Fifteen Eighty Four

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Peace in Colombia? Lessons from the failed 1999-2002 talks

Tom Long

Colombian flag. Photo: Bryan Pocius via Creative Commons.

In Colombia, the announcement on Tuesday, December 15, 2015 of an agreement on restitution for victims of the FARC-government conflict has made it clear that the ongoing talks have made greater headway than ever before. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has wagered his legacy on the possibility of peace. He is not the first Colombian leader to do so.

Like Santos, President Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002) gambled on a negotiated peace with the FARC. Eventually, Pastrana’s peace effort failed dramatically when the FARC hijacked a commercial airliner and kidnapped a sitting senator. While the balance of power between government and rebel forces has changed, there are still important lessons to be learned from Pastrana’s failed effort for both Colombia and the world.

1. Peace from strength

In 1998 and 1999, Colombia’s military weakness was evident; non-state forces controlled close to 40 percent of Colombian territory. The army struggled to hold territory and pursue the rebel fighters. At the time, Pastrana frequently said that he needed to build an army ready for peace or for war.

Improving Colombia’s military was one element, but should not be mistaken for a robust state. A durable peace will be possible only through strengthening state institutions beyond the police and military. Territory long held by the FARC or subject to violence by a host of actors desperately needs an effective, efficient accountable state that can deliver healthcare, education, infrastructure, and economic development. In many rural areas, these aspects of the Colombian state are not just weak, they don’t exist.

2. Making peace during war

Pastrana began his quest for peace with strong public support for a negotiated solution. This backing eroded for three reasons.

First, Pastrana struggled to demonstrate concrete achievements—something Santos has been able to accomplish.

Second, Pastrana’s talks started with a significant concession—granting the FARC a large safe area where government forces would not attack.

Third, Pastrana’s negotiations took place while warfare and violence continued. The incongruous image of government officials sitting with FARC leaders even as FARC fighters attacked Colombian soldiers and police (and vice-versa) drew criticism from the public and members of the military.

With talks today continuing to advance, there is hope that the parties have enough at stake to avoid a return to violence. However, even accidental encounters can easily turn violent. If this happens, both sides will have to work hard to draw attention back to the negotiating table with quick progress—otherwise public support could quickly dissipate. For a Colombian public schooled by past failures, the FARC will not receive the benefit of the doubt.

3. Fear the spoilers

A look to the last negotiations reminds us that today’s peace talks are not a simple dialogue between two, coherent sides. There internal disagreements within both the government and military and the disparate fronts of the FARC regarding positions in the talks—or the likely benefit of negotiations.

During the previous negotiations, Pastrana at times had to face down opposition from within his government. Nor was it clear that the political leadership of the FARC controlled the group’s disparate “fronts”—particularly those whose deeper involvement in drug production and trafficking meant they controlled the purse strings and benefited from an ongoing conflict.

As the Santos administration sits of the verge of unprecedented success in its peace talks, it might be easy to overlook the failures of the past. That would be a mistake. The shadow of the past hangs heavily over attempts to end Colombia’s decades of conflict; drawing the right lessons from that past could help reshape the country’s future.


A longer version of this piece was first published on Latin America Goes Global.

About The Author

Tom Long

Tom Long is the author of Latin America Confronts the United States: Asymmetry and Influence (2015). He is a lecturer of International Relations at the University of Reading. Previ...

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