Report: Fifth Conversatorio on the Colombian Peace Talks, London 16 December 2013

Fifth Conversatorio on the Colombian Peace Talks

London, 16 December, 2013

PDF report available here.

After reaching a historic agreement on political participation, the negotiating teams began the discussion of drug trafficking, the fourth item on the agenda, at the seventeenth round of negotiations. 23 people participated in the last conversatorio on the Colombian Peace Talks on December 16 2013. It was moderated by Andrei Gomez-Suarez (Universities of Sussex and Oxford) with the remarks by special guest Samuel Gomez (Retired Professor, University of Nariño and former member of the Unión Patriótica). The discussion touched upon issues related to political participation, drug trafficking and the current political environment.

On the issue of drug trafficking, several points were analysed:

1. The need of alternative crops for coca farmers and planning to recover the land affected by coca planting.

2. It was highlighted that throughout the discussion on drug trafficking FARC have favoured alternative solutions, such as combating those who benefit from the drug-trade rather than the growers, or the legalization of consumption, setting parameters that do not violate Colombian and international law.

3. The role of the United States and the international community is key for reaching a sustainable agreement on drug trafficking issues. Latin American leaders have opened the discussion on the failure of the war on drugs. The overwhelming American support for the peace process, shown during Santos’s visit to the United States, suggest that Obama is considering a change of strategy against drug trafficking that could complement what is agreed in Havana. For its part, the FARC have proposed the involvement of multilateral organizations like the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) to design strategies against money laundering.

4. It was noted that in several regions coca cultivation and processing is strongly linked to paramilitary groups. Several national and international organizations have consistently registered collusion between paramilitary groups and the Colombian armed forces, who at times even pressure civilian population to grow coca. Therefore, it is important to address the involvement of military forces in the regions where this problem persists.

With respect to security two important issues were discussed:

1. The relationship between the military and paramilitaries is a transversal issue in several points on the agenda of the peace process, but it does not receive much international attention. To reach a conclusive agreement, FARC has demanded the government’s commitment to dismount paramilitary groups. Participants agreed that the participation of retired members of the Armed Forces for the first time in the history of peace processes in Colombia can help unmounts such linkages and welcomed the express statement to offer guarantees for the opposition in the political participation agreement.

2. The creation of a comprehensive security system (SIS ) that have several components (including risk assessment, prevention of aggression and personal protection of persons at risk) was considered as a breakthrough in the agreement on political participation. Assurances of political participation will depend on this system. However, the problems that have arisen in the implementation of the National Protection Unit for Human Rights Defenders reveal the challenges ahead and the need to learn from past lessons for the SIS to be effective.

Finally three topics were discussed regarding the current political environment:

1. A marked difference between the communication of government and the FARC is perceived. FARC constantly report on what they propose in Havana, while the government maintains more discretion. This could be related to the fact that the rounds of negotiation are the only space for FARC to act as political actors and communicate their proposals to Colombians and the world , while the government uses several spaces, such as diplomatic meetings or political events, to explain what is being negotiated.

2. Forgiveness has acquired a central symbolic role in the Colombian political process. The act of forgiveness by President Santos to the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó for the slanders made by former President Alvaro Uribe in 2005 and the request made a few days previously by Aida Avella, presidential candidate of the Unión Patriótica, that the state apologises for the genocide of the UP, are two examples.

3. The future of the negotiations will depend to some extent on the outcome of the electoral process in 2014, whose outlook is unclear. This is particularly evident in the wake of the dismissal of Mayor Gustavo Petro by the Investigator General Alejandro Ordoñez.

The foregoing has generated some scepticism about the negotiations amongst some sectors of Colombian society. Scepticism and indifference are important aspects that Colombians will have to overcome. If there is not a general effort to believe that peace can be achieved, then it will indeed be difficult to achieve. Therefore, it is important to find common ground in the context of discussions of drug trafficking, the implementation of the SIS and the political situation so as not to polarise differences amongst Colombians and to imagine a Colombia in peace.


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.

Is BACRIM just a new name for paramilitaries?

Is BACRIM just a new name for paramilitaries?

By Grace Livingstone

Should academics accept the Colombian government’s term ‘BACRIM’ (bandas criminales/criminal groups), when the evidence shows that these armed groups are largely made up of former paramilitaries, that they target the same people and that they frequently collude with the state?

There is a danger in using the term BACRIM that we let the Colombian authorities – local and national – off the hook and give the impression that tackling them will be a simple matter of arresting a few crooks. In fact it will be far more complex because these armed groups control territory, are economically powerful and have strong ties to local political elites.

The most recent report by the  United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia (Jan 2012), pointed out that 53% of BACRIM are former paramilitaries, that they target social leaders and they have colluded with local authorities and state security forces.

I have pasted the relevant section below and highlighted some of the key points. The full report can be seen here.

Illegal armed groups that emerged after demobilization of paramilitary organizations

37. In 2011, OHCHR-Colombia noted with concern the continuous expansion of illegal armed groups that emerged after the demobilization of paramilitary organizations. These groups, which are deeply involved in drug trafficking and other criminal activities, generally avoid confrontation with security forces and have a devastating impact on the population.

38. The High Commissioner expresses her great concern about the increasing violence caused by these groups, including against social leaders and public officials. The number of massacres and victims attributed to such groups continues to rise, especially in Antioquia and Córdoba. This violence occurs during confrontations between groups or within the same group, occasionally against guerrilla groups, and in several instances during direct attacks against the population. The Police reported that 53 per cent of the members of these groups who have been captured or killed to date were demobilized paramilitaries.

39. These illegal armed groups are present in most departments and have significant capacity to recruit, including children and adolescents, and use criminal structures and
sicarios to support their activities. To carry out their criminal activities, these groups control territory, restrict the freedom of movement of the population, and perform a “social control”, imposing their code of conduct and public sanctions, and “resolving” social conflicts, often brutally. In the case of ERPAC, due to the absence of “opposing” groups and the limited State presence in the area, there is little, if any, outside public awareness of the group’s impact on the population.

40. In February, the Government convened its first National Security Council to address threats posed by these groups. It prioritized inter-institutional coordination in order to advance in the investigation, prosecution and dismantling of their support structures.

41. Combating these groups should be part of an integrated strategy, and not be limited to the use of armed force by the Police and the Military, which must strictly adhere to human rights law in performing their task. The strategy to dismantle these groups should include policies to overcome poverty and marginalization, in particular for children and adolescents, as well as protection measures for local authorities and judicial officials.

42. OHCHR-Colombia continues to be concerned about indications that these groups benefit from the collusion of some local authorities and members of security forces, due primarily to corruption, intimidation and threats. In May, agents of the Technical Investigation Unit and the Attorney General’s Office arrested 37 officials in Nuquí and Bahía Solano, Chocó, including members of the Police, the judicial system and local administrations, for collaborating with these groups.

43. To support their criminal activities, groups have forcibly appropriated or retained properties previously stolen by paramilitary groups and their networks, which may be included in the Government’s land restitution policies. Thus, the increased violence by these groups represents an undeniable risk for people seeking to recover their land and for the sustainability of the overall restitution process. An illustration of this is the killing and threats against leaders and other people involved in land restitution processes in the region of Urabá.


An in-depth of analysis of  ‘Colombia’s New Armed Groups written by Markus Schultze Kraft for the International Crisis Group in May 2007 can be found here.

The recently published OHCHR-Colombia report 2012 is available here. The discussion of post-demobilisation groups can be found in paragraphs 86-89.