Colombia’s largest guerrilla group began a unilateral ceasefire Monday that — if it holds — could signal a major turning point in the nation’s almost three-year peace talks with the group.
In a communiqué ordering their troops to stand down at midnight Monday, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, said they hoped the measure would reduce the violence that “only hurts the peace process and reconciliation.”
The administration has said it will “deescalate” attacks on the 7,000-strong guerrilla force as long as the ceasefire holds. But President Juan Manuel Santos has said a bilateral detente will only go into effect if a comprehensive peace deal is assured.
The government has suggested Monday’s measure could make or break the talks, which began in Havana in 2012. Last week, Santos told negotiators to pick up the pace and he said he would evaluate their progress — and the ceasefire — in November to determine if they should continue or not.
Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas over the weekend said the armed forces would do “everything possible” to support a negotiated end to the conflict. But if that’s not in the cards, “Colombia should know we can also end the conflict through armed force.”
Colombia’s half-century struggle has claimed more than 200,000 lives and forced almost six million to flee their homes. And even as the nation has embraced the FARC’s latest ceasefire offer it has reason to be wary.
The guerrillas declared a unilateral and indefinite ceasefire in December, only to break it in May when they ambushed an army unit. The guerrillas claimed the attack was in self defense, but it led the government to resume aerial bombing and provoked a wave of deadly clashes.
Since that ceasefire ended, the FARC attacked on at least 145 occasions, killing 22 security forces and two civilians, according to Colombia’s Conflict Analysis Resource Center. In addition, attacks on pipelines, tanker trucks and power lines led to huge oil spills and plunged entire cities into darkness for days.
The rash of violence has made many in this nation of 48 million pessimistic about the fate of the talks. In that sense, reduced violence may contain the decline in popular support for a peace deal, the New York-based analysis firm Eurasia Group said in a statement.
“Any improvement in the security situation will be modest until a final deal is reached,” the group cautioned. “Until then, talks will remain vulnerable to spoilers, including rogue elements within the FARC and the military.”
The FARC have reserved the right to defend themselves during this ceasefire, increasing the likelihood clash with the military.
Despite the recent uptick in violence, Colombia’s chief negotiator, Humberto de la Calle, said he believes in the guerrilla’s sincerity.
“There is a real opportunity to end the conflict, we’re convinced of it,” he told a forum over the weekend. “We believe the FARC are seriously examining the end of the conflict and that they’re headed in that direction despite their absurd behavior, which only confuses Colombians.”
Even as negotiators have made progress in the last 33 months at the bargaining table, sticky points remain, including how justice will be meted out — particularly to the guerrilla high command — how guerrilla soldiers will be reincorporated into civilian life and how those ex-fighters will be protected once they lay down their guns.
In the hours before the ceasefire went into effect, and as a sign of good faith, the guerrillas released army soldier Cristian Moscoso, who had been taken during a firefight in the southern department of Putumayo and was held for two weeks. In a video of his release posted by the guerrillas, the injured soldier said he’d been treated with “dignity” by the group.
On Monday, as Colombia celebrated national Independence Day, Santos called on his critics and peace-talk skeptics to work toward a deal. He said that the United States-Cuba embassy reopening on Monday after 54 years was reason for cheer.
“Just as the longest diplomatic conflict in the hemisphere ended today, thanks to dialogue,” he said, “it’s in our hands to finish the last and longest armed conflict in the hemisphere.”