Latin America

Six decades of Colombian conflict

Colombia has lived for more than 50 years with internal conflict, fuelled by many groups: the Armed Forces, paramilitary groups, the Government, drug cartels and guerrillas. They have put more than 40 million people in great danger; people who have neither wanted nor have caused this conflict.

Laura Sánchez

The effects of this turmoil are poverty, corruption, deep social inequalities, lack of education and poor access to health care. The guerrilla group FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) has played an important role in the conflict, but perhaps not as bloody a role as the paramilitaries or drug traffickers. Emerging 45 years ago from the peasant population to seek social improvement and protection against military and political persecution, the FARC will go down in Colombian history, recognised for peaceful acts and work within communities.

They will also be remembered however, for what they call the “combination of forms of struggle”, which has often has resulted in extremely violent attacks on innocent people. If governments are interested in going forward with the peace process, it is necessary for them to engage in a dialogue with the different groups within the conflict, and it is important to find solutions so that innocent people are protected.

Article 3 of the Geneva Convention establishes the right to protection of life, and integrity and dignity of the victims of internal conflict, without discrimination. The same article prohibits hostage taking and guarantees the right to a fair trial with due process; it also proposes the development of a special framework to carry this out. It is important to clarify and take into account their status as a ‘belligerent force’.

A necessity

Colombia needs a humanitarian agreement; otherwise it will never achieve the conditions for peace. This agreement assumes a pact between each part to exchange and release those kidnapped and controlled by the FARC, as well as guerrillas taken prisoner by the Colombian government. But the inflexibility of the government and the continuing violent actions of the FARC have spoilt the development of a peace process.

According to the País Libre Foundation, the FARC has kidnapped 326 people, but according to an official report by Fondelibertad (the Ministry of National Defence), the number is only 66, of which 21 could be exchanged. The truth is that these hostages are those that the FARC has said it will hand over in exchange for the 1,700 members of their own organization that they claim are in Colombian prisons or abroad. This is what is defines an exchange.

There are agreements and exchanges. Some agreements have more scope, dealing with kidnapping for extortion that human exchanges do not cover, because the FARC say that individuals can only be exchanged if their names appear on the exchange list.

Several governments have tried to reach a humanitarian agreement: Belisario Betancourt (1982 – 1986), César Gaviria (1990 – 1994) and Andres Pastrana (1998 to 2002). But none have succeeded.

For the National Liberation Army, ELN, (a subversive group that has shown signs of wanting to negotiate with the government) to achieve a humanitarian agreement involves certain actions: restrictions on the use of mines and explosive devices, general amnesty for political prisoners and prisoners of war, and a bilateral and temporary ceasefire. In the case of the FARC, they demand recognition of their belligerent status and they refuse to be branded as terrorists.

But neither the intervention of European countries, nor the involvement of the OAS (Organization of American States), nor the UN, nor the International Committee of the Red Cross, nor the good intentions of the church, have been sufficient to achieve a dialogue with the FARC.

On the one hand, governments who tried this before failed. And secondly, the current president, Álvaro Uribe Vélez, is reluctant to negotiate because he is unwilling to pay a political price. Moreover, using the philosophy of his Democratic Security Policy, negotiation as a means to end the conflict was rejected, preferring to opt for a military route instead.

On the other hand, the guerrillas will not release any prisoners, political or civil, if the following demands are not satisfied: the exchange of all guerrilla prisoners a disarmed territory in order to negotiate without the fear of being captured, and to have its political status recognised.

Recent attempts

In April this year, the FARC proposed it would unilaterally release Corporal Pablo Emilio Moncayo, held in captivity since 1997. Along with him, they would hand over soldier Joshua Daniel Calvo, and the body of Major Police Julián Ernesto Guevara, who died whilst being held by the guerillas. However, this was not possible. The one requirement of the insurgence group was for Senator Pilar Cordoba (opposition leader, mediator with the FARC, and nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize), to carry out the mediation. Apparently, the government allowed for Cordoba to mediate, but made so many conditions; it also persisted in bombing areas where it knew the FARC were holding people. This made any release impossible.

On several occasions when reaching an agreement with the guerrillas has been close, and when other countries have intervened with the initial approval of Colombia, (like France and Venezuela), it is worth remembering that the government “backed off” and opted for military means.

International view

Political relations exist – diplomatic ties with various governments, as well as political parties, international governmental and non-governmental organizations, and celebrities.

On the one hand, France collaborated in Operation Jaque on 2 July 2008, as a result, 15 hostages were rescued (amongst them  Ingrid Betancourt, 3 Americans and 11 Colombian soldiers). On the other hand, countries like Spain, Brazil, Switzerland and Cuba have expressed their support and cooperation with Colombian society.

Similarly, the U.S. has joined the fight, but with very different intentions. Recently, Uribe signed a military agreement with the States, which will allow 800 American soldiers to operate from seven air bases in Colombia (Palanquero, Malambo, Ptolemais, Larandia Apiay, Cartagena and Malaga), supposedly to combat drug trafficking and terrorism.

The other pacts

The Colombian people have already lived with humanitarian agreements. We remember the case of the Rojas Pinilla dictatorship with the Liberal guerrillas, the government of Belisario Betancur with the FARC-EP, EPL and the M-19 in 1984 and 1985. Also the César Gaviria government signed an agreement with the FARC-EP, ELN and EPL, as did Simón Bolívar, the Guerrilla Coordinator between 1991 and 1992, in Venezuela and Mexico. And the negotiation carried out during the government of Andrés Pastrana with the FARC-EP in Caguán.

Also, there have been occasional exchange agreements of prisoners by the Colombian State for hostages held by the guerrillas, for example the M-19 held following an assault on the Dominican Republic embassy in Bogota, or the FARC-EP when there was an exchange of sick policemen and soldiers imprisoned by the guerrillas during the negotiations in Caguan.

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