Armed conflict | Colombia

A fractured peace

Hopes ran high that President Gustavo Petro would finally end violence in Colombia. But a year after his election, the fight for peace continues

In the center is a middle-aged man, Gustavo Petro at the lectern. He is framed by two middle-aged men. To the president's right is a man in Colombian military uniform, to his left is a man in Colombian police uniform. The president is leaning on the lectern with his left hand. The right arm is bent and the fingers of the flat hand point upward.

Colombia's president Gustavo Petro speaks after the first ever council for security and peace between Colombia's government, Military Command Line and the local government of the capital Bogota, August 2022

When Gustavo Petro was elected president in June 2022, he became the country's first left-wing premier since it became a republic 200 years ago. Shortly after his inauguration, he initiated a peace process dubbed “La paz total” , or “total peace”. In the course of this plan, the government wants to negotiate with guerrilla groups and drug cartels and guarantee a ceasefire. To many voters, including me, this sounded promising at first.

No wonder, then, that optimism spread in Colombia shortly after Petro took office. My friend Doris Suárez, a former member of the now-disbanded guerrilla group FARC, for example, was in high spirits at the time, saying: “Now is the time to do everything we can to implement the peace agreement.”

But let's start from the beginning: It is no secret that Colombia's history for seven decades has been marked by political violence, often linked to drug-related crime. While there have been many attempts to bring peace in recent years - there have also been just as many setbacks. In 2016, then-President Juan Manuel Santos signed a peace agreement with the FARC, Latin America's oldest guerrilla group. Two years later, his right-wing conservative successor tried to destroy the agreement, and during the Corona pandemic, the country suddenly had very different worries. Social and political tensions intensified. It was not until 2022 that the presidential election results breathed new life into the peace discourse.

“Those who fight their political battles with arms are to be demobilised through negotiations”

So now Petro's “la paz total” is supposed to end the eternal back and forth. But how exactly is that meant to happen? Basically, the Colombian government is striving for a quick peace agreement and the disarmament of all parties involved in the conflict. To achieve this, either criminal convictions, legal deals or political negotiations are possible. According to Petro's government, the approach that is ultimately adopted depends on which party in the conflict is being dealt with: Those who fight their political battles with armed force are to be demobilised through negotiations. Meanwhile, members of criminal gangs who are involved in drug trafficking or other illegal activities are offered reduced sentences. They will face prison sentences of a maximum of eight years.

But this negotiating strategy of adopting a seemingly simple division into two categories is in fact relatively arbitrary. After all, if you want to break decades-old cycles of violence, you must also eliminate the criminal practices that have become ingrained in society and the economy that go beyond gang crime and drug trafficking. These include, for example, illegal mining and human trafficking. Rising global gold prices alone have led to a sharp increase in violent crime in Colombian mining areas over the past three years.

These illicit businesses are now controlled by various criminal organisations. According to Senator Ariel Ávila, who always draws attention to the interconnections between regional politics and organised crime in the country, Colombian intelligence has so far identified at least 63 armed groups active in Colombia.

“Given this plethora of negotiating partners, 'total peace' is anything but straightforward”

If the government has its way, however, ninety per cent of these groups can be assigned to one of the four major guerrilla associations or cartels in the country. These include the so-called Gulf Clan, currently the largest drug cartel in the country; the National Liberation Army (ELN), a Marxist-oriented guerrilla movement; the dissidents of the former FARC, who did not sign the 2016 peace agreement and are now known as the Estado Mayor Central; and the Segunda Marquetalia, which consists of former signatories of the peace agreement, but who now feel betrayed by the state and are again committing acts of violence.

In view of this plethora of negotiating partners, total peace is anything but easy to achieve. The negotiations with the ELN guerrillas are dragging on because the ELN insists on being recognised as the only political actor in “La paz total” and not being pigeonholed with a terrorist drug cartel like the Clan del Golfo. This group has close ties to Colombian landowners and businessmen and maintains an extremely volatile relationship with the state apparatus, which makes negotiations difficult for the government.

For example, the top leader of the Gulf clan, Dairo Antonio Úsuga David alias “Otoniel” was arrested by the Colombian authorities in October 2021. Consequently, he declared that he would testify before the Justicia Especial para la Paz (JEP), an institution created in 2016 under the peace agreement to bring FARC leaders to justice. Now he wants to tell the whole truth, Otoniel announced, revealing, among other things, the links of high-ranking generals and military officers to organised crime. He named names and provided evidence that many of these people were on the payroll of the Gulf clan.

“For months, there were no deaths - and talks with other armed groups began”

However, in one of his last acts as president, Iván Duque extradited the clan boss to the US in May 2022, preventing further uncomfortable truths from leaking out. The Gulf clan reacted indignantly and targeted police officers, even placing bounties on public officials. As a result, thirty police officers were killed by the end of July 2022. However, immediately after Petro took office on 7 August 2022, the clan heeded the call for total peace and promptly ceased hostilities against the security forces.

In an instant, calm suddenly reigned in the four departments controlled by the crime syndicate, i.e. Chocó, Cauca, Nariño and Antioquia. Government representatives and lawyers for the clan began negotiations and Gustavo Petro issued the official order for a ceasefire. For months, there were no deaths - and talks with other armed groups began.

Things seemed to be moving forward, but the situation was complicated and shaky - the new foundations of peace soon began to show cracks. For example, in early March 2023, miners in the clan-controlled region of Bajo Cauca went on strike. Two weeks later, riots broke out and 250,000 people were cut off from food supplies in the area.

The government tried to talk to the protesting miners, but deployed police and military units to combat illegal mining in the region. Among other things, four huge excavators worth around one million US dollars belonging to the clan were confiscated and destroyed. The clan's leaders were correspondingly furious and caused the unrest to escalate and the situation to get out of control. Already on 19 March, Petro suspended the ceasefire with the Gulf clan again.

“Right-wing conservative opposition politicians stress that criminals can only be fought with a firm hand”

A similar dynamic can be witnessed in other parts of the country: The spiral of violence continues, and right-wing conservative opposition politicians, who reject negotiations and humanitarian intervention, take the opportunity to stress that criminals can only be fought with a heavy hand. The tragic cycle of violence in Colombia continues.

At the end of March, it became known that the ELN attacked an army base in the municipality of El Carmen in the Catatumbo region near the border with Venezuela. Nine people were killed, including seven soldiers who had just started their military service and two officers. The government, however, does not want to give up and continues to negotiate with the ELN. But when you read that some commanders of the guerrilla movement recently spoke of a war with the government, you start to doubt whether this policy makes sense.

I visit my friend Doris Suárez in the rooms of her brewery and the adjoining cultural centre “La casa de la paz”, the “House of Peace”, which she has been running since she left the FARC. Without me asking, she knows what I want to talk about. She tells me about Catatumbo in the Departamento Norte de Santander, a region in the north of the country rich in mineral resources and fertile land for agriculture and cattle breeding. She knows the area well. But she no longer sounds as cheerful or speaks with the enthusiasm she had back in 2022, immediately after the election. The eternal postponement of peace and the constant stream of problems have made her cautious. Doris speaks slowly. She wants to remain strong, but she seems exhausted.

Translated by Jess Smee