Total Peace, the project of President Gustavo Petro to end violence in Colombia, is going through its worst moment. Over the past weekend, two actions by the illegal armed organizations engaged in peace talks with the government have cast doubt on the peace efforts of the Colombian state.
The kidnapping of the father of soccer player Luis Diaz by the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the unilateral suspension of the peace dialogue table by the Central High Command of the FARC (EMC), an organization accusing the government of a “military spirit,” leave the attempts to demobilize illegal armed groups through negotiation hanging by a thread.
Total Peace, along with social reforms, has been the flagship proposal of the presidency of Gustavo Petro, who took office on August 7, 2022. With the historic election of the first left-wing president, Colombia left behind an anomaly unique to the region: never before, in 200 years of republican history, had a progressive option won an election and come to power.
Violence in Colombia has been, sadly, endemic. It dates back to the colonial era and a 19th century of relentless civil wars resulting from the failure to build an independent state through a social contract. In the 20th century, this practice continued until the last phase of the conflict began in the mid-century.
The dictatorship of General Rojas Pinilla (1953-1957) ironically pacified the country. However, for the next 20 years, the pseudo-democratic regime that characterized national politics corrupted the democratic system to the point of complete discredit. The system in the 1960s and 1970s was simply an agreed-upon power-sharing arrangement between the two major parties, the Liberal and Conservative parties, which had been engaged in mutual hostilities for 100 years. This left other contenders unable to participate in electoral politics.
In this context, at a time when the Cuban Revolution (1959) seemed to offer a different way to attain power, a group of peasants took to the mountains armed with rudimentary weapons in response to a state that only showed them aggression. For a decade, they barely survived, relying on their knowledge of the rugged terrain of Colombian fields and jungles, with a romantic aura of popular resistance. Two organizations were born in 1964: the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN).
The cocaine boom in the 1970s transformed this handful of poorly dressed and poorly armed resisters into an irregular army with an increasingly potent killing capacity. Later, the logic of war, which justifies everything, turned those guerrillas into increasingly fanatical criminals acting with increasing violence. Simultaneously, without them realizing it, they lost popular support, becoming entirely marginal in Colombian society, which associated the left with the violence and death caused by the guerrillas.
The long search for peace
Since the 1980s, every president has tried to make peace with the insurgencies, without success. Simultaneously, the stigmatization of progressive options, which experienced political genocide causing thousands of deaths in the 1980s and 1990s, continued. Paramilitary groups, often working in collusion with state entities, facilitated the assassination of trade unionists and left-wing politicians, leaving them with no opportunity to gain power through democratic means and bolstering the insurgents’ “reasons.”
Of all the attempts to make peace, the most disastrous was led by conservative President Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002). The demilitarization of a large zone in the heart of the country served to strengthen the FARC, which was at its zenith at that time. The spectacular failure of those negotiations gave a boost to former Senator Álvaro Uribe, who was barely known outside his hometown of Medellín at that time. Surprisingly, he won the 2002 elections, representing a tough stance against the insurgency.
This marked the beginning of eight years of relentless war against the FARC and other illegal armed groups. Despite the military offensive, these groups were not defeated. Politically, the FARC and the ELN had long ceased to exist.
Historic agreement with the FARC
When President Juan Manuel Santos took office in August 2010, everything seemed to be settled and secure. The former Defense Minister under President Uribe seemed to be continuing Uribe’s policy of a strong hand against armed insurgencies. However, Santos immediately signaled that he had his own agenda, independent of his political mentor. Two years later, in what appeared to be a personal vendetta aimed at derailing the peace process before it even began, Uribe publicly revealed on social media that Santos was secretly exploring negotiations with the formidable FARC-EP, the guerrilla group that had sown violence in Colombia’s countryside and cities for five decades. Santos had to publicly acknowledge Uribe’s claims.
The peace process began, and after four years of tough negotiations, with former Vice President Humberto de La Calle leading the government’s peace delegation, Colombia experienced a historic moment: the FARC laid down their arms and dissolved. However, implementation of the agreements was marred by difficulties, and Santos’s successor, President Duque, had little interest in agreements he had denigrated two years earlier, which led to internal dissensions among the demobilized members.
Today, various armed groups, self-proclaimed dissidents of the 2016 peace agreement, have taken up arms and resumed the path of armed struggle. They are joined by existing bands, groups that are also dissidents of the paramilitary forces demobilized 20 years ago, and the long-standing and complex ELN, with whom Duque attempted peace, only to see the guerrillas blow it up after a criminal attack on a police academy in January 2019.
Total Peace, an ambitious and risky project
The historic 2022 election allowed a left-wing politician to come to power for the first time. Gustavo Petro, a former guerrilla from the now-defunct M19, an organization very different from the FARC or ELN due to its urban nature, which demobilized in 1990, launched his Total Peace initiative. The idea was to build upon the significant progress made by President Santos. Petro extended an invitation to any illegal armed organization, regardless of ideology, to achieve widespread peace through dialogue. The first to accept the offer was the ELN, and recently, the most significant dissidence of the extinct FARC, the EMC, joined.
However, these two groups are quite different from the FARC. First, the ELN has a federal nature, lacking a strong central power that effectively coordinates and decides, as was the case with the FARC’s orthodox Marxist logic. The recent kidnapping of Luis Manuel Díaz, father of the well-known Liverpool FC soccer player, is a clear illustration of this. The ELN’s peace delegates and central command were unaware that a unit from their own organization in the northern part of the country was involved in the kidnapping. In other words, ELN units operate almost autonomously, complicating peace negotiations and the achievement of an agreement that the entire group can endorse.
As for the EMC, it is a new and radicalized organization that has demonstrated little or no maturity for dialogue with the state. However, the firm commitment to peace led the government to grant political status to a group that, beyond drug trafficking, has shown no significant political commitment. President Petro acknowledged the trick in his statement yesterday. “Perhaps it was premature,” lamented the Colombian leader in reference to the dialogue table with the EMC.
The future of Total Peace
Yesterday, the President’s public address had a tone of clear disappointment. The boldest commitment of the first left-wing government in Colombia to achieve far-reaching peace is facing its most challenging moment, barely surviving amidst harsh criticism from the conservative opposition, which is taking advantage of the situation.
The High Commissioner for Peace, Danilo Rueda, also experienced this. The official endured a heated congressional session with the Democratic Center, the party of former President Uribe, which was laden with reproaches and even called for his resignation. Rueda had to listen to statements from congress members such as, “I come to implore you, if you permit me, to resign from your post and allow this country to find relief because there is a catastrophe that you have left us as a legacy,” among other criticisms.
Therefore, we can expect an escalation in tensions. The immediate goal is the inevitable release of the ELN’s hostage. Although the criminal group has already announced it, the release has not yet occurred. With each passing day that Luis Manuel Díaz remains in captivity, the credibility of President Petro’s project loses ground among a weary population tired of kidnappings and senseless violence.
Similarly, the Colombian government will need early accomplishments to present to the public as achievements of its peace strategy. This is assumed to be challenging given the lack of clarity, commitment, and seriousness displayed by the organizations involved so far.
The eternal scourge of drug trafficking
In Colombia, there is a significant catalyst for all political, social, and economic conflicts: drug trafficking. This practice, far from decreasing, has been increasing year after year. It is no longer large cartels, as in the 1980s, that dominate this illegal economy; instead, hundreds of small groups share a business that has made cocaine Colombia’s top export, surpassing oil.
However, the government of President Petro has already stated that the primary challenge to demobilizing these armed groups is the fight against the illicit economies that have made drug trafficking the core of their strategy and funding. The president criticized the lack of diligence in substituting these crops with sustainable, legal agriculture that could support a historically mistreated peasant population surviving on coca leaf cultivation.
To address this issue, the Colombian government has proposed new approaches to its allies abroad to redirect the fight against drug trafficking, citing the evident failure of existing approaches. The main challenge in this regard will be to persuade major cocaine consumers, the United States and Europe, to consider a different approach, including even the long-discussed idea of legalizing the substance. Similar changes were seen in the United States during President Roosevelt’s administration when Prohibition, a policy that had only served to empower criminal organizations and fuel violence in major cities, ended in 1933.
The President’s Main Challenge
Total Peace, along with the deep social reforms promised by the President, is currently the primary political battleground for President Petro. Success in normalizing the presence of left-wing parties in government will help illegal armed groups completely lose their political justification, which is now more theoretical than real, overshadowed by the drug trafficking practices that have eroded their political motivations.
The coming months will be crucial in determining whether Gustavo Petro can achieve his objectives. The challenge is immense, and enemies, both within and outside his government coalition, are waiting to pounce and discredit a bold and complex peace project in the eyes of public opinion.
The context is not favorable either. Colombia is a country where the ruling elite has grown accustomed to violence and the revenge of force. It’s worth noting that the nation voted “no to peace” in President Santos’s 2016 plebiscite on the agreement with the FARC. The success or failure of Total Peace will shape future presidencies and Colombia’s path toward a social pact model that is yet to be realized.