In August 2022, Colombians brought a left-wing politician to power for the first time. The new president, Gustavo Petro, decided from the start of his mandate to implement one of his electoral promises, namely to negotiate “total peace” with the armed groups that are ravaging the country. These negotiations led to a ceasefire on 1 January, which was sometimes poorly respected – as April Indepaz reported 80 ceasefire violations since – but also led the government to take concrete measures to show its goodwill, sometimes contested by the opposition. The negotiations brought both encouraging results and defeats, casting doubt on the authorities’ ability to really succeed in this ambitious medium-term plan.
In 2016, the right-wing government of Juan Manuel Santos negotiated peace agreements with armed rebel groups, including the notorious Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). These agreements included components for comprehensive land reform in rural areas, political recognition of the groups to allow them to participate in public life, an end to the decades-long conflict that caused the death of 262,197 people, mainly civilians, a solution to the problem of illicit drugs, an agreement on victims of the conflict, and finally mechanisms for implementation, verification and complaints. While these historic agreements earned the Colombian president the Nobel Peace Prize, the authorities are struggling to implement them seven years later. Moreover, one of the weaknesses of the 2016 agreements is that many armed rebel groups have not adhered to them. Thus, the National Liberation Army (ELN), the Popular Liberation Army (EPL), the Gaetanist Self-Defence Militia of Colombia (AGC), also known as the Clan del Golfo, and dissident factions of the FARC have rejected the agreements and continue to operate in Colombia. Colombian security agencies estimate that there are 17,600 members of armed rebel groups still in activity. In this context, the negotiations begun in October 2022 by the left-wing president elected the same year and himself a former guerrilla of the 19th of April Movement (M-19), Gustavo Petro, are hopeful.
On 1 January 2023, the government announced a 6-month bilateral ceasefire, renewable, between the authorities and the armed rebel groups still operational in order to support the peace negotiations. But only a few days later, the ELN and its 5850 estimated members announced that they were rejecting the ceasefire, forcing the government to resume fighting against the organization without, however, putting an end to the negotiations. The ELN will not apply the ceasefire for a time, after the 17 January and 13 February emergency meetings in Venezuela and Mexico respectively lead to a solution. Despite the difficulties, President Gustavo Petro multiplied goodwill gestures to facilitate the negotiations. On January 24, he declared that the country would reduce its efforts to forcibly eradicate coca crops. It was for the authorities to change tactics and focus on prosecuting drug trafficking leaders and offer economic alternatives to coca farmers instead. On 1 February, the president pledged to pay compensation to the victims of the extermination of members of the Patriotic Union (UP) by the government of the time in the 1980s-1990s. On 9 February, he announced the opening of “sanctuaries” for members of the groups to ensure their safety and to show goodwill in the negotiations. On 16 February, he also announced that it would submit a bill to limit prison sentences to 6 or 8 years for drug traffickers if they stopped their activities, leading to criticism from right-wing parties who accused the government of promoting the creation of a narco-state.
On 13 March, it was the turn of the right-wing Clan del Golfo to cause difficulties. At the time, the north of the country was experiencing major demonstrations and damage, often very violent, by illegal miners protesting government measures to combat illegal gold mining. The Clan del Golfo, involved in this type of illegal activity in the region, was quickly accused of being responsible of the riots, which imposed a blockade on the 16 neighboring villages and de fact prevented the 250,000 inhabitants from accessing basic necessities such as food and medicine. On 20 March, the authorities unilaterally decided to suspend the ceasefire with the organisation and to resume the armed struggle. The riots did not officially end until 6 April, but the ceasefire was not reactivated. On 21 April, the Clan del Golfo, through its lawyer Ricardo Giraldo, declared that it was ready to resume negotiations if the government recognised its political status. But this point is not on the agenda today according to Gustavo Petro, who considers the organisation to be more of a cartel than a right-wing political movement.
However, on the same 13 March, the Colombian president announced that the Estado Mayor Central (EMC), a splinter group of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) that chose not to negotiate the 2016 peace plan, was ready to begin peace talks, marking a significant step forward for the government. And therein lies the ambivalence of the current negotiations, with the government showing both encouraging results for what it calls “total peace” and setbacks that jeopardize such an ambition. With little support from the opposition and sometimes a few dissenting voices within his own party, Humane Colombia (HC), the president must deal with these domestic challenges and convince people of these measures, which are more social than repressive, in addition to having to reassure his US ally that this policy is well-founded, as it is a major supporter of Colombia’s fight against drug trafficking. In these conditions, it is uncertain whether Gustavo Petro will be able to impose a “total peace” in the country.