Can Santos End Colombia's War?

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Colombians narrowly decided to give peace a chance on Sunday. By a modest margin, they re-elected president Juan Manuel Santos, who had asked people to vote for him so that he could finish off peace talks with the FARC guerrillas.


Santos almost lost the election to Ivan Zuluaga, a conservative politician who would’ve likely cancelled ongoing peace negotiations, and just trailed him by five percent of votes.

During his victory speech the president promised to finally bring peace to Colombia, a country that’s been at war for the past five decades.

“It’s a mandate which I have received with profound gratitude and humility,” Santos said in front of a crowd gathered at his small campaign headquarters. “And to this I will dedicate all my energies and those of my government.”

Fighting between paramilitary squads, guerrillas and the Colombian army has killed about 220,000 people in 54 years, and forced some four million Colombians to flee their homes.

The U.S. has also gotten involved, spending more than $5 billion in military aid to Colombia since the year 2000 via “Plan Colombia.”


Stopping the war would reduce the need for such expenditures. It would also help victims to rebuild their lives, and open up larger areas of Colombia to foreign investment, especially in oil and mining.

If a peace deal were achieved, the FARC would presumably become an organization that tries to gain power through the ballot box. They would stop bombarding towns to push the army away from strategic areas, and would have no need to traffic cocaine to buy more weapons.


Despite all these obvious benefits, previous Colombian presidents have failed to achieve peace with the guerillas. Andres Pastrana, a close ally of the U.S., even went as far as to give the FARC a safe haven in the jungle the size of Belgium while negotiations took place, but broke off talks after it became evident that the FARC were using the area to regroup and launch attacks on the military.

So what does Santos need to do to successfully conclude peace talks that have been going in Cuba for the last 18 months? And is there a good chance that he can pull it off? Here are five tasks that lie ahead for the Colombian president.


Generate Support for the Talks

During the peace negotiations, the government and the guerrillas have been discussing a wide range of policy items, like how to develop the Colombian countryside and reduce the cocaine trade. But eventually, whatever agreement they reach will have to be approved by Colombia’s population, most likely through a referendum.


This is currently a problem for Santos, because a large swathe of Colombia’s population actually opposes the talks.

That opposition to the talks was evidenced by the recent election, which went to a run-off because Santos was unable to secure 50% support in the first round of voting, even though he campaigned heavily on his ability to achieve a peace deal with the FARC.


“He has to understand that many citizens don’t trust the talks, and has to show them with transparency, what is going on there,” said Vicente Torrijos, a political analyst at Bogota’s Rosario University.

Ivan Zuluaga, the most vocal critic of the peace talks, actually got more votes than Santos in the first round of presidential elections.


Address the Opposition’s Concerns

There are many reasons why Colombians oppose the peace talks. For starters the guerrillas have continued to stage attacks in the countryside as negotiations take place, generating doubts about their commitment to peace.


Opponents of the talks have also expressed fears that FARC leaders will get away with crimes against humanity with little punishment, and that they will be given congressional seats without having to compete for them in fair elections.

Another concern amongst those who distrust the peace talks is that the government will design laws that will enable the guerillas to seize land that is currently in private hands, or that the government will set up semi-autonomous “campesino [peasant] reserves” for the guerrillas and their supporters, in which illegal activities could continue to take place.


The Santos government will have to do its best to soothe these fears or explain to citizens why it is necessary to show leniency to guerilla leaders, who are considered to be terrorists by a large segment of the population. Santos’ toughest opponent will likely be former President Alvaro Uribe, a popular politician who now commands the largest group of Senators in Colombia’s congress.

Keep Combatants from Joining Organized Crime

Even if the government and the FARC leadership sign a peace deal, and it is approved in a referendum, there is still a chance that guerilla fighters will turn in their weapons and join other criminal groups, as has occurred with former members of right wing paramilitary groups.


To ensure this doesn’t happen, Santos and his team will have to come up with comprehensive employment, education and welfare schemes that will help former rebels to adapt to civilian life.

The government already has some experience in that area, says Adam Isacson, an expert on Colombia’s conflict at the Washington Office on Latin America.


“There are 1,000 to 2,000 [FARC] deserters per year, so there is a pretty robust program in place“ Isacson said. “But of course it’ll have to grow tenfold.” At the moment, the FARC have an estimated 10,000 fighters.

Fight Organized Crime

To truly pacify Colombia and stop FARC fighters from joining other criminal groups, the Colombian government will also have to crack down on organized crime.


A weak judicial system and the lack of government presence in some parts of the country make drug trafficking, extortion, and other criminal activities a lucrative business in Colombia.

Adam Isacson says that a successful peace deal would help with this though,
because once the FARC are gone, more soldiers would be free to go after other armed groups.


“Of course you’ve got to retrain them and increase your police capacity as quickly as possible,” Isacson said. “There’s a whole bunch of things you’ve got to do.”

Include Victims in the Process

The peace talks are a painful issue for Colombia’s four million war victims, who are fully aware that peace negotiations could lead to reduced sentences for their aggressors.


Some victims support president Santos and his peace process, but victims groups have also asked for greater input in how the peace talks are carried out. One of their main concerns is that government and guerrilla leaders will not push each other to provide reparations to victims.

It’s important for Santos to have victims on board, not only because they deserve proper reparation, but because their protests or acts of support for the talks strike a deep chord with public opinion.


“They can give legitimacy to the peace talks, or take it away,” said Jaime Duarte, a politics professor at Bogota’s Externado University.

Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.