BOGOTÁ — Ten years ago, FARC rebels hijacked a commuter plane, forced it to land on a stretch of abandoned highway and kidnapped a Colombian senator on board. The brazen act of terrorism was the last straw for the Colombian government, which promptly called off three years of peace talks with the guerrillas.
Now the two sides are again preparing to sit down for talks to end a conflict that began in 1964. In a Sep. 4 speech, President Juan Manuel Santos said a new round of negotiations would kick off in Oslo, Norway, early next month with subsequent sessions to be held in Havana, Cuba. But Santos also declared: “We will learn from the errors of the past.”
Indeed, this time around, Colombia’s vastly improved armed forces hold the advantage after a long-running offensive that has cut rebel forces by half and killed many of the FARC’s top commanders. As a result, many analysts believe that the FARC — the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — may finally be prepared to disarm.
“There are reasons for optimism… because the government is in a much better position for negotiations,” political analyst Pedro Medellin wrote in the Bogotá daily El Tiempo. And if the talks fail, “the army and the police are well-prepared to confront the guerrillas.”
But at the same time, the government’s military offensive has failed to eliminate the FARC, which earns millions from the illegal drug trade and remains a lethal force even in its weakened state.
Economists estimate that the war, which began in 1964, shaves between 1 and 2 percent from Colombia’s annual GDP. A peace treaty would free up huge sums now spent on the conflict for health, education, infrastructure and other badly needed projects in rural areas where the FARC has always been able to recruit down-and-out peasants.
“I am convinced that now the conditions are right to make peace in Colombia,” said Jan Egeland, a former United Nations envoy who monitored the last round of talks that lasted from 1999 to 2002. “Both sides, the government and the rebels, have understood at last that the only possibility to end the conflict is a negotiated solution. That was not clear in 1999.”
FARC down from 15,000 to 8,000 fighters
Indeed, back then the FARC was at its military peak. It had more than 15,000 fighters, operated in 31 of Colombia’s 32 departments, and held hundreds of hostages, including government officials. Just to convince the FARC to sit down for talks, the government agreed to withdraw troops from a 16,000-square-mile patch of territory in southern Colombia.
But rather than take the negotiations seriously, the FARC used the demilitarized zone to launch military attacks, recruit foot soldiers, stash hostages and grow coca — the raw material for cocaine. The rebels toyed with government envoys because they were convinced they would soon march triumphantly into Bogotá.
Instead, the Colombian armed forces regrouped, expanded and went on the attack. The total number of personnel in the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and Police — which is part of the Ministry of Defense — jumped from 291,000 in 1999 to the current 431,000. Improved air power and intelligence paved the way for a series of strikes that took out top FARC leaders, demoralized the rebel rank-and-file and led to massive desertions.
Today, the FARC has been reduced to about 8,000 fighters who no longer threaten Bogotá, Cali and other major cities as they did a decade ago. No longer able to stage massive attacks on towns and military bases, the FARC mainly relies on land mines and sharpshooters to ambush government troops. Despite capturing and detaining a French reporter for about a month earlier this year, the FARC has pledged to stop kidnapping civilians and no longer holds government hostages to use as bargaining chips.
FARC: We’ll negotiate ‘without hatred or arrogance’
All of these factors have apparently convinced the FARC that the war is unwinnable and that it’s time to cut a deal. In a rebel video posted on the Internet this week, the FARC’s supreme leader, Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri — alias “Timoleón Jiménez” but widely known as “Timochenko” — said the FARC was prepared to negotiate “without hatred or arrogance.”
In his speech to the nation, Santos assured Colombians that these peace talks would be radically different from the negotiations 10 years ago. With the sessions taking place overseas, he said, there would be no need for a DMZ. Santos said the talks would last for months, rather than years. He also outlined five negotiating points centered around the demobilization of the FARC — as opposed to the broad agenda last time around that included everything from reforming the constitution to the way the country’s natural resources are managed.
Some experts are lobbying for a ceasefire and say that the constant fighting 10 years ago helped derail the last round of talks. But Daniel García-Pena, a former government peace envoy, pointed out that ceasefires can also aggravate the negotiating environment. He said they are often violated, causing the two sides to point fingers and become sidetracked from the end game of signing a peace treaty.
For now, Santos vows that the Colombian military will remain on the offensive. On Sep. 3, army troops killed nine FARC fighters in southern Guaviare and Caquetá departments.
“The armed forces are aware that this is a historic moment,” Gen. Alejandro Navas, commander of the Colombian Armed Forces, said of the pending peace talks. “But the best way to support this presidential decision is to continue with our military offensive, on the ground, in the air and on the water against all armed and terrorist threats against the state.”