On Sept. 4, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC guerrillas. In the works for some time, the announcement follows the steady chipping away of insurgent strength by government security forces. However, no one should hold their breath that it will yield immediate results.
Historically, attempts to negotiate peace with the FARC have ended in failure. Even if current leaders cut a deal, fronts scattered throughout the countryside may not fall in line. And many of the conditions in Colombia’s vast rural areas that fueled the 50-year insurgency have not changed. Still, chances are better now than the last time around.
Rural violence in Colombia goes back to the 1890s. Starting in 1948, clashes between Colombia’s two main political parties produced the decade-long period known as La Violencia that killed some 200,000 citizens. Its effects gave birth to the country’s Marxist insurgencies.
Rebel enclaves, called “Little Republics,” sprang up throughout the countryside, joining communist-backed peasant organizations to fight large landholders. By the 1960s, there were signs that these groups were receiving outside support. Soon thereafter they became incarnated as the FARC and the much smaller National Liberation Army (ELN).
In 1990, the government invited the FARC and another guerrilla group called the M-19 to lay down arms and transform themselves into political parties. The M-19 did so, but the FARC refused. In 1998, President Andrés Pastrana ceded a 16,000-square-mile “safe haven” in the mountains south of Bogotá to the FARC to induce it to cease hostilities. Under no real pressure, it refused. As Pastrana’s term drew to a close, he closed the sanctuary. By then, the FARC was close to 20,000 combatants strong.
Just as the decapitation of Colombia’s Cali and Medellín drug cartels in the 1990s failed to curb drug trafficking (many smaller organizations took their place), a negotiated peace with the current FARC leadership may fail to bring in all combatants from the jungle. Granted, the government has handed the rebels a series of stunning defeats, killing top leaders like Raúl Reyes and Alfonso Cano. As a result, communication between widely dispersed fronts is infrequent, causing them to operate more as individual franchises. Meanwhile, the rebel mission to create a Marxist state has been replaced by more lucrative drug trafficking.
Over the last 50 years, few conditions have changed in the Colombian countryside. Large landholdings still dominate agricultural production. More than 60 percent of rural dwellers live in poverty, compared to 39 percent of urbanites. Property seizures by guerrillas, paramilitaries, and drug lords have made the rural poor even more dispossessed than before. There are estimates that up to 4 million people are still displaced from the conflict.
Infrastructure is minimal east and west of the population centers in the Andean ridge. And with guerrilla strength somewhat reduced, there is a rush to exploit natural resources even before security, infrastructure, and land tenure needs are addressed. Finally, Colombia’s ethnically diverse populations are still poorly integrated and at the mercy of remaining illegal armed bands.
Fortunately, some things are different now. President Santos’ government is clearly committed to reducing poverty and opening opportunities for the rural population — sharing some concerns of the insurgency’s founders. Thanks to gains under predecessor Alvaro Uribe, Santos’ team can talk from a position of strength, while remaining FARC leaders hold few cards and can expect no concessions or let up in pressure that would treat them as legitimate actors.
One key step to addressing the situation lies well in the government’s control — the government must deliver on promises to promote opportunities for a better life in rural areas. In its hip pocket is a national development plan. All it has to do is identify specific projects and implement them — and thus begin what one might now call Colombia’s manifest destiny.
Stephen Johnson is a senior fellow and director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC. From 2007 to 2009 he was deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Western Hemisphere Affairs.