Colombia Peace Talks Off to Touchy Start

by Tim Wyss, The Miami Herald, October 18, 2012

“We want peace,” Márquez said. “But peace doesn’t mean the silencing of guns — it means transforming the structures of the state and changing our political, economic and military models.”

Talks aimed at ending Colombia’s half-century civil conflict kicked off Thursday in Norway. But the opening session suggests it could be a rocky road.

BOGATA–The nation’s largest guerrilla group and government officials formally launched peace talks Thursday in an event that underscored deep divides even as it held the promise of bringing an end to the hemisphere’s longest civil conflict.

After months of secret talks and growing expectations in this war-weary nation, the chief negotiators for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and the government said they would begin tackling the five-point peace agenda on Nov. 15 in Cuba.

At a joint press conference in Oslo, Norway, the two factions said the first point of discussion would be land reform and agricultural development. Colombian farmers have been at the heart of the nation’s 48-year-old conflict and almost 6 million people have been forced off their land due to violence.

But Thursday’s carefully orchestrated event also highlighted potential problems.

In a feisty opening statement, the FARC’s chief negotiator Iván Márquez hinted that the group might not stick to the agenda, saying everything from the nation’s economic model, free trade deals, and military war crimes need to be addressed.

“We want peace,” Márquez said. “But peace doesn’t mean the silencing of guns — it means transforming the structures of the state and changing our political, economic and military models.”

Colombia’s chief negotiator, former Vice President Humberto de la Calle, shot back later at a news conference, suggesting the rebels were trying to rewrite the rules.

“We are not negotiating our economic model and we are not negotiating foreign investment,” he said. “For those things to be part of the Colombian agenda, the FARC needs to lay down its arms, participate in politics and win elections.”

The first public encounter between the two sides suggested the process won’t be as fast, secret or smooth as the government hoped, said Ariel Ávila, a conflict researcher at the Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris, a Colombian think-tank.

“They both put their cards on the table and it’s clear that this won’t be easy,” he said. “There’s 50 years of history here.”

But the fact that both sides were even in the same room was something of a coup for President Juan Manuel Santos, who’s staking his political future on the talks.

In August, the government announced that secret meetings in Cuba had laid the groundwork for negotiations. The peace plan revolves around five points: agricultural reform, the guerrilla’s rights to political participation, the FARC’s withdrawal from the drug trade, the recognition of victims rights, and ending the conflict.

Santos has said the talks will be measured in “months not years” and warned that he’ll pull out if there is any stalling.

Many here recall the 1999-2002 peace process that led the government to demilitarize an area the size of Switzerland. When those talks failed, many blamed the concession for allowing the FARC to regroup and wreak havoc over the next decade.

On Thursday, de la Calle warned that the military will keep up its attacks even as talks progress. Only when the final agreement is signed will a ceasefire be implemented, he said. The FARC had been pushing for an immediate end to hostilities and brought it up again at the news conference.

“Obviously the government needs more dead and wounded” before it considers a ceasefire, said Ricardo Téllez, one of the FARC negotiators. “We want to save the country blood and save the country suffering. At any moment we’re willing to consider a bilateral ceasefire.”

Despite the rhetoric, many see this as the best chance for peace in the last half century. In Colombia’s Cauca province, which has seen some of the fiercest fighting, residents welcomed the news.

“The way out of this conflict has always been negotiations,” said Mauricio Capaz, with the ACIN indigenous organization. Since January, 44 indigenous leaders have been killed in his community and violence has been escalating, he said.

“It’s one thing to talk about peace,” he said. “But the reality on the ground is very different.”

Founded in 1964 with Marxist underpinning, the FARC found fertile ground among the rural poor. But they increasingly turned to drug trafficking and extortion to finance their survival. Thought to number about 9,000, the group has seen its ranks cut in almost half since 2001 amid military attacks and defections.

But Márquez, who’s the group’s second-in-command, warned the government not to misread the FARC’s willingness to negotiate.

“Those who talk about the end of the guerrillas, an inflexion point or a strategic defeat…are wrong,” he said. “And they confuse our willingness to talk with a non-existent manifestation of weakness.”

He also called the FARC’s use of small mobile guerrillas units “an invincible tactic.”

The real struggle could come once a deal is signed. This Andean nation will have to open its arms to thousands of guerrillas who have long been seen as the enemy.

The stigma of being a former fighter is hard to shake, said Alirio Arroyave, 55, who broke from the National Liberation Army guerrillas in 1991.

“If you look for work and say you are demobilized, you are not accepted anywhere,” he said. “You are shut out.”

More troubling, former guerrillas have been targeted by paramilitary groups and neo-paramilitary gangs, he said.

“In Colombia, it’s riskier to submit yourself to building peace than it is to participate in the war,” he said.

In 2005, when paramilitary leaders were given the opportunity to demobilize and confess their crimes in exchange for reduced prison sentences, more than 25,000 put down their arms. But thousands of others did not, and many of the holdouts form the backbone of neo-paramilitary criminal gangs. The Nuevo Arco think-tank estimates that former paramilitary fighters make up 80 percent of these new gangs.

If the FARC aren’t brought into the fold, similar criminal gangs could arise.

The peace process could also present legal challenges. Much of the FARC’s leadership is wanted on murder and drug charges. One of their negotiators, known as Simon Trinidad, is serving a 60-year sentence in Colorado for kidnapping and it’s unclear if he will be able to participate in the talks. But Colombia may risk breaking international law if it provides amnesty.

“I don’t know of a peace process in the world that hasn’t faced the issue of what to do with people who have committed war crimes and terrible violations of human rights,” said Cynthia Arnson, the Latin America Program Director at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “The question is how to both maximize the chances for peace and maximize the chances for justice.”

Special correspondent James Bargent contributed to this report from Medellin.

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