On August 7, 2014, Colombia commemorated General Simón Bolívar’s definitive victory over Spanish forces at the Battle of Boyacá, nearly two centuries ago. In tandem, Juan Manuel Santos began his second term as President, following a particularly vitriolic election season that placed ongoing negotiations with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) at the center of public debate.
When Santos beat out right-wing candidate Óscar Iván Zuluaga in a run-off vote on June 15, editorials and political pundits alike heralded the incumbent’s “mandate for peace.” Nevertheless, a renewed focus on security issues, as well as the rights and reparations of victims of the armed conflict, has led the Government and left-wing guerrillas to harden their tones about conversations in Havana, Cuba.
In recent weeks, rebel groups have destroyed electric pylons in Buenaventura, leaving the Pacific port city without power, and carried out a series of attacks on oil pipelines and tankers, generating an environmental crisis in southwest Putumayo. In separate incidents, explosives launched at members of the Armed Forces ended up killing a young girl instead.
In response to the recent spate of violence, Santos delivered one of his strongest declarations yet about the future of the peace talks. Speaking at a sugar industry event on July 29, he referred to the assaults as “demented,” and told the FARC: “If you keep this up, you are playing with fire and this process can end.” The following day, the President reminded the guerrillas that the war must not involve civilians.
In turn, the rebels bolstered their rhetoric as well. Alias “Marcos Calarcá,” a senior FARC negotiator, responded directly in an interview with The Guardian. According to the guerrilla: “[The Colombian Government is] playing with fire when they try to eliminate our leaders with bombings. That could make us leave the table, because it would be clear they had no political will to reach an agreement.”
Yet despite the perception that rebels have flexed their military might, the recent uptick in assaults is not so noteworthy. According to the Conflict Analysis Resource Center (CERAC), a private think tank in Bogotá, the FARC committed 40 unilateral attacks in July 2014, about 3 times as many compared with August. However, the monthly fluctuation only appears dramatic because the FARC committed to a temporary, one-sided ceasefire in June 2014, in light of presidential elections.
Moreover, 78 percent of guerrilla attacks in July targeted infrastructure, which have a larger impact on the civilian population and receive greater media coverage. In fact, the tactic demonstrates the reluctance of the rebels to engage directly with the Armed Forces. Indeed, on August 3, Colombia’s Minister of Defense stated that the number of FARC guerrillas had fallen from roughly 11,800 to 6,700 over the last four years, and that terrorist attacks had been reduced by 37 percent.
Nevertheless, any sense of post-election unity fostered by the FIFA World Cup appears to be waning as the Government and FARC prepare for the next agenda point: truth, justice, and reparations for victims of the armed conflict. Since conversations with the guerrillas officially launched in November 2012, opponents have tried to shift the debate from “peace versus war” to “justice versus impunity.”
In July and early August, the Government and FARC negotiating teams invited civil society to contribute proposals on the issue of victims, through a series of regional forums overseen by the United Nations and Colombia’s National University. The counterparts moreover announced that a total of 60 victims would travel to Havana to discuss their grievances, through delegation trips beginning in August.
Yet with over 6.5 million persons registered with the Government’s Victims’ Unit, critics have accused the Santos administration of underrepresenting casualties of the conflict. Several high-profile retired army generals publicly claimed that members of the Armed Forces that had suffered at the hands of the guerrillas should not be excluded. The FARC balked at the proposal, and stirred up controversy upon suggesting that rebels should also be classified as victims.
Although guerrilla attacks and the prickly issue of victims have led the mass media to claim that the peace process is “in crisis,” dialogue between the Government and the FARC has carried on as usual. The rebels will continue to press for a bilateral ceasefire, incorrectly assuming that action on the battlefield will result in a stronger hand at the negotiating table. It is up to the Colombian population to not lose the forest for the trees, and to start imagining a nation at peace.