Shadow Government

Colombia: Santos’s dangerous gambit

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos’s announcement that he has agreed to peace talks with the narco-terrorist FARC is a dangerous gambit that threatens to undo a decade’s worth of hard-won military gains that have rescued Colombia from the brink of failed-state status. The decades-old FARC, which long ago devolved from a guerrilla army into a ...

FACUNDO ARRIZABALAGA/AFP/Getty Images
FACUNDO ARRIZABALAGA/AFP/Getty Images

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos’s announcement that he has agreed to peace talks with the narco-terrorist FARC is a dangerous gambit that threatens to undo a decade’s worth of hard-won military gains that have rescued Colombia from the brink of failed-state status.

The decades-old FARC, which long ago devolved from a guerrilla army into a drug-running mafia with zero public support, has a track record of deceit in such "peace" talks, using them only as a tactic to shore up its position when the need arises. No doubt today it sees the government’s agreement to negotiate less as an opportunity for peace than as an opportunity to prolong their destructive reign.

President Santos, who served ably and honorably as Colombia’s defense minister under former President Álvaro Uribe and knows the enemy quite well, certainly knows the risks involved, but that can’t stop one from asking hard questions: What has convinced Santos that the FARC are now seriously interested in laying down their arms? And what exactly is he prepared to offer a group awash in drug money and impunity from the law?

The last time a Colombian government entered into peace negotiations ended badly. In 1999, the FARC was granted a Switzerland-sized safe haven within Colombian territory as an area where they could ostensibly reside unmolested to facilitate talks. Instead, the FARC used the zone to further increase its military capabilities and drug activities and carry out terrorist attacks. Those "peace" talks collapsed in 2002, when the FARC hijacked a commuter aircraft and kidnapped a Colombian senator who happened to be on board.

It may be that President Santos believes the government is now in a position of strength to begin new negotiations, with the FARC battered and bruised after a decade of relentless Colombian military pressure by the Uribe government; but we know nothing of the FARC’s intentions.

Reportedly, the framework agreement for the talks has several themes: land reforms; political participation; disarmament; truth and reconciliation; drug trafficking; and security. But it is difficult to see what incentive exists for the FARC to lay down their arms absent full-blown amnesty for their crimes. Political participation? No one affiliated with the FARC could be elected dog catcher in Colombia, so low is their public standing.

Frankly, the only thing the FARC should be negotiating is the terms of their surrender to the Colombian state and some measure of accountability for the mayhem they have caused over the past decades.

For its part, the United States is no disinterested bystander, having invested some $8 billion in the bilateral Plan Colombia to help the government reassert its control over its territory. The Obama administration "welcomed" Santos’s announcement, but given its only casual acquaintance with Latin America in four years, it does not inspire much confidence that they will take an active behind-the-scenes role in monitoring the talks. 

President Santos is certainly no one’s pigeon, so it’s unclear what ultimately will come of his gambit. What is clear is that he is taking a huge risk, not only with his own political fortunes, but Colombia’s future as well. It’s one thing to open a window of opportunity for legitimate peace; it’s quite another to open an escape hatch for the FARC to prolong their criminal conspiracy against the state. President Santos can preserve both his legacy and Colombia’s security by keenly appreciating the difference between the two.

José R. Cárdenas was acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration.

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