FARC peace process strained by new kidnapping

FARC peace process strained by new kidnapping

Colombia’s two year long peace talks between the government and the FARC were brought to a standstill on Sunday, November 16, following the capture of a top army general by the country’s oldest Marxist guerilla group.

The capture of general Dario Alzate by the FARC is the first time the rebel organisation has captured a soldier of such high rank in the history of the 50-year conflict. The action prompted President Juan Manuel Santos to swiftly suspend the peace talks in Havana, Cuba, and sow uncertainty surrounding the future of negotiations between the two parties.

The capture of the general was but one among several troubling events which will put increasing pressure on the drawn out peace process. The FARC recently captured two other soldiers in eastern Colombia and succeeded in shutting down tourism to parts of Colombia’s Pacific Coast following a daring raid on a police outpost on the island of Gorgona.

General Dario Alzate was captured, along with a lawyer and another solider, as he travelled by boat on the Atrato River in the remote western department of Choco, turf of the Ivan Rios Bloc of the FARC. His capture was significant, as he is the leader of the Titan Joint Task Force assigned the mission to combat the FARC’s presence in the underdeveloped Choco region.

More importantly however, the event has brought to the fore the immense challenges facing the Colombian peace process which has advanced for two years without a bilateral ceasefire between the government and the rebels. The government’s refusal to grant such a ceasefire has been based on the principle not to let the rebels regroup and reorganize, as was the case in the last round of failed peace talks in 2002.

The events of the past few weeks have starkly demonstrated the difficulty of this compromise.

Peace talks will likely continue

The FARC claimed responsibility for kidnapping the general and declared that he will be released along with the four other captives as soon as Santos calls off the army mission in the department of Choco.

Santos in turn has stated that peace talks will resume once the hostages have been released. He highlighted the precariousness of the situation, saying, “the FARC have to understand that, although we’re negotiating in the middle of the conflict, peace doesn’t come by resorting to violence and undermining confidence.”

It is most likely the peace talks will continue. Three out of six issues at the table have been partially agreed upon, although the most difficult topic concerning disarmament of the rebels remains to be agreed upon. The recent events, however, raise many questions about the nature of any possible peace deal that can be achieved between the government and the FARC, and the effects it will have on Colombia’s economy.

It is widely believed that the kidnapping was orchestrated by the 34th front of the FARC, operating within the Ivan Rios Bloc. This Bloc has been identified as one likely to criminalize in the event of a future peace deal and disarmament process. It has been blamed for the disruption of unilateral ceasefires in the past and is militarily active against the state with a strong presence in the drug trade.

Dangers of an incomplete demobilization

It remains unclear whether the kidnapping of the general was ordered from above or if it was the 34th front acting independently of the central command. If the latter, it is possible that some units of the FARC will continue operating in the lucrative drug business in the wake of any peace deal, and function as purely organised crime groups free from any ideological pretensions.

The danger here is that Colombia may repeat the perceived failure of the 2006 AUC demobilization, in which paramilitary groups morphed into organised crime gangs, known as criminal bands or “BACRIM.” They have been responsible for drug-related violence in many of Colombia’s cities, including Medellin, Cali and Cucuta.

A FARC unit, operating independently of any central command, such as the 34th front, could threaten any future peace deal by not signing up to a disarmament process, and remain within Colombia’s criminal underworld engaging in drug trafficking, extortion, and illegal mining all of which are eating away at Colombia’s formal economy.

Opposition within the country

The continued belligerence of the FARC and subsequent suspension of the negotiations has displayed the fragility of the peace process. There are many elements within the Colombian military that oppose the peace talks. A spate of hacking and wiretapping scandals aimed at the peace delegations in Havana, Cuba, were traced back to the military, and point to divisions within the institution.

The election of hawkish ex-president Alvaro Uribe to the Senate in March 2014 strengthened public opposition to the talks within a large part of the population, whilst Colombia’s close-run presidential election in June was seen by many as a vote of confidence for the continuation of the peace talks.

What of the ELN?

The possibility of initiating full talks between the government and the Army of National Liberation (ELN), the country’s second largest rebel group, may now have to take a back seat. The ELN has been responsible for numerous attacks on Colombia’s infrastructure, notably the oil industry and the network of pipelines within the country. 97 attacks on the country’s oil infrastructure were recorded in the first half of 2014, inflicting an estimated $531 million of damage to the economy.

Furthermore, in response to events in Choco, the western front of the ELN issued a warning to local companies that they should stay away from the roads and highways on Tuesday 25 November.

The decision to undertake peace talks whilst continuing the conflict may have its strategic reasons, however, the events of the past few weeks have shown that actions taken on the battlefield can have significant consequences at the negotiating table. Uncertainties remain surrounding the peace talks, their resumption, possible outcome, and successful implementation.

Categories: Latin America, Security

About Author

Oliver Sheldon

Oliver has extensive experience working with NGOs in Central America and has worked for a newspaper in South America. He achieved a BSc in Government from the London School of Economics and is currently studying for an MSc in Security Studies at UCL with a specific focus on security in Latin America.