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Negotiating with the FARC: Laying the Foundations for Peace in Colombia?

Commentary, 30 August 2012
Following weeks of rumoured negotiations, the Colombian government has now announced plans to begin peace talks with the FARC. This may help the Santos government to recover from its recent downturn in popularity, but prospects for a meaningful settlement will be hindered by the ability of the FARC's senior leadership to negotiate authoritatively on behalf of an increasingly fragmented organisation.

Following weeks of rumoured negotiations, the Colombian government has now announced plans to begin peace talks with the FARC. This may help the Santos government to recover from its recent downturn in popularity, but prospects for a meaningful settlement will be hindered by the ability of the FARC's senior leadership to negotiate authoritatively on behalf of an increasingly fragmented organisation.

J M Santos speech on FARC

On Monday 27 August, Colombian President Juan Manual Santos, confirmed recent suggestions that his government has been involved in preliminary discussions with Colombia's largest left-wing guerrilla group, the FARC, aimed at setting the agenda for possible exploratory peace talks to take place later in the year. While keeping details to a minimum, the President stated that both the government and the guerrillas had agreed to a 'framework of principles' that must be abided by should an official dialogue for peace go ahead. These included, a commitment to learn from and willingness not to repeat the errors of previous negotiation attempts; the acceptance that a possible peace process must lead to the end of the conflict; and the understanding that a military presence will be maintained across the country while potential peace discussions are underway.  According to the Colombian media, the talks are proposed to take place on 5 October in the Norwegian capital Oslo and are believed to have has six basic themes which include FARC demobilisation, ceasefire and the decommissioning of arms; issues which have all limited previous negotiation efforts. Should they go ahead, these peace talks would be the first of their kind to take place since previous efforts to bring FARC leaders to the negotiating table went sour in 2002, after rebels used the safe haven permitted to them by the government to regroup and strengthen their strong hold within the South-East of the country.

Foundations for Peace

This announcement represented the latest in a series of efforts by the Santos Administration to lay the foundations for peace and bring about an end to the country's half-century long conflict. These have been most emblematically characterised through the Colombian government's introduction of the Legal Framework for Peace Bill, which was approved by the Colombian Congress with the President's backing in June 2012.  While clearly stipulating that war crimes, and those ultimately responsible for them, will by no means escape investigation or punishment, this controversial piece of constitutional reform created the legal framework for the government to be able to negotiate with Colombia's most notorious of guerrilla groups, as well as the lesser known groups like the left-wing National Liberation Army (ELN).

It also reaffirms the willingness of some of the FARC's senior leadership to consider bringing its decades-long fight against the Colombian government to an end.  United by an orthodox Marxist ideology, the FARC traditionally engaged in low-intensity guerrilla activity against the Colombian state throughout much of the 1960s and 1970s, and from the mid-1980s it became increasingly involved in Colombia's drug trade. Driven by a desire to remedy Colombia's social inequalities and bring about far-reaching agrarian reform, the group's strength peaked at around 20,000 in the late 1990s, embracing a strategy of mobile guerrilla attacks against national security forces and a multitude of Colombian right-wing paramilitary groups.

However, over the last decade Colombia's security landscape has shown a marked improvement, thanks to a systematic programme of security-sector reform that, with the help of approximately $8 billion of US assistance, has allowed the government to re-establish control of large parts of the country. Subsequently, the group has made a number of calls for peace, with its former leader Alfonso Cano stating last August that the group was ready for negotiations. At the beginning of 2012, the FARC's current leader, Rodrigo Londono (better known by his alias 'Timochenko'), announced that it would abandon the decades-long practice of kidnapping for ransom as a gesture of good will in an attempt to signal the group's readiness to reopen negotiations. This was also followed in April by the release of the group's last ten remaining political prisoners, some of whom the group had held in incarceration for 14 years.

Recovering From Its Recent Downturn in Popularity

While this announcement has been condemned by some, most notably by Colombia's former president Alvaro Uribe - who habitually criticises the defence policies of the Santos government through his regularly updated twitter account - it could help the Santos Administration recover from its recent downturn of popularity caused by perceptions that the security conditions in Colombia have begun to slip under its stewardship. In particular, a poll published by the Colombian national newspaper El Tiempo, stated that 49.7 per cent of respondents disapproved of the President's policies during his first two years in office, with 69.3 per cent saying that they disagreed with how the President had handled rebel groups, neo-paramilitaries and drug and urban gangs. This compares to the 83 per cent public approval rating that Santos enjoyed last November after the FARC leader Alfonso Cano was killed following two air strikes by the Colombian military on his camp in the country's south-western province of Cauca.


Despite the FARC leadership's agreement to peace negotiations, violence from their members continue to persist. As such, a major cause for concern among the Colombian electorate has been the significant rise in the number of attacks that have been conducted by the FARC since Santos took office in August 2010. For example, according to a report by the Bogota-based security think-tank Corporacion Nuevo Arco Iris (CNAI), the FARC is believed to have stepped up its activities in 2011 by about 10 per cent; committing 2,148 offensive actions, killing 449 members of the security forces and injuring another 1,786.  In a growing sign of desperation, the FARC have also carried out a dramatic increase in attacks against Colombia's critical economic infrastructure, most notably the country's oil industry - assaults against which have reportedly represented a 300 per cent increase in the first six months of 2012, over the same period last year.

However, if peace negotiations were to go ahead they would mark a momentous turn in the Colombian government's half-century long conflict against the FARC, and if done correctly could secure a place in the history books for Santos as the man that led Colombia to peace. If successful, proposed peace talks could also spark the beginning of further gains against other hostile left-wing groups, such as the ELN who have also this week stated their willing to hold unconditional peace talks with the Colombian government.

A String of Symbolic Victories

The news of this announcement comes after of a string of symbolic victories this year by the Colombian government against the FARC, following the release of Colombia's renewed military strategy under Santos, officially dubbed Operation 'Espada de Honor' (or 'Sword of Honour').  Most notably, the Colombian military dealt a historic blow against the group in March following two operations: one which saw a FARC training camp bombed in the central Colombian department of Meta leading to the death of 36 rebels, and another airstrike and ground raid which saw a further 33 rebels killed in the country's eastern department of Arauca. According to President Santos, the Colombian military had never managed to take out so many members of the FARC than in these individual operations.


Launched in January 2012, this two-year multi-agency effort, aimed at reinforcing the government's desire to integrate both its civilian and military activities with the specific objective of eliminating fifteen of the FARC's 67 most well-armed and wealthiest fronts. It also signified a departure from the military's previous approach (known as 'Plan Burbuja'); where military intelligence efforts were focused more narrowly - albeit with great success - on locating and eliminating the top levels of the FARC's senior leadership (now considered crucial for the proposed negotiating process) in the hope that this would lead to the collapse of the structure beneath them.

Broader Political Activities

The potential for peace talks with the FARC also illustrates the Santos government's willingness to ensure that military efforts to combat the country's left-wing guerrilla groups are secondary to broader political activities aimed at bringing about an end to the country's violent conflict. An important component of this approach has been the government's efforts to use high levels of national economic growth (driven primarily through the development of five key industries: mining; agriculture; housing; innovation; and infrastructure), to create the conditions and resources to allow it to pursue an aggressive social policy that challenges the FARC's raison d'etre and alienates the group from its traditional support-base. In particular, efforts in this regard have comprised of attempts to improve the state's provision of basic services to large sections of the Colombian society and reduce the country's endemic inequality; with the specific target of graduating more than 350,000 families out of poverty during Santos' first term in office - as set out by the government's National Development Plan 2010-2014.

This has also been complimented by efforts to place a greater emphasis on upholding human rights. To date, perhaps the most significant action in this regard has been the government's flagship Victims and Land Restitution Law, signed in June 2011, which aims to compensate an estimated four million victims of Colombia's decades-long conflict. While being the cause of much controversy, largely because its overall cost could total $20bn (£12.3bn), its intention is to allow damages to be paid to relatives of those killed - by the security forces as well as by left-wing guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries - and seeks to restore millions of hectares of stolen land to its rightful owners.

No Guarantees for Peace

However, despite the significant amount of hope that this recent announcement has given, with over a month to go there is no guaranteed that such talks will actually take place, especially if levels of violence continue to escalate in the coming weeks. Furthermore, the prospect of any meaningful peace settlement being brokered with the FARC will also remain dependent upon the ability of the FARC's senior leadership to negotiate authoritatively on behalf of the entire group. The likelihood of this being able to go ahead is similarly uncertain given that the group's organisational structure has become increasingly fragmented in recent years.  In fact, according to military intelligence sources consulted by the Colombian Newspaper El Espectador, the FARC maintains 67 fronts throughout the country, yet only fifteen of them (located mainly in the eastern and southern portions of the country), have direct communications with the Secretariat - the group's seven-man commanding body. According to analysis by the Medellin based consultancy InSight Crime, the FARC's political integrity is also believed to have been affected by the loss of several members of its Secretariat in recent years, many of whom (like former leader Alfonso Cano) were considered to be the chief ideologues of the organisation.

This possible loss of ideological guidance from the group's commanders has also coincided with the growing involvement of its membership in an increasingly diverse range of industries such as illegal mining, illegal logging and other forms of eco-exploitation. For example, the FARC's 36th Front, reportedly charge around 3 million pesos (approx $1,600) tax for each backhoe machine which enters their territory in the municipality of Anori, and an additional 1 million ($530) per month maintenance fee.  . Should some of the FARC's senior leadership agree to a settlement with the Colombian government, there is therefore nothing to prevent a significant number of the group's membership from abandoning their traditional ideology and becoming part the growing web of self-interested illegally armed organised crime groups operating within Colombia; with whom the prospect of reaching a peace settlement is much less likely. These groups (commonly referred to as 'bandas criminales' or BACRIMs), are now operating in over a third of Colombia's 1,103 municipalities, having moved into forty-six new municipalities since 2010. The impact of any peace talks between the FARC and the Colombian government therefore risk being short-lived from the offset, unless FARC representatives are able to ensure that all of its members were prepared to abide by the outcome. As such, upcoming attempts to negotiate peace with the FARC could well echo previous experiences in Colombia, such as the failed demobilisation of the far-right United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) from 2003 to 2006, where a large number of the group's mid-level paramilitary commanders and those under their command demobilised in name only, and subsequently returned to their criminal past.

If the government's recently announced plans materialise and the first round of talks go ahead in October, President Santos will certainly have a lot to be congratulated for.  However, while this latest development in the country's on-going battle against the FARC points to an end to the country's ideological battle, it by no means signals an end to the country's violent conflict; the nature of which is increasingly likely to be dictated by the actions of criminal groups who prioritise generating revenue over an overarching social agenda for change.

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