Why Colombia’s peace talks will not meet their deadline

With a handshake and dressed in white, President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC chief “Timochenko” promised Colombia an end to the 51-year-long armed conflict before March 23. Now both have said this will not happen.

The announcement was made on September 23, the day both Santos and Timochenko visited the peace talks in Cuba to witness the signing of a long-awaited deal on victims.

Taking advantage of the moment, the president and the guerrilla leader announced to have the full peace deal ready and signed in six months.

However, with only ten days to this deadline, both Santos and Timochenko have explicitly backtracked.

Ending conflict more difficult than anticipated

The two parties have only one point left on the five-point agenda, “End of Conflict,” which is proving more difficult than the president and guerrilla chief had anticipated.

End of Conflict means that the FARC must demobilize and surrender the weapons they have used to oppose their Marxist struggle and criminal enterprises.

The state, in turn, must guarantee the safe reintegration of FARC fighters and the group’s transformation to a political organization.

Both the United Nations and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States have already promised observers for a post-conflict period.

Foreign nations and international organizations have already pledged funds for peace-building.

Nevertheless, the warring parties are not able to keep their part of the promise.

And this is where the parties still disagree on. The government initially wanted to create six demobilization areas. The FARC wanted 50.

Either scenario would imply the traveling of thousands of guerrilla fighters to specific areas, a logistical nightmare considering that demobilizing guerrillas will not be without enemies.

Ceasefire instead of peace deal?
While a formal ceasefire has yet to be agreed, both parties have effectively ended hostilities amid efforts to de-escalate the conflict for the remainder of the talks.

Timochenko proposed to use the March 23 deadline to present a permanent ceasefire, which would formalize an informal one currently upheld.

Such announcement like this could save the face of Santos and Timochenko.

“We could show something and what better than a bilateral and definitive ceasefire, during which we can tell Colombia: the war in over.”

While this may sound simple, it isn’t.

For a bilateral ceasefire to become verifiable, the FARC would have to unite its troops in designated areas.

Decommisioning of FARC arms

While the government has remained prudent about which issues are delaying the agreement, the FARC has made comments about the remaining thorny points left on the agenda.

The guerrillas have long refused to surrender their weapons to the state they have been fighting for decades, afraid this might be perceived as a surrender. But according to Timochenko, this point has now been resolved.

“Not one single revolver will remain in our hands,” Timochenko told Spanish news agency EFE. While Timochenko did not reveal how this point was resolved, negotiation leader “Ivan Marquez” had previously proposed a third party state or a museum.

The (para)military threat

According to Timochenko, the guerrillas do not just want to move away from arms themselves and want a certain demilitarization of the state in return.

“The state must also commit to not continue assassinating people for what they think, their ideals or their political or social activity,” according to Timochenko.

Human and labor rights activists continue being the target of paramilitary successor groups, who continue to work together with corrupt elements within Colombia’s security forces and state.

The FARC have long called for the effective dismantling of these paramilitary structure, something which already has been attempted by the government, albeit with little success.

The popular vote

Another open discussion is how the peace deal will be “sealed” by the Colombian public that has shown great skepticism in the talks. While the government successfully pushed a plebiscite through congress, this possibility has been challenged by the Prosecutor General who prefers to prevent a popular vote.

The FARC and the conservative opposition, on the other hand, have called for a constituent assembly, which could have far-stretching consequences for the content of Colombia’s constitution, last amended in 1991.

What nobody wants to talk about

A subject also on the table, but hardly exposed to the public, are widespread fears that FARC guerrillas will simply disobey their commanders and join other illegal armed groups or form dissident factions.

To minimize this threat, Colombian authorities will swiftly need to enter former rebel territory and establish military and civilian authority.

During a military offensive in the first decade of this century, authorities carried out a similar consolidation strategy, but with mixed results.

While the military occupation of territory proved sustainable, this was not consistently followed up with the construction of for civilian institution, leaving most of the countryside in miserable conditions.

Additionally, Colombia’s poor record in regards to corruption, threaten the success of the creation of roads and other types of infrastructure in the remote areas where the FARC is the de facto authority.

Colombia Reports | by Adriaan Alsema

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