Twentieth Round of Talks Begins Today

Monday, February 3, 2014

Representatives of the government of Colombia and the FARC-EP meet this morning in Havana to initiate their twentieth cycle of peace talks.  In the last round of talks, which ended on Thursday, January 23, the parties continued to review each other’s proposals on illicit crop cultivation and drug-trafficking.  They issued no joint statement at the close of the cycle as they had done after prior rounds, but this does not appear to be a reason for concern.  The upcoming cycle will be the fourth round of discussions on illicit crops and drug trafficking, and expectations are growing that an agreement on this issue may be forthcoming early this year.  In recent statements, Colombian President Juan Manuel  Santos announced that an accord was unlikely before the presidential elections scheduled for May 25, but that he expected to have a full peace accord by year’s end. (See “El presidente de Colombia confía en firmar la paz con las Farc este año”).

‘As Though the Peace Talks Don’t Exist’ 

In the World Economic Forum meetings in Davos, Switzerland, President Santos announced on January 24 that the military offensive in Colombia continues “as though the peace talks don’t exist” and that the peace talks continue in Havana “as though the conflict in Colombia doesn’t exist.”  (See Santos’s statement here.)  The first part of Santos’s statement could not be more true.  In the weeks following the lifting of the FARC’s unilateral ceasefire on January 15, military confrontations in Colombia assumed new intensity.

  • In the first three weeks of 2014, the Minister of Defense reported that 36 guerrillas had been killed and 76 captured.
  • In a pre-dawn air and ground attack on Jan. 19 in Tame (Department of Arauca), Colombian military killed at least 9 alleged guerrillas; one military helicopter pilot was injured. (See “Enfrentamientos entre Ejército y Farc“)
  • On Jan. 22, military confrontations took place in Planadas (Department of Tolima) and Vista Hermosa (Department of Meta) with an unknown number of casualties. (See “La paz: ¿se mueve or se estanca?”)

With the end of the ceasefire, the guerrillas re-engaged in military actions in various parts of the country.  On Jan. 23, head FARC commander “Timochenko” claimed FARC responsibility for a helicopter downed in Briceño (Dept. of Antioquia) on Dec. 22, and claimed that a joint FARC-ELN attack had brought down a military helicopter in Anorí (Department of Antioquia) on Jan. 9.  The Colombian press reported on guerrilla attacks  in Valle del Cauca, Cauca, Putumayo, and Nariño in the period after the unilateral ceasefire was lifted:

  • A FARC attack on Jan. 16, some 100 meters from the municipal police station, killed one person, injured 61 inhabitants (mostly civilians), and damaged 31 houses, including 21 commercial establishments in Pradera (Department of Valle del Cauca). (More on this below.)
  • A joint operation of the Air Force and Army confiscated two tons of explosives said to belong to the Manuel Vásquez front  the Army of National Liberation (ELN) in a rural area of the Department of Cauca.
  • The Army reported 14 FARC attacks on oil pipelines and installations in Putumayo in the week after the ceasefire was lifted.
  • On Jan. 24, FARC guerrillas are alleged to have used cylinder bombs to attack a unit of Battalion 55, nine kilometers from the urban center of Puerto Asís (Department of Putumayo).  The bombs killed one soldier and injured three others.  An explosion in the town that night damaged a hotel, but left no victims.   (See “Nuevo ataque de las FARC en Putumayo.”)
  • In Tumaco (Department of Nariño), unknown assailants threw a grenade at a truck, culminating two weeks of attacks in the area. and injured five policemen who were on patrol. (See “Nuevo atentado de las Farc en Tumaco deja cinco policías heridos.”)

In late Jan., a joint Air Force-Army operation confiscated two tons of explosives said to belong to the Manuel Vásquez front  the Army of National Liberation (ELN) in a rural area of the Department of Cauca. (See “Hallan más de dos toneladas de explosives en el Cauca.”)  Talks with the ELN have been imminent for months now.

Responsibility in Pradera Attack

The Jan. 16 attack in Pradera was broadly condemned, particularly as it widely affected the civilian population, which (theoretically, at least) is protected from military attack under international humanitarian law.  In what one journalist called “the first mea culpa of the FARC before the country,” the Secretariat of the Central High Command of the FARC-EP issued a statement on January 21 condemning the attack.  The statement indicated the High Command had undertaken its own investigation and found that one of the units of the “Arturo Ruiz Mobile Block” of the FARC-EP, not coincidentally a unit under the direct command of Pablo Catatumbo (the number two negotiator at the table in Havana), was responsible for the attack.  In an unprecedented move, the Secretariat openly condemned the failure of the unit to anticipate the injury to the non-combatant civilian population and promised the “application of the appropriate disciplinary corrective measures.”  The communiqué concluded, “This is not the way in which we wage war, this is not the philosophy or political or military orientation that characterizes us.”

From Davos, President Santos, who had initially called the Pradera incident “irrational and contradictory” and an act of “infinite stupidity,” said that he worried that the FARC might “commit some irrational act or some attempt on an important figure that makes it impossible to continue [the peace talks].”  The FARC responded with apparent annoyance, “You can’t keep the country in flames and send hundreds of humble soldiers to their destiny as cannon fodder, and at the same time threaten that if they attack an important figure, the [peace] process will explode in a million pieces.”  He railed against what he called “this discrimination against lives that have value and others that don’t.”  (See the FARC statement here.)

Santos later softened his tone.  “Of course we condemn terrorist attacks,” he said.  “They are not in the rules of the game, but at least I value that [the FARC] have recognized that they committed the attack.” (See “Santos dice que valora que las FARC reconozcan atentados terrorists.”)  Several days later, following more than 50 public leads, the military and police captured and killed Marcelino Díaz Ariza, alias ‘Boyaco’, who was named as the intellectual author of the attack in Pradera. (See related article in El Tiempo.)

The FARC investigation into and recognition of responsibility for harming civilians suggests that a shift in attitudes is taking place within the insurgency, which previously might have justified such attacks as simply collateral damage.  This shift bodes well for a transition to peace.

‘As Though the Conflict… Doesn’t Exist’ 

The second part of Santos’s statement, namely, that the peace talks continue in Havana “as though the conflict in Colombia doesn’t exist,” sounds like wishful thinking, though the parties have sought to insulate the conversations from events at home.  The effort to protect the talks from what is happening on the ground in Colombia may prove difficult to maintain as Congressional and Presidential elections approach.

In particular, ongoing threats against the Marcha Patriótica–the political-social movement which was established in part to provide a place for demobilized FARC ex-combatants to participate in politics–contribute to a growing climate of skepticism about the government’s ability to provide credible guarantees for democratic engagement for FARC ex-combatants and threaten to undermine the government’s position in Cuba.  On Jan. 20, Marcha Patriótica leader Piedad Córdoba announced that the lack of security for the group’s members is prompting her to consider disbanding it.  Córdoba charges that twenty-nine Marcha Patriótica members have been killed, three members have disappeared, and judicial cases have been opened against 200 Marcha Patriótica members since the entity was given legal standing in April 2012.  (The shooting of an additional member, peasant leader Duvis Galvis, on Jan. 27 brought the total dead to 30). This is indeed troubling for the process.

On Wed., Jan. 22, 2014, the FARC’s lead negotiator, Iván Márquez, read a communiqué confirming that attacks on Marcha Patriótica members are undermining FARC confidence in the government’s word and are a “betrayal” (mentis) of the agreement on political participation reached in Havana last November. (See “Farc instan a Gobierno a detener “via crucis” de movimiento Marcha Patriótica.”)  Márquez called on the government to take actions to stop the attacks.  This weekend, Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón called on Attorney General Eduardo Montealegre to investigate the charges. This is a first step, and more is needed.  A strong and unequivocal government response that brings to justice those responsible for these attacks and assures the safety and due process of all those engaged in social and political movements will be the surest way to counter such skepticism.

Zone of Peace

Finally, in Havana last week, it was notable that the 33 heads of state gathered for the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) meetings gave a unanimous vote of support for the Colombian peace process and the leaders declared Latin America and the Caribbean to be a “zone of peace.”  Hopes are high that for the next summit in Costa Rica in 2015 peace will be at hand in Colombia and this will become a reality.

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About Ginny Bouvier

Love reading, writing, thinking, and working with people to make the world a better place. Family and friends, yoga, travel, photography, perusing dessert menus keep me sane. Latin American enthusiast. Peace practitioner yearning for justice. Heading up the Colombia program at the U.S. Institute of Peace, but tweets and posts are my own.
Aside | This entry was posted in Colombia, Dialogue, Latin America, Peace, Peace Initiatives, peace processes, peace talks, Spanish America, War, Western Hemisphere and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Twentieth Round of Talks Begins Today

  1. Ben Saifer says:

    I may be jumping to conclusions when I suggest that Santos is perhaps too focused on his potential reelection than on affecting actual change. It seems like his rhetoric and even the time frame under which the peace accord functions is in direct response and in synchronicity with the political climate of the presidential elections. Hopefully Santos isn’t merely using the peace accord as a tool for his gain and is instead fully focused on ensuring the legitimacy of peace in Colombia. My skepticism tells me it’s the latter of the two, especially in light of the recent tapping scandal – can there be legitimacy when the government isn’t able to control it’s institutions? That question, since the announcement of peace talks in August 2012 had been directed at the FARC leadership with regards to its unilateral control over its squads. In retrospect, it was perhaps naive to imply that Santos and his cabinet had control of their own. I’m a pessimist, but i sure hope that the results are ultimately a victory for all Colombians

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    • Dear Ben–Thanks for your comment. I think Santos took most people by surprise when he launched the talks before his second term. Most of us, myself included, assumed he would wait to be re-elected before taking on the peace agenda. That would have been the safer bet at the time. This is not to say this is not a political issue that can be turned to a candidate’s advantage–it’s just not clear yet if it is a liability or an asset at the polls to favor peace.

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