Could FARC Talks Trigger a New Approach to Peace in the Region?

January 31, 2014

A successful peace process in Colombia could lead the way to new approaches to peace processes in Central and South America.

This was the view of conflict and governance expert Silke Pfeiffer, who spoke at the first lecture of the Center for Conflict, Negotiation and Recovery's 'Winter 2014 Speaker Series' at SPP on January 30. Based in Bogotá until January 2013, Pfeiffer served as the Colombia/Andes Director for the International Crisis Group, leading the organization's research and advocacy on violence and conflict resolution and prevention in Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela.

The war between the Colombian state and two guerrilla forces is currently the only remaining internal armed conflict in Latin America. Yet several countries in Colombia's neighborhood easily compete with the Andean country's levels of violence. Some, notably Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Venezuela top them by far. After five decades of warfare the current peace negotiations between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) represent a realistic chance to end the conflict. However, in the context of the drug trade and other profitable illicit economies, large parts of the guerrilla forces have moved into criminality. Other non-political illegal armed groups abound, many of whom are well connected to similar actors in Central America and Mexico. Against this background, Pfeiffer's presentation examined the question of how the Colombian peace process can contribute to both ending the political conflict with FARC and preparing the ground for reducing organized crime and violence in the country and the broader region.

The Colombian peace talks which have been taking place in Havana differ from other peace processes in the region, Pfeiffer explained, primarily in how they are not an elite drive process. In countries such as Guatemala and El Salvador, the peace processes were driven by elites with little or no interest in addressing major root causes of violence such as social inequality and impunity. "Although the peace accords in Guatemala, for example, were quite comprehensive in terms of increasing indigenous rights and land reform," said Pfeiffer, "nothing at this level really changed. And that is one of the big lessons of the South American peace processes." Rather than a push for peace coming from the people of these countries, it was the government and social elites understanding that they needed to improve the reputation of their countries in order to attract foreign economic investment. "They were interested in an economic modernization that had nothing to do with economic inclusion." Such peace processes gained little societal support and what followed was more often a rise in violence as the country shifted from civil war to criminality.

Rooted as it is in the peasant causes of land rights and access, FARC – though it has entered the drug trade as a means of generating income – has a strong interest in pursuing these causes as critical agreements in their peace talks with the Colombian government. "FARC was born as a peasant movement," Pfeiffer explained, "and they owe something to their original support base." In fact, land rights, land access, and state sponsored programs to support peasants and agriculture, were the first of the policy areas on which agreement has been reached.

The Colombian peace process also coincides with a regional change in the discourse on drug policy meaning that the government is no longer looking at a policy of eradication of drug crops immediately before allowing them to participate in programs to develop new types of crops, which would leave the peasant farmers without income. FARC's close ties with the peasants means that the peace process represents a chance to look at these drug policies in a cooperative and inclusive way examining new development options to move farming slowly away from drug production.

While the issue of security policy reform has yet to be finalized, this too is an area where confidence is high for success. The General Agreement signed by both FARC and the Colombian government and translated in International Crisis Group's report Colombia: Peace at Last? states: "the National Government will intensify the combat to finish off criminal organizations and their support networks, including the fight against corruption and impunity, in particular against any organization responsible for homicides and massacres or that targets human rights defenders, social movements or political movements..." Both parties, Pfeiffer believes, have a strong interest in ensuring that the void left by a demobilized FARC is not filled by criminal organizations and the country does not slip further in to violence despite the ceasing of hostilities between rebels and government. By backing security policy reform with reform of social inequality, the Colombian government is offering a more comprehensive incentive for the population to support and engage with the peace process.

"The Colombian process has the potential to be a catalyser for thinking about new approaches and policies for the entire region," Pfeiffer concluded.