The Diminishing Prospects for Peace in Colombia

STRATFOR.COM Global Intelligence Update
23 September 1999

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Colombia's largest guerrilla army, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), issued a communique on Sept. 18 indefinitely postponing peace talks with the government. The announcement was made in reaction to a new government peace plan unveiled the day before. The new plan, which banks on vast amounts of U.S. and international aid, is at odds with some of the most important rebel demands. It appears unlikely that the government will be able to reconcile rebels to the plan, especially considering the U.S. involvement. This leads us to believe that the peace talks are no closer to fruition than ever.


On Sept. 18, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) issued a communique announcing that it was indefinitely postponing its peace talks with the government. The announcement came only one day after President Andres Pastrana unveiled a plan to restart negotiations with the rebels. Given that this plan didn't address FARC demands any more than the old ones, the postponement was unsurprising. Chances are that Pastrana won't make significant progress with the FARC until he finds a way to allay its distrust of U.S. involvement in the plan.

Pastrana's plan is an expensive one. It will cost $7.5 billion over the next three years. Colombia will provide the first $4 billion, and hopes the United States will provide an additional $1.5 billion, with the remainder coming from other international donors. The cornerstone of the plan is a concerted effort to combat drug trafficking by boosting the failing economy and increasing financial and technological support to rural communities. The plan also calls for modernizing the army and police, and for desperately needed judicial and criminal justice reform.

In order to implement the plan, Pastrana has called for the establishment of three commissions. The first, an "accompaniment commission," is basically a recycled version of the verification commission, which the government proposed to oversee the demilitarized zone (DMZ) created by Pastrana last year. The second is a collection of friendly countries that would observe the negotiations between the government and the rebels. The third commission would be established after a peace accord is reached and would verify compliance with the treaty.

Although Pastrana billed this as a new plan, the only thing really new about Pastrana's plan is the price tag. The military has undergone reform and modernization since Pastrana was inaugurated last year. Counter-narcotics programs have been around for decades. Even the plan to increase support to rural communities has been talked about for years, as has crop substitution and increased funding to peasant communities.

The real problem with Pastrana's plan vis-a-vis the rebels is that the government has still not addressed the FARC agenda at all. The new plan agrees with FARC only on the need to invest in rural Colombia. Obviously, this was not enough common ground to prevent the rebels from calling off the talks.

The FARC does not believe the government's proposal gives it any room to maneuver. For the rebels to be satisfied, the plan would need to address the issue of the paramilitary armies. It would also need to address FARC concern over U.S.-Colombian alliance in the drug war. The FARC has also already specifically rejected Pastrana's plans for a commission to oversee the DMZ. Finally, the plan doesn't address the FARC leadership's call for a prisoner exchange.

If Pastrana is able to secure the $7.5 billion - which is in no way certain - he must put the money where it will foster peace. As we see it, he must focus on two issues in particular. First, he must cut any government ties with paramilitary armies, primarily by responding to paramilitary violence the way the government responds to guerrilla violence: by sending in the armed forces. Alleged government and military sponsorship of the paramilitaries has been a crucial sticking point in negotiations. The FARC has been very firm in this position since the beginning; if the paramilitary issue is not settled, it will not disarm.

Second, Pastrana needs to try to divorce the drug war from the anti-guerrilla war. This will be a difficult chore, especially given that current U.S. efforts tend to blur those lines. For instance, much of the counter-narcotics (CN) funding and training the United States provides to Colombia could just as easily be applied to counter-insurgency (COIN) operations. The rebels often point to this fact when criticizing U.S. involvement in Colombia's civil war.

This year the United States gave Colombia $289 million in aid. That figure could rise to $500 million per year over the next three years. Pastrana must do something to allay FARC concern over U.S. involvement. However, his hands appear to be tied, given the beating of U.S. government drums over the drug issue.

The FARC has stated its commitment to eradicating drug trafficking in Colombia. However, nobody believes them. Even if the leadership is committed to such a policy, there is evidence that individual FARC fronts raise their money in the drug trade. Some fronts reap huge profits from the drug trade either by participating in it directly or extorting drug dealers by providing "protection."

The increasing U.S. involvement in Colombia has added a difficult dimension in the attempts to reach peace. To a great extent, the conflict has transformed from a government-guerrilla problem to a guerrilla-government-U.S. problem, complicating the process exponentially. In order to get closer to peace, Pastrana needs to find a way to mediate this issue. However, reconciling the U.S. and FARC positions appears to us to be virtually impossible, suggesting Colombia is no closer to peace than it was when Pastrana took office last year.

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