In November 2022, peace talks between the Colombian government and various armed groups resumed after more than 3 years, following the summer election of President Gustavo Petro. Petro is the country’s first left-wing president and himself an ex-guerrilla. 20 groups have expressed interest in participating in the peace effort, which is geared toward “creating plea-bargaining arrangements that would take the limited financial and judicial benefits afforded to individuals that surrendered under the Duque administration [2018-2022] and expand them to include collective groups.” The peace agenda has real potential for successful agreements due to the apparent goodwill and relatability of the new president, significant domestic support, and the inclusion of some important armed groups like the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the Second Marquetalia (a Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia [FARC] dissident group).
On December 31, President Gustavo Petro announced a six-month ceasefire agreement with 5 major armed groups operating in the country. The groups include the ELN, the Second Marquetalia, the Central General Staff, the Clan del Golfo (AGC), and the Self-Defense Forces of the Sierra Nevada. However, on January 3, the ELN denied having reached a bilateral ceasefire with the government: “The ELN Dialogue Delegation has not discussed any bilateral ceasefire with the Gustavo Petro government. Therefore, no such agreement exists,” the ELN said in a statement. By January 5, it became clear that the ceasefire between armed groups was broken. The Colombian government and the ELN met for an extraordinary meeting on January 18, which helped to begin overcoming the miscommunication, at least showing that both sides were willing to continue talks at the next ordinary meeting on February 13.
The government’s “total peace” decree includes “organized armed structures of high-impact crime,” defined as “criminal organizations made up of a plural number of people, organized in a hierarchical structure and/or in a network, that are dedicated to the permanent or continuous execution of punishable conducts, among which may be found those typified in the Palermo Convention.” Formal inclusion of groups like the ELN does not guarantee that those groups feel truly represented, as government-ELN miscommunication highlights. Within groups, it is likely that some members are dissatisfied with the final peace proposal and break away as new dissident groups or join existing uninvited dissident groups. Indeed, there are groups outside of the peace talks framework, like the 10th Front, which are likely to not only perpetuate violence but attract dissident members of the groups that the talks are aiming to diffuse.
The first challenge for the government is to include armed groups and make them feel truly represented. The government formally included the ELN in the talks but is risking a breakdown of talks after misrepresenting the ELN’s position on the December 31 ceasefire announcement. The government must overcome this breach of trust. One potential way forward is to obtain buy-in from delegation member José Félix Lafaurie, who represents constituencies (the national cattle ranchers’ association [FEDEGAN] and the conservative right-wing political party) from which the ELN seeks concessions on land and rural reform, and without which the government will have less to offer in promoting peace.
Secondly, formally excluded groups, like the 10th Front, represent a challenge in obtaining total peace because, by design, the agreement will not apply to said groups. The 10th Front is an active FARC dissident group that has engaged in violent drug trafficking, extortion, and guerrilla activity against both the government and some of the formally-included groups like the ELN and the Second Marquetalia. As long as the 10th Front remains an active player in the violence in Colombia, the peace effort will be inherently limited.
The Colombian government is in a better position to negotiate total peace under the present circumstances than under any previous ones. However, this may not be sufficient for bringing sustainable peace to Colombia. The government must engage in a delicate balancing act to provide room for agreement between its own right-wing components and the armed groups, some of which will only agree to peace if the government regains their trust.
This balancing act in itself is challenging. It is unclear whether Lafaurie and the right will seriously buy into the current peace effort. And it is unclear if the ELN’s trust can be sufficiently regained. Unfortunately, even if the government is successful in balancing the different groups included in the talks, obtaining a de jure peace agreement will be unlikely to procure de facto peace in Colombia.
The history of the 2016 FARC peace agreement provides a case in point. It has shown that even when the leaders of armed groups agreed to peace, members of the group may splinter off and continue as dissidents. This because some of the included groups involved are very decentralized in structure, and because the incentives offered by the government may not outweigh the monetary incentives of continuing drug trafficking. Not only may these disillusioned members form new splinter groups, but they may join and strengthen existing groups from outside of the peace talks. Indeed, just as some FARC fighters after the 2016 agreements “transferr[ed] to the ELN, bringing weapons, resources, and criminal economies with them,” so too can members of the current included groups transfer to the 10th Front.
Thus, the turbulent peace talks have to overcome concrete obstacles before transforming into a concrete peace agreement. Even then, the existence of a formal agreement will be unlikely to yield sustainable peace on the ground in Colombia. Instability will likely continue. Close attention must be given to key components of the peace talks (such as Lafaurie and the ELN in the unfolding of the talks) and even greater attention must be given to missing components of the peace talks (like the 10th Front) for the future of Colombia.
By Giacomo Mattei, Analyst – Americas Desk at Hozint – Horizon Intelligence