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Colombia's Elusive Quest for Peace

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Looking Back. In February 2002, negotiations to end the most dangerous confrontation of Colombia's decades of civil war collapsed. Nearly four years earlier, the newly-inaugurated President Andrés Pastrana had opened talks with the country's major remaining rebel groups, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia-Ejército del Pueblo (FARC) and the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN), with great enthusiasm and hope. But the fighting never ended while the talks sputtered on, and the country now appears headed for a new round of violence in its cities and against its infrastructure. The international community is concerned about the implications not only for Colombia's people and its democratic institutions, but also wider regional stability.

With support from Europe, Latin America and the United States, President Pastrana granted the largest insurgent group, the FARC, a demilitarised zone (DMZ), the size of Switzerland, in the south of the country. Both he and the FARC, however, kept experienced third parties, Colombian and international, at arm's length. The negotiations, courageous initiative though they were, appeared to lack a consistent strategy. By the time Pastrana declared them over and ordered the army to reoccupy the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), the endeavour looked to most Colombians like little more than a mirage. The international community has virtually unanimously supported his decision: in the post-11 September world, a strong stance against a terror organisation has been an easy call.

Throughout Pastrana's tenure, all illegal armed organisations - the FARC, the ELN and the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC, or paramilitaries) - have intensified their attacks, regularly violating human rights and expanding the scope of suffering. The fighting that followed the breakdown of negotiations, while less intense than in the immediately preceding month, indicates that the FARC retains the capacity to operate effectively throughout much of the country and that there is little or no chance the government can impose a military solution in the foreseeable future.

At the same time, Colombia's importance as a source of narcotics has greatly increased, thereby magnifying the stake of the international community - including the country's neighbours and the U.S. - in finding a solution to the conflict. The legitimate rural economy has suffered greatly from war and price shocks over the last decade, making the grip of coca producers even stronger.

Colombia has a potentially strong economy and a long democratic tradition that, though undermined by a history of violence, is one of the proudest in Latin America. Its civil war has become inextricably intertwined with the narcotics trade, which not only fuels the conflict but also appears to have altered significantly the character of the insurgents and the paramilitaries, who now have a dependable source of income to fund weapons purchases and ensure their staying power.

The surge in Colombia's illicit narcotics industry since the 1980s, combined with the ideological dislocations of the end of the Cold War, have made the FARC and ELN far different from earlier Latin American guerrilla groups. Many of their leaders have become "military entrepreneurs" who feel little need to cooperate and communicate with Colombian society and even less with the international community. They have lost most of their former popular support, and their power is now reflected almost exclusively in military capabilities financed by a lucrative kidnapping industry, the drug business and extortion.

The rebels' sworn enemies, the right-wing paramilitaries, who appear to be gaining support in at least some rural areas threatened by the guerrillas, also have close and profitable links with the drug industry. With significant private sector backing and the support of regional political elites and Colombian military commanders, the paramilitaries' numbers have grown ten-fold in the last decade. International pressure on the government and army to cut ties to the paramilitaries and punish their atrocities has had very limited results.

The government is unable to exercise authority throughout much of the country. It cannot extend even basic social services or - perhaps most damaging - guarantee the rule of law in much of rural Colombia. These shortcomings, combined with a military force inadequate in size, training and equipment, and a deeply compromised judicial system, have been a near-fatal handicap in the state's efforts to govern, much less to defeat the guerrillas and counter the narcotics traffickers.

Colombia's continuing conflict is of international concern not only because of its humanitarian costs, but also because it provides a nexus for weapons, drugs, cash, money-laundering, criminals and terrorists. It continues to be of immense regional concern. The end to the peace negotiations with the FARC (though they continue with the ELN) and the return to full military combat adds to the danger of the conflict spilling over to the states that border Colombia: Brazil, Ecuador, Panama, Peru and Venezuela.

Looking Forward. The Pastrana administration has lost any realistic chance to reach an accommodation with the FARC during its remaining months in office. However, circumstances do favour it making a major effort, with international support, to achieve a verifiable ceasefire with the smaller ELN, which could have wider implications for a resumed peace process eventually with the FARC. Beyond that, it will need to spend the remainder of its time attempting to limit security costs and doing everything possible to safeguard the integrity of the spring elections to choose its successor.

Everyone concerned with Colombia's future now needs to take stock of the situation and rethink the strategies and priorities that should be pursued by the new administration, with international support. The key priorities in ICG's judgement are to improve security protection for Colombians against insurgents and paramilitaries; to re-energise peace negotiations; to make a renewed effort to combat the drug trade; and to strengthen Colombia's institutions, especially in the areas of security and justice. Each of these objectives will require new and more effective approaches if they are to be achieved, and each will require significant support from the region and wider international community.

This report, and the recommendations that follow, pick up a number of these themes, but our conclusions and prescriptions should be taken as preliminary at this stage. They will require further evaluation and development in the months ahead. The purpose of this first ICG report on Colombia has been to assess the background, successes and failures of the elusive quest for peace and to propose a broad framework within which Colombians and their friends can begin to think together about the hard choices and fresh ideas required. Forthcoming reports will explore the implications of the presidential elections for the peace process; the structure of the security forces and the challenges they face; how best to extend the rule of law and civilian security in rural areas; how to rebuild the devastated rural economy; strategies for restructuring the peace process and strategies for fighting drugs; and ways of preventing regional destabilisation.



1. The Colombian Government Should:

(a) strengthen its order of battle against the insurgents, if necessary by exercising the discretion it has to assign additional troops to anti-insurgency rather than anti-narcotics operations;

(b) Establish public benchmarks for arrest and prosecution of key paramilitary figures; create law enforcement units dedicated solely to arresting paramilitary leaders and prosecuting their financial backers; and prosecute military personnel who maintain ties with the paramilitaries;

(c) make it an absolute priority to protect the presidential elections this spring by continuing the massive effort undertaken with a large measure of success during the Congressional elections in March to safeguard candidates, voters, and the election machinery.

2. The United States government should:

Extend additional military aid and approve dual use of U.S.-trained forces currently permitted only to fight drug trafficking; but only after the Colombian military makes significant progress in accountability for human rights violations, in particular severing all links with paramilitaries.

3. The governments of Brazil, Ecuador, Panama, Peru and Venezuela should work with Colombia to formulate policies for improved security (intelligence sharing, mutual controls on contraband and assistance to refugees) and also integrated border development (education, health, environment).


4. President Pastrana should:

(a) continue to pursue negotiations for a verifiable ceasefire with the ELN and to keep all presidential candidates informed;

(b) invite the UN's mediation; and,

(c) develop, with full military involvement, measures for protecting ELN combatants during a ceasefire.

5. The newly elected president should:

(a) invite the UN Secretary-General to appoint a Special Representative and establish a good offices mission in Colombia in order to play a stronger role in negotiations with the ELN and, eventually, the FARC; and,

(b) work with the UN to develop a coherent strategy for negotiating peace settlements with the FARC and the ELN, including such elements as third-party mediation, meeting outside the country until a ceasefire is achieved, involving senior military officials in the negotiating team and protecting demobilised combatants.

6. Incentives for negotiations should not include a repeat of the DMZ strategy.

7. The government of Cuba should continue to host negotiations with the ELN and otherwise play its current active role in that peace process.

8. The UN Secretary-General should increase his own active engagement and good offices by appointing a Special Representative, who should be based in Bogota at the earliest useful moment and should provide extensive mediation assistance to the peace processes with the FARC and ELN, to include advice on ceasefire strategies, verification mechanisms and protection of insurgents during ceasefires. Given the regional implications of the conflict, the Special Representative should report regularly through the Secretary-General to the Security Council.

9. The Special Representative should keep channels open to all key national and international actors, including the insurgents, and in preparation for negotiations, should convene government, insurgent and international representatives to consider informally ideas such as methods for disbanding the paramilitaries, promoting observance of international humanitarian norms and encouraging ceasefire verification.

10. The United States government should respond favourably to a request of the parties to support a ceasefire or final settlement with the ELN, through assisting in financing and monitoring, and consider becoming a formal member of the Group of Friends if requested by the parties during future FARC negotiations.

11. The European Union should provide a stronger independent voice by proceeding as rapidly as possible with its already approved assistance program, in particular work at the grass roots in conflicted areas through the peace laboratory, and by encouraging member state ambassadors to increase their facilitation efforts in support of the negotiations with the ELN.

12. The countries already part of the Group of Friends should be prepared to provide monitoring and financial assistance to ceasefire or peace agreements with the ELN.


13. As soon as security conditions permit, Colombia's government and its supporters should launch an emergency program of alternative development, municipal support and social services in the former DMZ.

14. In addition to law enforcement and alternative development, the international community, the UN, Organisation of American States (OAS) and Colombia's next government should begin a review of needed changes in counter-drug policies to include consideration of what more can be done to assume shared responsibility for the drug trade by bolstering demand reduction programs, prosecuting money laundering and restricting the flow of chemical precursors and weapons. The review might culminate with a summit conference like that held in 1990 at Cartagena de las Indias to achieve a consensus on improving international and Colombian counter-drug measures.


15. The Colombian government should:

a) extend basic services in partnership with civil society, provide assistance to human rights victims and protection for human rights organisations, introduce legitimate police and justice sector forces into rural areas, and otherwise pursue an active policy of economic and social reform in order to solidify support for democratic procedures and institutions, increasing tax revenues as necessary to fund those efforts;

b) expand urgently assistance to the internally displaced, easing official registration requirements to qualify for government assistance, implement fully the 1997 National Plan for the internally displaced and increase the presence of the Office of the People's Ombudsman in areas with a high risk of displacement.

16. The European Union, the U.S. and other donors, including the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank, should considerably increase support for justice sector reform, agrarian development and income-generating projects in rural areas, wherever security permits.

Bogota/Brussels, 26 March 2002


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