GP Short Notes # 730, 31 August 2023
In the news
On 30 August, Colombia marked the first anniversary of President Gustavo Petro's "total peace" policy. The agenda of the policy was to minimise violence by disassembling the country’s armed groups. One year after the plan, with a reduction in violent clashes between the armed groups and government forces by 48 per cent and structural economic problems being addressed, Petro seemingly made more progress than his predecessors.
A report published by Fundación Ideas Para la Paz on 22 August highlights key developments in this transformative period. Notably, violence against the state has decreased by 48 per cent, with fewer confrontations between security forces and armed groups. The report states that the threat posed by groups has reduced “because they have no pretensions or capacity to affect its stability or the seizure of power at the national level.”
However, inter-group disputes among Colombia's main armed factions have surged by 85 per cent, posing challenges to the peace process. Homicides have seen a 1.5 per cent decrease; however, certain regions including the island of San Andrés and the departments of Sucre and Vaupes, where the armed groups are active, have witnessed a substantial rise in violence.
Issues at large
First, gangs and armed violence in Colombia. Colombian armed groups are of varied nature, ranging from guerilla groups to organised crime syndicates. Local communities have been the victims of violence and activities such as the recruitment of minors and drug trafficking. Of these, the leftist insurgency group, the National Liberation Army’s (ELN’s) main objective is to address the prevailing socio-economic gap in the country and “destabilising action in which big capital and a large part of the Colombian oligarchy are engaged.” The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia- People’s Army (FARC-EP) is another major dissident group that is associated with drug trafficking. New members have refused to adhere to the terms of the 2016 peace agreement between the government and the former FARC.
Second, the idea of a peace plan and what unfurled. Upon securing office in August 2022, Petro initiated his “total peace” plan calling for a “multilateral ceasefire” for all armed groups. This move was a departure from the previous administration’s heavy reliance on military solutions. Petro aimed to dismantle all armed groups simultaneously instead of looking at them from an individual perspective. The policy has two main strategic approaches- negotiations and ceasefires. However, his multi-pronged approach of using negotiations and ceasefires backfired within a month. He used negotiations and ceasefires to eliminate these groups. However, the armed groups began extending their territories, leading to an increase in civilian and police casualties.
Third, the movers and shakers. The plan has garnered significant domestic and international support. Countries including Norway, Cuba, and Venezuela are actively involved in facilitating talks. However, there has also been a visible presence of “shakers”-people who oppose the plan. This essentially includes Petro’s political opponents including Álvaro Uribe Vélez and Iván Duque Márquez from the Centro Democrático party, who are of the view that negotiations with armed groups may in turn legitimise them.
Fourth, challenges faced in the last year. Currently, Petro faces multiple challenges to overcome with the recruitment of minors being the most important one which has been described by Petro as “an inadmissible crime against humanity.” There were 115 cases of child recruitment in 2022 as reported by the United Nations. The use of coercion has further intensified the risk of violent repercussions against families of children who do not comply. Besides, upon acquiring new territory, the groups block main roads and passages to assert their control and authority.
First, the hits and misses. It is premature to pass a definitive judgement on the plan's success or failure. Notably, fewer civilian casualties reflect a reduction in violence, offering a glimmer of hope for a more peaceful future. However, there have been several misses. With three of five ceasefires failing in April 2023, having just lasted five months, Petro’s administration is unable to maintain the support of the bigger groups due to the lack of commitment and compliance. Criminal organizations, particularly the Gulf Clan, continue illicit activities and violence, casting doubt on their commitment to the peace process. Although the intentions are positive, the method of achieving them is inefficient.
Second, complex regional developments. The armed violence in Colombia has consequent implications for its neighbouring countries. Of these, Venezuela is the most affected, where frequent conflicts along the borders between the ELN and FARC have led thousands of people to flee. Colombian cartels also have links with international mafias established in countries including the US, France, Germany, and the UK. This indicates that moving forward, Petro and his administration will have to expand the horizon of their plan, to include measures that can be taken to curb violence internationally.