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Last Updated:10/16/06
Memorandum: Next steps for talks with the FARC, October 16, 2006


October 16, 2006

To: Interested colleagues
From: Adam Isacson, Colombia Program, Center for International Policy
Re: Next steps for talks with the FARC

In late September and early October, we saw a flurry of activity around the possibility of talks between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrillas. This activity raised hopes for a prisoner-exchange deal that might free about sixty politicians, military officers, and other prominent individuals whom the guerrillas have been holding in captivity for several years. While the FARC has kidnapped many more individuals for ransom, it has made clear that these sixty will only be released if Colombia frees about 500 guerrilla prisoners (and, perhaps, two guerrillas awaiting trial in the United States).

On September 26, the FARC released a proof-of-life video showing twelve provincial legislators whom it has been holding since April 2002. Soon afterward, President Álvaro Uribe expressed his willingness to declare an "encounter zone," leading most observers to believe that he had surprisingly acceded to a guerrilla pre-condition for talks: that the military pull out of two municipalities near Cali so that prisoner-exchange negotiations could take place there.

Both sides then released communiqués indicating that talks about an exchange could become a first step toward a larger peace process. The FARC laid out conditions for a cease-fire, while Uribe spoke of meeting personally with the guerrilla leadership and supporting an assembly to modify the country's constitution once talks progressed to that point.

(During this moment, Álvaro Leyva, one of the talks' main facilitators, mentioned several times that the Center for International Policy might play a confidence-building role in the process. We view this memo as part of that role.)

This was nearly two weeks ago. Since then, little has happened. The government appears to be backpedaling from full acceptance of the guerrillas' terms for talks, amid signs of internal disputes. Both sides have voiced clear differences about what the "encounter zone" might look like. Meanwhile, the government's designated negotiator, High Commissioner for Peace Luis Carlos Restrepo, is occupied for the next two weeks with a round of talks in Havana with the ELN guerrillas.

It would be inaccurate to say that this new effort to initiate talks with the FARC has been derailed. The train is still on the track, but it is clearly not moving forward. How can it be made to move again? Here are five suggestions.

1. Supporters, both within and outside the government, must build consensus for the prisoner-exchange talks as the "least bad" option. The whole idea of exchanging prisoners for kidnap victims faces strong criticism, much - though not all - from the right wing. Critics argue that to do so will reward hostage-taking and kidnapping. They note that it does nothing to free those kidnap victims - most of them less-prominent citizens - who are being held for ransom. They worry that freed FARC prisoners will re-join the guerrillas and kill Colombians, and that the FARC will be encouraged to kidnap again to free more of its cadres. They argue that a demilitarized zone for talks raises ghosts of the Pastrana government's failed 1998-2002 peace effort, that it will confer a degree of political status on the guerrillas, and that the FARC could get some strategic advantage out of the zone, even if its duration is limited to 45 days.

(These arguments have been laid out in recent columns in Colombia's press by, among others, Saúl Hernández, Fernando Londoño, Rafael Nieto, Eduardo Plata, Álvaro Valencia, and Mauricio Vargas.)

These arguments are strong and hard to refute. They express very real concerns, though the government and outside monitors should be able to address some of them as part of the process.

The critics, however, share a common weakness: none offers any proposal for what to do instead. They offer no other options for freeing these sixty people who have been in FARC custody for as many as nine years. The frustrating reality is that few other options do exist.

If an armed rescue could be carried out without the guerrillas killing their captives, it would have happened by now. (One was in fact attempted in May 2003, with tragic results.) To maintain the status quo is a poor option as well: the captives are no closer to freedom, as even the past several years' military buildup has proven unable to force the guerrillas to sue for peace.

An effort to secure a prisoner exchange, then, is the least bad option, and little else. As the critics remind us, such an agreement carries grave disadvantages. Success would offer little to celebrate, other than the return of several dozen people to their loved ones.

However, talks about an exchange do offer at least a slim hope that broader peace talks might follow, or at least that government and guerrilla representatives can build a measure of trust and establish lines of communication. These could in turn ease future dialogues.

2. For now, stick to the prisoner exchange. Leave larger peace proposals for later. The atmosphere quickly became confused in early October when the FARC and President Uribe began discussing conditions and possibilities for broader peace talks. While it is encouraging to hear speculation about cease-fires, meetings between Uribe and the FARC Secretariat, or constitutional reforms, it is very premature to be considering such questions.

By offering a series of hard-to-meet pre-conditions for any larger peace process (such as demilitarizing two coca-producing departments that together are larger than the state of Pennsylvania), the FARC has made clear that for now, it prefers to keep on fighting. Right now, the only viable way to dialogue is to discuss a prisoner exchange. Focus on that, and leave for later the speculation about a larger peace process. To do otherwise is to create a distraction that unnecessarily raises the public's hopes.

3. For now, stick to the question of how to get to the table. The details of the prisoner exchange can wait until the start of negotiations. Observers have asked many good questions about whether an exchange agreement is even viable. After they leave Colombian jails, they ask, will FARC prisoners re-join the guerrillas? If they agree not to re-join the FARC, how can their demobilization be verified? Will the FARC abstain from future kidnappings to pressure for exchanges? Even if they make such a commitment, can it be trusted, or is Colombia condemned to a continued cycle of kidnappings and prisoner exchanges? How many from each side are to be released? Can the exchanges happen bit by bit, rather than all at once? What about FARC prisoners accused of crimes against humanity, who by law cannot be amnestied? What about FARC prisoners, especially "Simón Trinidad" and "Sonia," who are currently in the U.S. criminal justice system, which has no legal mechanism for prisoner exchanges? What of the hundreds - perhaps thousands - of kidnap victims whom the FARC is holding for ransom? Can the prisoner-exchange talks be a step toward a real peace process?

These are all good questions. Taken together, they certainly dampen one's optimism about the negotiations. With such challenges, it is very possible that 45 days of negotiations - even 90 days - may pass in a demilitarized zone, and no prisoner exchange may be reached. The dialogues could fail completely, returning the captives' situation to the status quo.

It is important to remember, though, that these questions don't have to be answered now. Reaching compromise on these issues is the exact purpose of the formal 45-day negotiations. The talks themselves, once they start, are where both sides will determine what is negotiable and what isn't, what kind of prisoner exchange is achievable in the short term, and what kind may have to wait for a later opportunity.

The negotiations may fail due to substantive disagreements - though hopefully efforts to build confidence and trust will help overcome them. This is a risk of every negotiation process. But they should at least be allowed to get that far. The talks should not be allowed to fail because (a) the questions to be addressed are perceived beforehand as too difficult, or (b) neither side can agree on procedural issues like "the rules of the game" to govern the talks themselves.

4. Right now, it is necessary to focus almost entirely on procedural issues, because establishing "the rules of the game" promises to be hard enough. The process gained its current momentum when President Uribe agreed to the formation of an "encounter zone" for talks to take place. This was widely viewed in Colombia's media - and was explicitly described by facilitator Álvaro Leyva, who has been meeting often with Uribe - as an agreement to meet the FARC's demand to pull the security forces out of two municipalities (counties) so that talks could go ahead there.

The municipalities in question are Florida and Pradera, two rural counties in the southeast corner of Valle del Cauca department, not far from Cali. The guerrillas have asked for a pullout of security forces for 45 days, a period that many expect would be renewed at least once.

Though the Uribe government is widely believed to be willing to pull the security forces from Florida and Pradera, and has not contradicted Leyva's assurances, none of its representatives has specifically mentioned the two counties. The government is strongly reluctant to declare a demilitarized zone; President Uribe was one of Colombia's strongest critics of the 42,000 square-kilometer, five-county zone that President Pastrana granted the guerrillas during the failed 1998-2002 peace talks. Though Florida and Pradera are about one-fiftieth the size of Pastrana's zone, while the time period is shorter and the talks' purpose is more specific, there is much trepidation about repeating the experience of the Pastrana years.

The zone vacated by the security forces for peace talks with the FARC in 1998-2002.
The proposed zone for prisoner-exchange talks with the FARC.
1998-2002 zoneProposed zone

Conventional wisdom in Colombia holds that the "original sin" of Pastrana's peace process was to have granted the demilitarized zone to the FARC in the first place. Negotiations about substantive issues remained on hold while both sides wrangled endlessly about conditions in the zone - the absence of independent observers, the presence of troops on the periphery, the presence of non-military government institutions, its use as a base for attacking neighboring populations, reports of increased coca-growing, and several others.

In fact, the real "original sin" of the Pastrana process was to have agreed to a demilitarized zone without conditions. The idea of pulling soldiers out of a zone that had little state control anyway, in order to address the security concerns of a highly distrustful adversary, was not enormously controversial at the time. The problem arose when President-elect Pastrana, on a July 1998 visit to FARC leaders at their jungle encampment, apparently promised them - without consulting anyone - that he would demilitarize the five counties unconditionally. That, at least, is what the FARC understood: the rules of the game for the demilitarized zone were, basically, "no rules." The guerrillas stuck to that position, resisting efforts to establish rules - such as the presence of unarmed soldiers or international monitors - after the fact.

The Uribe government is taking a far more cautious approach, insisting on clearer rules for the zone before agreeing to launch talks. Several issues must be addressed, among them the presence of non-military government institutions (judges, mayors, ombudsmen and the like); the presence and duties of international or civil-society observers; the transportation of negotiators to the zone; and the identity of each side's negotiators (the FARC has already nominated its own).

However, the biggest topic remaining to be resolved - and on which discussions may right now be stuck - is the question of security within the zone. The FARC wants to be able to maintain an armed presence in the zone in order to protect its negotiators, but it rejects the presence of armed government representatives. (This was the arrangment during the 1998-2002 talks, in which the FARC was the only group in the demilitarized zone that carried weapons.)

The guerrillas want armed bodyguards and rings of security. This is not merely because they don't trust the government to resist the temptation to launch a sneak attack. The scenario that more likely worries the FARC is that ex-paramilitaries or similar elements, perhaps aided by rogue members of the security forces, could gain entry into the small zone and carry out an act of sabotage, such as an attempt on the lives of the guerrilla negotiators. High-level FARC leader Raúl Reyes told an interviewer recently, "We cannot trust our security to members of the executive branch, when they don't even have their own security guaranteed."

The dispute over security in the zone is far from intractable; several potential solutions exist. Here are a few:

  • Allow the FARC to have an armed presence in the zone, but prohibit the carrying of weapons in the town centers ("county seats") of Florida and Pradera, and within a perimeter around the area where talks are occurring. The guerrillas would be allowed to maintain security checkpoints outside the no-weapons zones. This solution would keep weapons out of the few square kilometers where FARC negotiators would be in contact with government representatives. It also recognizes that, as is the case today, there is little the government can do to exclude armed guerrillas from the entire 850 square-kilometer zone, which is almost entirely rural and devoid of roads.

  • Allow international guarantors of the talks to manage security. The "group of friends" of the talks - which currently includes Spain, France and Switzerland, and to which the FARC proposes to add Venezuela and Cuba - could take responsibility for security in the zone where talks are occurring.

  • Allow the guerrillas to maintain a larger armed presence upon their negotiators' entry and exit from the zone.

  • Maintain a constant presence of unarmed individuals to accompany the negotiators. These individuals, who could be both international and Colombian citizens, would have to be approved by both sides.

None of these proposals is mutually exclusive; it would be possible to choose a combination of some or all of them, or some other mechanism entirely. The priority for now, though, should be on developing this solution so that the process can move forward.

Moving forward will also require progress on several intangible points. President Uribe, for instance, needs to develop a clearer consensus in support of the talks, both among his conservative base and among elements of his own government - especially the military. This support need not be enthusiastic; it may even be grudging. But active opposition to the process must be minimized within the Uribista ranks. Offensive military operations in the zone should cease as progress toward talks continues.

The United States - whose position on "negotiating with terrorists" is well-known - should avoid public criticism of the process; a single disparaging comment from a U.S. official could be enough to torpedo this fragile effort. At this moment, meanwhile, the FARC could help President Uribe make progress on these "intangibles" with a single goodwill gesture: another proof of life, or perhaps an offer to declare a geographically limited cease-fire while talks take place (such as no offensive operations in Valle del Cauca department during the 45-day period).

Both sides would also do well to drop some proposed pre-conditions for talks. The FARC has indicated, for instance, that the government must first "define whether its interlocution is occurring with an organization that has taken up arms against the state, or with terrorists." For years, President Uribe has called the FARC terrorists, and has encouraged foreign governments to consider them as such. Requiring him to go back on this long record of rhetoric is too big a condition to require; it is best to leave this unsaid for now, and accept that, in agreeing to negotiate, President Uribe has made some tacit alteration to the "definition of his interlocution."

The Uribe government, meanwhile, said in a statement that it expects the FARC to declare a cease-fire while prisoner-exchange talks take place. That proposal is a deal-breaker - the government has not put anywhere near enough military pressure on the guerrillas to expect a cease fire - and the government must know it. This demand, like the FARC's requirement for specificity on the "terrorist" label, should be quietly dropped.

5. There is no shame in "talking about talking." It may take a while to establish the ground rules for talks. The only negotiating agenda that matters right now is the dialogue over procedural matters, particularly conditions for the zone where prisoner-exchange talks might take place. This dialogue should be allowed to take as long as is necessary, but it should not be allowed to break off.

Most of these procedural points - what Leyva and others have called the "carpentry" behind the eventual process - can be resolved with relative ease, as long as both sides remain focused on them. In order to move ahead on them, however, these "talks about talking" should not be happening through public communiqués and statements to the media. It is imperative that lines of communication be made more fluid and direct. It is also important that discussions occur out of the public eye, so that both sides can make badly needed concessions and proposals without losing face in the court of public opinion.

The dialogue's outside facilitators can help through continued, vigorous performance of their "good offices" role. Direct discussions between guerrilla and government representatives may also be necessary, though - given security concerns - they may be logistically difficult. However, if agreement on a demilitarized zone requires face-to-face talks in some other forum - a third country, perhaps - the FARC should be open to the possibility.

Finally, all involved should avoid raising the public's hopes. It is reasonable to expect this process to move with excruciating slowness, and to have several ups and downs. Recall that even in 1998, when public support for negotiations was much stronger and President Pastrana had given a green light to an unconditional demilitarized zone, there was a five-month lag between Pastrana's initial acquiescence (July 1998) and the pullout of troops (December 1998).

Things may go similarly slowly now. What is important, though, is that they do not stop.

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