Peace in Colombia: Reality, Myth and Wishful Thinking

Peace in Colombia: Reality, Myth and Wishful Thinking

Lara Montesinos Coleman and Gearóid Ó Loingsigh

Brighton and Bogotá, April 2013

The peace process in Colombia has aroused interest in the country once again. Aid agencies, government bodies and academics are re‐engaging with the internal armed conflict and with the prospects for an end to the insurgencies of the FARC‐EP and the ELN. Much of the commentary and analysis is a mixture of old myths about the nature of the conflict and wishful, if not woolly, thinking. One such example of this is the recent policy briefing by Matt Ince and Andrei Gómez‐Suarez Ending Colombia’s Internal Conflict: Prospects for Peace with the FARC and Beyond.

The paper sounds a cautious note at the beginning stating that “The Santos‐FARC peace talks therefore remain a dynamic highly uncertain process and despite cautious optimism, the establishment of a meaningful peace agreement is still by no means guaranteed.” It then proceeds to throw caution to the wind, outlining a series of reasons for optimism that either ignore or distort the nature of the conflict. This is perhaps to be expected. International experience of peace processes indicates that in the name of “peace” ‐ which is never defined, but is presumed to be a lack of armed activity by anyone other than state agents ‐ critical faculties are abandoned and reality is twisted to meet a political agenda. Academics or activists who point out the shortcomings of the process are accused of being in favour of further violence. It is, however, necessary to address the reality of the conflict and of the interests involved. No amount of wishful thinking can overcome the reality of a murderous regime or the game of smoke and mirrors at play in the “peace” process.

In this article, we consider the various points raised by Ince and Gómez‐Suarez. We begin by addressing six reasons they set out for optimism (optimism for a demobilisation, not for an meaningful agrarian reform or an end to the country’s appalling poverty and inequality). We go on to comment upon the “challenges” to peace that Ince and Gómez‐Suarez identify, alongside the recommendations they make for “balancing” these.

The full article is available for download here [PDF].

The policy briefing by Matt Ince and Andrei Gómez‐Suarez, ‘Ending Colombia’s Internal Conflict: Prospects for Peace with the FARC and Beyond’, is available here.


Elites, Violence and Peace


Professor Jenny Pearce

Peace Studies

University of Bradford

Summary of a paper delivered at the conference on “The Santos-FARC peace talks: A Colombian liberal peace?”, University of Sussex, 12 April 2013

This paper takes a brief historical look at the role of violence and elites in the reproduction of violence in Colombia and then asks whether the peace process is likely to lead to an intra-elite settlement as well as one with armed counter-elites. Indeed, it argues that the former is as important as the latter. The paper first of all explores the difficulties of defining the term ‘elite’. There is little agreement in the literature on whether the term refers to a ‘ruling class’ or pluralist competitors? To enlightened promoters of virtue or anti-democratic defenders of privilege? To concentrated or diffused power? In the context of Colombia, a broad definition can be helpful, such as that of Higley and Burton (1989), that elites are ‘persons who, by virtue of their strategic locations in large or otherwise pivotal organisations and movements, are able to affect political outcomes regularly and substantially’. However, the authors include in addition to top politicians, important businessmen, senior military officers and high-level civil servants, ‘counter elites’ such as leaders of mass organisations, such as Trade Unions, and voluntary organisations. In Colombia, power remains so asymmetrically distorted, that the focus on elites rather than counter elites is justified. However, Colombia does not only have sectorally differentiated elites, but regionally differentiated ones as well. This elite fragmentation complicates the Peace Process hugely. Nevertheless, the concentration of power of all kinds in Colombia is very clear. The Economist (20 April 2011) found that the income of the top fifth of the country is 25x that of the bottom fifth. This makes it one of the most unequal countries of the world.

The term ‘elite’ reemerges amongst each generation of political scientists to try and capture the way overlapping political, economic and social power still limits democratisation in the global South and the global North. Recent literature has also sought to explore how elite settlements and pacts play a role in reducing violence and violent armed conflict, particularly in the global South. This is a very important issue in Colombia, where elites historically not only fought violently (as well as electorally) between themselves, but they also mobilised the society to fight for the two parties which came to articulate the deep fracture lines between them. This diffused the use of violence throughout all social sectors, and accounts to a considerable extent for the intergenerational cycles of violence which have blighted the country. The Colombian National Front of 1958 to 1974, following the very bloody inter party civil war known as La Violencia, is an elite pact which did for a while reduce violence in Colombia. However, it did so at the cost of the exclusion of the population from the fruits of the economic modernisation which the pact ushered in, as well as from political participation. It gave birth to new generations of armed counter elites. While it enabled Colombia to develop a more robust set of institutions than in many parts of the global South, they served elite interests, with Bogota based parties reaching the regions through pacts with regional elites and clientelism and patronage to incorporate the electorate when necessary.

The elite pact began to break down when it became clear that the state could not offer protection to regional and local elites who fell under extortion and kidnapping from guerilla forces. North, Wallis and Weingast (2009) and North, Wallis, Webb and Weingast (eds, 2013) suggest that the basis of the kind of elite pact that gives rise to what they call Limited Access Orders, is one where potential violence between elites is discouraged through the manipulation of economic interests, whereby groups agree to divide the land, labour and capital and opportunities among themselves and to enforce each leader’s privileged access to resources. Elites come to gain more from these privileges under conditions of peace than under violence. This settlement ceased however, to have traction in Colombia, once the state no longer protected the rents and privileges of particular sectors of the elites (and threatened all elites to some extent), and these then turned to paramilitary, private armed  groups. Evidence of this is now firmly in the public domain.  As one former paramilitary commander, Duque, told US journalists who interviewed him in prison “Could these three groups – I’m talking about political people, economic people, the institutional people, meaning the military – operate without having contact with the chief of chiefs? That’s impossible”. It was time for the elites who helped the paramilitary to come clean he argued. The paramilitary groups had 17,000 armed fighters and more than 10,000 other associates, from cooks to driers to computer technicians and informers. It was plain for anyone to see. (Washington Post 23 May 2007).

So one question overshadowing the Peace Process today, is whether regional and sectoral elite divergences will scupper the peace process, given that economic and political incentives persist for elites to prefer ongoing insecurity and violence? They can also appeal to a frightened and despairing population who are not yet fully convinced that peace with the FARC will bring sustained security. As some economic areas decline (eg cattle ranching to which many elites opposed to the peace process remain associated), the battle will be for control of mineral, oil and other extractive industries. Many emergent elites from illegal drugs trafficking and violent expropriation of land are also now actors in the competition which is likely to intensify over the coming years.

Another question, therefore, which is less often discussed, is whether a second elite pact might follow if the FARC-Santos government peace is signed? A peace agreement will favour the Bogota and some regional elites over others and is at present deeply opposed by the cattle ranchers and those associated most closely with alliances with paramilitary groups, and whose figure head is former president Uribe. President Uribe won considerable political support in delivering a tainted and arguably temporary reduction in violence, but one which nevertheless improved the security situation.  However, this does not mean that a new elite alignment might not follow such a peace agreement. This would enable Colombian elites to once again unite around a second phase of economic modernisation in which their privileged access to the countries’ resources will be protected in return for agreement to strengthen institutions and the rule of law. This may reduce violence, and indeed is welcome to that extent. However, it may also perpetuate the sources of violent criminality which followed the demobilisation of the paramilitary under Uribe, for instance. And it may also perpetuate the social, economic and political exclusion of the majority of Colombians.

The FARC does not represent the voice of these by any means, even if some discount its social base too hastily. If they were to become a political movement and the lives of ex combatants who turn to political struggle is protected (unlike what happened to the Patriotic Union in the 1980s) that would be progress for Colombia. However, it would not guarantee that Colombia is on a path to democratisation and to an economic model which guarantees the means to life for all. That will require an ongoing political struggle, in which Colombian elites abandon not only violence amongst themselves, but also violence against those who challenge their interests ‘from below’, including those who have never used violence to pursue those aims or have passively and reluctantly backed that option. Colombian history is also the story of thousands of social and political activists murdered for social and labour organising and for defending human rights, not for participation in armed struggle.

In conclusion, the Colombian Peace Process offers a vital opportunity for opening up meaningful and safe political participation for all, not just for FARC combatants negotiating in Havana. However, the building of conditions for Colombians to live without violence – a sustainable and meaningful peace – will depend on what happens after Havana and what kind of intra elite settlement emerges.

Summary of Sussex Workshop (12 April 2013): “In Search of Peace in Colombia – Unwrapping the Santos-FARC Peace Talks”



Half-day workshop

12 April 2013

Sussex Centre for Conflict and Security Research

University of Sussex

The programme with speakers’ biographies is available here.

This half-day event aims to consolidate a group of UK-based Latin America scholars concerned with Colombia and, specifically, with the present peace process between the Colombian Government of Juan Manuel Santos and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army (FARC-EP).

As the result of collaboration between several scholars, an academic working group (British Academics for a Colombia Under Peace – BACUP) has been established, which will consistently follow the developments of the Santos-FARC peace talks with the aim of formulating academically robust and policy relevant research projects, as well as offering suggestions for  civil society’s constructive role in the process. Until now the talks have been a very dynamic process. While FARC spokespersons regularly eschew the identification of a date for the signing of a final peace agreement, which could bring about a formal end tothe armed conflict, President Santos continuously reinforces the need for a quick fix solution. President Santos has stated that the talks should come to an end before November 2013. Moreover, after visiting Havana in March, the Head of the Colombian Senate stated that Congress is asking the negotiation teams to reach an agreement by August 2013.

This time pressure, linked to the Colombian electoral cycle, reinforces the importance of the working group. With timely academic interventions the group could offer a non-partisan view to shed light on some of the obstacles that the peace talks face. In particular, Colombian experts in the group are able to offer profound knowledge and experience of the country, whilst other members of the group offer comparative experience of peace processes in other Latin American contexts.

By the time the workshop takes place on 12 April 2013, according to the peace agenda, the talks should already have reached an agreement on one of the thorniest issues for Colombian society: access to land and rural development. Consequently, the group should be able to offer an interesting perspective on the process thus far, whilst at the same time being able to analyse the prospective trajectory of the talks.

The event will be structured around the three following panels: (1) Land, Crime, and Elites (2) Regions, Media, and Geopolitics (3) Civil Society Initiatives: integrating collective efforts to support peace.

These broad panels will allow participants from a variety of academic and policy backgrounds, including International Relations, Latin American Studies, Peace and Conflict Resolution, Political Science, Human Rights, International Development, and Critical Security Studies, to elaborate on a series of key challenges the peace talks face. The formulation of an inter-disciplinary approach is key to understanding (a) how the peace process is represented; (b) its impacts upon political discourses; (c) what roles different state and non-state, legal and illegal-criminal and domestic and international actors play (i.e., political, military, spoilers, business elites, criminal organizations, civil society); and (d) what the peace talks’ potential long-term impact could be in Colombia. Of particular significance to both the policy and academic communities is the fact that the working group will indirectly engage with a set of fundamental questions of growing relevance to the scholarship and practitioner field of peace and conflict studies: To what extent is the Colombian peace process sustainable? In what ways, if any, does it address the root causes of conflict? Are the peace talks a Colombian way of at Liberal Peace?

Convened by:

Dr Andrei Gomez-Suarez

Sponsored by the Sussex Centre for Conflict and Security Research


13.00 – 13.15 Registration (Coffee) Foyer
13.15 – 13.30 Welcome: Jan Selby/Andrei Gomez-Suarez Lecture Theatre B
13.30 – 15.00 Panel 1: Land, Crime, and ElitesChair: Jan SelbyGrace Livingstone

The Land Issue: what has been achieved and what are the challenges ahead? (summary)

Markus Schultze-Kraft

Organized crime and the prospects of war and peace in Colombia

Jenny Pearce

The role of Elites in Peace Processes in Colombia (summary)

Lecture Theatre B
15.00 – 15.20 Coffee break Foyer
15.20-16.50  Panel 2: Regions, Media and Geopolitics Chair: John DewRoddy Brett

Regional Civil Society organisations and the Peace Process (abstract)

Nick Morgan

Media and representations of the Peace Process (abstract)

Andrei Gomez-Suarez

The geopolitics of the Santos-FARC peace talks (abstract)

Room 104
16.50-17.10 Coffee break Foyer


Panel 3: Civil Society’s Initiatives: Integrating collective efforts to support peaceChair: Charlotte MellyMiguel Puerto

Building a Permanent Platform for Peace: The case of La Mesa Permanente por la Paz in the UK and Europe

Francy Carranza

Building a social network to support Peace: The case of Rodeemos el Diálogo in the UK


Building an academic group to support Peace

Lecture Theatre B
18.30-20.00 Drinks Reception Social Space

The Colombian Peace Process: Rural Development and Land Reform

The Colombian Peace Process: Rural Development and Land Reform

Grace Livingstone

Centre of Latin American Studies

University of Cambridge

Summary of a presentation delivered at the conference on “The Santos-FARC peace talks: A Colombian liberal peace?”, University of Sussex, 12 April 2013

Land is the root of the Colombia conflict.  The Colombian government and the FARC may be able to sign a formal peace deal, but ending the violence in the countryside will be more difficult.  That would entail challenging the privileges of a landed elite, which for decades has restored to paramilitary violence to defend its interests.

Colombia has the most unequal land structure in Latin America; 0.4% of landowners own 62% of the land.  Colombia has seen increased land concentration over the past decade as millions of small farmers have been displaced and large scale agro-export crops and mining projects have expanded.

Landlessness and poverty is fuelling the conflict as there is always a ready supply of recruits for armed groups.  The FARC’s social base is peasants with little or no land in southern and south-eastern Colombia.

The FARC and the government began talks in October last year.  Rural issues and land reform have been the first item on the agenda.  When the FARC submitted its ten proposals on land, it became apparent that its prescriptions were not so very different from the government’s: both sides agreed on the need to tackle large, unproductive estates; to reduce the scale of cattle ranching and the need for more rural infrastructure and financing for small farmers.

In principle, both the government and the FARC support also ‘peasant reserve zones’, but the FARC’s proposal in mid-march to expand these dramatically has caused a rift between the two sides.  Peasant reserve zones were first conceived by the government of Ernesto Samper in 1994.  They aim to protect small-scale agriculture: farmers can sell their plots of land but cannot acquire more land within the zone.  There are currently six peasant reserve zones in Colombia, covering 831,000 hectares.  The FARC proposes to increase this area by 11 times, raising the number of zones to 50, covering an area of 9.5m hectares (8% of Colombian territory).  Although this sounds like an enormous amount of land, when one compares it to the area used for cattle ranching – 40m hectares (35%) of Colombian territory, – it becomes clear that land is available, it is simply a question of political will as to how it is distributed.

The demand for expanding the zones has come from peasants’ organisations, participating in an Agrarian Forum in Bogotá in December 2012 and a conference in San Vicente de Caguán in March 2013.  The FARC has simply brought a demand that has emerged from the grassroots to the negotiating table.  And it is not necessarily a revolutionary demand: the government supports the idea in principle and some of the existing zones are funded by the World Bank.  The problem is that the FARC has said the peasant zones should have political, economic and administrative autonomy, as well as their own systems of justice.  The Colombian government has ruled that out.  The two sides meet again in the third week of April and will try to hammer out a compromise.

Even if the FARC and Colombian government reach a deal, one still has to question whether Santos can persuade enough of the rural elite to accept change.  President Santos understands the need for social reform to achieve peace and undercut the appeal of the armed groups.  Since he has been elected president, he has embarked on a series of reforms – the most notable being the victims and land restitution law, which aims to give land back to displaced people.  But the response to this legislation – an upsurge of violence against peasant activists  – shows that many regional landowners take a more hardline view than the Bogotá elite and are prepared to defend their privileges with violence.