Colombia sets the stage for FARC peace talks

Colombia last tried peace talks with the FARC in 1999, but the leftist rebels continued training and recruiting new fighters. Today, political and military conditions may help end the five-decade-long conflict.

By , Correspondent

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    Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos delivers a speech during a televised address to the nation at the presidential palace in Bogota, Colombia, Monday, Aug. 27. Santos said his government has held 'exploratory talks' with rebels of the the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC.
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Colombia has set the stage for peace talks with the country’s most powerful guerrilla group in an attempt to end its bloody 50-year-old conflict. Though the Colombian government has tried talks before, the political and military conditions today may be ripe for a pact.

President Juan Manuel Santos said in a national television address last night that his government has been conducting “exploratory talks” with rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), to try to negotiate an end to the conflict.

Mr. Santos did not give details but said that “in the coming days” he would reveal the outcome of the initial talks, which aim to lead to the initiation of formal  peace talks.

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The two sides have already named their negotiators and could begin formal negotiations as early as Oct. 5 in either Cuba or Norway, according to several media outlets. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has reportedly been acting as a facilitator for the preliminary talks. The country’s second largest guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army, or ELN, told Reuters on Monday that they are interested in joining the FARC in peace talks with the government.

“[This] may well be the best opportunity in nearly five decades to end the insurgency,” said Grant Hurst, a country risk analyst for IHS Jane's, in an emailed statement. But Mr. Hurst cautioned that success is by no means guaranteed. “Progress is likely to be sporadic and easily reversed.”

Learning from past 'errors'

The FARC and government last sat down to peace talks in 1999, when the rebels were granted a 42,000 square kilometer safe haven for just over two years in which to conduct the negotiations. The zone was popularly known as the Caguán.

But the safe haven was used more as a training ground for new fighters and a holding pen for hostages than to advance Colombia toward peace. By the time the talks broke off in 2002 the FARC were at the peak of their power with an estimated 20,000 troops.

“We are going to learn from the errors of the past,” Santos said, in reference to those failed talks which left many Colombians wary of any kind of peace effort. He said military operations against the rebels would continue “in every centimeter of the national territory.”

“Any [peace] process has to lead to the end of the conflict, not prolong it,” Santos said.

The FARC, then and now

Today’s FARC is not what it used to be. The rebel force was weakened by military offensives during the two-term presidency of Alvaro Uribe (2002-2010) that saw the deaths of several top members of the guerrilla's ruling secretariat, thousands of desertions, and a retreat from major urban centers to remote mountains and jungles.

The FARC began as a peasant uprising in the mid-1960s that claimed to fight for social justice, and used kidnapping and extortion to fund their fight. In the mid-1990s, they turned to drug trafficking as their major source of revenue – a shift that many claim diluted their Marxist ideals. The FARC are listed as a terrorist organization by both the United States and the European Union.

Mr. Uribe, who supported Santos’ run for president but has since become his most vocal critic, has derided the move toward peace talks. “To get to negotiations this government weakened security and allowed the recovery of FARC terrorists,” Mr. Uribe wrote on Twitter Monday.

In fact, FARC military activity has been increasing since 2008, as they adapted to the new situation of government offensives and stepped up their own attacks, which have further intensified this year. According to the Defense Ministry, acts of “terrorism” were up 53 percent in the first seven months of this year compared to the same period last year. On Sunday a car bomb, blamed on the FARC, killed six people including two children in the southeastern town of Vistahermosa.

But at the same time FARC leadership has made public statements in favor of peace negotiations. The FARC’s most senior leader, Rodrigo Londoño, alias Timochenko, called for such talks in January and then announced an end to the guerrilla’s tactic of kidnapping for ransom, which was one of the government’s demands before entering into talks. In April the group released the last 10 of their security force hostages, some of whom had been held for as long as 14 years.  The government then got Congress to approve a constitutional amendment that lays the legal groundwork for an eventual peace process with rebels by allowing for reduced sentences.

Political will

The true test of political will to end the conflict will be revealed in how the two sides move forward with negotiations.

“Drug trafficking will have to [be] on the agenda,” says Alejo Vargas, a political analyst with Colombia’s National University. The FARC may seek a commitment from the government that their leaders, many of whom have been indicted in the United States on drug charges, will not be extradited.

Analysts warn that the opening of formal talks is fraught with obstacles. “The biggest risk is that the guerrillas are not entirely convinced that the time has come to end the war,” says Mr. Vargas.

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