FARC Announces Unilateral, Indefinite Ceasefire Beginning Saturday

Wed., Dec. 17, 2014

At a press conference at 3 p.m. this afternoon, Iván Márquez, the FARC’s lead negotiator, announced that the FARC would initiate a unilateral ceasefire and cessation of hostilities beginning on Saturday, Dec. 20 at 12:01 a.m. (See the FARC press release here.)  This will be the FARC’s fifth unilateral ceasefire since the peace talks with the government began in 2012.  These included two FARC ceasefires for the holiday seasons in 2012 and 2013, and two temporal ceasefires (one jointly with the ELN) during the presidential elections and the runoff election period earlier this year.  What makes this ceasefire different, however, is that it will be of indefinite length, and the FARC have suggested that it could lead to an Armistice.  The move is being interpreted broadly within Colombia as a significant “gesture of peace” that suggests that the talks are inching closer toward producing a final peace agreement.

One worrisome caveat–the unilateral ceasefire would be halted “only if we confirm that our guerrilla structures have been the object of attacks by the Armed (Public) Forces,” notes the FARC communiqué.  Since the government has never agreed to a ceasefire–in fact the Colombian government has consistently opposed a bilateral ceasefire and has accelerated the military offensive against the FARC during the peace talks–the likelihood of continued military attacks on the FARC is quite high.  The future of this gesture is thus highly dependent on the government’s response.

Jorge Restrepo, director of the Center for Conflict Resolution Resources (CERAC) suggested that the government consider reciprocating with its own peace gesture.  It could for example “offer to cease offensive and defensive military operations, or stop installing military posts and camps near the civilian population.” (More here.)  These would be important steps in reducing levels of violence and also demonstrate the government’s commitment to peace.

In the meantime, adequate monitoring and verification mechanisms will be absolutely indispensable for helping to reduce the impact of ongoing bellicose actions and, in addition, of predictable spoiler actions.  Establishing joint conflict resolution mechanisms and working with international and national partners to ensure FARC compliance with the ceasefire can also help circumvent problems before they appear. In this regard, the FARC have invited national and international organizations, as well as the citizenry, to assist in monitoring the ceasefire.  The FARC called on UNASUR, CELAC, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the Broad Front for Peace to help  monitor the ceasefire.  The Broad Front for Peace is a relatively new coalition established by political parties and movements of the left during the presidential campaigns earlier this year. (See my post here.)

Civil society support for a bilateral ceasefire has been mounting in recent months.   All of the five victims’ delegations who have visited Cuba monthly in each cycle since August, the six women’s groups who visited Cuba earlier this week, church leaders, political parties, and social movements have issued calls for the parties to enact a bilateral ceasefire and to enact measures that would reduce the violence.  They have also urged the parties to stay at the table until an agreement is reached.

Fifth Victims’ Delegation

On Monday, Dec. 16, the dozen victims selected by the United Nations, the Catholic Episcopal Conference, and the National University to participate in the delegation to Havana met with the peace delegations.  (See the communiqué and a full list of the victims here.)

Participants in this last victims’ delegation included six men and six women, bringing to 60 the number of victims who have met with the peace delegates since August.  This delegation, like its predecessors, included victims of different armed groups.  Unlike previous delegations, it included representatives of Atlántico and Sucre departments.  The selection underscored the victimization of human rights defenders and their families, political leaders and leaders of collective reparations processes, and representatives of communities that have been endangered by the activities of large development projects and mining initiatives.  The delegation also included a labor leader, a member of the business sector, academics, and a woman religious.  The UN mission in Colombia is expected to produce a report on the five victims’ delegations, which I will post here when it becomes available.

31st Cycle Summary

The final days of the 31st cycle of talks in Havana were marked by discussions between the plenipotentiaries and the gender sub commission as well as the participation of  national and international gender experts at and outside the table (see my previous post).  It culminated with the fifth and final delegation of victims to Havana, and the announcement of the FARC ceasefire.  The historical commission on the conflict and its victims is continuing its work and is expected to produce its report shortly.  The technical sub commission on the end of the conflict is also continuing its work.

At the close of the 31st cycle today, Humberto de la Calle, lead Colombian government negotiator in Havana, noted some of these accomplishments of the peace table in 2014.   (See his statement here.)  Hopefully, in the next round, which will be held early in 2015, he will be able to add a successful ceasefire to his list of successes.

 

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Gender Experts Arrive in Havana

December 16, 2014
With the renewal of the peace talks in Havana on Dec. 10, the Colombian government and FARC-EP negotiating teams are moving full steam ahead, the visit of the first of three women’s organizations to the peace table has now been complete, and the fifth and final delegation of victims to the peace table is in Havana as of this writing.  In an historic event, the first of three groups of gender experts arrived in Havana early this week to meet with the gender sub commission and members of the negotiating teams.  The peace delegates of the Colombian government and the FARC-EP had announced the formation of the sub commission last June and formally installed it on September 7th.  The gender sub commission is mandated “to review and guarantee, with the support of national and international experts,” any peace agreements reached and to ensure that they “have an adequate gender focus.”  (See my earlier posts here.)  Exactly what this means in operational terms has yet to be clarified, but in procedural terms, the participation of women’s organizations is an important step forward.

Women at the Table

Women’s groups have been lobbying hard for a role in the peace talks since the talks  began.  Following a major summit on women and peace in October 2013 that brought together some 400 women from throughout the county to demand a place for women at the peace table, women secured spots for two government negotiators–María Paulina Riveros and Nigeria Rentería.  (See my Foreign Policy piece on their appointment here.)  This week’s delegation to Havana included members of some of the oldest and most respected women’s organizations and leaders working for a political solution to Colombia’s armed conflict:

  • Patricia Ariza (Colombian Theatre Company and National Network of Women Artists for Peace/Corporación Colombiana de Teatro y Red Nacional de Mujeres Artistas por la Paz)
  • Ángela Cerón, Initiative of Women for Peace/Iniciativa de Mujeres por la Paz
  • Esther Marina Gallego, Pacific Route of Women/Ruta Pacífica de Mujeres and the National Summit of Women and Peace/Cumbre Nacional de Mujeres y Paz
  • Claudia Mejía, Sisma-Mujer
  • Ana Elsa Rojas, Association of Women for Peace and the Defense of Colombian Women’s Human Rights/Asociación de Mujeres por la Paz y la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos de las Mujeres Colombianas (ASODEMUC)
  • Olga Amparo Sánchez, House of Women/Casa de la Mujer.

The aforementioned women were accompanied in Havana by three international gender experts:

  • Magalis Arocha, Cuban gender expert
  • Hilde Salvesen, Norwegian Gender Expert
  • Belén Sanz Luque, Director, UN-Women, Colombia

On Monday, Dec. 15, the FARC delegation issued a statement welcoming the delegates to  the sub commission hearings, and paid tribute to women’s multiple roles in the history of the continent and in Colombia.  “Demonstrating our special commitment toward the rights of women,” the statement noted, “we consider it indispensable to adopt mechanisms that will guarantee the full satisfaction of the former, as well as [women’s] leading role in the attainment of peace and national reconciliation as well as in the building of the new Colombia that will arise from a a peace accord.”  (Read their statement here.)

Women Call for Holiday Cessation of Military Actions

Following meetings with members of both peace delegations, the Colombian women’s groups held a press conference on Monday afternoon.  They called on the government and the FARC-EP to declare a “cessation of military hostilities” for Christmas and the new year.  “This would be the expression of a political will on both sides to provide the setting for peace in Colombian society,” the women said. (See more here.)  Patricia Ariza affirmed that such a bilateral ceasefire “would be a gift for the country” and “the Christmas star for the victims of the armed conflict.” (See more here.)The women expressed their hope that women’s participation at the table in Havana might be a turning point in Colombian history, and affirmed their desire to be full participants (as “pactantes y no pactadas”) in determining their country’s future.  “Our voices count not only for the construction of peace, but also for ending the armed conflict,” they noted. The women pressed for:
  • Participation of women in all phases and mechanisms of the peace process, and recognition of the diversity of Afro-Colombia, indigenous, peasant, rural, urban, young women, and members of the LGTBI community;
  • The equitable distribution of goods, services, resources, and wealth between women and men;
  • Guarantees for the rights of women conflict victims to truth, justice, reparations, non-repetition and a truth commission;
  • A de-escalation of armed actions and a commitment for the parties to stay at the table until a peace accord is reached.  (See more here.)

The engagement of the gender sub commission and the presence of women in Havana (as well as the concerted effort to bring victims into the process) are important elements in  establishing a voice for women at the table.  The women delegates recognized that the Government and the FARC had shown the “political will” to listen to them and to hear their proposals.  (See more here.)  Two other delegations of gender experts are expected to visit Havana when talks resume in the new year following the holiday recess.

Significance of the Visit

Women’s participation at the peace table is an important symbolic reparation for both the historic continuum of inequality, discrimination, exclusion, and violence to which women have been subjected, as well as their particular victimization during the internal armed conflict.  Beyond the important symbolism, the question is whether women’s proposals in Havana will be taken seriously and transformed into policy options that promote sustainable peace with gender equity and empowerment for girls and women.  Will the truth commissions, land commissions, peace constituencies, reconciliation commissions, and other mechanisms that are established as part of the peace accords include women and gender considerations in their design, composition, implementation, and evaluation?  Will gender-sensitive budgeting exercises be enacted such that the budgets for development projects designed to help pull the country out of war benefit men and women alike?  If violence against women and the LGBTI community has been a weapon of war, will this weapon be explicitly decommissioned in any ceasefire agreements? Will respect rather than dominance be promoted as the new model for masculinity during peacetime?  Will female and male ex-combatants each be given appropriate, differentiated options that meet their needs?

A peace process offers opportunities at every turn to generate the scaffolding for a more democratic, egalitarian society.  Democracies, interestingly, are less inclined to turn to war as a means for resolving conflict. Embracing women as true partners for peace will thus both deepen Colombian democracy and stave off a return to war.

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Sec. State Kerry Heads to Colombia and Peru: View His Pre-Departure Address Today

Dec. 10, 2014

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry travels to Peru and Mexico on Dec. 11 and 12th to “advance U.S. engagement in the Western Hemisphere” and support “international responses to climate change.  (See announcement of trip here.) He will give a pre-departure address on the 20th Anniversary of the Summit of the Americas at 2:45 pm (EST) today, live streamed on www.state.gov.

In Peru, Sec. Kerry will meet with President Ollanta Humala to “highlight the importance of our growing bilateral relationship” and congratulate will focus largely on climate change issues.  In Colombia, he will meet with President Juan Manuel Santos to underscore U.S. support for the government of Colombia’s effort “to achieve a lasting peace that will bring greater security and prosperity to its citizens.”

U.S. Influence in Latin America

For those in the DC area, Cong. Sam Farr will host a hearing on “U.S. Influence in Latin America” at 10am, next Wed., Dec 17 in the Congressional Meeting Room North of the Capitol Visitors Center.  Panelists include:

  • Carl Meacham, Director, Americas Program, Center for Strategic & International Studies;
  • Joy Olson, Executive Director, Washington Office on Latin America.

The session will be moderated by Mark P. Sullivan, Specialist in Latin American Affairs at the Congressional Research Service.

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Back on Track: Colombian Peace Talks Resume Today in Havana

Dec. 10, 2014

The peace delegations of the government of Colombia and the FARC-EP return to the table in Havana to resume talks today, thereby putting an end to the crisis that was precipitated by the detention of a high-ranking military officer in Chocó three weeks ago.  The detention on Nov. 16 of General Rubén Darío Alzáte, commander of the Titan Task Force, and his two companions, José Rodríguez Contreras and Gloria Urrego, had prompted the Colombian government to suspend the peace talks in Havana before the last session began.  (See my earlier posts for details of the crisis.)

Agenda of the 31st Cycle

During the 31st cycle, the technical sub-commission on ending the conflict will continue its work, as will the commission on the conflict and its victims.  On Dec. 15, the parties will receive the first delegation of organizations related to the gender sub-commission, and on Dec. 16, the fifth and final delegation of victims will participate at the peace table.  The 31st cycle is expected to end on Dec. 17, and the next round of talks has been announced for the second half of January 2015.

The Resolution of the Crisis

With the intervention of the Norwegians, Cubans, and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the resolution of last month’s crisis was carried out quickly and quietly.  Within days of the suspension of the talks on Nov. 16, protocols for a humanitarian agreement were signed and two FARC leaders — Pastor Alape and Carlos Lozano — were authorized to leave the table and return to Arauca and Chocó in order to facilitate the releases of those who had been captured in their respective commands.  On Nov. 24, FARC Commander Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri (“Timochenko”) announced that with the suspension of the talks, President Santos had “overturned the table where we were playing,” and thus made renewal of the talks impossible without some unspecified “considerations.”  These adjustments, however, appear to have been made and the crisis resolved with tremendous agility through a series of agreements, protocols, and mediations.

Arauca Releases

On Nov. 25, the FARC turned Paulo César Rivera y Jonathan Andrés Díaz, the two soldiers who had been captured in combat in Arauca on Nov. 9, over to ICRC representatives, and announced that they had “completed the goals of the first phase of the Special Humanitarian Agreement,” and FARC leaders called on the Colombian military to cease their operations in Chocó, as had been agreed, in order to minimize the risks associated with the anticipated releases in that zone. (See the FARC press release here.)  Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos noted that the Arauca releases represent “an important step that demonstrates the maturity of the process and the gestures of peace that all Colombians are calling for,” he said.  (See his statement here.)

Chocó Releases 

On Nov. 29, the FARC delegation announced that they were activating a special humanitarian protocol for the release of those still being held in Chocó, and the next day, the FARC released General Alzate and his two companions.   The following day, the General was called to task for irregularities in the events that lead up to his detention.  (See relevant Foreign Policy article here.)  Alzate explained that he was working on  development alternatives for the Chocó region, including an alternative energy project on the Atrato River, and that, given the “suspicion of the community towards the Army,” he adopted security measures that included providing disinformation about his route and final destination and refusing accompaniment by his security team.  In keeping with this low-profile approach and in violation of security protocols, General Alzate traveled down  the Atrato River unarmed and dressed in civilian garb. (See related Semana article here.)  The General publicly recognized that he had violated security protocols (see my earlier post here) and tendered his resignation, which was duly accepted by President Santos.

Peace Process Evaluated

That same day, President Santos announced that members of the government delegation would return to Havana to evaluate the status of the process, its future direction, and “to make a cold objective evaluation of the process in order to see how we will continue.” (See President’s statement here.)  Santos noted that “although the measure taken by the FARC corresponds to their duty to act within the law, it is evident that that decision contributes to recovering a climate propitious for continuing the talks,  [and] demonstrates the maturity of the process.”

Lead negotiator Humberto de la Calle and Peace Commissioner Sergio Jaramillo thus returned to Havana on Monday, Nov. 30 to meet with their counterparts and discuss next steps.  They were accompanied by retired generals Jorge Mora (Army) and Oscar Naranjo (Police), who also form part of the government’s negotiating team, and met on Tuesday and Wednesday with their FARC negotiator counterparts — Iván Márquez, “Rodrigo Granda”, “Pablo Catatumbo” and “Pastor Alape”.  The FARC delegation for its part noted that “whoever imposed the suspension of the talks cannot come back with the pretension of also imposing the date of their resumption as though nothing had happened.  The rules that govern the momentum of the process will have to be re-designed, as the government broke them, rupturing in the process the bridge of trust that we had built.  From our side we are fully prepared to act accordingly, including the ability to permanently shield the talks, [through] agreeing an Armistice.” (See the FARC statement here and analysis from Semana here.)

Renewal of Talks 

After two days of discussion, on Dec. 3, the parties issued a joint statement that was read by the representatives of Cuba and Norway, who have accompanied the process since the start and were pivotal in brokering the resolution of the recent crisis.  The parties announced that talks would resume from Dec. 10-17, and that, “after conducting a joint analysis of the events of recent weeks, we consider the crisis to have been resolved.”  They agreed to establish a “standing mechanism, through the guarantor countries, to facilitate the solution of possible crises that might present themselves in the future.”  (See their joint statement here.)  Such a mechanism will help ensure that the process stays on track despite events outside the table.  On Monday, Dec. 8, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos noted in the XXIV Iberoamerican Summit of Heads of State and Government being held in Veracruz (México), that the negotiators will “renew their conversations in what I hope will be a very positive environment, that will allow us to advance even more rapidly.” (See statement here.)

Gestures of Peace

In the aftermath of last month’s suspension, both sides are now seeking “gestures of peace” to build confidence between the parties and with their broader constituencies.  The parties have agreed that the main priority of the 31st round of talks will be to “advance on the theme of de-escalation of the armed conflict, with the goal of reaching an agreement as quickly as possible.” (See joint statement here.)  President Santos reiterated that this is “an important step in building confidence and a better environment for being able to progress more rapidly, because this is another of our goals in settling this armed conflict completely and thus saving lives, saving suffering, and at last, after 50 years, having peace in our country.” (See President Santos’s statement here.)

Government negotiator Humberto de la Calle clarified further, “When we speak of de-escalation, we are talking about possible measures aimed at the end of the conflict.  We are not speaking of regularizing the war, but ending it.  And we are thinking that there might initially be measures, more of a humanitarian than a military nature, that might end up reducing the intensity of the confrontation.”  (See De la Calle’s statement here.) De la Calle expressed the hope that once the immediate crisis is surmounted, the pace of the talks in Havana might speed up.  “It is the moment for making decisions, it is time now to take concrete steps, rhetoric is not enough, we Colombians need to receive concrete, real evidence of peace, gestures, de-escalation; we have to move ourselves in that direction.” (See relevant article here.)

In a statement on Dec. 1, the FARC-EP peace delegation concurred. “We agree with the idea that it is time to pass from discussion to action, implying that at least we should begin to execute the transformations mentioned in the partial agreements and to slow down the promotion of laws that are contrary to them,” they noted.  (See FARC statement here.)

De-Escalation Gains Constituents

Consensus seems to be emerging around the need for de-escalation, though there are differences over exactly what that means.  ExPresident Alvaro Uribe and his followers, as well as Inspector General Alejandro Ordóñez, are calling for a unilateral guerrilla ceasefire and the concentration of the guerrillas in a special demobilization zone.  The Central Command of the National Liberation Army (ELN), for its part, noted in a Dec. 9th communiqué on “Acclimatizing Colombia for Peace,” that it would be wiser to de-escalate the causes and practices which originated and reproduce [the conflict].”  (See the ELN statement here.)  Much of civil society, leftist politicians, and church people support a bilateral ceasefire, as does the FARC-EP.  (See for example the statement of the churches here or my prior post outlining civil society responses here.)

While the lack of a bilateral ceasefire allows President Santos to appease the military and squelch fears that the FARC will use a ceasefire for military advantage, FARC credibility suffers with each act of war that the guerrillas prosecute.  The FARC is clearly disadvantaged by the status quo in that their bellicose actions, unlike government military actions, are viewed as violating the spirit of the peace process.  Likewise, the continued violence more generally fuels public skepticism about the peace process.

To the extent that the war continues to be prosecuted, civil society’s simultaneous skepticism of and hope in the peace process continue to grow, particularly in the zones of greatest conflict where the human costs are highest.  A study by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) documented more than a thousand attacks, an average of 61 acts of war per month, in the period since peace talks began in Nov. 2012 and June 2014. (Read the report here.) Likewise, the report notes that there have been more than 310,000 new victims of the armed conflict in that same time frame.  This number includes 305,624 victims of displacement, and includes actions by both criminal bands (which the government does not consider as conflict actors) and guerrillas, with the latter the primary culprits of forced displacement, according to the report.  Government statistics from the Unit for the Attention and Integral Reparation of Victims puts the figure for displacement for the same period at 248,276. (See reference here.)  While the figures are unacceptably high, it should be noted that they do represent a significant improvement in comparison to past years.

While a bilateral ceasefire is not completely out of the question, the more likely scenario, at least initially, is a series of limited, verifiable, humanitarian actions that would limit the impact of the armed conflict on the Colombian population.  Such actions might relate to ending the recruitment of minors and releasing child soldiers from guerrilla ranks, escalating de-mining efforts, ending attacks on infrastructures and bombings, protecting civilians and vulnerable populations such as Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities, ending hostilities for a limited time or scope, or agreeing on rules that certain targets (near hospitals or schools, for example) will be off-limits for military assaults. (For further discussion, click here.)

In recent weeks, the FARC has also accelerated its efforts on behalf of those being held in Colombian prisons, a gesture toward “fallen comrades” that is common as peace processes reach their final phases.  In late Nov., the FARC-EP peace delegation published a letter from FARC-EP prisoners being held in the Eron Picota prison in Bogota that outlined potential peace gestures on the government’s part.  The prisoners wrote, “We understand and agree with the release of the soldiers and the General as a magnanimous gesture of good will by the FARC-EP on the path of seeking a political solution to the conflict.  But we consider that the national government must act with common sense and a bit of humanism improving our life conditions and carrying out concrete, reciprocal gestures that also show a will for peace.”  The letter alleges mistreatment, torture, and lack of adequate medical care, and calls for the release of “those men and women comrades who find themselves in the most delicate health situation, along with the elderly, and mothers, who are in no condition to continue fighting.”  (Read the FARC letter here.)  Other FARC communiqués have cited reprisals against those who protest prison conditions, and have cited the names and conditions of severely ill prisoners in need of medical treatment from Eron Picota prison. (See SOS Nuestros Prisioneros.)  On Nov. 28, the FARC-EP peace delegation highlighted a hunger strike involving some one hundred prisoners in Eron Picota prison, initiated in support of four FARC prisoners who had stitched their mouths shut to demand “urgent solutions to the humanitarian crisis” in Colombian jails. (See relevant FARC communiqué here.)  The situation appeared to have been resolved by a Dec. 1 agreement reached with prison authorities.  (See FARC communiqué here.)

Analysis of the Crisis

So what did the crisis and its resolution tell us?  The following are just a few ideas:

First, much is still not known about the particular triggers for the crisis, but on the surface, the events of the last month can be seen at least in part as a predictable consequence of an agreement between the parties to pursue a peace process in the midst of an ongoing internal armed conflict.  Such violence will most assuredly continue during the process and the navigation of November’s crisis may prepare the parties to resist allowing the violence to affect the peace process.  Alternatively, the new standing mechanism will be available to help navigate future storms.  In either case, lessons will certainly have been drawn from how this crisis was handled.

Second, the resolution of the crisis in Chocó and Arauca demonstrated the significant command-and-control that FARC leadership holds over its rank-and-file.  The FARC leadership’s agility in both protecting their troops and ensuring that commitments made at the peace table in Havana were honored in the field was notable. We have seen similar demonstrations of this capacity in the three unilateral ceasefires that have been carried out voluntarily  by the FARC (one conducted jointly with the ELN), during which time the ceasefires were largely respected and violence was significantly reduced.

Third, the crisis and its resolution have demonstrated a high degree of extant trust between the parties and with the international guarantors, Cuba and Norway, as well as the exceptional mediation capacity of those on all sides of the negotiating table. It remains to be seen whether the brief interruption will have a longer-term impact on the process, but on the surface it may well have strengthened both the relationships of those at the table and the peace process itself.

Fourth, the crisis also appears to have solidified the commitment of those at the table to keep the process moving forward.  Humberto de la Calle, on Nov. 21, affirmed that the suspension of the talks had underscored the clear vocation of the parties to remain at the table.  In a meeting in Santa Marta, De la Calle explained, “Both sides, despite dealing with a supremely complex, unanticipated, extraordinary crisis for which no one was prepared; the plan to remain at the table was really a kind of final result of what happened this week.” (See relevant article here.)

Fifth, civil society’s commitment to surround and protect the process appears to have been heightened, with a wide variety of declarations and pronouncements being issued from across the board, including all the victims who participated in the Havana talks, calling on the parties to stay at the table.

Sixth, the process has underscored the need to cultivate active public support for the peace process from both official and unofficial sources.  The office of Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro has trained a team of ten thousand “peace builders” (gestores de paz) for a door-t0-door campaign to explain the peace process and any agreements that might result.  President Santos has announced that he will replicate the idea in other cities. (See “Petro empuja la paz…”)  Other campaigns abound, like the recently set of five computer applications for peace, and will help get the word out to Colombian society more broadly.  (See Semana piece here.)

Finally, the process showed that there are divisions within the Colombian government and military over the peace process, and enemies within.  It also illustrated the skepticism on both sides over whether the peace process is, as Timochenko suggested, “no more than a simple instrument in a final war strategy.”  The reservoirs of mistrust are deep on both sides, cultivated by decades of war.  The best way to keep them at bay is to build trust through dialogue.  This basis of trust will allow the formation of agreements that, as they are implemented, will solidify the trust further.  This appears to have been the process in Havana thus far, and it was sufficient to deliver good results in Arauca and Chocó.

 

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Sidelining the Spoilers

November 26, 2014

When the news broke last week that Colombian Brigadier General Rubén Darío Alzate and two colleagues had been detained in the Chocó region by the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC-EP), it threw the country’s two-year old peace talks into crisis. The FARC action, which appears to have occurred without specific authorization of FARC leadership, prompted President Juan Manuel Santos to suspend temporarily the Colombian government’s participation in the peace talks, which were about to resume their 31st round in Havana. With that, the negotiations to end the more than 50-year-old conflict ground to a sudden halt.

While the crisis is by no means insurmountable, it may have an impact on the peace talks.  When he suspended the talks, Santos conditioned their renewal on the release of the three abductees in Chocó, as well as two other soldiers who had been detained on the other side of Colombia, near the Venezuelan border. On Monday, Nov. 24, FARC guerrilla leader Rodrigo Londoño (known by his nom de guerre, “Timochenko”), claimed that Santos had “destroyed confidence” in the process by violating the parties’ agreement to engage in “direct and uninterrupted talks” until a final peace accord was signed, and to continue the war during the peace process without benefit of a bilateral ceasefire. The peace talks “cannot just resume,” said Londoño, without some unspecified adjustments.

On the Way to a Resolution

On Tuesday, Nov. 25, following agreements between the Colombian government and the FARC negotiators — facilitated by international guarantors (Norway and Cuba) and with logistical support from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) — the FARC released the two soldiers being held in Arauca. In the Chocó region, however, FARC leaders claim that the Colombian military’s deployment of troops, bombings, and over-flight missions violates the parties’ agreement to suspend military activity in the region, making the release of the general and his two companions “impossible” for the time being. The Ministry of Defense, on the other hand, claims that all military operations there have been suspended.

Navigation of this impasse can strengthen the peace process, but the resolution of the current crisis cannot be taken for granted. In Colombia’s highly charged political environment, getting the talks moving again means managing the spoilers on both sides who want to affect the peace process’s pending agreements or even derail negotiations altogether. The incident in Chocó fits the pattern of actions taken by groups looking to waylay the peace process. Call it a page from a kind of spoilers’ playbook. The Basque, Irish, and Middle Eastern peace processes have faced similar critical moments where internal actors have lashed out in efforts to provoke a harsh reaction from one side or other. These crimes test the commitment, political statesmanship, and diplomatic inventiveness of negotiators on both sides dedicated to keeping a peace process alive. And looking at how past crises have been managed can give insight as to how the parties at the Colombian table might be able to get their process back on track.

As happens in war, truth is the first casualty when spoilers try to sabotage peace talks. When there is such an incident, the parties first have to verify the facts — together, and as quickly as possible — to discern whether the spoilers are operating as individuals, as a local unit spontaneously, or are taking action from orders at a higher leadership level.

Parties Caught Unawares?

The incident in Chocó — called a “kidnapping” by the government and a “casualty of war” by the FARC — appears to have caught the leaders of both sides unawares. FARC negotiators initially reacted with surprise at the event, before the regional block claimed responsibility. On the government’s side, there are still many pending questions about the general’s trip down the Atrato River into territory that is occupied by two FARC fronts, the National Liberation Army, paramilitary groups, drug traffickers, and criminal bands. In violation of security protocols, the General was unarmed, in civilian garb, without a bodyguard, and had been warned by the soldier piloting the boat that it was not safe to go down river. Early on in the crisis, Santoscalled on the Minister of Defense through his Twitter account to explain why the general “broke all the security protocols and was in civilian garb in a red zone.” The Colombian Senate is also calling for an explanation of General Alzate’s actions.

Talk More, Not Less

Counter-spoiler practice in other conflicts around the world suggests that the representatives of the Colombian government and FARC need to talk more, not less, right now. Their dialogue has to recognize two complex realities to keep the peace process on track. First, each side must acknowledge that they have factions in their midst who will act as spoilers of the process at any time, and must take responsibility for controlling and demobilizing their own rogue actors. Secondly, the negotiating parties must build shared interaction, responsibility, and mechanisms for managing together the complications that arise when spoilers of one negotiating party — through kidnappings, bombings, and attacks — strikes directly at the other party. In short, they need to recognize that these things are all but bound to happen at some point, and they need to plan for how to deal with it when they do.

The parties have a lot going in their favor, and efforts to sabotage the talks may even be a testament to the successes already produced at the table. The current process has accomplished significantly more than any other attempt to end the conflict, including groundbreaking agreements on land reform, the FARC’s political role, and the drug trade.  The next round was slated to address the remaining, complex areas of the demilitarization and demobilization of the FARC, and the compensation and reparations to be awarded to victims of the bloody five-decade war — areas clearly of concern to both the Colombian military and the FARC’s rank-and-file.

Role of Third Parties

Keeping a peace process on track doesn’t just fall to the parties sitting at the negotiating table, however. Outsiders can also help control spoilers and maintain the momentum of a peace process.  At the invitation of the parties, Norway, Cuba, Venezuela, Chile have served as guarantors accompanying the peace process since its launch, and earned them the trust to help facilitate the recent agreements that are likely to enable the resolution of the incident in Chocó. The International Committee of the Red Cross, which is currently providing logistical support for the release of the detainees, has facilitated the liberation of more than 1,500 people kidnapped or detained by armed groups in Colombia.  The engagement of such disinterested third parties increases the likelihood that this crisis will be resolved without derailing the peace process.

Role of Civil Society

Civil society organizations from women’s groups to religious leaders can help manage spoiler violence and provide a shield against spoilers, too. Through marches, mobilizations, letters to the parties, and public statements, Colombian civil society sectors have repeatedly sounded the call for a bilateral ceasefire and a reduction in the violence against civilians. From the start of the talks, they have insisted that the parties stay at the table until a final peace agreement is signed — a call that has been amplified in recent days. Such actions can bolster the mandate for continued peace efforts and isolate spoilers and would-be spoilers.

Colombian history has shown that walking away from peace talks when violent events explode can easily undermine or even end a peace process. It has taken a decade to get the FARC and the Colombian government talking again; the last peace talks ended in 2002, following the FARC downing of an Avianca plane and the kidnapping of Senator Jorge Gechem Turbay, who was aboard the plane. However violent and dangerous the recent spoiler incident may seem to the Havana peace process, the Colombian parties who have so far been constructively engaged with one another need to recommit to the peace that is within sight and to return to direct bargaining at the Havana talks soon. The parties should not permit either this event — or the escalating rhetoric that has quickly engulfed it — to deter their efforts to bring an end to this anachronistic conflict.

The FARC and the government have gone a long way down the road to peace. Both sides have the strong backing of international friends and civil society allies pushing for cool heads to prevail. But getting past their shared spoiler problem, and letting the negotiators get back to work on crafting an agreement that will end Colombia’s long-standing conflict, means foregoing brinksmanship and grandstanding in favor of even more intensive dialogue. Anything less means a small set of spoilers win — and millions of peace-seeking Colombians lose.

This piece, co-authored with George López, was published earlier today in Foreign Policy.

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Crisis Management in Colombia: Update on an Unfolding Crisis

November 24, 2014

A week that should have been given over to reflection on the achievements and pending agenda of the Colombian peace talks in Havana was spent seeking to manage a crisis that caused the suspension of the 31st cycle of talks before it even began.  The crisis is still not resolved.  International mediation appears to have things well on track, however, though the dangers posed by spoilers are ever present.

The Crisis of Chocó

At midnight on Sunday, Nov. 16, following the capture and disappearance of an Army General and his two colleagues in Colombia’s western department of Chocó earlier that day, President Juan Manuel Santos suspended the peace talks pending the release of the aforementioned, along with two soldiers whom the FARC had detained in the department of Arauca near the eastern border with Venezuela one week earlier.  (For details, see my earlier post here.)

On Nov. 17, the Iván Ríos block of the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC-EP) claimed responsibility for what it called the “capture” of Brigadier Army General Rubén Darío Alzate Mora (commander of the Joint Titan Task Force) and his companions–Corporal Jorge Contreras Rodríguez, and Gloria Urrego, the civilian lawyer and coordinator for special Army projects in the department of Chocó.  The FARC communiqué, issued from the “Mountains of Colombia,” noted that “in exercise of their security duties,” FARC units had intercepted the boat carrying the three aforementioned passengers at one of their mobile check points on the shores of the Atrato River.  The insurgents considered the occupants of the boat to be “enemy military personnel” who were carrying out their duties in an active war zone, and thus legitimate military targets.  (See the Iván Ríos block communiqué here.)  The FARC communiqué underscored their willingness to find a resolution, noting, “We respect the life and physical and moral integrity of our prisoners and are fully disposed to guarantee it. … The solution to the large ills that our country is suffering must be that of dialogue.”

International Facilitation Requested and Granted

On Nov. 18, President Santos called on the international guarantors who have been accompanying the peace process since it started two years ago to help mediate the crisis.  The following day, the guarantors held a press conference in which Rodolfo Benítez, for the Cubans, and Rita Sandberg, for the Norwegians, announced (in Spanish and English, respectively) that the FARC and the Colombian government had reached agreement on the conditions needed for the release of General Alzate, Corporal Jorge Rodríguez, Cesar Rivera, Jonathan Díaz, and Gloria Urrego. (Read the press communiqué of the guarantors here.)

In their statement on behalf of the international guarantors of the peace process, the Cuban and Norwegian guarantors acknowledged the “constructive attitude” of both the government of Colombia and the FARC-EP in finding a solution.  Benítez and Sandberg noted that mediation efforts were underway to secure the liberation of those captured by the FARC, and that the release of the aforementioned persons would take place “within the shortest possible time frame.”  The terms of the agreement provided for the participation of the guarantor countries as well as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in the release.  View the press conference in Spanish:

and in English:

By Nov. 20, Pres. Santos announced from Popayán that “as soon as the kidnap victims in the hands of the FARC appear–since the procedure is already under way–…I will give instructions for the negotiators to return to Havana and to continue the negotiations, hopefully at a good pace, in order to finish this process in the shortest time possible.” (See statement here.)

Release Process Under Way 

At 10:15 am on Saturday morning, Nov. 22, President Santos first confirmed via Twitter that the coordinates for initiating the release had been received and that he was giving the orders to move ahead to secure the liberations in the next week.  (See relevant article here.)  Later Saturday afternoon, in compliance with a presidential order, the Ministry of Defense signed a Memorandum of Understanding and Security Protocol with the ICRC for the liberation of the five Colombian citizens.  The ICRC has a strong presence in Colombia and has frequently provided logistical support for the liberation of political detainees and kidnap victims, as well as crafted other humanitarian agreements and arrangements.

Pending Concerns

The immediate willingness of both parties to enter into agreements to secure the release is a testament to the trust that has been created at the table, as well as the confidence that has been  established between the parties, the international guarantors, and the ICRC.  Still, there are external factors that could undermine the process and the sensitivity of such an operation cannot be overestimated.

-Security Breaches

First, there are concerns that exPresident and Senator Alvaro Uribe might reveal relevant coordinates of the guerrillas that could torpedo the plan.  Earlier, Uribe had revealed details of the detention of General Alzate through his Twitter account before the government had made them public.  (See related article here.) Likewise, on prior occasions, Uribe had publicized information about the location and coordinates of guerrilla leaders preparing to join the talks in Havana.

FARC leader ‘Pacho Chino’ on Saturday called on Uribe to “stop attacking the peace negotiations and to link himself to peace.”  The FARC leader noted in an interview with Radio Caracol, that the statements and “constructive” opinions of the exPresident are “welcome” because “peace must be achieved with everyone, including Uribe and his followers (uribismo).” (See related article here.)

-Military Provocations

Second, there are concerns that ongoing military operations could undermine or delay a mediated solution to the crisis, or could provoke a new crisis.  On Sunday, Nov. 23, the FARC issued a statement charging that the military operations under way in the Atrato region could delay the release of the General and his companions, as “the area of the Atrato and its main tributaries have been taken over militarily with landings of troops and bombing, intelligence aircraft overflights, and the establishment of measures that restrict the movement of the civilian population composed mainly of indigenous and Afro communities.” (See the statement here.)

In such an environment, there are legitimate security concerns for those who have been detained, the communities, and FARC troops who would engage in the liberation.  In their statement, the FARC note, “As long as this situation is not modified, it is unlikely that general Alzate and his companions will be freed in the next week.”  Their statement notes, “If the protocol is strictly observed as has happened on other occasions, we can say that next Tuesday the professional soldiers captured in combat in Arauca, may embrace freedom.”

It does seem relevant to ask why a large military operation is under way in Chocó when the FARC have expressed their willingness to find a solution through dialogue.  Since an agreement has been reached under the good offices of the international guarantors, and the parties have signed on to a process for moving forward, military protocols that respect a political solution and the agreed protocols will provide the greatest assurance that those who have been captured are safely returned to their communities and families.

-Distortion of the Facts

Third, misinformation and disinformation thrive in an environment where emotions are high and reliable information is hard to come by.  Given the discretion necessary to pull off such a complex mission, it is not surprising that there are mixed signals even from within the Colombian government.  The rapidly developing events also lend themselves to the temptation of “speaking through the microphones,” which often produces further confusion and undermines trust in the process.  The international mediators can play a role in helping to verify information and check misinformation whenever possible. As long as the parties have agreed to a plan and comply with their commitments, the process should be given the necessary time to carry it out successfully.

On Nov. 23, contrary to the President’s statement one day earlier that all coordinates had been received to move ahead with the release of the five retained Colombians, the Minister of Defense issued a press communiqué declaring that only the coordinates for the release in Arauca had been received, and that no information was received on the coordinates in the  Chocó region.  Pinzón noted that the agreed “protocol establishes the suspension of operations of the Armed Forces (Fuerzas Públicas) for a determined time” and that “in no moment does it establish the demilitarization by the Armed Forces of geographic areas of the national territory.”  This contradiction has yet to be clarified.

-Protocol Violations

Fourth, there are still many unknowns related to the abduction of the three Colombians in the Chocó.  Jimmy Chamorro Cruz, president of the second commission of the Senate, which oversees security and defense issues, has already cited General Rubén Darío to come before his committee to explain irregularities related to his abduction.  The General, in violation of security protocols, was in a “red zone,” dressed in civilian garb, unarmed, without a body guard, and in defiance of recommendations not to travel downriver given the presence there of two FARC fronts (34 and 57) of the Iván Ríos block. (See more information here.)

-Saboteurs on Both Sides

Fifth, the role of saboteurs–even within both sides represented at the peace table–is high and must be managed.  Neither the FARC nor the government is monolithic.  Both of the negotiating parties have members whose interests may be threatened if a peace deal goes through.  It is perhaps no coincidence that the issue about to go to the table in the next cycle of talks in Havana includes the particulars of demobilization and transitional justice (which affects both soldiers of both the Colombian state and the FARC).  Furthermore, the Iván Ríos block is thought to be heavily involved in drug-trafficking and could lose out on considerable profit should the peace accords on drug-trafficking be implemented.  (See “The Future of the Bacrim and Post-Conflict Colombia” here.)

-Contradictions of Pursuing War and Peace Simultaneously

Finally, the incidents of the last week illustrate some of the contradictions of a strategy that calls for the continuation of the war while peace is being negotiated.  Under the framework agreement signed in August 2012, the parties agreed to “initiate direct and uninterrupted talks” with the goal of reaching a “Final Accord for the termination of the conflict that might contribute to a stable and durable peace.” (See framework agreement here.)  Although the “rules of the game” are that the war will continue to be executed while the peace talks take place, the FARC has sought a bilateral ceasefire since the talks began, and has successfully carried out a unilateral ceasefire on two occasions, as well as another joint ceasefire with the National Liberation Army (ELN).  The parties were reportedly discussing a number of options for de-escalating the conflict–reducing bombardments and youth recruitment, increasing de-mining operations, and seeking other ways to reduce the impact of the conflict on Colombia’s civilian population.

It is unclear why this particular incident in Chocó set off the crisis, given that the parties had agreed that they would not be diverted from reaching a final agreement by events outside the table.  There have certainly been other violent actions on both sides. Ministry of Defense statistics show that during these two years of peace talks, the military and the guerrillas have both been hit hard.  The Army has killed 545 guerrillas, captured 4,670, and demobilized 2,248; while 561 members of the security forces have been killed and 3,973 injured. (See more information here.)  Early on in the peace process, the Army took out FARC commander Alfonso Cano, but this provoked a measured response and a commitment to stay the course.  Some criticize the arbitrariness of this particular incident in provoking the suspension of the talks when there have been so many other incidents, including killings, bombings, and mining of territories with disastrous consequences.  Furthermore, as the peace process has not diminished the violence in many communities, such as Arauca and Quibdó, there is a high level of skepticism around the peace process, particularly where the conflict violence has been most severe.

Finally, it is clear that the FARC pays a high political cost for acts of violence it commits in the midst of the ongoing war, while the government reaps political benefit for its military successes.  Incidents such as the retention of the General and the others give plenty of fuel to the press and to opponents of the peace process, and generate bad will toward the FARC that could make their eventual integration into civilian life more difficult, while Colombian Army successes seem to increase the prestige of the Armed Forces. This disequilibrium creates a vulnerability for the process down the road, when a peace agreement is signed and the FARC will become a legitimate part of the Colombian polity.

Crafting the Messages for Peace

As Carlos Cortés pointed out in an article in La Silla Vacía (click here), it is telling that President Santos has surrounded himself with military men to support the resolution of the current crisis.  While this may or may not help his credibility among the skeptics of the peace process, it would be prudent also for Santos and the international guarantors to make more public use of the negotiating teams and their international and civil society allies.  This might help tamp down inflamed public opinion, validate the work that the negotiators have done, and re-affirm the reality that the parties at the table were able to reach agreement quickly on how to move the process forward and resolve the crisis.  The public also needs to be reminded that the parties at the table are not monolithic and patience is needed to support those who are working for a peaceful settlement. (See my forthcoming article later this week in Foreign Policy, co-authored with George López, on the issue of spoilers.)

Photo by Javier Casella, SIG, Nov. 16, 2014

Photp by Javier Casella, SIG, Nov. 16, 2014

President Santos and the negotiators, who have much vested in the success of this peace process, could do more to educate and empower citizens to help defend the process.  They have sought the support of governors, mayors, and personeros, among others, in the regions. It would be appropriate to also call on the National Peace Council to help design a strategy for a peace pedagogy that could counter-act the war-mongering discourse of recent days.  Activating and empowering the other existing local and regional peace infrastructures can strengthen important allies to help support the peace process and implement agreements down the road. A new report by Silke Pfeiffer on “Peace Infrastructures in Colombia” produced by the Berghof Foundation outlines some of the concrete mechanisms that exist and how they might be strengthened.  (Download the report here.)

Surrounding the Process

This week, for what was to be the two-year anniversary of the peace process, civic leaders have organized marches, mobilizations, and meetings across the country.  Last week, a  regional encounter for peace was held in Tumaco.  It was the ninth of a dozen regional encounters throughout Colombia sponsored by regional social organizations in alliance with the National Network of Regional Programs of Development and Peace (Redprodepaz), the Network of Grassroots Peace Initiatives and Communities, Thought and Social Action (PAS), and the Pacific Route of Women, with the support of the Embassies of Sweden, Norway, and Switzerland and the Office of the High Commissioner for Peace.  Those assembled in Tumaco called on the negotiators in Cuba not to give up the achievements that have been gained at the table.  “We call on the FARC for the immediate, unconditional release of the kidnapped and retained.  And to the negotiators in Havana: reinitiate the talks as soon as possible and don’t get up from the table until everything is agreed.”  (More here.)

Women, Afro-Colombians, and indigenous groups are among those most affected by the war.  While their messages have yet to be articulated in a single call for peace, each of these sectors is demanding from their own particular vantage point that the parties in Havana stay the course.  The Pacific Route of Women/Ruta Pacífica de la Mujer (recent winner of Colombia’s National Peace Prize for 2014) appealed to the negotiators in Havana:  “War has nourished inequity, has impoverished and feminized poverty, bleeding the nation, and has only sowed pain and desperation, and today it is in your hands to end this armed conflict.” (See their statement here.)

Afro-Colombian women marched from Cauca to Bogota in defense of life and their ancestral territories, and against impunity for crimes committed in their territories.  (See their statement here.) The National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC) has offered to help mediate and to provide hundreds of their indigenous guards to participate in the liberation of the General and his companions.  They have called for a massive national mobilization for peace on Nov. 25th, which is also the National Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.  (See their statement here.)

Faith-based organizations and victims’ groups are also raising their voices.  Fifty-nine religious leaders and counting have called for a bilateral ceasefire and a renewal of talks.  (See their statement here.)  The Ecumenical Working Group (Mesa Ecuménica) called furthermore for Colombians to “play a more active role in the defense of the Accords that the negotiation tables are approaching” and to “constitute Citizen Monitoring for Peace at the national and regional levels, through which clear actions of citizen control, social mobilization, and demands [made] of the parties, protect the accords and demand the fulfillment of what is agreed on.”  (See their statement here.)

A new Broad Front that congregates many of the political actors of the left has also supported a bilateral ceasefire, called on all of the armed actors to avoid actions that affect the civilian population, and announced that it will convene a Great Summit of Convergence for Peace for December. (See their statement here.)

The list of such civil society initiatives is endless and these are just a few examples.  Such demonstrations of support, particularly if they show a coherent and strong position of a civil society that favors peace, can provide momentum to the process and help protect it from reversals.  The voices remain somewhat fragmented from decades of war and a recent surge in death threats against social leaders, but the strengthening of independent, autonomous civil society organizations is key now.  Empowering these organizations now will also help prepare them for their role in ensuring the implementation and monitoring of any agreements that might be reached in Havana down the road.

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Unfolding Story: Temporary Suspension of Colombian Peace Talks in Cuba

Monday, November 17, 2014

Just after midnight this morning, as the government of Colombia and the FARC-EP were preparing to resume their 31st round of conversations in Havana, President Juan Manuel Santos ordered his negotiators not to travel to Havana today as planned, and announced the temporary suspension of the peace talks.  On Sunday, November 16, an Army major in the municipality of Quibdó in the Chocó department had reported the kidnapping late that afternoon of Army commander general Rubén Darío Alzáte Mora.  The details are still unfolding, but it appears that the general was retained in Quibdó with two companions– Gloria Urrego (advisor for Army Special Projects in the Department of Chocó), and Captain Jorge Rodríguez Contreras.  The general appears to have violated a number of protocols–the group was traveling in civilian garb, they were unescorted by bodyguards at the apparent insistence of General Alzate, and the general acted against the advice of the military man piloting their boat who had cautioned him against traveling so far down the Atrato River into a red zone known to be occupied by armed groups. (For more details, see report here.) The whereabouts of the three is unknown at this time.

In his official Twitter account, President Juan Manuel Santos called on Minister of Defense Juan Carlos Pinzón for an explanation.  “I want you to explain to me why BG Alzate broke all the security protocols and was in civilian garb in a red zone,” tweeted the President. (See Semana article with tweet here.)

The governor of the department of Chocó, Efrén Palacios, called a security council meeting to analyze the situation, but military leaders postponed it until Monday morning in order to gather more information first.  The governor declined to assign responsibility to either the FARC or the ELN, both of whom are active in the Chocó.  (See related article here.)  Some believe the action was the work of the 34th Front of the FARC, but there are multiple groups operating in that zone, including criminal/paramilitary bands known as bacrim and ELN forces.

Presidential Press Conference

Presidential Press Conference in Bogota. Photo by Javier Casella, SIG, 16 November 2014,

Presidential Press Conference in Bogota. Photo by Javier Casella, SIG, 16 November 2014,

Late Sunday evening, President Santos met with the military leadership, including Minister of Defense Juan Carlos Pinzón, and they consulted with general Jaime Lasprilla, who was on site in Quibdó.  In a midnight press conference, President Santos classified the action as a kidnapping, which he attributed to the FARC.  “We already have information that makes us certain that it was the FARC,” he announced.  Santos called the kidnapping “totally unacceptable,” charged the FARC with responsibility for the lives and security of the three retained persons, and demanded their immediate release. (Read the press statement here.)  He announced the suspension of peace talks until the situation was clarified and the individuals released. He is also seeking to clarify the General’s apparent breaches of protocol.

Santos announced that military rescue operations are now underway in the Chocó, and the International Committee of the Red Cross has been called on to assist.  Military rescue operations also have been accelerated in the department of Arauca, on the border of Venezuela, where two other soldiers were captured earlier this month.  There the FARC has claimed responsibility for the soldiers’  detention. They consider the two soldiers they hold in Arauca as “prisoners of war,” not “kidnap” victims, and are legitimate targets in the conflict. The FARC have nonetheless expressed a willingness to negotiate the soldiers’ release. (See more here.)

The President is wise to investigate, and a pause in the process should give him the means to do so, but he would also be wise to ensure that it is only a symbolic pause to ensure a careful evaluation of the events and the development of a proportionate response.  The pause will allow the FARC, if they are indeed responsible, the opportunity to rectify their error.  The chain of command is undoubtedly weaker than usual, given that much of the FARC military regional leadership is currently in Havana for the talks, and the kidnappings could well be the actions of renegade FARC seeking to undermine the peace process.  It will be important to consider the FARC’s official response before making judgements, and not to jump to conclusions, given that the region is inhabited by a variety of armed actors.

For the peace process to move forward, it will also be important to manage other spoilers and potential spoilers to the process.  The ELN, which has been in exploratory talks with the government, has been ratcheting up its activities, undoubtedly seeking to get a peace table of its own.  The failure to launch formal talks with the government could well slow down the process with the FARC.  Likewise, within the Army itself there are also potential spoilers.  In recent weeks there have been revelations about new efforts to sabotage the peace process through hacking and interfering with the communications of the negotiating team. A debate scheduled to be held in the Colombian Congress last week on the “chuzadas”, as the hacking is known, had to be rescheduled for this week when the Ministers of Defense and the Interior failed to show. (See related article here.)  It will be telling if this week’s debate is postponed once again and will be important that Santos hold the military accountable for any actions its members have taken to undermine peace efforts, especially when those actions are illegal.  Finally, former president Uribe continues to use his Twitter account to generate opposition to the talks.  Last month, he once again publicized confidential information about the location of guerrillas preparing to join the peace talks–in a move whose legality was challenged by some in Congress.

President Santos should exercise particular prudence in coming days and weeks and seek to manage these potential efforts to undermine the peace process. Regardless of the outcome of his investigation of the missing general and his companions, Santos would do well to remember that there are saboteurs on all sides.  It would be foolhardy to let this incident, as important as it might be, derail the peace process.  It would be much wiser to use the incident to push the process forward and end the war once and for all.

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