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Sidelining the Spoilers

Colombia is closer than ever to ending its fight with leftist guerrillas. But is it about to let a few rogue actors ruin everything? 


When the news broke last week that Colombian Brig. Gen. Rubén Darío Alzate and two colleagues had been detained in the Chocó region by the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC-EP), it threw the country’s two-year-old peace talks into crisis. The FARC action, which appears to have occurred without the specific authorization of FARC leadership, prompted President Juan Manuel Santos to suspend temporarily the Colombian government’s participation in the peace talks, which were about to resume their 31st round in Havana. With that, the negotiations to end the more than 50-year-old conflict ground to a sudden halt.

While the crisis is by no means insurmountable, it may have an impact on the peace talks. When he suspended the talks, Santos conditioned their renewal on the release of the three abductees in Chocó, as well as two other soldiers who had been detained on the other side of Colombia, near the Venezuelan border. On Monday, Nov. 24, FARC guerrilla leader Rodrigo Londoño (known by his nom de guerre, "Timochenko") claimed that Santos had "destroyed confidence" in the process by violating the parties’ agreement to engage in "direct and uninterrupted talks" until a final peace accord was signed, and to continue the war during the peace process without benefit of a bilateral cease-fire. The peace talks "cannot just resume," said Londoño, without some unspecified adjustments.

On Tuesday, Nov. 25, following agreements between the Colombian government and the FARC negotiators — facilitated by international guarantors (Norway and Cuba) and with logistical support from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) — the FARC released the two soldiers being held in Arauca. In the Chocó region, however, FARC leaders claim that the Colombian military’s deployment of troops, bombings, and overflight missions violates the parties’ agreement to suspend military activity in the region, making the release of the general and his two companions "impossible" for the time being. The Ministry of Defense, on the other hand, claims that all military operations there have been suspended.

Navigation of this impasse can strengthen the peace process, but the resolution of the current crisis cannot be taken for granted. In Colombia’s highly charged political environment, getting the talks moving again means managing the spoilers on both sides who want to affect the peace process’s pending agreements or even derail negotiations altogether. The incident in Chocó fits the pattern of actions taken by groups looking to waylay the peace process. Call it a page from a kind of spoilers’ playbook. The Basque, Irish, and Middle Eastern peace processes have faced similar critical moments where internal actors have lashed out in efforts to provoke a harsh reaction from one side or other. These crimes test the commitment, political statesmanship, and diplomatic inventiveness of negotiators on both sides dedicated to keeping a peace process alive. And looking at how past crises have been managed can give insight as to how the parties at the Colombian table might be able to get their process back on track.

As happens in war, truth is the first casualty when spoilers try to sabotage peace talks. When there is such an incident, the parties first have to verify the facts — together, and as quickly as possible — to discern whether the spoilers are operating as individuals, as a local unit spontaneously, or are taking action from orders at a higher leadership level.

The incident in Chocó — called a "kidnapping" by the government and a "casualty of war" by the FARC — appears to have caught the leaders of both sides unawares. FARC negotiators initially reacted with surprise at the event, before the regional block claimed responsibility. On the government’s side, there are still many pending questions about the general’s trip down the Atrato River into territory that is occupied by two FARC fronts, the National Liberation Army, paramilitary groups, drug traffickers, and criminal bands. In violation of security protocols, the general was unarmed, in civilian garb, without a bodyguard, and had been warned by the soldier piloting the boat that it was not safe to go down river. Early on in the crisis, Santos called on the minister of defense through his Twitter account to explain why the general "broke all the security protocols and was in civilian garb in a red zone." The Colombian Senate is also calling for an explanation of General Alzate’s actions.

Counter-spoiler practice in other conflicts around the world suggests that the representatives of the Colombian government and FARC need to talk more, not less, right now. Their dialogue has to recognize two complex realities to keep the peace process on track. First, each side must acknowledge that they have factions in their midst who will act as spoilers of the process at any time, and must take responsibility for controlling and demobilizing their own rogue actors. Secondly, the negotiating parties must build shared interaction, responsibility, and mechanisms for managing together the complications that arise when spoilers of one negotiating party — through kidnappings, bombings, and attacks — strikes directly at the other party. In short, they need to recognize that these things are all but bound to happen at some point, and they need to plan for how to deal with it when they do.

The parties have a lot going in their favor, and efforts to sabotage the talks may even be a testament to the successes already produced at the table. The current process has accomplished significantly more than any other attempt to end the conflict, including groundbreaking agreements on land reform, the FARC’s political role, and the drug trade. The next round was slated to address the remaining, complex areas of the demilitarization and demobilization of the FARC, and the compensation and reparations to be awarded to victims of the bloody five-decade war — areas clearly of concern to both the Colombian military and the FARC’s rank and file.

Keeping a peace process on track doesn’t just fall to the parties sitting at the negotiating table, however. Outsiders can also help control spoilers and maintain the momentum of a peace process. At the invitation of the parties, Norway, Cuba, Venezuela, and Chile have served as guarantors accompanying the peace process since its launch, and earned them the trust to help facilitate the recent agreements that are likely to enable the resolution of the incident in Chocó. The International Committee of the Red Cross, which is currently providing logistical support for the release of the detainees, has facilitated the liberation of more than 1,500 people kidnapped or detained by armed groups in Colombia. The engagement of such disinterested third parties increases the likelihood that this crisis will be resolved without derailing the peace process.

Civil society organizations from women’s groups to religious leaders can help manage spoiler violence and provide a shield against spoilers, too. Through marches, mobilizations, letters to the parties, and public statements, Colombian civil society sectors have repeatedly sounded the call for a bilateral cease-fire and a reduction in the violence against civilians. From the start of the talks, they have insisted that the parties stay at the table until a final peace agreement is signed — a call that has been amplified in recent days. Such actions can bolster the mandate for continued peace efforts and isolate spoilers and would-be spoilers.

Colombian history has shown that walking away from peace talks when violent events explode can easily undermine or even end a peace process. It has taken a decade to get the FARC and the Colombian government talking again; the last peace talks ended in 2002, following the FARC downing of an Avianca plane and the kidnapping of Senator Jorge Gechem Turbay, who was aboard the plane. However violent and dangerous the recent spoiler incident may seem to the Havana peace process, the Colombian parties who have so far been constructively engaged with one another need to recommit to the peace that is within sight and to return to direct bargaining at the Havana talks soon. The parties should not permit either this event — or the escalating rhetoric that has quickly engulfed it — to deter their efforts to bring an end to this anachronistic conflict.

The FARC and the government have gone a long way down the road to peace. Both sides have the strong backing of international friends and civil society allies pushing for cool heads to prevail. But getting past their shared spoiler problem, and letting the negotiators get back to work on crafting an agreement that will end Colombia’s long-standing conflict, means foregoing brinksmanship and grandstanding in favor of even more intensive dialogue. Anything less means a small set of spoilers win — and millions of peace-seeking Colombians lose.

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