Talking to Colombian Guerrillas Doesn't Make You Popular

With his three-year anniversary in office this week, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos runs a country torn by his decision to hold peace talks with the Marxist guerrilla group Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia. After decades of armed conflict, many Colombians don’t know what peace means anymore, or what additional sacrifices they must endure to achieve it.

They do know the enemy. So when Ivan Marquez, the top negotiator for the FARC, announced in Havana last week that the rebels would seek guaranteed congressional seats in a signed peace deal, it didn’t sit well. Andres Julian Rendon, a former government secretary for the department of Antioquia lambasted the idea on the Colombian politics blog La Silla Vacia: “Congressional seats of state corporations (Congress, Assemblies and Councils) and government power in general, are won through votes, not bullets. If the FARC makes peace, serves prison time, and asks for forgiveness, those who have not committed crimes against humanity will be free to seek votes, and let Colombians decide without the threat of rifles.”

Striking deals with a group that has killed, kidnapped and extorted and derives massive profits from drug trafficking -- regardless of its professed Marxist ideology -- is understandably difficult for many Colombians to accept. Yet, as a former finance minister, and the defense minister who helped his predecessor, President Alvaro Uribe, weaken the FARC militarily, Santos recognizes the need for peace. While he has threatened to walk away from talks if the FARC does not cooperate, he wrote in a May 29 tweet: “Our effort to achieve security is a two-way street, and I want to be clear on this: we are seeking peace without neglecting our military offensive.” Days ago, Santos also indicated that his government may begin talks with the second-largest guerrilla group, Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional. He could well be angling for this year's Nobel Peace Prize, for which he's a nominee.

Unfortunately, Santos hasn't been very effective at selling his ideas to Colombians. A poll by Ipsos Public Affairs shows that 59 percent of respondents back Santos’s decision to sit with the FARC, but support is dropping. More than half of respondents believe talks may go nowhere.

It's easy to understand where such defeatist thinking comes from. The FARC has betrayed peace negotiations before to gain time, land and military advantage. The security and economic gains Colombians achieved under Uribe’s eight-year tenure also taught citizens they can gain more from holding a rifle than sitting at a negotiating table. The hard-liner Uribe -- who has launched his own war of words against what he sees as Santos being soft on the guerrillas -- voiced his low regard for Santos's strategy in a July 20 tweet: “Govt of Santos don’t insult us with a fictitious peace, your speech cannot paper over the killing of our soldiers that hurts our soul.”

For Uribistas -- as the former president’s followers are known -- negotiating with guerrillas is akin to surrender. The Centro Democratico movement, founded by Uribe in rejection of the Partido Social de Unidad Nacional that he once shared with Santos, was quick to point out in a Monday tweet, “Govt of Juan Manuel Santos lost interest in security.” Uribe’s followers are more radical. On July 28, the "BogotaUribista" Twitter account sent this message: “Santos goes down in Colombian history as a traitor president that betrayed the people and who favors terrorism.”

With such rhetoric, it is hardly a surprise that Santos himself is seen unfavorably by 46 percent of Colombians, according to Ipsos. A good 60 percent of survey respondents don’t want to see him re-elected next year, and many blame Santos for weakened security. As El Tiempo newspaper, formerly owned by the Santos family (and where Juan Manuel Santos once worked), wrote in an editorial on Aug. 3, the sense of insecurity “is fed by an implacable and stubborn opposition headed by former president Alvaro Uribe.”

Uribe’s no-peace-talks approach is captured well in a piece by Alfredo Rangel posted on the Semana magazine website titled, “Suspend the dialogue.” The conditions the FARC wants in exchange for peace, Rangel argues, including changes to the constitution such as land reform and immunity from prosecution for crimes committed by combatants, “are unacceptable” for Colombians: “As such, allowing talks to continue knowing they are bound to fail is a farce.”

The trouble with an all-out war mentality is that it can become second nature. After 50 years of war, Colombians make daily life concessions to violence and crime. People in Bogota summon cabs by phone and carefully screen drivers and license plates to prevent kidnappings. Motorcycle riders are asked to wear their license-plate numbers emblazoned on their backs to discourage bike-riding criminals. Shopping-mall guards use dogs to sniff out hidden explosives before letting drivers in parking lots. If Colombia’s $369.8 billion economy became a top emerging-market investment destination helped by Uribe’s security gains, more may be able to be achieved with a lasting peace agreement.

Still, for Colombians it seems the fear of giving political status to leftist guerillas and drug profiteers outweighs the benefits of peace. Those opposed to change would do well to re-examine El Salvador’s peace process. A peace accord signed between the U.S.-backed government and Marxist rebels of the Frente Farabundo Marti para la Liberacion Nacional in 1992 changed the country. But it took the former guerrillas 17 more years and a candidate with no violent past, to convince the population they were fit to rule.

The FARC also needs to decide where it stands. Joaquin Villalobos, a former Salvadoran guerrilla leader turned peacemaking consultant, laid out the group's options in a May interview with Silla Vacia: “The opportunity is to negotiate peace now or become a group of bandits with a political flag.” It may be hard for FARC leaders to convince new generations of guerrillas of an underlying leftist ideology when the group survives on hefty drug profits.

Colombia’s government would still have to battle whoever takes over the drug business the FARC abandons. But the issue of impunity will probably be harder for Colombians to accept. In this sense Villalobos makes a point few Colombians want to hear: “I know of no peace process in which one doesn’t have to swallow some measure of impunity to make it viable.” (Raul Gallegos is the Latin American correspondent for the World View blog. Follow him on Twitter. To contact the author of this article: Raul Gallegos at