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President Juan Manuel Santos announcing peace talks with FARC. (Photo: SIG)
FARC members during the last peace talks in Colombia (1999-2002). (Photo: DEA)
Monday, September 10, 2012

Fingers Crossed

Peace with FARC will benefit Ecuador, but it won't be easy.




Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos on August 27 confirmed rumors that his government will negotiate a peace agreement with the Marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) in Havana. With the previous generation of leaders largely dead or jailed but others still entrenched in positions difficult to dismantle along the borders with Ecuador and Venezuela, peace looks more achievable at present than during the ill-fated last attempt a decade ago. Solving the civil war with the FARC and the Liberation Army (ELN), which have announced they may join the talks, would mark significant progress for the region given the FARC’s corrupting influence across Colombia’s borders, particularly in Ecuador, Panama, and Venezuela. Integration of the region could progress with greater control of Colombia over its territory, even if solutions to the problem of the narcotics trade remains elusive.

Months of exploratory backroom talks set the stage for the meetings due to start in Oslo mid-October. Critics, foremost among them his predecessor Álvaro Uribe, have argued that negotiations with terrorists shouldn’t proceed, particularly when the FARC, starting with Uribe’s two terms and continuing under Santos, lost ground and leadership through military and police attacks. They say that anything short of surrender risks tempting a resurgence of the kind the FARC unleashed after the failed previous negotiations in San Vicente del Caguán. By demanding FARC leaders currently in jail in the US be allowed to the negotiating table, the rebels immediately appeared to be making demands in ill faith. Colombian analysts quoted in El Tiempo however noted that the current rebel leadership probably felt obliged to pay homage to these individuals through their statements and that, in the end, they would allow the talks to go ahead as planned.

Ecuadorian retired and active-duty military officers meanwhile note that dislodging the guerillas from their final strongholds will be an excruciatingly difficult task, with the FARC and ELN knowing every detail of the jungle and mountain terrain and having prepared a defense accordingly. Smashing the FARC risks exacerbating the fragmentation already underway that has led breakaway units to join or create independent criminal gangs known in military and police jargon as “Bacrim.” For Ecuador, these pose an important risk particularly for the northern provinces as they will stop regarding the country as a low profile safe haven, instead opting to run their criminal operations of kidnapping, extorting, and smuggling with little concern for what any remaining FARC leaders might demand.

Some of this is likely to continue happening, according to security analysts, pointing to the demobilization of the right-wing paramilitaries under Uribe. Not all of their leaders kept their promises, leading him to extradite some of them to the US when they continued smuggling drugs. Risks of violence of the type seen in Mexico and Central America amid turf wars for space in the narcotics trade will remain very high.

Still, the FARC and ELN leaderships by now have likely had to realize military victory is out of the question. Like Uribe, Santos will likely have to agree not to extradite FARC leaders to the US once a peace agreement goes into effect. Painfully, the FARC will also probably be allowed to enter legal politics, as did the M19 rebels after laying down arms in 1990. Other demands include agrarian reform, terms of the ceasefire and demobilization, a truth commission, and compensation for victims of the violence. These are all complex issues, but solutions should be reachable, even though security analysts expect the negotiations to take at least 18 months.

In the meantime, violence is set to continue, as noticeable in the spike in rebel attacks that at times made it look like Santos was failing to keep up Uribe’s flagship “Democratic Security Policy” as he mended ties with Ecuador and Venezuela. As a result, Santos’s approval rating has fallen below 50 percent in opinion polls. Military attacks on the FARC will however also continue. [Last] week, air raids killed FARC leaders including José Epimenio Molina, a close aide of the rebels’ current leader, Rodrigo Londoño, alias ”Timochenko.” When he announced the negotiations, Santos said that the military campaign will continue regardless of the talks.

This commentary originally appeared in Ecuador Weekly Report published by Analytica. Republished with permission.

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