July 2022, Moridisco was reported dead by the Colombian government, but later reappeared in a video expressing his willingness to join the Total Peace plan and ordering the factions under his control to refrain from fighting security forces.
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Additionally, in October, Rueda confirmed that he met with Luciano Marín Arango, alias "Iván Márquez," leader of the Second Marquetalia, to learn about the group's interest in a peace deal. The meeting came months after Marín was seriously wounded during an armed attack in Venezuela.
Other criminal groups, such as the Urabeños, have attempted to align themselves with the still-fledging Total Peace plan. From 2017, their former leader, Dairo Antonio Úsuga, alias "Otoniel," sought to negotiate his surrender and the group's disarmament. His efforts led nowhere. But since Otoniel's capture in October 2021, the Urabeños have been bereft of clear leadership. The announcement of their willingness to talk with the government came at a critical moment. In October, the group published a communiqué announcing it had started a dialogue with the Colombian state.
Other groups and gangs, smaller but no less important to Colombia's dynamics of violence and criminality, have also expressed their interest in joining the process. In the department of Valle del Cauca, Petro's government has had approaches from gangs such as the Shottas and the Espartanos, while in Magdalena, Atlántico, and Putumayo, groups including the Pachenca, Rastrojos Costeños, and the Border Command, have also expressed their willingness to join the government initiative.
In Antioquia, the peace commissioner called on groups such as the Caparrapos and the Pachelly to join Total Peace, while in Medellín, different criminal gangs have agreed to pacts of non-aggression as a sign of their commitment to dialogue.
However, there is a strong possibility that some groups may not be interested in entering into dialogue with the state. To date, at least ten targeted armed groups remain silent despite the government's offers. These pose a challenge to the implementation of Petro's peace policy.
The Future of Total Peace
Criminal groups are continuing their illegal activities at the same time that they enter into dialogue with the state.
In departments including Antioquia, Chocó, Cauca, Nariño, Norte de Santander, Putumayo, and Arauca, populations continue to be displaced or trapped in their homes by armed groups. This is because, for all the goodwill they may have, these groups rely on criminal economies, such as drug trafficking, for their financing.
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"Many of these organizations are linked to illegal, transnational economies ... as they are part of transnational crime chains. It is possible that their international counterparts, once a local group demobilizes and lays down its arms, will move quickly to encourage said group to rearm or create another group to maintain active production of cocaine to supply international markets," said Trejos.
This possibility is not far-fetched. Colombia has lived through this before when the FARC demobilized, since rival groups rapidly moved to reclaim the drug trafficking territories it left behind. Many ex-FARC soldiers who laid down their arms were later targeted and killed in retribution.
Likewise, the process will have to face internal dissent within groups, as some refuse to demobilize or give up their criminal income. Said fragmentation in the wake of the FARC peace deal has been a major driver of violence in Colombia.
"We do not know what the state's response will be to the first groups that do not want to participate in Total Peace, nor to those that abandon it once it has begun," Trejos pointed out.
The same question was posed by InSight Crime a few weeks ago to Polo Democrático Alternativo (Alternative Democratic Pole - PDA) Senator Iván Cepeda, an ally of the Petro government and a proponent of the Total Peace project.
"Military confrontation will be the option," Cepeda replied.
This would mark a return to the strategies that all previous Colombian presidents have leaned on with limited success.
With negotiations between the state and Colombia's various armed actors still in their early days, it is not clear where they will lead.