BOGOTA, Colombia — The process of ending Colombia’s half-century war with leftist guerrillas has been its own multiyear struggle of halting talks, aborted cease-fires, frustration and distrust.
Deadly attacks by both sides and escalating rhetoric threw the process into doubt earlier this year, but experts say recent moves signal that a settlement between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, could be within reach.
Despite springtime violence, President Juan Manuel Santos announced his intention to accelerate talks taking place in Havana while slowing down military operations against the Marxist-
inspired guerrilla group. For its part, the FARC has called a unilateral cease-fire that runs through mid-August, which it says shows its commitment to a negotiated peace.
“Overall, I’m pretty optimistic,” said Oliver Kaplan, a professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, who has written about the peace process. “I don’t want to say it’s inevitable, but I think it’s likely to get pushed through.”
Since Santos announced his intention to hold peace talks with the FARC in 2012, negotiators have met for dozens of sessions in Havana. Bombardments have paused and resumed; guerrilla attacks have fluctuated. Polls have shown that a majority of Colombians don’t think the FARC wants peace or that the talks will succeed. The government’s lead negotiator, a former vice president, warned just weeks ago that talks could collapse. And yet many followers of the process, like Kaplan, seem hopeful.
The fact that talks continue after so long shows that neither side “wants to walk away from the table,” said Iván Cepeda, a left-wing senator. “On the contrary, we can observe that there is a very determined will to end these negotiations in success.
“I believe that ending a 50-year war isn’t going to be simple; surely there will be problems,” he said. “But the general tendency is that we are taking steps, each time more seriously, towards peace.”
Santos said in a speech last month that he, “like all Colombians, began this process with great skepticism.”
“But we want — beyond that natural lack of confidence — to give peace a chance, and do it in a way that doesn’t mean additional risks for Colombians,” he said.
There have been concrete steps toward ending the longest-running conflict in the Americas. In December, the rebels declared a unilateral cease-fire and vowed to stop recruiting child soldiers. Santos announced a ban on bombing FARC camps. This spring, the government agreed to work with guerrillas to clear land mines, which have killed more than 2,000 people in the past 25 years. The FARC has also said that it would follow a plan to end its participation in the drug trade, which has been a valuable source of revenue. The two sides have agreed to a truth commission to look into past crimes.
But the peace process nearly derailed in April, after a rebel attack killed 11 army soldiers who were taking cover during a rainstorm. The government accused the FARC of breaking its commitments and lifted the ban on bombarding FARC positions, while the rebels said the attack was a defense against military aggression. That violence was followed a month later by an attack by government troops that left more than two dozen rebels dead. Both attacks occurred in the southwestern region of Cauca.
Since then, negotiators have taken steps toward resolving the conflict; the government reinstated its cease-fire, and the rebels released a captured soldier.
“I think the FARC has actually made a lot of credible moves so far,” Kaplan said. “If you put all that stuff together, it seems like they do want a deal.”
But others remain skeptical.
“You have to remember that the FARC has already done five unilateral cease-fires that haven’t worked, the last of which was the longest but still failed,” said Alfredo Rangel, a senator from the opposition party of former president Álvaro Uribe. “They continue drug-trafficking, they continue extorting the population, they continue recruiting minors, laying anti-personnel mines, rearming.”
“There is no reason to think that what has failed before will this time succeed,” he added.
The thorniest issues that remain are about whether guerrilla leaders will get punished and for how long, and the process for foot soldiers to lay down their arms and get reintegrated into society. The estimated 7,000 rebels, who have diminishing strength and one-digit popular support, have sought total amnesty, which the government has rejected.
One potential model is a law that helped demobilize thousands of right-wing paramilitary fighters involved in Colombia’s violence. They confessed to their crimes and in return received maximum eight-year sentences, many of which are ending soon. One of the country’s most notorious right-wing death squad leaders, Freddy Rendón Herrera, known as “the German,” became a free man last week after finishing his sentence. FARC fighters can already demobilize under the same system, but the government may not have the resources to support reintegration programs if many thousands lay down arms at once.
Santos, who has said he wants a deal by the end of the year, continues to urge people to give the process a chance.
“I invite everyone to believe,” he said last month. “In spite of so many difficulties, we’re on the right path. Follow me on this final stretch. Peace comes from everyone. Peace is in the hands of everyone.”