On 20 July, the government of President Juan Manuel Santos began reducing military operations against the guerrilla organization. The decision had been announced a week earlier from Havana, Cuba, where for the past year the government’s delegations and the FARC’s counterparts have been negotiating the end of Colombia’s armed conflict.
The de-escalation of military offensives coincided with the start of a unilateral 4-month ceasefire by the FARC – its second since the peace talks began.
The decisions taken by Santos and the FARC come at the most critical moment the talks have witnessed in over 2.5 years. After the guerrillas announced their first unilateral ceasefire on 20 December – a step rewarded with Santos suspending air-strikes against FARC settlements – the talks fell into a deep crisis on 15 April, when FARC militia killed 11 soldiers in the department of Cauca, injuring 24 others. Santos’ government resumed air-strikes against the guerrillas, killing 26 FARC rebels on 22 May, which led the insurgent group to suspend its ceasefire.
Violence then escalated, reaching its highest level for 3 years. In under 2 months, clashes between the army and the guerrillas caused the deaths of 2 civilians, 13 police officers and 9 soldiers.
The monthly average of FARC offensives against the armed forces recorded in June was the highest since the beginning of the peace process; the guerrillas also began to destroy the oil infrastructure in the south of the country, causing irreparable damage to the environment and the local population.
But the recent de-escalation of warfare may help get the peace process back on track. FARC’s hope is that the government may eventually accept a bilateral truce. But the government has reiterated that the reduction of strikes against FARC will only lead to a definite truce if the guerrillas respect the 20 July ceasefire. However, it is not clear whether the guerrillas have the power to control its many groups deployed within the country, or to make sure that a bilateral truce is observed by all rebels.
In addition, a bilateral truce needs to be monitored by a neutral body under the co-ordination of the international community. Should a bilateral agreement finally be reached, Santos has already confirmed that Uruguay and the United Nations will both be involved in its supervision.
Building a durable peace requires rebuilding the trust of all citizens in the State. Peace will not be built in Havana, but in the regions where the agreements will eventually be implemented. Yet the central government’s relationship towards the rest of the country has historically been problematic. The 1991 Constitution sought to decentralize power and grant more autonomy to regions and municipalities, but the shift has been, at best, cosmetic: development programmes are still dictated from Bogotá’s Ministries and implemented across the territories in a top-down fashion, with little or no care for the regions’ own needs.
In the minds of the people, the central government’s presence is indissolubly bound to that of the armed forces tasked with eradicating the threat of armed groups. That same government will have to ensure the implementation of whatever processes are agreed in the peace talks, and promote and sustain citizen participation in them. This will only be possible if the central government can regain credibility, which will require cleansing local institutions from the influence of illegal armed groups and addressing the needs and autonomy of the territories most affected by the conflict.
Santos’ government must therefore deal with this first, difficult task: changing the people’s image of the State, and improving its relationship with local governments.
In the last few months, support for the peace process has dropped dramatically. According to a Gallup poll published in June, 62% of Colombians do not believe a peace agreement will be signed. A military solution to the conflict is preferred by 46%, while 45% still have faith in the peace talks. Santos’ own support has dropped from 43% to 28% in the past 4 months.