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A Peace Grows in Colombia

After two generations of civil war, will the fighting really stop?

Mar 15, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 25 • By VANESSA NEUMANN
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Bogotá, Colombia

A Peace Grows in Colombia

‘Colombia’s is the Rolls Royce of programs. That’s why we’re all here,” says a keen American as we join the rest of the participants boarding the bus that will take us from our hotel to Bogotá’s El Dorado airport from where we will fly 150 miles west to the town of Armenia in Colombia’s coffee region in the hilly center of the country.

Some 60 peacekeepers, academics, generals, and bureaucrats from 20 countries are all congregating in Colombia for a week to inspect its process of Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) of former guerrillas and paramilitaries into civilian society. It’s said to be the envy of other countries trying to extract themselves from civil wars.

This vast conference crisscrossing Colombia (a country almost as big as France and Spain put together) is part international strategic cooperation and part propaganda, intended both to show off and to get input from the other countries on Colombia’s work to wind down the low-level war that has ravaged the country for more than 40 years. It’s left tens of thousands dead and over 3 million displaced. 

Our international delegation is clearly a tempting target for any FARC commander with his back to the wall, and the government’s military might is on constant display. When we land in Armenia, our buses are joined by police escorts: two police officers on each of about three motorcycles is all we can see from the windows. It’s only when we alight at the Disneyish Hotel Las Camelias that the full security contingent is apparent. On either side of the imposing gates and amongst the miniature golf, tennis courts, swimming pools, and children’s playground are about 20 grim and earnest soldiers, clutching what I take to be M-16s. Their eyes follow us steadily; when someone tries to photograph them, they turn their backs to the camera. 

The isolation, faux luxury, and heavy security of our location makes it seem like a wannabe G20, a feeling only exaggerated by the array of simultaneous interpreters: one for Spanish into English, another for English into Spanish. No one can quite manage Portuguese for the Angolans and Mozambiqueans, and French is done spontaneously by the participants themselves.

During our preliminary two-day conference, the inevitable government apparatchik had stood up and told us there is no longer any armed conflict in Colombia, simply a few thugs with absolutely no popular support—a fact that may well come as a surprise to the thousands of kidnap victims still in FARC hands or to the U.S. government, which gives Colombia roughly $750 million a year in financial and military assistance—or even members of the Uribe administration, most of whom have suffered the violence from the leftist guerrillas (FARC, ELN, M-19, EPL, the Socialist Renovation Current, etc.) or the several dozen right-wing paramilitary groups under the umbrella of the AUC (the Spanish acronym for “the United Colombian Self-Defense,” private armies fighting the guerrillas) or both. Some of their families have had as many as 20 relatives kidnapped. Though Colombia is tired of the right-versus-left fighting that has shredded the country continuously since the civil war of 1946–64 and has enacted various piecemeal laws to enable demobilization, there is no overarching peace accord. 

Throughout the eight-day trip, it’s the extent that forgiveness has been wrought from exhaustion that’s most striking. From the president’s office to the poorest communities, victims and victimizers are building together. It’s not that they have forgotten the horror of having their relatives delivered in body bags or watching them be hacked to pieces by chainsaw in the town square—starting from the ankles and working up, so the victim lives (and screams) as long as possible, a preferred AUC tactic. 

“We’re tired of the violence. We just want it to end,” says a weather-worn coffee farmer clinging to the back of our jeep as it heads up the dirt road from the small Risaralda town of Santuario to a cliff promontory called La Linda, a FARC stronghold from 1999 until 2003, when it was taken over by a paramilitary front known as the Heroes and Martyrs of Guática of the Central Bolivar Bloc of the AUC, who then demobilized here in December 2005. Now it is the site of a reintegration project: In 2009 the government funded a playing field and a schoolhouse in exchange for the community accepting the former fighters back into their fold, living and building the school alongside their former torturers. Our self-appointed guide refers to the AUC as los muchachos (“the boys”), still afraid to call them paramilitaries. He witnessed AUC chainsaw executions, yet speaks of the paramilitaries as cleansing the village of the FARC and of their brutally imposed curfews— anyone out at night was killed—as being for the villagers’ protection. 

The AUC was demobilized under the 2005 Justice and Peace Law. Now los muchachos pick coffee beans alongside the villagers to produce El Café de la Reconciliación, (“Reconciliation Coffee”), which is then packaged, sold, and marketed by Colombia’s powerful Coffee Growers Federation (they of the Juan Valdez brand). 

The Justice and Peace Law has been widely criticized by Human Rights Watch and other NGOs as inadequate punishment for the paramilitaries. But it was specifically designed to give demobilized fighters who have committed crimes against humanity while members of a “recognized armed group at the margins of the law”—namely, the AUC which has demobilized collectively—reduced sentences in exchange for full disclosure and reparations to the affected families. (They serve five and eight years instead of cumulative sentences that could easily run more than 40.) It’s Colombia’s version of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission and has led to knowledge of 257,089 registered victims, 32,909 specific crimes—of which 14,612 have been confessed to—and 2,182 exhumed graves. Last year the government approved reparations (more will be done by the judiciary, for there are always two routes to peace in Colombia) of $100 million, and there is $500 million in aid budgeted for the internally displaced. The demobilization process has also greatly increased government intelligence about the armed groups. Murders have dropped from 30,000 in 2002 (when Alvaro Uribe was elected president) to 16,000 in 2009 and kidnappings from 3,000 to 213 over the same period. 

The other common accusation is that the law is simply a convenient whitewash of the Parapolitical Scandal, which revealed that the AUC had political ties reaching deep into the Uribe administration. Along with corruption charges, there have been allegations that the Colombian military passed on intelligence to the AUC to support its battles against the FARC, committing at-arms-length massacres the government could not sanction directly. 

Though many facts of the scandal remain sketchy, Colombia’s judicial institutions appear to be working better than those in most of the rest of Latin America (and nearly any country with continued armed conflict): The Parapolitical Scandal has resulted in numerous prosecutions, and Colombia claims that its DDR process will prosecute more fighters than in all previous such efforts put together, including the Nuremberg trials. Such are the Graham Greene-esque contradictions of Colombia: a revolution alongside a state, forgiveness with prosecution, peace-building without peace accords, and a peace process driven by military prowess.

The 2005 law also set up the vast program of the Presidential High Commission for Peace and Reintegration (ACR is its Spanish acronym) to offer a chance for leftist FARC guerrillas to individually demobilize. It grants them forgiveness of their political crimes—rebellion, treason, and riot (though not kidnapping or rape)—in exchange for their entering a government program of psychosocial assistance and vocational training.

This process is the result of a shift in 2006 from “reinsertion” to “reintegration,” as a consequence of the Justice and Peace Law and the demobilization agreement made  with the AUC. Prior to 2006, reinsertion was centralized, short-term, and focused on the individual fighter. Reintegration is managed by state and local political entities and includes the individual’s family and community in hopes of creating an environment for long-term success. Security, life insurance, and economic aid are considered the main motivating factors for the demobilized to remain civilians. Aside from counseling for the entire family, the former fighters receive vocational training and basic education. The reintegration process is part of the Colombian government’s realization that it needs to address the deeper issues behind armed groups for peace to be lasting after so many decades of war. 

The ACR program mixes carrot and stick to make sure demobilized guerrillas don’t take up arms again. The stick is the massive U.S.-backed military with an excellent propaganda machine following swiftly on its heels. Thin, pale, spy planes known as “The Cross” hover above guerrilla jungle camps and guide in soldiers or Blackhawk helicopters. After the battle comes the psychology: leaflets, banners, and booming messages encouraging the embattled guerrillas to quit. Even Ingrid Betancourt, the Franco-Colombian politician who spent six-and-a-half years as a FARC hostage, was pressed into service within 24 hours of her rescue: “I am Ingrid Betancourt and I am free. Cross the bridge and come join me in freedom. Life is better out here. Give up your weapons now.” The idea is to chip away at the unpaid and unhappy foot soldiers, so there won’t be much of an enemy to resist the military onslaught. “Demobilize, capture, kill” are the three strategic priorities. This has helped reduce violence in the countryside, the Colombian authorities say.

At Las Camelias, a DDR expert from a Swedish think tank gives a presentation based on his experiences in Rwanda and Sierra Leone. But the Liberians and Rwandans in attendance tell me Colombia’s peace building process is not Africa’s. Colombians have a lot more money, for a start. 

Another difference is that Colombia’s warring revolutionary and counterrevolutionary forces have fought alongside an active state infrastructure—although the Colombian state was arguably on the verge of collapse when Uribe took office in 2002. After years of failed peace talks, the FARC were more powerful than ever, with thousands of kidnap victims in ad hoc concentration camps in the demilitarized zones they had been granted as part of the agreement to join talks. They unabashedly assassinated judges and presidential candidates. Less than one-third of Colombian municipalities had a police or state presence. 

Colombia’s peace process is run by the state itself rather than an outside mediator. Peace building here is a form of territorial conquest: The government uses its slowly developed military might to force the surrender by opposing fighters into the state structure, not some U.N.-mediated power-sharing agreement as in Northern Ireland or Liberia. The Philippines and Sri Lanka, where the Tamil Tigers capitulated after they were nearly bled to death, are better parallels. It is no coincidence that both these countries have representatives here or that the Philippines enjoys an especially close relationship with Colombia, though it is nothing like the relationship Colombia enjoys with the United States. 

The extent of U.S. military assistance and training is evident at the agricultural commune integrating former guerrillas in Vallenpaz in the Cauca department on the southwest coast. The soldiers guarding us have “US” stamped on their vests and radios. Their guns, though, are Israeli. “We used to use American M-16s,” says a soldier, “but they’re too unreliable and take too much cleaning if you’re using them in the bush. We can’t afford the time. So we carry these Israeli Galils; they’re much sturdier, all encased in metal, though they weigh two-and-a-half times what an M-16 weighs.” Likewise the Urban Antiterrorist branch of the Special Forces that guards us in Bogotá: They carry Israeli T.A.R. 21 snub-nosed semiautomatics.

Soldiers, police, special forces, sharpshooters, and helicopters are omnipresent and a constant reminder of what peace building without a comprehensive peace accord means. Indeed on our hour-long open-backed jeep journey to La Linda, I am informed by Alejandro Eder—the political adviser to Frank Pearl, Uribe’s High Commissioner for Peace and Reintegration—that the area has been encircled and cleared by soldiers for three days prior to our arrival. In addition to the armed convoy and the soldiers dotting the landscape, “there are many others you cannot see.”

There is an inherent instability in Colombia’s DDR program: Although there is a legal framework for punishment and reparations, the process and mechanisms of reintegration are entirely reliant on the political will of the president. This of course fits nicely with the cult of personality surrounding Alvaro Uribe, a man so dynamic and ruthless, many think Colombia cannot survive without him at the helm. They’re about to find out if this is true: The Colombian Supreme Court has just disallowed the referendum on the constitutional amendment that could have allowed Uribe to run for a third term in the May 2010 elections. They had already amended the constitution to allow him two consecutive terms, so this would have been what Colombians call Uribe’s re-reelection, which he was widely expected to win hands-down in the first round, as he did both previous times in waves of historic popularity. 

Media attention is focused around the three candidates embroiled in Putin-esque machinations to succeed Uribe, two of whom he has personally anointed: Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos and former Agriculture Minister Andrés Felipe Arias, commonly known as Uribito (“the Mini-Uribe”). Santos is a renowned FARC-hunter and widely credited for 2008’s Operación Jaque, in which Ingrid Betancourt and the three American contractors were rescued from their FARC jungle camps without a shot ever being fired. His presidential candidacy is assured as he leads the Partido de la U (the U is, yes, for Uribe; the party was founded to unite Uribe’s parliamentary supporters). But Arias may end up a man without a party, as he looks likely to lose the Conservative party nomination to Colombia’s formidable former ambassador to Great Britain, Noemí Sanín. Bright, charismatic, beautiful, and tough, Sanín has a compassionate touch that plays well on the campaign trail: sort of Maggie Thatcher-meets-Princess Di. Early polls put her 20 points ahead of the scandal-plagued Arias. But it is his patent Uribismo that could be the Mini-Uribe’s ultimate undoing. The Conservative party leadership is worried that if they give the candidacy to Arias and he does poorly, he will concede and turn his supporters over to Santos to ensure the Uribista succession. Not that there is likely to be any strong anti-Uribe movement in this election; even opposition candidate Germán Vargas Lleras boasts on the website that his Radical Change party is “part of the government coalition.” One way or another the specter of Uribe will haunt the presidential palace for at least another four years. 

Trouble bubbles below the surface in a number of guises. Beyond the rampant poverty lies what Colombians have been fighting over for the last six decades: land. A full 10 million acres have yet to be returned to the people who used to live on and work it, often for generations, without title. When the FARC or the AUC took control, they would sometimes register title. So now that the government has seized it from the fighters, restitution is far from clear-cut. And guerrillas, emergent criminal gangs, and old-fashioned drug lords continue to vie for control of the land routes to export cocaine to both coasts, to Ecuador, and, especially, to Venezuela. And then there’s the Agroincome Scandal—the government’s giving land and development subsidies to some of the wealthiest families in Colombia—which has ensnared Andrés Felipe Arias and led to cynicism and disappointment.

The high-stakes pursuit of guerrillas and terrorists has put pressure on the Colombian military to produce results that justify all the funding and assistance they receive. This has resulted in yet another scandal: this one known as the False Positives. Poor civilian boys who were reported missing by their mothers in Soacha, just south of Bogotá, were found three days later in a different part of the country dressed in fatigues and shot dead by the military, who then identified them as guerrillas killed in combat. The mothers and other family members insisted this was impossible, and the government is prosecuting nearly 500 soldiers involved in the kidnap and murder. But some remain dissatisfied, claiming the prosecutions are too slow, and that the prison terms too often become time served while awaiting trial, leaving the kidnappings and murders legally unpunished. 

“But the legal process is working in this case. It is the government itself that made the events at Soacha public, so we are not hiding anything,” insists Carlos Franco, as we chat at the Colombian embassy in London a few days after my trip. He is the very embodiment of redemption through reintegration. It is easy to forget that this blue-eyed, middle-aged man with wild wavy hair sitting in a pinstriped blue suit was once a commander of the leftist EPL guerrillas. Now he is the director of the Presidential Program for Human Rights, coordinating the tasks of the various government departments and shaping Colombian policy on human rights. He feels these have advanced greatly during the Uribe administration, mainly through strengthened state institutions. “So the most important thing today,” says Franco,

is that the state now feels responsible for guaranteeing the rights of the people. I think that’s very important—all rights, be they of labor union members or a businessman who should not be kidnapped or political opposition to the government. The second thing is that all the policies are considered in the light of human rights. Our security policy is designed to guarantee rights and it’s enacted respecting people’s rights.

Yet he is realistic about the challenges of what he terms “a process of reintegration in the midst of confrontation.” It is not popular with everyone:

Shimon Peres, the man who knows more about war and peace than anyone else in the world, said that you have to negotiate as if there were no war and make war as if there were no peace negotiations. It’s really two faces of the same coin. A lot of pacifists think they’re mutually exclusive, or they make the assessment that this government has chosen war. This government has not chosen war; this government has confronted the circumstances with which it was faced. This is not a decision made by the Colombian government; this is a decision made by the guerrillas.

When I ask Franco what he considers the greatest remaining challenges for him, he wryly answers that with seven-and-a-half years at his post and only a few months remaining on his term alongside Uribe, he has more achievements than challenges ahead of him. “The challenges will be for the next government.”

Vanessa Neumann is editor-at-large of Diplomat magazine and a commentator on Latin American politics for Caracol radio network.

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