Hopes for lasting peace in Colombia are soaring. Last month, Gustavo Petro and Francia Márquez prevailed in Colombia’s runoff presidential election and will lead the country’s first-ever progressive government, as president and vice president, respectively. Their historic victory culminates an electoral cycle marked by a resounding rejection of Colombia’s establishment elites. Petro’s proposals for what he has coined “Total Peace” offer an ambitious approach to negotiating with armed groups, implementing prior peace accords, and pursuing national unity amid debilitating socio-political polarization. The country stands before an undeniable opportunity to lay the foundation to end its six-decade conflict, even if subsequent governments will have to sustain these efforts to truly reap the long-term benefits.

Gustavo Petro and Francia Márquez celebrate after winning the presidential election in Bogotá, Colombia, on Sunday, June 19, 2022. (Federico Rios/The New York Times)
Gustavo Petro and Francia Márquez celebrate after winning the presidential election in Bogotá, Colombia, on Sunday, June 19, 2022. (Federico Rios/The New York Times)

A New Approach

Throughout the past year, Petro’s advisors including Francia Marquez — a long-standing peace and environmental activist — have formulated the notion of “Total Peace,” which is intended to markedly distinguish itself from previous peace efforts characterized by fragmented and piecemeal negotiations with individual armed groups.

While many of his closest advisors were deeply dedicated to the lengthy negotiations that resulted in the monumental 2016 FARC peace agreement, his political coalition overwhelmingly recognizes that one agreement with one of many armed groups in the country is insufficient to end Colombia’s complex armed conflict.

When the FARC — the hemisphere’s strongest insurgent movement — signed the 2016 peace agreement, guerilla and paramilitary groups were present in roughly 300 of the country’s 1,122 municipalities. Today, in the aftermath of the breakdown in peace negotiations with other armed groups including the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces (AGC), the government’s ombudsman for human rights classified 290 municipalities as having an “extreme risk” of abuses by armed groups disputing territorial control. USIP partners have identified the presence of the AGC in 241 municipalities and the ELN in 183 municipalities, both more than double their territorial presence prior to the FARC’s demobilization.

Since the early 1990s, Colombia has reached separate peace deals with six different armed groups, including the FARC and the paramilitary umbrella association of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia. While some of those agreements led to important political and social changes, none has brought a sustainable end to the armed conflict. President-elect Petro knows this history all too well. He previously participated in the M-19 rebel group whose negotiations led to the drafting of the 1991 constitution, which was tragically followed by the expansion of paramilitary groups throughout the country leading to the conflict’s bloodiest years.

Petro’s concept of “Total Peace” has five complementary elements:

  1. Resurrecting the transformative spirit of the 2016 FARC accord, which included provisions for broad citizen participation and essential political and agrarian reforms that the country desperately needed for decades.
  2. The incoming government is committed to restarting peace talks with the ELN, which have been stalled for four years due to deep mistrust, rebel intransigence and unreasonable preconditions from the previous government, which essentially called for surrender and demobilization before negotiating any substantive issues.
  3. The third track refers to collective surrender and plea-bargaining benefits for paramilitary successor groups such as the AGC and the dissident FARC factions who refused to participate in or later abandoned the 2016 peace accord’s implementation process.
  4. Given the deeply divisive nature of past peace efforts, the incoming government proposes to actively undertake political dialogue in pursuit of a “national accord” outlining fundamental points of consensus with political and economic elites who have historically opposed and felt sidelined by past peace policies.
  5. Finally, the Petro-Francia administration proposes to massively invest in education for peace, tolerance and reconciliation across a range of programs and institutions.

These five components stand in stark contrast with the previous administration’s policies, which have brought little peace or security to the country. Its slogan of “Peace with Legality” was based on the resistance to the 2016 FARC peace accord that that administration viewed as fundamentally “illegal” — characterized by impunity for former rebels — and more of a contributor to the country’s ills than a potential solution. President Duque’s high commissioners for peace mishandled opportunities for peace talks with the AGC and the ELN, even generating the ire of former President Alvaro Uribe, Duque’s political patron. They adopted an antagonistic position toward peace activists and organizations, threatening them with criminal prosecutions for their efforts to reduce violence.

While some rural infrastructure projects have been undertaken, hundreds of millions of dollars were siphoned off to political elites leading to judicial investigations. Despite heavy-handed security tactics, levels of violence today are significantly worse than when the former administration took office, with a nine-fold increase in the number of massacres and a 50% spike in the killings of social leaders and human rights defenders in the last four years. While the administration reduced the entire reason for violence and insecurity to drug trafficking alone and forcefully eradicated over one million acres of coca crops during his government, the U.N. has found only a slight 5% overall reduction in coca production over the last four years and even a 10% annual increase in 2021.

Laying the Ground for ‘Total Peace’

Confronted with a deteriorating security landscape, Petro and Francia have undertaken several important measures during the transition period to prepare the ground for carrying out their “Total Peace” policy. First, Petro has named one of the country’s most deeply dedicated peace facilitators, Alvaro Leyva, as his minister of foreign affairs. Leyva has played a crucial role in peace processes dating back to the 1980s and was instrumental in brokering compromises with the FARC during the most recent negotiations.

A foreign policy oriented around peace is crucial to bringing a sustainable end to Colombia’s armed conflict. Both the ELN and FARC dissidents have considerable presence in neighboring Venezuela and an ELN peace delegation has been in Cuba since 2018 when past negotiations were indefinitely suspended.  Leyva and Francia have met with key peace allies including the U.N. political mission, Norwegian guarantors and the United States. Petro has already had constructive telephone conversations with both Secretary Antony Blinken and President Joe Biden on U.S. support for his peace efforts in Colombia.

Both Petro and Francia attended the official launch of the final report of the Truth Commission established by the 2016 FARC accord, where they committed to implementing its many comprehensive recommendations including working toward ending the ongoing armed conflict and cycles of vengeance and polarization.

In an even more historic gesture, Petro met in private with Uribe, signaling to the entire country that the incoming government would sincerely pursue a broad “national accord” with all diverse sectors of Colombian society and not perpetuate cycles of retribution against political opponents, as some expected.

Petro also announced in his victory speech that his government would undertake “regional dialogues” in which conflict-affected communities would be able to participate in forging agreements to address drivers of conflict beyond the scope of the 2016 FARC peace accord. These processes would build on the lingering frustrations from unfulfilled promises of a broad national dialogue process in response to massive urban upheaval during last year’s social protests around the country.

Additionally, Petro has said he will resume peace talks with the ELN  on his inauguration day of August 7 and immediately begin effort to hash out a bilateral cease-fire based on lessons learned from previous de-escalation agreements with the ELN. Petro’s incoming government will also build on the growing range of “humanitarian agreements” that peace organizations and communities have already brokered with armed groups — with the support of USIP and other partners — in some of the country’s most conflict-affected territories. Francia has been one of many truly inspiring leaders of these processes, demanding that armed groups respect rural, largely Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities, and adhere to international humanitarian law.

Petro’s declaration that he would undertake a gradual re-establishment of relations with the Maduro government will also be vital to any peace process with the ELN, who have a significant presence and economic power in crucial parts of southeastern Venezuela. Just as Colombia can be crucial to supporting Venezuela’s fragile political dialogue with the opposition, so too can the Maduro government play a vital role in exercising constructive pressure on the ELN and FARC dissident factions to return to civilian political participation in Colombia.

Undeniable Challenges

Nevertheless, the ambitious nature of the “Total Peace” policy inevitably will face enormous challenges and will have to be guided by considerable pragmatism. Chief among these challenges is that Petro’s four year-mandate — without the possibility of re-election — is a very narrow window to try to unravel six-decades of entrenched conflict and polarization. While Petro and Francia will want to move quickly to demonstrate tangible and concrete results in their first year, armed groups and political opponents will have clear incentives to delay their engagement in order to extract deeper concessions by leveraging the pressure of high expectations.

Furthermore, synchronizing the multiple components of “Total Peace” will no doubt prove elusive. Progress toward agreements with armed groups, or in “regional dialogues,” will require the sustained consensus of the “national accord” with political elites to avoid delays in passing legislation through Congress. Secondly, the ELN has historically preferred to negotiate with the country’s traditional establishment elites — who they view as opponents and the true bearers of power regardless of who holds the presidency — rendering concessions to a progressive government less appealing. On the other hand, Petro will be inclined to argue that his arrival to the presidency delegitimizes the idea of political violence for change. As such he will want to channel progressive reforms through Congress, where they now have a strong majority coalition, and not run the risk of attributing them to what could be a politically costly negotiation with leftist insurgents from which he has sought to distance himself. As such, he will have to strike a fine balance between proceeding with his policy initiatives, while ensuring that moderates within the ELN leadership can sufficiently convince hardliners that they can take credit for transformative changes that would emerge from a peace deal, which would justify ending their long-standing insurgency.

Finally, all peace efforts in Colombia will be inextricably linked to the need to develop trust between senior military commanders and Petro as the commander-in-chief. Unfortunately, this may be the president-elect’s deepest vulnerability after recent years of politicization of the armed forces culminated in a public rebuke of Petro’s candidacy by the current army commander. The new security paradigms and shifts in metrics of success proposed by the incoming administration will need to be rolled out astutely in tandem with a proactive communications and dialogue strategy. USIP is supporting important initiatives to bridge these long-standing cleavages and sources of mistrust between generals and the incoming administration. This effort will prove critical to the success of “Total Peace” and the long-term strength and resilience of Colombia’s democracy, which the United States has so deeply invested in for decades.

Sebastian Guerra is a peace process consultant for USIP’s Latin America program.

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