Colombian Envoy Carlos Urrutia: Talks Could Soon End FARC Rebellion

By Dialogo
May 06, 2013

This could very well be the year Colombians mark the end of Latin America’s longest-running guerrilla war — a nearly 50-year-old conflict between the government and Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) rebels that has left hundreds of thousands dead and countless millions displaced from their homes.
That’s the word from Carlos Urrutia, Bogotá’s ambassador to the United States. He said peace talks now under way in Cuba offer Colombia’s best chance in decades to negotiate a settlement to end the bloodshed once and for all.
“FARC is much weaker than ever before,” Urrutia said. “This time, it’s the strength of the state rather than its weaknesses that have brought both sides to the table.”
Urrutia, a corporate attorney from Bogotá, had never held a diplomatic post before Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos sent him to Washington, where he presented his credentials to U.S. President Barack Obama on Sept. 5, 2012.
“Until [then], I was managing partner for one of the leading law firms in Colombia,” said the ambassador. “President Santos felt I was the right person for this job. It has a lot to do with the fact that our bilateral relationship with the U.S. is at the highest level one can think of. Our agenda goes way beyond the traditional topics such as defense and security matters.”
Urrutia: Society ‘has no tolerance’ for FARC’s barbarity
The main focus in Colombia right now is the fate of peace talks between the Santos government and FARC. The agenda for those talks consists of five specific topics:
• an end to the conflict
• reform of Colombia’s agrarian policy
• demobilization of FARC guerrillas and their legitimization as a political entity
• reparations to war victims
• and a solution to the drug trade.
Urrutia said his government has entered into peace talks with FARC rebels before, only to see them collapse. The last time came during the administration of President Andrés Pastrana, who handed FARC a Switzerland-sized haven of jungle which the terrorist group subsequently used to traffic cocaine and train commandos.
“We have gone through at least three prior rounds of negotiations with FARC, once in 1982-85, a second time in 1991, and a third time between 1998 and 2002. All of these exercises were miserable failures because FARC never understood that they had a true opportunity to demobilize,” Urrutia said. “What they tried to do in all three cases was take advantage of the negotiations and ceasefires to strengthen their ranks and widen the scope of their activities. They perceived wrongly that they had the opportunity to take power from civil society.”
But it’s not the same anymore, he said. Colombian society “has no tolerance for their barbarity and abuses” — not to mention the fact that FARC’s numbers have dwindled dramatically since the last round of peace talks a decade ago.
“FARC is now cornered by the Colombian armed forces. The general consensus is that they probably have around 8,000 men in arms. It used to be 30,000,” he said. “Before, there was a demilitarized zone of close to 40,000 square kilometers. This time around, there is no DMZ. Also, there is no ceasefire. The Colombian Armed Forces are continuing their operations.”
Diplomat optimistic about talks’ chance for success
Urrutia said Santos is “cautiously optimistic” about the talks in Havana, and that his president has the “unqualified support” of the White House and senior Obama administration officials.
“We need to wait and see what happens,” said the ambassador. “Progress is being made, but the negotiations remain completely confidential. The negotiating teams are not allowed to disclose the terms of what’s going on.”
The FARC talks were the focus of a recent conference at the National Defense University’s Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies. The symposium featured Urrutia as well as Colombian Army Gen. Carlos Alberto Ospina Ovalle — now a professor at the center —and several Washington-based specialists on Latin America.
Stephen Johnson, director of the Americas program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, said “it’s no secret” that the final two years of the Alvaro Uribe administration produced Colombia’s most spectacular advances against the FARC.
“By holding the talks in Cuba and giving Venezuelan and Chilean diplomats a role, Colombia is providing an opportunity for the Latin American left to end the conflict,” he said. “This is important, because the U.S. has been telling Colombia for the last half-dozen years that it will be ramping down security assistance after 2014. Some Colombians believe that close relations with the United States probably hurt the talks in 1992, so conducting talks without U.S input allows friends of the FARC to offer more pragmatic advice.”
FARC, paramilitaries must both ‘tell the truth’
Urrutia said that thanks to the superiority of the Colombian military — enhanced by modern technology and intelligence capabilities — it’s only a matter of time before the terrorists lay down their arms and agree to deep concessions.
“Society no longer tolerates its vicious actions, and [Colombian government] concessions that would have been on the table 12 years ago are now unthinkable. FARC’s involvement in the international drug trade and the international labeling of FARC as a terrorist organization has greatly diminished its standing and it has no room for improvement.”
Urrutia takes a measured approach, suggesting that once an agreement is reached, “we should be able to absorb 8,000 men and their families into the mainstream of Colombian society. That’s what the Colombian government is doing: devising policies and laws that will enable people to carry on with a productive way of life without going into the drug business.”
Colombia’s paramilitaries must also come clean if they want to rejoin society, Urrutia said.
“We Colombians are ashamed of what happened,” he said. “The paramilitaries committed atrocities, too. The whole exercise will involve mechanisms so that both the paramilitaries and the guerrillas will be required to tell the truth about what they did, as a precondition of being able to come back into the social mainstream and go into politics.”