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Between war and peace

Nils Naumann / gswOctober 14, 2012

There may be new hope for Colombia. Peace negotiations between the left-wing FARC guerrilla group and the government may resume this week. But there are many stumbling blocks on the path to an accord.

Police rappel from a helicopter to destroy a cocaine processing lab in Puerto Concordia in Colombia's southern Meta state
Image: dapd

Selatiel Mendez Secue dreamed of peace - a life free of the guerrillas, the military and weapons. And many in Colombia's conflict regions shared his hopes. But for Secue, the expected peace talks between the Colombian government and FARC guerrillas will come too late. The 40-year-old activist was murdered at the beginning of October, two weeks before negotiations were set to resume in Oslo - though they've been delayed by the government delegation's inability to travel due to bad weather.

Secue was shot in front of his wife as the two traveled by motorcycle on the so-called Death Road. The dangerous route leads through the mountains of the Cauca province in southern Colombia, a hot spot in the conflict, into the municipality of Santander de Quilichao. People have been killed repeatedly in the area in recent years.

Secue was a political leader within the indigenous Nasa tribe. Employing non-violent methods, he pressured the guerrillas, the military and paramilitary groups to vacate Nasa lands.

The warring parties, however, rejected his demands. So far in 2012, 40 representatives of the indigenous population have been murdered in the region by members of the guerrillas or by right-wing death squadrons, and indigenous people are outraged.

"What kind of peace does the government and FARC have in mind, what kind of peace are they negotiating, while they continue to massacre defenseless members of our communities?" wrote the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (CRIC) on their website.

No ceasefire

Despite the start of negotiations in Norway, there is no real end in sight to the violence in Colombia. The government and the guerrillas could not agree to a ceasefire during talks. The government fears that the guerrillas might exploit a break in the fighting to gather its strength and coordinate new attacks.

Nevertheless, polling agency Gallup reported that around 60 percent of Colombians welcome the upcoming talks. People are tired of war. For nearly 50 years, the Marxist-Leninist group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the smaller National Liberal Army (ELN) have fought against state forces. Hundreds of thousands of people have died, and more than 5 million people have been forced to abandon conflict regions for other parts of the country.

The guerrillas originally formed to demand what they viewed as a just distribution of Colombian land. Originally, a number of Colombians supported the guerrilla fighters' demands. But the situation has changed as the war drags on and the number of civilian victims increases. General sentiment now favors an end to the fighting.

Unclear prospects

FARC has suffered major losses in recent years. The Colombian military claims the guerilla fighters number around 8,000, down from 18,000 a decade ago. Many of the group's leaders have been killed, and the rebels have been driven from various parts of the country.

"They now know that they will never be able to win the conflict militarily," said Leon Valencia, head of the peace research institute Nuevo Arco Iris, adding, "They've given up their dream of triumph."

But the Colombian government has apparently also come to believe that the conflict cannot be ended using military force. Alvaro Uribe, the predecessor to current President Juan Manuel Santos, had always categorically rejected discussions with FARC. Santos continued Uribe's emphasis on military might, but he also signaled willingness to negotiate. Given the long battle between the groups, even an agreement to come together for negotiation represents a success.

The peace talks are set to take place in Oslo and Havana, and the first order of business will be establishing trust, said Sabine Kurtenbach, an expert on Colombia with the Hamburg-based German Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA).

Timoleon Jimenez, rebel commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)
FARC commander "Tymoshenko"Image: REUTERS
Nasa Indians charge on soldiers guarding communication towers on a hill in Toribio, southern Colombia
Colombian indigenous people demand military retreat from their landsImage: AP
FARC guerrilla fighters in Colombia
Weakened, but not defeated: FARC rebels in ColombiaImage: picture-alliance/dpa

She said both parties have had "traumatic experiences" during previous peace negotiations. In the 1980s, around 3,000 guerrilla fighters who had agreed to a ceasefire and the formation of a political party were murdered by death squadrons. And in 1998, during the last attempted negotiations between the government and FARC, the military had cleared out of part of the country. The guerrillas then used that zone as a haven while scaling up its attacks throughout the rest of the country.

Complex agenda

Kurtenbach said it's difficult to predict whether the talks will be successful given the stumbling blocks at hand. In addition to discussions about fighting, there are a number of other important topics on the agenda: the inclusion of FARC in the country's political structures and the question of how to deal with the guerrillas' legal violations in court. Human rights organizations fear that FARC leaders could walk away with minimal punishment or no retribution at all.

An especially important topic, according to Kurtenbach, involves the development of rural regions in Colombia.

"There is a lot of poverty and suffering. When people have no prospects, they wander around in cities, join the guerrillas or get involved in the drug trade, and that needs to stop," she said, noting that the results of the negotiations would ideally offer some hope to rural citizens who sense no opportunity at hand.

If the talks result in a peace agreement, Colombia will face the challenging task of finding a way to integrate FARC fighters and sympathizers into society. Many FARC members have only learned the trade of war, and they could quickly reach for weapons again if no other opportunities are available.

"These people need prospects for how they can survive in civil society," Kurtenbach said.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos
An outstretched hand: Colombian President Juan Manuel SantosImage: Reuters