The publication of the long-awaited Final Report from Colombia’s Truth Commission has crystallized the core issues that President-elect Gustavo Petro must overcome if he is to achieve the peace that the country yearns for.
In late June, the Commission for the Clarification of Truth, Coexistence and Non-Repetition (Comisión para el Esclarecimiento de la Verdad, la Convivencia y la No Repetición) presented its final report on Colombia's history of conflict and provided dozens of recommendations for government policy. The report was presented directly to Colombia's president-elect, Gustavo Petro.
The Commission, created in 2017 after a peace deal was signed between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC) and the Colombian government, sought to tell the story of the internal conflict, its central actors and the victims left behind. These include highly controversial and difficult periods from Colombia's past, including mass kidnappings and massacres, as well as the falsos positivos (false positives) where Colombian security forces shot innocent people and dressed them up to look like guerrilla members.
Petro, a former member of the M-19 guerrilla group, declared that his government, which will take office on August 7, will follow the Commission’s recommendations.
But despite this pledge, InSight Crime considers how easy implementing this roadmap will actually be.
What Would a Change in Security Strategy Look Like?
One of the Truth Commission’s main recommendations is for the State to change its security strategy and to implement a reform within its security forces, which have been accused of participating in the murders of civilians, the persecution of political opponents, forced disappearances and of forming alliances with all kinds of criminal groups.
The report explains that, in order for the security strategy to work, the internal enemy concept that has shaped the country’s security strategy in recent decades must evolve, advocating for an approach that prioritizes peace-building and dialog with local communities.
The president-elect has indicated that he plans to create a Ministry of Peace, Security and Coexistence, and that the control of the country's National Police will be transferred from the Ministry of Defense to the new ministry. This plan comes as a response to petitions from different sectors for the police to focus on maintaining public safety rather than continuing with a militaristic approach.
However, this will not be an easy undertaking. Gustavo Petro has clashed with senior army commanders on several occasions, whom he has accused of being on the payroll of the Urabeños, also known as the Gulf Clan (Clan del Golfo) or the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia – AGC), the most important drug trafficking group in Colombia today.
Then there is the president-elect’s past as a former member of the demobilized M-19 guerrilla, which threatens to undermine his ability to command the country’s public security forces that for decades has seen the guerrillas as its main enemy.
To Resume or Not to Resume Peace Talks with the ELN?
The Truth Commission also recommends that the incoming government set the conditions for a peace negotiation with the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN), the last remaining guerrilla force in Colombia. This, the Commission explains, is necessary for Colombia to end major internal conflicts.
The day after Gustavo Petro won the presidential election, the ELN issued a public statement expressing the group’s willingness to resume peace talks with the incoming government and to create a “Great National Dialogue.” However, it also demanded that these negotiations include discussions of changes in foreign debt, free trade agreements and Colombia's integration with other Latin American countries, all central issues for the ELN’s war against the State.
The president-elect has announced that there will be a bilateral ceasefire, to initiate legal and political negotiations with the different armed groups, including the ELN, when he takes office. A commission for these talks has yet to be appointed.
Talks with the ELN look unlikely to pose a problem, but what does raise doubts is the guerrilla's ability to comply with any agreements made, including a possible disarmament. Colombia's past experience in peace talks with the group has not ended well, especially because of the group's horizontal structure that allows for individual fronts to make their own decisions.
Should Colombia Legalize Drugs?
The war on drug trafficking, a business that has fueled the country's internal conflict, is also mentioned in the Final Report.
The Commission indicates that in order to end the war on drugs and cut off the flow of drug proceeds to criminal groups, the government should bet on legalization, regulating the drug market and demilitarizing territories with coca crops.
This is more complicated than it sounds. First, traffickers in Colombia cultivate, produce and export at least three different types of drugs: cocaine, marijuana and heroin. These drugs do not usually share areas of cultivation and production, and they are transported to different international markets. They are also controlled by different criminal groups.
The most assured path for the Petro government is to bet on the full legalization of marijuana. While the legalization of marijuana has been criticized on the international stage, it has already been implemented in other countries and it would serve to reduce one source of income for criminal groups.
Can Colombia Achieve Real Peace?
The main objective, and the first recommendation of the Final Report, is to establish the conditions for Colombia to be at peace. Colombians have long yearned for peace, but it has been impossible to achieve in a single presidential term.
In order to achieve peace throughout the country, it is necessary to resume peace talks with the ELN, advance with drug legalization and reform the country's security strategy, but also to combat or demobilize the successors of the paramilitaries that remain active, such as the Urabeños. In addition, authorities much dismantle entrenched drug trafficking networks, which have been proved to be hard to identify and have a tremendous ability to corrupt State actors. Achieving real peace would also require the redistribution of lands, the central motive for the creation of the now-defunct FARC guerrilla.