Why Colombia’s peace negotiators missed their deadline

Many observers of Colombia’s peace talks in Havana, Cuba predicted that the two sides would not meet their March 23rd deadline for signing a final accord. They were right. President Juan Manuel Santos’ government and Marxist rebel group FARC did not meet their self-imposed deadline, but observers of the talks told Shipwreck they believe this is not a signal of the talks breaking down and that they are confident the two sides will eventually reach a final agreement. The missed deadline shows, however, just how sticky the remaining issues on the table really are.

Santos’ administration and FARC have already reached partial accords on land and agrarian reform, conditions for political participation for members of the guerrilla, how to address the issue of illicit drugs, and retribution for victims. Ending the conflict and implementing the deal are the final two points on the agenda. FARC’s leader Rodrigo Londoño (alias Timochenko) said in a March 25th interview that the two sides are still discussing the terms of a bilateral cease-fire, security guarantees for rebels after turning in their arms, and how to deal with the illegal armed groups that sprouted up from Colombia’s demobilized paramilitary organizations of the 1990s and early 2000s.

A bilateral cease-fire could be a sticking point because of life-after-demobilization security concerns. It is in the FARC’s interest to be sure it can have security for transitioning into politics once it lays down arms and demobilizes. Those guarantees would naturally come from the Colombian military, members of which are the devil incarnate for FARC. Colombia’s military commanders are unlikely to be keen on the idea of delivering protection to their enemy.

At the same time, it is in the state’s interest to concentrate the demobilization of guerrilla fighters in as few areas as possible. The guerrilla want as much territory as possible, considering the logistical risks of moving roughly 8,000 fighters to these zones. The question of how to address neo-paramilitary groups plays into life-after-demobilization too. FARC might feel confident the military will uphold a bilateral cease-fire, but left-wing guerrilla will continue to be the target of right-wing illegal armed groups. Santos on March 29th pledged to concentrate military efforts against Los Urabeños, currently the country’s most powerful neo-paramilitary group.

There are plenty of risks to navigate in this final stretch of negotiations. FARC remembers the killing campaign of the 1980s that left around 3,000 politicians and supporters of the emerging left-wing Patriotic Union (UP) party dead during a peace process with president Belisario Betancur’s government. FARC sponsored the creation of UP and some of its leaders joined politics under the UP banner. The guerrilla is sensitive to the risk that another political cleanse of the left could happen again. Santos’ government also faces the risk of setting up demobilization conditions in a way that comes back to haunt it, either through eroded popular and military support for the accords, or through letting demobilized FARC fighters pick up arms under the flag of another illegal armed group. Any of these possibilities would put peace in jeopardy.

Originally published at www.beaconreader.com.

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