Colombia took an important step toward negotiating peace with the country’s largest rebel group this week by ordering a halt to bombing raids on FARC guerrilla camps.
President Juan Manuel Santos' announcement on Tuesday came almost three months after The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, declared a unilateral ceasefire in an effort to show their commitment to the ongoing peace talks in Cuba.
Santos noted the FARC has kept to its ceasefire and announced a quid pro quo suspension of aerial bombing campaigns against guerrilla targets for a month.
“When this time period is up, we will once again analyze if the FARC have upheld their ceasefire,” Santos said. “According to the results we get, we will decide if we keep this measure.”
The government’s ceasefire comes on the heels of two other announcements that appear favorable to the peace talks.
Last week, the rebels and the government announced they will team up to remove land mines that have been scattered around the country during the last four decades of war. And in February, the FARC also announced it would stop recruiting children under 17.
Critics of the peace talks — most notably former president Alvaro Uribe— think the ceasefire is a mistake and will only encourage the FARC to regroup in rural strongholds.
“Where is the FARC’s ceasefire?” Uribe said on Twitter. “Where are the FARC gathering so we can verify that they have ceased illegal activities?”
Uribe claims members of his political party, the Democratic Center, cannot operate in several parts of the country because they have been subjected to death threats by the guerrillas. He said even if the rebels have stopped launching attacks on military targets, they are still extorting businesses and dealing drugs.
Alfredo Rangel, a senator and security analyst, also urged the government to keep up military pressure on the rebels.
“Without military operations, extorsion, drug trafficking, forced recruitment and the rearming of the guerrillas will occur,” Rangel said.
Government spokesmen said police will continue to go after FARC members who are committing crimes. Pro-government politicians were more optimistic about Santos' decision to halt attacks on the rebels.
‘If the president ceases bombarding [the FARC] it must be because the government trusts them, and the peace accords are moving along fast,” said Armando Benedetti, a senator for the governing coalition.
Santos has had trouble building support for the peace talks among ordinary Colombians. A narrow majority of Colombians approve of the negotiations, according to polls.
In the late 1990’s, efforts to hold peace talks with the FARC ended in disaster after the guerrillas used a lengthy ceasefire to regroup, rearm, and launch lethal attacks across the country.
Santos’ peace talks have been very different, with the army putting military pressure on the rebels as negotiations are being held in Cuba.
The government is hoping its latest decision to dial-back the conflict will help establish trust with the rebels and encourage them to sign off several major issues that remain unresolved.
The two sides are discussing the legal framework under which the rebels will lay down their weapons, how FARC leaders and military officials will pay for war crimes, and how victims of the conflict will be compensated for their losses.
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.