The Future of Peace Dialogues in Colombia: Challenges and Opportunities

Despite the landmark 2016 agreement between FARC and the Colombian government, peace is far from the reality in Colombia.


According to the INDEPAZ report, armed actors are present in at least 500 out of the 1123 municipalities of the country.

Several heavily armed actors such as the National Liberation Army (ELN), post-FARC groups, neo-paramilitaries (successor organizations of the paramilitaries demobilized in 2006), and drug cartels are all waging war against the government. But the government of Gustavo Petro Urrego (elected in 2022) launched the ‘Paz Total’ (total peace) plan to put an end to violence. Several questions however remain about the implementation of the plan:

  • How is the government going to convince these armed actors to negotiate?
  • What are the challenges that the government might face in these new negotiations round?
  • And how do regional dynamics might impact the negotiations?

ELN dialogue: What role for civil society?

On 21st November 2022 the dialogues between the Colombian government and the ELN  (currently, the largest guerrilla in Colombia, founded in 1964) restarted in Caracas, with Norway, México, Chile, Cuba and Venezuela acting as guarantors. Dialogues with the ELN have a long history; the last initiative dates back to 2017 under the auspices of the government of Juan Manuel Santos, but this process was interrupted by the entry of a new government in 2019.  The new President Ivan Duque required that the ELN had to renounce all criminal activities to continue the dialogue. As expected, the ELN did not comply.

The 2023 dialogues center around 6 key issues. The most controversial is that the ELN claims that the peace dialogue should not be between the government and the guerrillas only, but that it should include civil society at every phase of the talks. To develop a participatory methodology for civil society seems to benefit inclusion, but at the same time this entails a challenge in terms of who are going to be included, in what capacity, and how much influence they are going to have on the drafting of the agreements.

FARC dissident and rearmed groups: How will the transitional justice system fair?

When FARC signed the peace agreement with the government in 2016, some of its military units (Frentes) decided to leave the peace process. These declared themselves as dissident groups with the aim of continuing the armed struggle. The reasons for leaving the process were lack of trust, disagreements with certain provisions, and the continued economic incentives stemming from drug trade, illegal mining and logging.

The conflict between the government and the dissidents is also of ideological nature (dissidents and rearmed FARC are Marxists), whereas the neo-paramilitaries and drug cartels are fighting over the spoils of illegal trade in drugs etc. Besides the dissident groups, there is the rearmed FARC group,  called “Segunda Marquetalia”. This group consists of FARC combatants who signed the peace agreement in 2016, accepted to be adjudicated by the transitional justice system (JEP in Spanish) and signed a declaration not to rearm.

Initially, the difference between rearmed and dissident groups might not appear to be relevant, however this poses one of the biggest challenges to the dialogues. While dissident groups can be adjudicated as rebels by the JEP (since they were never part of this transitional judicial system), rearmed combatants were already in the JEP system but abandoned it to rearm, hence they lost the benefits of the transitional justice system and their cases were sent back to the ordinary justice system. This difference has two practical implications for the dialogues:

  1. if rearmed combatants are adjudicated by the ordinary justice system, they will not be judged based on political basis (recognition of the rebellion status);
  2. if they are not going to be judged based on a rebellion status, they are more likely to get more severe sentences.

These juridical challenges might reduce the incentives of the rearmed group (Segunda Marquetalia) to achieve an agreement with the government because they would not be eligible for amnesties or alternative punishments. To overcome this challenge, the government should restructure the existing JEP to include new groups (such as the rearmed FARC groups), but this might be a hard sell for the political and judicial establishment.

Neo-paramilitaries, drug cartels, and regional groups: Is the State Capable to Implement the Agreements?

After the 2006 peace agreement between the government and largest paramilitary organization  Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC),  several successor organizations emerged. For these neo-paramilitary organizations, the anti-communist ideology is not as clear as it was with the AUC, but the repertoires of violence are the same. The main characteristic of these groups (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia, Puntilleros, Aguilas Negras, Rastrojos, Urabeños) is their link to illegal economies, particularly the production, processing and transportation routes of drugs, but also extorsion, illegal mining and illegal logging are prominent businesses for such groups.

Representatives (commanders) of these neo-paramilitary groups have expressed their interest in negotiating with the government. They are interested in talks because they might get judicial benefits, such as reduced sentences and probably the option to keep a percentage of their profit from illegal business, as was the case with members of the Cartel de Medellin in the 90’s. In exchange, the government would get disarmament, demobilization and valuable intelligence.

Regional neo-paramilitaries and drug related organizations (Los Caparros, Los Contadores, La Constru, Los Pachelly, La Oficina, Los Pachencas) have the same characteristics as the national neo-paramilitary groups, but have only limited control in certain departments (subnational units in Colombia). I.e. Los Pachencas have presence in three departments (Cesar, La Guajira, and Magdalena). They were created in the late 90’s and have an important role in the control of economic (legal and illegal) and political dynamics in these areas.

The government has suggested an ad hoc mechanism to negotiate with these regional groups. Multiple regional dialogue rounds would take place, with a strong component of regional civil society organizations, and municipality governments. However, the challenge for the government with the neo-paramilitiaries and drug cartels (regional and national) is that these organizations are not as structured as guerrillas, hence the chain of command able to guarantee the demobilization of the entire group.

A major question also relates to the potential post-drug cartel future of certain territories: for these areas to be peaceful, the government would need to provide the citizens with security and  alternative (i.e. legal) employment opportunities.

There are four key challenges to the “Total Peace” plan:

  1. Non-state groups are fighting not only the government but each other as well. There is some cooperation between these groups in some departments (mainly economic agreements), but generally these groups are engaged in competition over resources. It is necessary not only to achieve a bilateral ceasefire but a multilateral ceasefire between the government and all the other groups present in a particular area. Also, armed actors are unlikely to disarm if any other group is allowed to remain armed. This is a necessary step to ensure successful negotiations (and overall implementation) to create trust among the parties, and to reduce violence against civilians.
  2. There is a lack of an effective mechanism for the inclusion of civil society at the national and regional negotiation levels. This may have an important impact on the legitimacy of the agreements and jeopardize their implementation. Meaningful inclusion of civil society organizations can enhance the legitimacy of the agreements helping to avoid a repetition of the 2016 referendum results (in which a majority voted against the peace agreement with FARC).
  3. Implementation is contingent on Colombia’s state capacity. This is not only to give security guarantees for the groups that are to disarm but to avoid an escalation of the violence after the disarmament. This happened in some regions where FARC disarmed and left a power vacuum leading to violent confrontations between new armed actors, and leaving little room for civilians to enjoy the peace dividends of the agreement between the government and FARC.
  4. Ensuring that all new agreements are compatible with the 2016 peace agreement. Some institutions created by the 2016 peace agreement are already in place such as the JEP, the Truth Commission, the mine clearance unit, or the Agency for Reincorporation and Normalization. An evaluation of these should be done, and if any of them are working well, they should be copied for new agreements. New institutions should only be created if it is necessary and financially viable.

The Petro Urrego government of 2022 faces immense challenges ahead, but there are also opportunities. To overcome the challenges, an innovative strategy is required, not only in the dialogues but also in the Colombian public sector. Ensuring that the state has the capacity to implement potential future agreements is key for the ending of the long and painful cycle of violence in Colombia.

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