Colombia: Talking Peace while Waging War

By Caroline Delgado, 4 October 2014

Caroline Delgado

Caroline Delgado

September has been an eventful month for the peace process between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrilla group. In the beginning of the month, an unprovoked FARC attack killing seven police officers caused great outrage among the Colombian population. The attack is the latest of a wave of attacks that the guerrillas have been carrying out since June 2014 as a way of commemorating its 50 years of existence. This notwithstanding, only a week later the government announced the commencement of the 29th round of the peace talks in Havana. Thus as the FARC is increasing its attacks in Colombia, its negotiating team is sitting down with the government in Havana discussing the issue of victims´ rights and reparation – a paradox not easily accepted by the public. Shortly after the last round took off, the government reneged on its commitment to keep the talks confidential and made public the agreements so far reached between the parties during the course of the two years of negotiations. The release of the preliminary agreements sparked a vigorous debate in the media on whether the peace talks are steering the country towards peace or making dangerous appeasements to the guerrillas. Finally, as the month drew to a close, the government´s chief negotiator in Havana denounced that his email accounts, computers and telephone conversations had been illegally hacked into on at least 17 occasions. Evidence points towards members of the armed forces intelligence unit being behind the crime, which has been interpreted by the government as a deliberate attempt to sabotage the peace process.

Despite the many hurdles that have taken place throughout the negotiations, the parties are optimistic that an agreement will be reached. The recent presidential elections, which saw the re-election – albeit narrow – of President Santos were widely interpreted as a vote for peace. Scholars and experts have hailed the current talks as the most thorough and successful as of yet (Gomez-Suarez & Newman, 2013; The Economist). Fundamentally, they conclude, this time round there seems to be a recognition by both parties that their goals cannot be achieved on the battlefield. The government has admitted that it is unlikely to defeat the guerrillas through militarily means only, whereas the FARC has come to realise that they will not be able to gain political power through armed struggle (La Silla Vacia). As opposed to previous negotiation attempts, the Havana talks are focused on a limited and well-defined negotiation addressing five central themes: agrarian reform, drug trafficking, political participation of the guerrillas, victims´ rights and reparation, and the end of the conflict. So far, the parties have reached preliminary agreements on the first three points, while making clear that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. Furthermore, discussions are taking place outside Colombia secluded from the media and the public (that was until a couple of days ago) and adhere to strict procedural rules. Most importantly, the parties are negotiating without any bilateral ceasefire agreement in place.

The purpose of this structure of is to prevent the FARC from using the talks to regroup and mobilise and ultimately emerge as a stronger force, which was precisely what happened during the last peace talks held between 1999 and 2002 in Caguán, Colombia. The disastrous outcomes of the so called Caguán talks, which saw the FARC considerably strengthened and resultantly able to increase its offensive against the State, is an often cited argument by those opposed to the current peace talks. A significant part of the population and powerful segments of the political class fiercely oppose the talks. Favouring a continued military offensive against the guerrillas, they argue that the FARC is in terminal decline and can indeed be defeated through military means. Therefore they see no reasons for negotiating with the guerrillas or granting them any concessions. Furthermore, they argue the continued attacks by the FARC demonstrate its unwillingness to lay down arms and bring the conflict to an end through a negotiated settlement.

Nevertheless, much of the debate around the peace talks is taking place away from those on which the armed conflict has impacted the most. Shifting the lens to that of the conflict affected communities, which is a central aspect of my own research, there seems to be a certain disconnect with the ongoing peace talks. In these communities violence and intimidations are daily realities and peace is not a topic that can be freely discussed. These are areas with a high presence of illegal armed groups fighting each other for control, of which the FARC is but one of many. These same areas are consequently also on the radar of the state armed forces in their quest to assert control and neutralise the illegal groups. Nevertheless, the void left as one group is eliminated or driven out from the area is quickly filled by another. Meanwhile, community members are accused of and targeted for being supporters of the group that was previously in control.  Although many communities have tried to organise and resist, for example by forming human rights collectives, victim- and farmer associations, their work is precarious. Only this year, in the midst of the peace talks, 40 human rights defenders and victims´ leaders have been murdered and over 300 have received death threats, often accused of being guerrilla supporters (Semana, UNDP). Forced displacements, disappearances and homicides continue to add on a daily basis to the more than 6.5 million registered victims of the conflict. In recognition of the plight of the victims, the government has made efforts to include their voices in the peace talks. Nevertheless, the selection process that determined the 60 people to represent the millions of victims created yet further divisions and feelings of exclusion and misrepresentation. More worryingly, as one analyst put it, it has led to a form of double victimisation as victims through their exposure in the peace process become the target of threats and assignations all over again (Semana).

The Colombian government may well be on the verge of reaching a peace agreement with the FARC. Though while there can be little doubt that most Colombians wants peace, there seems to be little discussions however on what kind of peace that can be expected and for whom. This is not least so in the marginalised communities that have borne the brunt of the half a century long armed conflict. True that the FARC is the oldest and probably largest illegal armed group in Colombia, though it is far from the only one. The impact on local security dynamics of a potential FARC withdrawal – in whichever form that make take  – seems to be a question left hanging in the air. In the meantime, the negotiations continue. As does the war.


Gomez-Suarez, A., & Newman, J. (2013). Safeguarding Political Guarantees in the Colombian Peace Process: have Santos and Farc learnt the lessons from the past? Third World Quarterly, 34(5), 819–837.

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