In early 2015, news pundits and military experts alike were speculating that the National Government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC-EP) might reach a bilateral ceasefire agreement even before signing a formal peace treaty. Six months later, the Colombian Air Force is wiping out dozens of rebels as guerrillas demolish infrastructure and assassinate soldiers. What happened?
By March, a series of political and military evolutions had appeared to forge an ironclad defense against criticism towards the ongoing peace talks in Havana. Despite isolated skirmishes, the FARC had maintained a unilateral ceasefire declared last December. President Juan Manuel Santos in turn suspended the aerial bombings of insurgent camps. The level of armed conflict fell to a low not seen since the 1980s.
The FARC, which are universally condemned for maintaining child soldiers among their ranks, had raised the minimum recruitment age and hinted towards the release of all minors. The negotiating teams announced a historic deal on joint de-mining operations in a nation that is beat out only by Afghanistan in the number of annual casualties from subterranean explosives.
At the same time that violence was deescalating, the political rhetoric surrounding the peace process was growing more optimistic. Former United Nations President Kofi Annan visited the delegations in Havana and President Barack Obama sent a special envoy to represent the United States. Polls showed that public support for the dialogues and confidence in a successful outcome had reached an all-time high.
On April 15, all the goodwill came crashing down after a FARC attack in the southwestern department of Cauca left eleven soldiers dead. President Santos, who had just days earlier extended the recess in bombings, ordered their renewal. Rebel commanders in Havana showed little remorse and offered contradictory explanations for the assault, before redoubling their calls for a bilateral ceasefire.
The flames were fanned further the next month when the National Liberation Army (ELN) was accused of publicly displaying the amputated leg of a soldier that had stepped on a landmine on his birthday. The Government, which is currently engaged in preliminary talks with Colombia’s second largest rebel group, struggled to defend the possibility of opening yet another set of unpopular negotiations.
Predictably, the bloodshed only increased. In late May, the FARC called off what was left of their ceasefire after an aerial strike killed dozens of rebels. It was subsequently discovered that the casualties included two guerrillas that had spent time as mediators in Havana. The FARC returned to exploding oil pipelines and on June 1 left four hundred thousand people in Buenaventura without electricity.
All talk of reducing the conflict has become strategically unfavorable or politically unviable. Democratic Center, a political party created by former President Álvaro Uribe in opposition to the peace talks, has discovered newfound support for its claims that the Government is hostage to the FARC’s demands. Polls reveal a dramatic decline in backing for the conversations and a rally for military action.
Despite the massive setback in terms of public support, the recent events are also an unprecedented display of the maturity of the process in Havana. In stark contrast to the crisis in November 2014, when the FARC kidnapped an active duty General, at no point in recent months have the dialogues themselves been in danger of collapsing. Instead, the overwhelming response has been to accelerate.
Amid escalations on the battlefield, Government and FARC delegations have made significant inroads at the negotiating table. They launched the pilot of the de-mining program and continued fast-tracked discussions on reparations for victims and technical details of guerilla disarmament. The international community has reiterated its pledge of financial and political support in a post-conflict scenario.
Nevertheless, a final peace treaty is far from inevitable. The guerrillas consistently deflate the Government’s statements that the end of the conflict “is around the corner.” Transitional justice, perhaps the thorniest agenda item, is still up for debate. While FARC commanders openly refuse a single day in jail, the courts of international justice and public opinion demand at least some penal sentences.
As Colombia takes a step backward into the conflict, urban-based politicians and populations should remember that civilians living in the rural periphery continue to bear the brunt of the violence. The nation will not come any closer to peace through stacks of body bags or fiery rhetoric, but instead through grand gestures of political will that see over the present quagmire and towards the future.