The Americas: Colombia's Rebels Talk Peace but Make More War


Jul 13, 2001

This commentary originally appeared in Wall Street Journal on July 13, 2001.

On June 16, the Colombian government and the country's largest guerrilla organization, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), carried out what was billed as a humanitarian exchange of sick prisoners. The government released 11 of 15 imprisoned Farc commanders, many with long rap sheets for terrorism and other crimes, in exchange for 29 soldiers and policemen held by the guerrillas. Another 242 government troops in Farc hands were released at the end of June.

The exchange was hailed by supporters of President Andres Pastrana's negotiation policy as a milestone on the road to peace. Yet, despite the optimism generated by the prisoner exchange among the war-weary Colombian public, hopes for an end to guerrilla violence are not likely to be realized anytime soon. To understand why, it is worth reviewing the history of the peace negotiations in Colombia.

After his November 1998 inauguration, Mr. Pastrana withdrew government forces from an area of some 42,000 square kilometers in southern Colombia as an inducement for the Farc to enter into negotiations. This area, the zona de distension, or "demilitarized zone," became a major strategic asset for the Farc, which proceeded to use it as a base for launching operations, resting and refitting its forces, moving and refining drugs, stockpiling arms, and even holding prisoners and hostages.

Despite this and other important government concessions, in two and a half years of off-and-on talks the negotiations failed to make any headway. The Pastrana government wanted to discuss an end to the violence and internationally condemned practices such as the recruitment of child soldiers, kidnapping and extortion. But the Farc insisted on first discussing a broad-ranging social, economic and political agenda. This almost guaranteed a stalemate on the fundamental issue of war and peace.

Mr. Pastrana has gone the extra mile in accommodating Farc demands. In fact, a debate within his administration on the extent of the concessions to be made to the Farc was settled in the first year of his presidency with the resignation of Defense Minister Rodrigo Lloreda, an advocate of a firmer line toward the guerrillas. Now, however, with only 14 months left of his term, Mr. Pastrana, who cannot seek re-election, is finding the window for reaching a peace agreement with the Farc rapidly closing.

But while Mr. Pastrana may be running out of time, the Farc has no such problem. It has been steadily growing in power over the past several years. From about 7,000 fighters in 1995, it has grown to approximately 15,000-20,000 troops and has expanded its operational area from thinly populated, inhospitable regions in Colombia's periphery to densely populated and economically strategic areas in the country's heartland. Despite improvements in the Colombian army, if there is a threat to the Farc, it comes less from government forces than from the so-called paramilitaries, which have lately emerged as a major force in the Colombian conflict. As long as the Farc leaders believe that the trends are running in their favor and that, in the long term, they may be able to win a military victory, or at least dictate the terms of the peace, they have little incentive to settle.

Both the Pastrana government and the Farc have an interest in continuing the talks. The government has staked its credibility and its legacy on the negotiation track. For the Farc, the negotiations enhance its domestic and international stature and create some real strategic and operational advantages -- particularly its ability to operate freely in the "demilitarized zone." In addition, as long as the negotiations continue, the Farc can use them to pressure the government to take stronger action against its paramilitary opponents.

Given these considerations, it is unlikely that the peace negotiations will drive the political process in the near term. The prospects for real peace will depend on the evolution of the political and military balance. Both the government and the Farc will try to use the negotiations for their own strategic and tactical purposes.

The latest exchange of prisoners should be seen in this context. The government gets something to show for two and a half years of negotiation and relief from the protests and pressures of relatives of the soldiers and policemen held by the guerrillas. The Farc gets some veteran commanders back. More importantly, by giving some hope that the negotiations may yet yield results, the Farc creates incentives for the 2002 presidential candidates to commit themselves to continuing the "peace process" into the next Colombian administration.

If there is any hope for peace in Colombia, the successful peace settlements in Central America a decade ago may provide some lessons. In Central America the key to the settlements was the agreement of the rebel forces to demobilize in exchange for guarantees of personal security and participation in a democratic political process. The guerrillas in those countries agreed to these arrangements when they had been essentially defeated (Guatemala) or had come to realize that a military victory was not possible (El Salvador).

In Colombia, by contrast, the government forces do not have the capability to control the guerrillas let alone defeat them. The solution, then, will be found at the negotiating table only after the Colombian government is able to redress the military balance. This may require putting greater pressure on the Farc, including retaking the "demilitarized zone," unless the Farc begins to negotiate in good faith and takes concrete steps to reduce the scope of the violence.

Colombia's friends, primarily the U.S., should be prepared to provide sustained and adequate support to the Colombian armed forces, not just for drug eradication, as is the case with the current policy, but to restore the capacity of the Colombian state to defend itself against forces that seek to overthrow it.

Angel Rabasa is a senior policy analyst at RAND and the principal author of Colombian Labyrinth.

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