Santos's Gamble for Peace

Colombia’s Negotiations with the FARC: Implications for U.S Interests


President Barack Obama will host Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos for an "official working visit" in Washington on February 4.  According to the White House, the visit will provide an opportunity to “support the efforts of President Santos to achieve a just and lasting peace accord with the FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia], and discuss a shared vision for future collaboration in the event of an historic peace agreement.”

Santos has staked his political legacy on the successful conclusion of peace negotiations with the FARC after decades of conflict. Last September, Santos and FARC leader Timoleon Jimenez, alias "Timochenko,” agreed to the terms over the most contentious issue, “transitional justice” for demobilized FARC members, and declared a deadline of March 23 to sign a final accord. This agreement follows earlier agreements on the inclusion of FARC into politics, land reform, and drug trafficking.

While everyone supports the prospect of peace, the “transitional justice” agreement has been met with criticism. Groups such as Human Rights Watch have stated that it “sacrifices justice” for thousands of victims who have suffered atrocities at the hands of the FARC. Others, such as former President Alvaro Uribe, believe that President Santos has “surrendered” to the FARC and the guerillas are “getting away with murder.” Colombia’s own inspector general testified before the International Criminal Court that the deal “is a pact for impunity” and “stimulates the repetition of atrocious crimes in the country and the surging of new victims.”

To help explain the issues regarding these negotiations, this paper presents background on Colombia's armed conflict and the current status of negotiations with the FARC. It presents U.S. interests in the peace talks and recommendations on potential U.S. positions and actions toward Colombia.

Background: Colombia and Armed Conflict with the FARC

Colombia is an important U.S. ally in the Western Hemisphere. It is also the single-largest recipient of U.S. foreign assistance in Latin America and the Caribbean. During the past 15 years, it has been transformed from a near failing state to a model for the region in many ways. In contrast to what the current Netflix series Narcos portrays, Colombia today is a strong, economically and financially stable democracy, a member of the free-market Pacific Alliance trade bloc, a founding member of the Global Counterterrorism Forum, and a regional leader in training other countries’ police and military forces to combat drug-trafficking and other threats to security.

However, Colombia is also home to the longest-running and only active armed conflict in the Western Hemisphere. It has seen more than 260,000 of its citizens killed and over 6 million displaced. It also has the world’s second highest number of internally displaced people (IDPs) after Syria. Since 2000, the U.S. has supported “Plan Colombia” and its follow-on strategies, which were designed to assist Colombia in confronting the FARC, combating drug trafficking, and promoting internal development. The FARC, originally a communist movement founded in 1964, has waged war against the Colombian government using guerrilla tactics, bombings, kidnappings, extortion, and hijackings, as well as conventional military action.

The U.S., Canada, Chile, New Zealand, and the European Union all consider the FARC, which has committed horrific atrocities, to be a terrorist group. Over the past two decades, the group has funded its operations through the $600 million a year it earns through extensive trafficking of illegal narcotics. Forbes Magazine reports that FARC is the third richest terrorist organization in the world (after the Islamic State and Hamas).

Colombia-FARC Peace Talks

President Santos initiated peace talks with the FARC in Oslo, Norway in 2012. This highly controversial decision led to a rancorous public break-up with his predecessor and former political patron, President Álvaro Uribe. The current talks follow failed attempts by previous governments to negotiate peace with the FARC in 1984, 1991, and 1998.  The rebel group successfully exploited these past negotiations, which left the public wary of such efforts.  Nevertheless, after more than 30 rounds of talks, Santos and Timochenko agreed to complete the final peace accord by March 23. (Subsequently, the FARC stated that there would be no deal by March.)

The negotiations being conducted in Havana, Cuba have a five point agenda: (1) land reform, (2) political participation of demobilized FARC, (3) drug trafficking, (4) victims’ rights and reparations, and (5) disarmament of the rebels and implementation of the peace deal. As stated earlier, the two sides reached partial agreements on four of the five points: land reform, political participation, drug trafficking, and transitional justice.  Pending issues include disarmament and how the final agreement will be approved, verified, and implemented.  The FARC has agreed to give up its weapons within 60 days after the final accord is signed. However, the government asserts that FARC members should surrender their weapons to the government, so they can never be used again. The FARC seeks to "set aside" their weapons, meaning the group will store its own arms with the implication that the FARC could at some point return to armed struggle. This remains an unresolved issue.

Of all the terms of the agreement, “transitional justice,” or punishment for FARC members, is the most controversial.  Reportedly under the agreement reached in September, special tribunals would be established to dispense a system of “alternative justice:” those who confess to serious crimes, such as murder, torture, or kidnapping would be required to pay reparations to victims and have “restrictions placed on their liberty” for 5 to 8 years at low security work camps or halfway houses.  Those who committed "political" crimes would be pardoned or given amnesty.  In contrast, FARC guerrillas who do not confess but are later found guilty of serious crimes would be sentenced to up to 20 years in normal prisons.

Over the past few months, the government has been revising the legal landscape and making significant accommodations to speed up negotiations and facilitate FARC acceptance of the final agreement. In September, the president of the country’s Supreme Court of Justice suggested that drug trafficking charges could be pardonable if those activities were for the purpose of funding political ends.  The signal to the FARC is:  the courts may be willing to “excuse” drug trafficking as a “political,” not criminal, act, and therefore culprits could be exonerated under the terms of a peace deal.  Shortly after this opinion was made public, the same attorney general ordered the suspension of all criminal indictments against members of the FARC leadership.

Since the negotiations began, President Santos has promised that the Colombian people would approve the final peace agreement in some type of referendum. In December, the Colombian Congress approved legislation to seek ratification of a peace deal through a plebiscite, a one-day vote requiring only 13% of the electoral census to achieve ratification.

Polls indicate that Colombians want peace after five decades of war.  However, numerous surveys also show the Colombian public remains distrustful of the prospects for peace with the FARC.  In particular, they overwhelmingly reject amnesty or direct political participation for FARC leaders if the rebels do disarm and demobilize.  According to a December poll, only 38% of the population was optimistic about the peace process and only 37% agreed with the way negotiations are being handled.

Internationally, the peace talks have received support from Norway, Cuba, Venezuela, and Chile. The EU also has a Special Envoy to the peace talks.  Although the U.S. occupies no seat at the negotiating table, President Obama appointed Bernard Aronson in February 2015 to serve in an advisory capacity as U.S. Special Envoy to the Colombian peace process.  Aronson has previously served as a special assistant to Vice President Walter Mondale and as assistant secretary of state for Inter-American Affairs during the George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations.

In January, both sides requested that the United Nations Security Council and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) monitor and verify rebel disarmament if a peace agreement is reached. Additionally, the Colombian government took action to release a group of 30 imprisoned FARC members as a “confidence-building measure.”

U.S. National Interests Related to Peace Talks

Given its long-term support for Colombia’s stability and development to the tune of some $10 billion in U.S. assistance over nearly two decades, the U.S. maintains a considerable stake in the outcome of the negotiations. The overriding U.S. interest is that the hard-won gains in the field are not lost at the negotiating table. To that end, the U.S. should consider the following priorities:

  • Stable and Democratic Colombia: Based on significant aid and taxpayer dollars invested in Colombia over the years, a stable and democratic Colombia is in the U.S. national interest.  To achieve a lasting peace that reinforces the progress Colombia has made to date, any deal with the FARC must prioritize the FARC’s disarmament and demobilization, renunciation of violence, terrorism and criminal activities, and integration into society and politics through solely peaceful, democratic means.  The obstacle to peace is not the Colombian government.  Rather, it has been the lawless actions of the FARC, which has done untold damage to the country for five decades.
  • Drug Trafficking:  Any agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC should not jeopardize gains reached through “Plan Colombia,” which has emphasized joint U.S. and Colombian efforts to prevent the illegal cultivation, production, and sale of cocaine intended for the U.S. market. The partial agreement already struck with the FARC ends the aerial spraying of coca fields with herbicide, a pillar of U.S. counter-narcotics strategy.  Only manual eradication will be performed—if the local communities allow it.  The Colombian government must now negotiate with local communities regarding eradication, and these communities will voluntarily eradicate only after the government has provided a series of costly social programs and welfare benefits.
  • Repatriation of FARC Leaders: The FARC has publicly requested the release of one of their leaders, Ricardo Palmera (“Simón Trinidad”), who was extradited to the U.S. in 2004 to serve a 60-year sentence for his role in the 2002 hostage situation involving Americans.  According to reports, Colombian officials have raised the issue with U.S. officials, but to date the Obama administration has been noncommittal.
  • Extradition of Drug Traffickers to the U.S.: Today, there are at least 60 FARC members with U.S. grand jury indictments against them and for whom the U.S. Department of Justice has standing extradition requests to the Colombian government. The FARC leadership has made it clear they will not agree to extradition. Thus far, the Colombian government has refused to approve the U.S. extradition requests for Rodrigo Perez Alzate (“Julian Bolivar”) and Eduardo Cabrera (“El Cura”), both wanted in the U.S. for narco-trafficking. In December, the Colombian government refused to extradite a FARC rebel, Juan Vicente Carvajal, to the U.S., the first time the government denied a U.S. extradition request due to the peace talks.

Recommendations for U.S. Policy

  • Support a peace process that prioritizes lasting peace:  Both the U.S. Congress and Executive Branch should reinforce the strategic message of a lasting, sustainable peace.  This messaging should focus on the need for the FARC’s disarmament and demobilization, renunciation of violence, terrorism and criminal activities, and integration into society and politics through solely peaceful, democratic means.  Messaging also should reinforce the need for a full and fair accounting of the violence by all sectors of Colombian society.
  • Support the right of the Colombian people to have a say in the final process:  The fate of any peace agreement is ultimately in the control of the Colombian people.  The expectation is that this will be voiced through a plebiscite requiring only 13% of the voting population.  The United States should offer support for that process, including any technical electoral assistance, and urge the Colombian government to provide full transparency in the details of the final agreement to the people before their vote for approval or disapproval. 
  • Resume aerial spraying of coca fields:  Coca cultivation in and cocaine from Colombia continues to enter the United States.  If there should be a noticeable spike in cocaine cultivation and smuggling to the United States as a result of the ending of aerial eradication, the State Department, which has the primary U.S. role in drug eradication, should insist on a resumption of spraying of coca and develop a strategy to prevent the rollback of gains from “Plan Colombia,” including alternatives to eradication.
  • No repatriation or suspension of warrants for Colombian criminals: During his visit to the U.S. in early February, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos is expected to ask the Obama administration to suspend drug warrants against guerrilla commanders and remove the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia from a list of terrorist groups to facilitate the peace deal with the FARC.  U.S. policymakers, especially from the White House and State and Justice Departments, should publicly affirm that the U.S. will not repatriate Simón Trinidad—nor suspend existing requests for the extradition of individuals wanted in Colombia to face justice in the U.S.  Congress should use every tool at its disposal to make very clear to the Executive Branch that any return of criminals to Colombia or withdrawal of extradition requests is unacceptable.  Nor should the FARC be removed from the U.S. terrorist list until such period of time has passed to establish that it has truly reformed its ways.
  • Continue existing defense partnership programs:  U.S. policymakers should support and strengthen the State Partnership Program (SSP) with Colombia.  The South Carolina National Guard (SCNG) signed a proclamation with Colombia in July 2012 announcing a SSP through which SCNG soldiers and airmen would assist Colombia as it builds capacity and enhances regional stability. The U.S. should consider how it could strengthen the SSP with Colombia in the event of a possible peace deal.
  • Funding for reintegration and reconciliation: Reaching an agreement is only one step toward reconciling a strife-torn country. Reintegration of demobilized and dislocated populations is another challenge. In January, the Colombian Comptroller-General’s Office estimated that reintegration of former FARC members could cost between $800 million-$1.2 billion.  Just as the United States has been prepared to support the fight against the FARC, it should be prepared to support financially the transition process, recognizing that Colombia is better situated today economically to carry a larger burden of those costs.  (The role of U.S. assistance and the Colombian transition will be the subject of a future JHI Backgrounder.)