The Magazine

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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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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