After more than half a decade of conflict and three years of negotiations, a peace agreement between Colombia’s government and the country’s largest guerrilla group is expected to be signed on this month. Will this agreement finally bring peace to Colombia? Not by itself. After years of human rights violations from both sides, Colombia needs social changes, along with a strong international presence, in order to become a truly stable country.
On March 2 2008, Juan Oviedo Monroy left his home in Soacha, a poor area of Bogotá, the capital of Colombia for a job interview. He asked his mother Blanca to leave some food for him when he got back. He said wouldn’t be long.
He never returned.
Six months later, his mother found out he had been found dead in the city of Bucaramanga, in the district of Santander, over 400 kilometres from Soacha. No information about his disappearance or death was given to the parents.
After some time, rumours began to spread that young men from the area had been found in the same area. Juan’s father travelled there with a couple of other families.
“When they got there, a soldier told him; did you know your son was a guerillero?”, Blanca said in an interview with Peace for Colombia, a British NGO working with human rights.
Could this be true? Juan left home on March 2, and was killed early next day. How could he had been recruited by the guerrilla, gone into battle and been killed, all in less than 24 hours?
The answer is: he hadn’t. In order to tackle the problem with insurgent guerrilla groups, soldiers had been told they would get a bonus for every dead guerrilla member they could present. Instead of actually getting the real ones, they chose an ’easier’ way. They found young men, poor or mentally disabled, kidnapped them, and killed them. The Falsos positivos (Spanish for ”false positives”) scandal, as it is called, broke in 2009 and is one of the biggest scandals in Colombian history. Since 2002, more than 3000 young men had been killed by the Colombian military.
The Colombian conflict began in the early sixties. After a decade of political violence, an era called la Violencia, leftist guerrillas were founded by students and peasants. Right-wing paramilitary groups appeared, working closely with rich landowners. For the past 51 years, more than 220 000 people have been killed, with 6,3 million internally displaced, according to the CIA World Factbook.
The Falsos positivos scandal was not the first political scandal in Colombia. Corruption and violence has created a nation where people do not trust their government.
”In the guerrilla they have a life; outside they’re in hell,” said Carlos Vidales, historian at Stockholm University and former Colombian guerrilla member, in a documentary about the Colombian conflict on Radio Sweden.
The largest of the guerrilla groups is the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC), originally the military arm of the Communist party. Peace talks with FARC have been going on since November 2012, and are expected to be concluded with the signing of an agreement on March 23. This is the fourth attempt on peace negotiations in thirty years, and the first since 2002. FARC decided on a unilateral ceasefire in December 2014. According to a report issued by the United Nations, conflict-related violence is at its lowest levels in thirty years since the ceasefire began.
Global participation in the peace talks, which take place in Havana, has until recently been sparse. No international mediator has been part of the talks, although Norway, Cuba, Chile and Venezuela have been present from the start of the negotiations. The United Nations, United States and European Union have all sent envoys to monitor the meetings, and have supported a troika of non-partisan mediators, consisting of members of the
Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), along with the UN.
The European Union is a ”strong supporter”, as a press release from the Commission stated, of the peace process. Colombia is also one of the strongest US allies in Latin America, and President Obama has pledged an aide package of 450 million dollars to secure peace and stability.
“These are momentous days for Latin America. Days of change, days of new challenges and, potentially, days of reconciliation. Such change needs to be driven, encouraged, accompanied,” said High Representative Federica Mogherini when she addressed the European Parliament in January this year. She added that ”when the opportunity for positive change arises, our European Union has an interest to support such change” and urged the parliament to support the peace proceedings.
The peace agreement includes the release of FARC members from jail, as well as a bilateral programme for ”reparations” for victims of the conflict, that has already been signed. After scandals such as the Falsos positivos, and the general distrust in the ruling class, the government has a chance to prove it is indeed worthy of the people’s trust.
FARC, too has a chance to prove themselves worthy of the people’s trust. In a poll conducted for Colombian news magazine Semana, only 9% had a favourable view of FARC’s leader. Even though support allegedly remains high in rural areas, the support has gone down in recent years.
Here is where one of the main problems with an agreement lie. FARC is caught up in a web of criminal activities. Large parts of their funding comes from kidnappings and cocaine trade. Between 1970 and 2010 they kidnapped 25 000 people, including a presidential candidate and hundreds of foreign aid workers. 70% of the world’s cocaine trade originates in Colombia. FARC controls 60% of the Colombian cocaine trade, according to the American Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). They are deeply involved with European crime syndicates, such as the Calabrian ’Ndrangheta, who according to multiple sources control large parts of cocaine import to Europe.
”FARC are no longer a revolutionary alternative,” said historian Carlos Vidales in 2010. Since then, the membership has decreased from 10,000 active members to around 8,000. If FARC lays down their arms, why would someone else not pick them up?
FARC members opposing the peace agreement have turned to other groups, such as the National Liberation Army, ELN. There have been attempts at starting peace talks between ELN and the government, but it hasn’t gotten anywhere. ELN is, according to Colombia Reports, more radical than FARC, and there are no signs suggesting the group will cease to fight.
Recently, they have taken over former FARC strongholds. ELN is, with its 2000 fighters, the second largest guerrilla in Colombia, and their methods are similar. Although ELN has called cocaine trade ”anti-revolutionary” in the past, they have in entered the drug trade in later years.
And why wouldn’t they? Controlling the cocaine business means power. Drug kingpin Pablo Escobar was listed by Forbes in 1989 as the 7th richest man in the world, with a net worth of 25 billion dollars. He even offered to pay off the entire Colombian national debt of 10 billion dollars. Escobar was killed by American anti-drug agents in 1993, and drug cartels have been trying to fill his shoes ever since. The coca cultivation of coca plants was in decline for many years, but according to the American Enterprise Institute, is has been increasing since 2014, when it increased with almost 40%. Nothing suggests the cocaine cultivation or trade will go down. The drug is still popular in both the Americas and in Europe.
A chance for peace?
The last time FARC agreed on peace, in the early 1980’s, it ended in thousands of former guerrilla members being killed by paramilitaries connected to regional politicians and wealthy landowners. No one wants this to happen again. After the peace agreement is signed, the UN has agreed to send in a peacekeeping force, to keep the country stable. The US and EU also have a big task in what happens after an agreement. The EU:s policy regarding Colombia includes a free trade agreement (FTA), and a global programme helping with de-mining. Mines injure hundreds of Colombians every year.
Military solutions have proven futile when fighting the guerrillas. The Falsos positivos scandal is but one example that showed the people they have no reason to trust the army. American military intervention in Latin America has had catastrophic consequences in the past, and their strategy of ”bombing” coca fields have only put poor farmers out of work, pushing them into the arms of the guerrilla.
Non-military international presence in Colombia has however been fruitful. Human rights violations have been reported by European and American NGO:s, thereby being spread to the rest of the world. This has put pressure on Colombia’s government. An American aide package can do more than military intervention, and Europe’s seemingly genuine interest in Colombia can make good things for the country.
Social changes are needed in Colombia. The rural population is still living in poverty, and the level of crime is among the highest in the world. If careful steps are taken, without repeating the mistakes of the past – harsh methods to crush the violence – the people can finally gain trust for their government. This can finally end the violence that has been tearing this country apart for so many years.
Colombian peace process
The talks began in Oslo, Norway in November 2012 and were moved to Havana, Cuba the following year. The negotiations are based on six principles, here phrased by the Council on foreign relations:
Promoting rural development and land reform; permitting FARC’s political participation; reintegrating rebels into civilian life; eradicating illegal crops and drug trafficking; transitional justice, and reparation, including rebel disarmament.