On Wednesday July 8, the largest Colombian narco-insurgent movement in Colombia, the FARC (short for Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) announced a new unilateral ceasefire starting this upcoming July 20. It is supposed to last for one month.
The FARC has waged a war against the Colombian government since the early 1960s. At its height in the mid-1990s, it had around 16,000 fighters but current estimates put its number of fighters at under 8,000. A large number of these fighters are minors, and the insurgents, in a goodwill move, declared this past February that they will stop recruiting fighters under 17. While the move was generally praised, the group was critiqued because while it promised to stop recruiting new underage fighters, it will not release the ones it currently has in its ranks.
But in spite of having less than half the fighters it had almost two decades ago, many of whom are minors, the FARC have yet to be militarily defeated – making them continual a thorn in Bogotá’s security side. During his first presidential term, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos chose a different tactic, as bilateral negotiations between the government and the insurgents started in Norway in 2012, before moving to Cuba. The two sides have been meeting in the Cuban nation for the past three years, and while several issues have been agreed upon, a final (and permanent) agreement has yet to be reached.
One obvious worry is that the negotiations could go nowhere and full-blown war could start once again. This is of particular concern for large segments of the Colombian military that fear the negotiations and ceasefires are part of the FARC’s plan to re-organize forces to launch a new wave of offensives. This scenario is not so far-fetched – in fact, it happened in the late 1990s when former President Andres Pastrana launched his own wave of negotiations, which were ultimately unsuccessful.
Apart from the fact that the negotiations have been dragging on for three years, clashes between the security forces and the insurgents have continued. In May, the Colombian armed forces attacked a rebel camp in the Cauca department, killing 26 fighters. Nevertheless, the government has suffered setbacks. This past June, three people, (a lieutenant colonel from the Colombian police, another officer, and a civilian) were killed in the Nariño department when they were attacked via explosives. According to the Colombian government, the police officers survived the explosions but were summarily executed afterwards. More recently, in early July, one soldier was killed and two were injured, all members of the Army’s Sixth Division, in another clash with the FARC in the Putumayo department. The FARC last declared a unilateral cease this past December 2014 and while it lasted for a few months, it has been effectively over since the May attack.
In other words, the recent declaration by the FARC’s peace negotiators in Havana that there will be a new ceasefire is important, as this may give a new momentum to the peace talks. The insurgents have requested that President Santos agree to a bilateral ceasefire, but at the time of this writing there has been no response from Bogotá on that matter. (Santos did tweet that he “values” the FARC’s gesture but “more is needed, particularly a real compromise to speed up the negotiations”).
It is difficult to be optimistic about the peace negotiations nowadays. The longer they drag on the more chances there are for them to be derailed completely. Lasting peace agreements between governments and rebel movements are possible, however, as best exemplified by Colombia’s successful negotiations with the M-19 insurgents in the late 1980s. Nevertheless, the FARC have proven to be a much trickier and complicated entity to negotiate with. Hopefully this new ceasefire will be permanent, but history is not on its side.