Colombia’s FARC Peace Negotiations Will Fail

Why President Santos should end talks and resume the anti-FARC policies of his predecessor.

“The peace process is at its worst moment since we began talks … I want to tell the FARC in all seriousness, this could end. Some day, it’s probable that they won’t find us around the table in Havana.”
- Humberto De la Calle, lead government negotiatior

In late June of this year, Colombia’s Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the nation’s most storied and powerful leftist guerrilla group, launched a series of attacks on the Tansandino oil pipeline in the southern Putumayo province. The wave of bombings emptied the pipeline directly into nearby river systems, causing the greatest environmental disaster in Colombia’s history. Experts suspect full clean-up efforts will take more than two decades to complete. This was not the only recent FARC atrocity — earlier, in April of this year, FARC guerrillas violated their self imposed ceasefire when they ambushed and killed 10 federal soldiers in the Western Colombian hamlet of La Esperanza. These events, coupled with ramped up government raids and an increasingly stalemated negotiation process, threaten to derail the FARC peace negotiations currently underway in Havana, and bring an end to the nearly three year process initiated by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos. Though this round of talks has proved somewhat more successful than previous attempts, too many mitigating factors will ensure their ultimate failure. Given FARC’s unending use of violence and the resulting deteriorating patience of the Colombian people, as well as the presence of irreconcilable differences between the negotiating parties, the Santos government should reverse course on its peace-centric policy towards the FARC, abandon the peace talks in Havana, and resume high levels of military operations against the guerrilla group.

A total lack of political support

Colombian politics was upturned by the 2002 election as president of outsider Álvaro Uribe, the independent candidate who ran on a strict, security focused, anti-FARC platform. After his election, Uribe immediately began to implement his campaign promises, drastically ramping up military actions against long-held FARC land. At the turn of the millennium, FARC boasted a height of approximately 18,000 combatants and controlled more than a third of Colombian territory. By the end of Uribe’s term, the US State Department reported a 83% reduction in kidnappings, 40% reduction in homicides, and 76% reduction in terrorist attacks. Government estimates place the number of active FARC members between 8,000–9,000 at the time of Santos’ takeover (a 50% reduction) while over 21,000 FARC guerrillas and former guerrillas formally demobilized as part of Uribe’s PAHD demobilization program. Not only did Uribe succeed in devastating the FARC during his term, but his success in finally bolstering domestic security earned him unprecedented levels of public support. His domestic approval ratings were near 80% when he left office.

Uribe left the presidency on a tide of incredible domestic support, having accomplished the crux of his campaign platform. So when his former Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos was elected as the second president to represent Uribe’s “U” Party, most assumed he would continue the intense campaign against FARC he had overseen under Uribe. However, once in office, Santos essentially pivoted to a more conciliatory approach aimed at promoting human rights and recompensing victims of FARC, guerrilla, and radical-right violence. These efforts, many successful and surely all well intentioned, were carried out amongst a diminishment of intensity against the FARC. To be sure, Santos did not end federal efforts to curb the leftists guerrillas, but began to focus his attention on the secret peace talks under way as early as 2011, as well as reparation regimes for the Colombian people. But as Santos’ years in office progressed, so too did FARC’s violence. 2011 featured a marked increase in the number of attacks carried out, and a decrease in guerrillas demobilized, captured, or killed. Into 2012, FARC pivoted its attention to infrastructure attacks, which grew 250% between 2011 and 2012. Large, headline-grabbing attacks, like the massive pipeline explosion and ambush of federal soldiers discussed above added further fuel to the fire.

While Santos’ peace talks initially garnered a plurality of popular support, continued violence and extreme disregard for the ecological future of Colombia have essentially sunk public hope for the future of the peace talks. Santos’ most recent approval rating stands at just 28%, with only 30% of respondents favoring his approach to combating FARC and other guerrillas. While Colombians may have been initially sympathetic to Santos’ attempts to end decades of violence, two years of stalled negotiations and increasing violence and destruction have guaranteed the evaporation of any form of continuing public support. While his 51% of votes cast in his 2014 reelection signaled (at least to some) continuing support for the FARC peace talks, a year’s worth of continued violence and repetitive dishonesties by the FARC ensure a Colombian public yearning for the hard-line policies of Uribe.

Irreconcilable differences between negotiation positions

While the political will of the people is essential for continued election and an important indicator of job performance, it is certainly not the only thing for a nation’s leader to consider while debating the important strategies at play here. But not only does political will united against the peace process bode poorly for Santos, but he must also come to realize that there is no real satisfactory compromise possible coming out of these slow peace talks.

First, this Havana conference marks the fourth major peace attempt between the FARC and the Colombian government since the guerrilla group’s founding. Attempted talks in 1984–89, 1991–92, and 1998–2002 produced no long-lasting results. Not only has the FARC violated scores of self-declared cease-fires throughout the three former, as well as the current negotiation conference, but they have demonstrated a total inability to control their violence even when presented with substantial gains from the government. With the hope of negotiating peace, then President Andrés Pastrana granted FARC a 16,200 square mile demilitarized safe zone in November of 1998, in which they were free to operate without federal intervention. Their response to the government’s concession was the hijacking of a commerical aircraft, attacks on neighboring small towns and cities, and the recruitment of IRA terrorists to train FARC guerrillas in bomb making. It should come as no surprise that this round’s cease fire was violated by the previously discussed ambush killing of federal soldiers and an attack causing Colombia’s worst ever oil spill.

Not only has the FARC proven four individual times to not have any interest or even ability to stop the violence carried out by its guerrillas, but its negotiators in Havana have already made clear that the components of an acceptable agreement include elements not swallowable for the Colombian people. While it should be noted that some progress was made regarding land reform and plans to eradicate the cocaine trade, no specific plans for execution were agreed to, and the agreements are contingent upon an overarching peace deal being forged. More importantly, however, is that scholars optimistic about a possible deal have for some reason absolutely ignored major disagreements over the future political landscape of Colombia. FARC has demanded and continues to demand ridiculous restructuring of the Colombian government, including, “doing away with presidentialism; abolishing the House of Representatives and replacing it with a ‘Territorial Chamber’; creating a new branch of government called ‘Popular Power’; and restructuring the armed forces, the tax system, and the central bank.” While these outlandish demands might well be illogical claims meant to illicit later compromise, FARC negotiators are dead set on rewriting Colombia’s Constitution, to be written by a popularly elected Constituent Assembly. Lead government negotiator Humberto De la Calle responded to this demand with brevity, saying, “A constitutional convention won’t happen.”

While the efforts of President Santos to find an end to more than fifty years of guerrilla violence are admirable, the Colombian government would be better suited abandoning the doomed Havana talks and returning to the incredibly popular, Uribe-style anti-FARC intensity that proved incredibly gainful during the 2000s. While opponents will certainly argue the impossibility of arresting or killing every leftist guerrilla in the country, FARC has demonstrated no interest, neither in this round of talks or the three earlier, in serious negotiation and a return to civically acceptable life. Until such a change occurs, or perhaps to facilitate it, the Colombian government should take advantage of FARC’s diminished finances and numbers and resume aggressive prosecution of the terrorist group.