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.

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.
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3 Responses to Crisis Management in Colombia: Update on an Unfolding Crisis

  1. Norma Inés says:

    Que difícil y complejo este momento. Solamente
    unidas podemos mantener la esperanza. Gracias.


    • Gracias por tu comentario, Norma Inés. Yo creo que se va a resolver, pero hay que tener paciencia y no dejar desviarse del objetivo. Sí, unirse en una voz por la paz, como están intentando hacer tanta gente. Es difícil pero se puede…


  2. Pingback: Back on Track: Colombian Peace Talks Resume Today in Havana | COLOMBIA CALLS

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