By Danna Urdaneta*, COLOMBIA INFORMA, September 9, 2023
(Translated by Eunice Gibson, CSN Volunteer Translator)
At the completion of the fourth cycle of the Dialogs Table with the government of Colombia and the National Liberation Army (ELN) in Caracas, the chief of the peace delegation of the government of Colombia, Otty Patíño, granted an interview with various Latin American alternative media to respond to some sensitive issues in the peace process.
Patíño explained what President Gustavo Petro’s “total peace” policy means for him, detailed some aspects of the Caracas Agreements signed this September 4, referred to the combat going on in Arauca between the dissidents and the ELN, and covered some other subjects.
Danna Urdaneta: Do you think the expectations generated by the idea of “total peace” are so high that any progress in the existing procedures will be seen as “minimal” or “insufficient”?
Otty Patíño: Well, I think “total peace” is an aspiration; let’s turn it into something more modest. To my way of thinking, “total peace” is the aspiration that an armed illegal will not govern anywhere in Colombian territory. That’s what “total peace” does, and it does it the right way, not by war; we know that war generates more violence, because there are structural issues, whether it’s the economic, social, or political order, and the feedback to those is war.
So, convincing people that it’s for the good, by means of dialog. Of course, the government can’t stop maintaining its sovereignty over the countryside. It can’t stop using force, but it must also seek peace in the best way possible, through the use of dialog, whether in order to reach agreements, or in order to achieve submission by the groups that are outside the law, so that they make use of Colombia’s institutional systems.
This is not a utopia, rather it’s really modest to refuse to allow an illegal group to govern any territory and to arrive at that “total peace” without thinking that we will reach a “total peace” where all violence is ended, but the peace that I just described.
DU: There were more than 12 members of the ELN killed, according to the City Clerk in Tame, Arauca Department, besides the wounded and the prisoners, being held by the Central Command. That was because of the combat there a week ago in the town (vereda) of Siberia. Do those events in the conflict affect the process to the extent that the Araucan Social Movement, the Joel Sierra Human Rights Foundation, various media and another, longer, list, that includes Colombian insurgencies, have complained of, using evidence that these organizations of the 10th, 28th, and 45th Fronts are paramilitaries?
OP: Well, that is a long story, to define those groups as paramilitaries. It’s very complicated because they are FARC dissidents and it’s not easy to identify them in a simple way.
Of course, there are paramilitary practices in Colombia, that’s evident. There are times when military officials and authorities, including civilians, support and have relationships with those groups against another armed group. That institutional relationship with illegal actors to combat another illegal actor is a recurring practice in Colombia.
What is even often called paramilitarism is an alliance, basically, of drug trafficking groups with institutional sectors. Of course that has a very complicated tradition because we have sixty years or more of counter-insurgency fighting, and we have some doctrines that have established national security as a battle against change, against people who are fighting for change, against the left, actually.
In any event, there have also been processes of reflection, even within the Armed Forces themselves, that are trying, or are already building a new doctrine that’s now not one of protecting national security, but rather the way that counterinsurgency used to be fought.
The ELN is the last bastion of the insurgency. Once we close down the cycle of insurgent and counterinsurgent battles, that doctrine and those practices will be finished off completely. But now just by themselves they have been notably overcome.
By that I don’t mean that this isn’t going on in some territories, but in some places you can see sectors of the Armed Forces that don’t fall into those practices, and in other areas they still do; some sectors don’t fall into alliances with illegal sectors that do crimes, but some still do.
So, therefore, the job, which I think is a little bit anachronistic, of saying that in Colombia there is a battle between insurgent guerrillas and paramilitarism and against a counterinsurgent or paramilitary government, seems to me to be a reading that’s too simplistic.
So, back to Arauca, I don’t know the details of what happened there. I heard there’s a war that was set off since the beginning of last year and some people were killed who were largely part of the civilian population where people accused each other of supporting this group or that group. It’s not that I don’t have sympathy for the combatants that died there. At all events, they are human beings, they’re Colombians, they’re compatriots, and above all, we’re in the middle of a peace process which requires respect for that process.
Fortunately, and this is the optimistic voice, we are starting a dialog with the EMC-FARC group with the possibility of an understanding, and I think they themselves have sent a letter to the ELN, asking that they stop all that killing.
That seems to me to have a very important value, because there is also the possibility that those dialogs and this ceasefire, which up to now are bilateral, could be converted to a multilateral ceasefire that would enable us to end all of the killing, this war and these harassments against the civilian population much more globally.
DU: After a month of a bilateral ceasefire between the Colombian government and the ELN, how does the government’s peace delegation think it’s going?
OP: What’s happening is that in barely a month you can say that the Monitoring and Verification System was deployed into the regions and began publicizing the incidents that previously passed unnoticed, and they started to do some accounting. That is already very relevant, to look at ways to keep such incidents from being repeated, how they can be avoided, and of course, to get the ceasefire under way.
I think that the element of putting a reflector of light on all those events that were happening as a simple news item is now very valuable. We think now that many of those events were attacks against peace in Colombia; they weren’t just criminal events that attacked human rights or violated DIH, but rather they attacked a process of peace and that has enormous importance. There is starting to be a social punishment and a moral punishment for things like that. Besides the fact that they deserve punishment, that’s what these actions mean; they are crimes of different natures.
DU: What has the Colombian government’s peace delegation done about those complaints about the “dissidents” in Arauca who have been attacking the social fabric in the Department for all this time?
OP: Look, I’ve also received complaints about the actions of the ELN there, and I know that the ELN has had a very strong presence in Arauca, that a lot of territory in Arauca and much of the politics in Arauca have largely been dominated or managed by the ELN. But I have also heard voices criticizing their management and their domination that has even created some unholy alliances between the ELN and corrupt politicians there in Arauca.
There is a weariness in Arauca, both of the war and of the members of the Colombian military, who aren’t very dedicated to protecting the rights of the people, but rather to protecting the oil companies.
There is a fracture between the population and the Armed Forces; the police forces don’t have the capacity to deploy to keep order in the countryside. They stay in their barracks in their municipalities; they don’t go a block away from their barracks; they live in terror that if they go out, they will get killed. And the ELN has generated a reign of terror there, a reign that the people are resenting now.
But neither is this EMC group any help in producing new conditions. It’s attacking, it’s trying to conquer the countryside without any sign of a possibility of installimg a democracy there.
Recently, the ELN decided to declare war on the oil companies, but that had a negative effect on the ELN itself, because that would be killing the principal funding source there and many organizations there turned against the ELN.
I received a visit from organizations, some of which certainly had and still have a friendliness for the ELN, to see what might be done there; they started a Permanent Peace Table there in Arauca and I believe that the people there in Arauca are also starting to believe that it’s necessary to seek peace and not simply support this one or that one of the ones that are still fighting.
DU: How can you foresee such incidents?
OP: I believe that, on the one hand, producing new understandings, especially in the countryside is important; I think that out there in the countryside it’s so important because while it’s true that it’s possible to issue national orders, the fronts in the war, in the case of the ELN, sometimes have some dynamics and situations that make it very hard for them to comply with ceasefire orders. One case is what’s happening in Arauca, where they are attacked or they attack the forces that are in the process of a territorial dispute, and it’s very difficult to carry out a ceasefire in that situation.
The territorial issue will be fundamental, as will the possibility that they start to carry out the agreements with other forces that are in those territories. Especially, it seems crucial to me now that some dialogs are being opened and some truce or ceasefire agreements with EMC-FARC will make it much easier to comply with a ceasefire.
As to the Armed Forces, it’s also up to them to make a considerable effort, because although there are military commanders who really obey military orders to the letter, there are others who move or facilitate the actions of the illegal forces and get mixed up with them, thinking that by doing that they are helping to end a war, but the opposite is what happens. You can’t kill violence with more violence. And, besides that, sometimes they’re lining up with one side against another side.
And in the case of the ELN, of course, it’s easier and more understandable for the military to ally themselves against the ELN, taking advantage of the fact that the ELN is clearly an insurgent force, and that in a history and a tradition of counterinsurgent war, doctrinally, culturally, it’s much more understandable for the military to ally themselves with forces opposing them.
But, well, I also imagine that with those other forces they can make not just understandings of an ideological nature, but understandings of order, even economic. That means, they win by getting results and they win by getting economic benefits.
But those are the corrupt sectors which, in any case, the hands of this administration have not trembled to purge, as they say, to clean out the interior of the Army, to also examine the commanders of the military installations to see how they are behaving, and not simply talking about status. Sometimes they talk about pure status, or purely abstract complaints, which are no help in pushing this country and its institutions toward overcoming those anomalies that have led to sixty years of battle, insurgency, and counterinsurgency.
DU: How soon do you think we can hear the first public pronouncements by the Monitoring and Verification Systems on the incidents of the bilateral ceasefire?
OP: Well, there will be continual reports and, besides that, there will be an evaluation of incidents every three months.
DU: And will they be published every three months?
OP: Yes, of course.
DU: There’s no clear framework for paramilitaries like the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia or Clan del Golfo to have criminal law benefits if they submit to the legal system, because the alternative penalty statute proposed in Congress failed to pass. How does the administration think it can comply with “total peace” if there’s no clear legal framework for those negotiations and how can they terminate the relationship between the military and the paramilitaries that is now maintained with the AGC and the dissident sectors?
OP: I think we have to give those groups a real opportunity to submit or to have a possibility of submitting to the legal system, and not to have an initial question that they can only dialog and talk with one of these organizations. We have to talk with everybody, we have to make an effort with everybody, and we have to look for the legal mechanisms for doing it. And we have to explain and explain and have patience, if there’s a place where we can create the legal mechanisms to create an environment and create possibilities where those conversations can take place.
*Danna Urdaneta is a correspondent for March Noticias de Argentina and she conducted this interview on September 4, 2023, in collaboration with several organizations and Latin American media, like Venezuela, (International Solidarity Committee and Struggle for Peace, with the membership of the World Peace Council, Aporrea, 4F of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela, La Tabla, El Colombiano newspaper, “Migrant and Migration” program of Radio del Sur, “We Are Colombia” on radio YBKE in Estado Zulia, Community Radio Al Son del 23 in Caracas). In Colombia (Weekly Voice of the Colombian Communist Party, Colombia Informa, Isegiría of the Peace Unit of the University of Antioquia, Prensa Rural, Corpades Corporation for Peace and Social Development, Urban Analysis). Chile (La Razón Newspaper). Argentina (Cartago TV, Latin American Summary and Marcha Noticias). Mexico (El Machete of the Communist Party of Mexico). Sweden (Orinoco Radio and Resolver). Uruguay (Uruguayan Periphery) and France (Digital Reaction Magazine).