In 1998, the Pastrana administration ceded a safe haven the size of Switzerland to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in an attempt to build confidence for the subsequent peace talks. In turn, the leftist rebels used the demilitarized zone to increase their participation in the drug trade, train new recruits, and hold hostages in prison camps. Several members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) were caught teaching the guerrillas to make bombs.
Even today, the mere mention of “Caguán,” the de facto capital of the neutral area, conjures up notions of “government weakness” and “guerrilla treachery.” When President Juan Manuel Santos announced a new set of dialogues with the FARC in Cuba, he made it clear that, until both sides signed a final peace accord, they would follow the maxim of former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin: “Negotiate as though the war didn’t exist maintain the military offensive as though the peace process didn’t exist.”
As a result, the President took the nation by surprise on January 14 when he ordered the government’s negotiating team to initiate, “as soon as possible, the discussion on the point of the bilateral definite ceasefire and cessation of hostilities.” The delegation currently includes a former director of the National Police and a retired commander of the Armed Forces. In August last year, Santos established a military sub-commission to map out the details of an eventual armistice. Just one month beforehand, the FARC had declared, for the first time in fifty years, a unilateral ceasefire for an indefinite period. The guerillas have historically only put down their weapons during elections and the Christmas season.
Nevertheless, the rebels were accused of attempting to force the Colombian government into a two-sided truce by stipulating that the deal “would end only if it is proven that our guerrilla structures have been the object of attacks from the security forces.” Santos had previously referred to the gesture as a “gift filled with thorns.” Political allies of the current administration have supported the President’s change in tone as evidence of the “maturity” of the peace talks. Leftist sectors, along with the Colombia-Europe-United States Coordination, an umbrella organization of two hundred and sixty NGOs and human rights groups, celebrated the recent FARC and government initiatives as key steps towards bringing the bloodshed to an end. On the other hand, the director of the Conservative Party, who supports the peace process, is concerned that President Santos will be violating a constitutional requirement to combat the enemy. A former chief of the government’s Internal Office argued that Congress would have to pass a law in order to implement a bilateral ceasefire without a peace treaty already in place. Led by former President Álvaro Uribe, right-wing opposition to the negotiations immediately accused the government of humiliating the Armed Forces.
What is clear is that a bilateral ceasefire is still a long way off. When the peace talks resume on February 2, the government and the FARC will begin to debate a series of difficult questions. Does a ceasefire by the FARC also include their participation in coca cultivation and cocaine production, extortion, illegal mining, illicit arms purchases, threats to civilians, and the use of anti-personnel mines? Who will be responsible for the verification procedures? Security experts have moreover raised doubts about the ability of the Armed Forces to distinguish between uniformed guerrillas and select elements of the FARC that have collaborated with the ELN, Colombia’s second largest guerrilla group, and with the so-called BACRIM, or “criminal bands.”
The Santos administration has previously suggested that the FARC concentrate their members in specific locations, a proposal which the rebels have categorically rejected. In tandem with discussions about a bilateral ceasefire, the government and the FARC will continue to negotiate a “humanitarian de-escalation.” In this first phase, both parties will attempt to reduce the impact of the armed conflict on civilians.
Meanwhile, the government will officially sustain all military operations. On January 28, the commander of the Colombian Air Force confirmed that bombing campaigns would continue unabated until the President ordered otherwise. In late January, the FARC released a communiqué titled “SOS for Truce,” which accused the government of taking advantage of a unilateral gesture of peace to intensify attacks, and which implied that the guerrillas could call off its ceasefire. The Santos administration will thus have to walk a fine line between keeping pressure on the FARC and not over-provoking the rebels, for example by killing top-level commanders. Strategy and politics aside, a less deadly environment could help to transform Colombia even before the government and the FARC hammer out a conclusive peace agreement. CERAC, a think tank in Bogotá, released a report in January stating that, as a result of the guerrillas’ unilateral ceasefire, the armed conflict had reached its lowest point since 1984.
As populations that have lived among violence for decades begin to experience peace for the first time, the nation might witness a renewed support for civil society’s peacebuilding and reconciliation efforts.