Last week saw the beginning of formal peace talks between the Colombian government of Juan Manuel Santos and the leadership of the left-wing FARC guerrillas. A successful outcome will not be measured simply in the effective demobilisation of roughly 8,000 militants. Durable peace will require a reimagining of the Colombian state, which has become both victim and perpetrator in a conflict now over half a century old.
It is natural to be hopeful at the beginning of such a process, but wise to be cautious. The talks come after a ten-year demobilisation process that sought to disband the thirty thousand-strong right-wing paramilitary forces that emerged and were encouraged by previous governments. Many of these groups came from criminal beginnings, and all of them ended up as nothing more than massive criminal enterprises – killing, raping, displacing, torturing – with the principal aim of enriching themselves through the contraband and drugs trade. While the government has portrayed demobilisation as a success, judgment should be reserved. It is estimated that new criminal groups have already formed, many led by former paramilitaries, now with as many as five to twelve thousand members. If this is true, a large part of the problem has been simply relocated but not resolved.
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Will Colombia peace talks end FARC control?
The process of paramilitary demobilisation has been instrumental in showing exactly how the government and the rule of law in Colombia have fallen victim to the conflict. Two scandals eat at the heart of the state. The first is that the massive paramilitary movement became a socio-political phenomenon. Business and political leaders actively engaged with it as supporters and members, instigating, encouraging, or assisting massive crimes against civilians who got in the way. Related to this is the “parapolitics” scandal, whereby hundreds of mayors, governors, and members of Congress have been credibly accused of direct participation in the crimes of paramilitary organisations, with several already convicted. Confidence in the state and its political officers could scarcely be lower.
There is also the problem of “false positives”. This refers to the practice of armed forces murdering civilians or prisoners and presenting them as casualties of armed engagements. The benefits for doing so included financial rewards and extra leave. The breadth and depth of the practice make laughable any claims of rogue elements being responsible for these crimes. The similar modus operandi observable across several military divisions in different parts of the country gives the lie to that paper-thin defence. Thousands appear to have been murdered by the army in circumstances of the most extreme perfidy in terms of the state’s obligation to protect its citizens.
This is part of the backdrop to peace negotiations between the Santos government and the FARC. The talks do not take place in a vacuum, but in a context in which leaders of the Colombian state must show great courage and imagination. A lasting peace means establishing a credible state where the rule of law applies to all, where the weak and marginalised have a reason to place their trust in the state, and where elites believe in a new beginning,
Peace in Colombia also brings dividends far beyond its borders. The condition of near collapse in states such as Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico can be directly traced to the drugs wars that have enveloped the region as Colombian cartel power bases were destroyed and replaced with new ones with links to Mexican crime organisations. Guatemala and Honduras have been caught in the middle, with Honduran homicide rates now spiralling to levels higher than in many countries experiencing full conflict.
In this most complex of environments a few things must be kept in mind. First of all, most of the FARC leadership has already been convicted of serious crimes. There is no need to revisit the programme that was developed to incentivise paramilitary demobilisation (for example, confession of crimes in return for reduced sentences). The terms of possible lengthy suspended sentences or incarceration will be crucial to the success of talks with FARC. It is vital that negotiators not feel compelled to replicate the same processes carried out with paramilitaries; it is a different situation that requires a different solution.
Secondly, efforts to uncover the cancer at the heart of the state caused by the paramilitary phenomenon and the “false positives” scandal have to produce significant results. That means proper investigations, robust efforts to dismantle the groups and networks that supported them, and a crystal clear commitment to ensure it cannot happen again.
President Santos deserves considerable credit for his statesmanship in starting peace talks, where his predecessor showed none. He has also taken significant steps to clean up or dismantle significantly problematic institutions. But the FARC is only one element of the problem. The global solution requires restoring to all Colombians confidence in state institutions. The talks are an opportunity for peace, for a renewed democratic state of Colombia based on the rule of law for all – a chance for a new normal.
Paul Seils is the vice president of the International Center for Transitional Justice.