The Politics of Negotiating Peace in Columbia

September 25, 2007

As Colombia’s peace negotiations continue to go nowhere, it is important to consider the role of the United States. It was U.S. intervention that changed the incentive structure for the military, the agribusiness elite and their right-wing allies who might have been more inclined to negotiate under a balance of forces they perceived to be in favor of their enemy, the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Six or seven years ago, the military and its allies’ concerns were not unfounded. Between 1996 and 1999, the FARC scored important military victories, suggesting that it had gained a tactical advantage against the military. The FARC won important battles in Las Delicias and Puerres (1996), San Juanito and Patascoy (1997), and Miraflores, El Billar and Mutata (1998).[1] These attacks continued during 1999, increasing the insecurity of the military and right-wing elements in the political establishment. The FARC’s battlefield victories also began to worry U.S. decision-makers.[2]
In the execution of these attacks, the FARC deployed forces ranging from 300 to 2,000 combatants indicating that its military strategy was shifting from small guerrilla units using hit-and-run tactics to “mobile warfare,” targeting well-armed garrisons in peripheral cities with large battalions of combatants.[3] The insecurity of the Colombian military resonated in important circles within the Clinton Administration, which was increasingly concerned about the growing military capacities of the FARC guerrillas.[4]

Against this backdrop of the FARC’s military successes, another development alarmed decision-makers in the Clinton Administration: a CIA report released in January 1999 claimed a new coca seed had been introduced in the department of Putumayo that could considerably increase coca production. According to the report, the new seed could have increased the FARC’s annual income from $100 million to $500 million.[5] Such a prospect would have allowed the FARC to consolidate its tactical gains and establish a strategic advantage against the military. This could have ended the comfortable impasse upon which the war system in Colombia has rested for most of its 40-year history, and perhaps even usher in a FARC political victory at the negotiating table. But neither Washington nor the Colombian Armed Forces were willing to accept such a possibility.

Instead, the CIA report and the poor performance of the Armed Forces allowed a view to predominate within the Clinton Administration (by then beleaguered by the Lewinsky affair) that Colombia’s President Andrés Pastrana was caving in to the FARC. In this view, Pastrana was acting more like a mediator between the FARC and the Armed Forces than as a head of state.[6] The February 1999 kidnapping and subsequent assassination of three U.S. NGO activists by a unit of the FARC provided enough ammunition for the Republican-led Congress to abort any initiatives coming from the peace camp of the Clinton Administration. U.S. policy was once again on a collision course with the Colombian insurgents and Pastrana’s peace initiative.

In August 1999, Under Secretary for Political Affairs Thomas Pickering and Gen. Barry McCaffrey, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, visited Bogotá and communicated a message to Pastrana that if he continued his concessions to the FARC, he would risk losing U.S. support. But, at the same time, they also offered Pastrana a carrot: a substantial increase in U.S military aid to Colombia if he would adopt a comprehensive plan designed to revamp the military and reinvigorate the drug war.[7] The State Department, in consultation with other U.S. agencies, fused its plan with what President Pastrana contemplated as a “Marshall Plan for Colombia,” christening the package “Plan Colombia.”

Plan Colombia, approved by the U.S. Congress in July 2000, broadened the magnitude and scope of U.S. involvement in Colombia’s war system. Washington committed $1.3 billion over a three-year period to upgrade its war against drugs in the Colombian theater, particularly in the southern regions of the country (Putumayo, Caquetá, Guaviare). The exponential jump in U.S. aid pouring into Colombia in the late 1990s is staggering: Colombia received $30 million in 1995, $98 million in 1998 and an increase to $294 million in 1999. In total, from 1999 to 2002, the United States gave Colombia $2.04 billion in aid, 81% of which was for guns. The U.S. commitment of such resources brought Colombia into the orbit of strategic importance just below Israel and Egypt and now Iraq. This was a qualitative leap in U.S. decision-makers’ approach to Colombia, which consequently integrated the country more than ever before into the international political economy of the U.S. War on Drugs, with its political, military, security and economic implications.

In Colombia, the military has been a formidable player in the country’s political economy of war and peace. The military has acquired paramount importance in the management of public order and security. This importance stems from a 1957 accord under which the military agreed to relinquish overall political power in return for autonomy in administering public order, national security and its budget, while consolidating its military courts to prosecute its members and civilians. Taken as a whole, these measures assured the military a strong position of power vis-à-vis the civilian authority.

Whenever the executive branch has committed to a peace negotiation, the military has had a competing agenda that it has sought to implement. Three examples clearly demonstrate these competing agendas. The first is the infamous 1985 attack on the Palace of Justice in the center of Bogotá just a few meters away from the presidential residence, Casa de Nariño. The then-active M-19 guerrillas seized the building and took the magistrates and some visitors as hostages. The M-19 sought to expedite and strengthen its negotiating position with the state through this action. The military, however, was not happy with President Belisario Betancur’s negotiation strategy with the M-19 or with his security policies. Accordingly, the military decided to attack.

According to different sources, either the President did not order the military counterattack or he was not fully informed of the size and nature of the operation. The outcome was the killing of almost all the people inside the building, including the judges, guerrillas and visitors. It led to a virtual military coup. The military regained the upper hand in defining policy in the areas of defense and security and also in peace negotiations. Betancur finished his term, and his peace initiative died in the ruins of the Palace of Justice.

A second major case illustrating the divergence between the military and the civilian authorities was the 1990 attack on Casa Verde in La Uribe, the FARC’s headquarters since 1984. The attack took place amid peace negotiations and on the day of elections for representatives to the Constitutional Assembly. This attack, of course, derailed the negotiations with the FARC despite two attempts to save them with talks in Caracas, Venezuela and Tlaxcala, Mexico. The most plausible version of the event was presented by the Chief Peace Negotiator Rafael Pardo (who became Minister of Defense in 1991). He contended that the attack was not authorized by the President, but rather carried out by the military in light of its granted latitude in fulfilling its constitutional duty in the areas of defense and security.

In this context, according to Pardo, the military was not obligated to clear all operations with the executive since the decision to attack was within its “constitutional duty.” The attack led to the protraction of the conflict, and the military retook the political upper hand due to the escalation of the civil war that followed. “The peace process,” added Pardo, “required articulation and decisions that involved the military at the command level as well as those at the medium and lower levels that are needed to safeguard the process.” Indeed, peace negotiations are complex matters that involve a great number of agencies, institutions and interest groups. In Colombia, implied Pardo, the military became the maker and breaker of peace because of the power amassed by its autonomy.[8]
A third illustrative case occurred during President Ernesto Samper’s Administration (1994-1998), when the conflict became more evident and the military again gained the upper hand. Armed with the scandal of narcotraffickers financing Samper’s presidential campaign and the inability of Congress to remove him, the military emerged as the most important remaining symbol of “state legitimacy.”

The actions of Washington reinforced these notions by maintaining a relationship with the military, while ostracizing the President and even denying him a visa to visit the United States. The military consequently became more daring in its confrontation with its “delegitimized” President. A showdown between Samper and the Armed Forces over the FARC’s precondition that the Army withdraw from La Uribe in order for negotiations to continue epitomized this confrontation. The military expressed its vehement opposition to this condition, which in turn led President Samper to question who was really governing the country by exclaiming in one of his speeches, “¡Aquí mando yo!” (“I’m in charge here!”). Samper’s government was entertaining the idea of demilitarization, which the following administration did carry out, but not without confrontations. The military did not have a change of heart under Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002). But between 1998 and 2002, two important changes in the war system’s environment aided the military’s maintenance of its recalcitrant position: Plan Colombia and the “War on Terror.”

From the start, the Pastrana government confronted important hurdles in its dealing with the military, particularly its controversial proposal to withdraw the Armed Forces from five municipalities. Pastrana had promised the withdrawal in return for the FARC’s acceptance of peace talks with his government. The military reacted by refusing to withdraw from its base in Cazadores, Caquetá, directly violating Pastrana’s promise to the FARC. After some wrangling and arm-twisting, which lasted more than five weeks, the military grudgingly agreed to withdraw after making it public that they were not happy with the decision.

The military’s continuous fights with Pastrana’s chief negotiator and close aide, Victor G. Ricardo, indicated their uneasiness with the process. Negotiators’ lack of consultation with top brass throughout the dialogue especially angered the generals. This anger reached dangerous levels when the government sidelined then-Minister of Defense Rodrigo Lloreda in the process, leading to his alignment with the generals.

The head-on confrontation between the military and the President came in May 1999 when Lloreda resigned in protest of Ricardo’s declaration that the government was considering indefinitely extending the demilitarization of the five municipalities. Lloreda and the military believed that the government was giving too many concessions to the FARC, a view that by then was widely accepted in Washington. Lloreda and his military backers were vehemently opposed to the renewal of the demilitarized areas. In a show of force, the top brass used this occasion to present the collective resignation of 12 generals, 20 colonels and 50 officers.[9]

This mass resignation was the largest in the country’s history and reflected the widening breach between the civilian and military authorities. In the wake of this crisis, the concessions Pastrana made to reconcile the military weakened his position considerably. Most importantly, he conceded to consulting the military on the management of the peace process. And he also granted the military the power to determine the fate of the demilitarized areas, which would be contingent on the FARC’s compliance with a set of conditions determined by the military.[10] As such, the 1999 crisis altered civil-military relations and constrained Pastrana’s margin of maneuverability, tying his hands at the negotiating table. The overwhelming military intransigence may explain why government negotiators in the wake of this crisis were under instructions to not accede to any of the FARC’s demands. An underlying cause for the military’s uneasiness in negotiations was the fear of a peaceful settlement in which the FARC could succeed in pushing a radical reform of the military. The military and conservatives like Lloreda fully rejected reforms such as the incorporation of FARC forces and commanders into the military structure.[11] The military, with its indoctrination in Cold War ideology—particularly prevalent within its top ranks—adamantly opposed such a “nightmarish” prospect.

The political discourse of the military that describes the guerrillas as “bandoleros,” thieves, “bandidos” and “narcoguerrillas,” and after September 11, 2001, as “terrorists,” are expressive symbols that reflect the ideological baggage of the institution and in turn define the boundaries upon which its identity is constructed.

Against this background of the traditionally recalcitrant military and their fear of a political solution that could tax their institutional interests and privileges came Plan Colombia and a changing mood in Washington. The military considered the Plan a blessing that could save it from making costly concessions. The increase in hardware and the professionalization of its troops created an additional incentive for the sustenance of the war system rather than seeking a “costly” peaceful settlement based on structural reforms.

By mid-1999, the military shifted from a defensive to an offensive posture, reinforced by newly acquired Black Hawk helicopters, troop-transport aircraft, silent planes with night-vision equipment and reconnaissance planes.[12] The number of professional soldiers increased from 22,000 to 55,000 and regular soldiers from 46,000 to 73,000.13 The government deployed two U.S.-trained anti-narcotics units—Battalion No. 1 and Central Anti-Narcotic Intelligence—before the end of 1999. Finally, Washington, after 9/11, under the War on Terror, upgraded its intelligence sharing with its Colombian counterparts, particularly in providing real-time information about guerrilla columns and troop concentrations.

By 2001, military-initiated attacks against the guerrillas outnumbered the attacks initiated by the rebels. The year 2003 saw a total of 2,312 confrontations between the two warring parties, most of them initiated by the Army. Alongside this change in the military strategy was a shift in the perception and the incentive structure of its leadership. The commander of the Army at the time, Gen. Jorge Enrique Mora, best expressed these changes:

“I would like to clarify two important misperceptions about the Colombian conflict. One, claiming that neither the army nor the guerrillas are capable of winning this war. This is not true. Today we possess the capabilities to win the war. The second misperception is that if the peace process ends, a terrible war will ensue that will destroy the country. This is not true, because we are already in that war.”[14]

The changing perception of the military, so clearly articulated by Gen. Mora, was that the war was winnable and, what’s more, that they were actually winning. Indeed, the Army’s refusal to negotiate stemmed from this belief in their enemy’s imminent defeat and surrender. Prior to the advent of Plan Colombia there was a commonly held perception by the military, guerrillas, economic groups, political leaders and sectors of the academy that the Colombian conflict was an impasse approximating what William Zartman, an analyst of African conflicts, has called a “mutually hurting condition.”[15] Since the inception of the Plan, however, at least one party—the military—has thought that given the ongoing prospect of resources, it can actually win the war. This has contributed to the impossibility of the negotiations ever really taking off and consequently to the escalation of the conflict.

A FARC military commander, Jorge Briceño, feeling the changing winds and the impending escalation, remarked, “We are going to war and its results are uncertain, either we win it or end up negotiating in a remote village in Germany,” implying that if the FARC is defeated, they might negotiate their surrender somewhere in Europe.[16]
The FARC perceived Plan Colombia as a declaration of war by the U.S. government. The guerrillas understood the new phase would necessarily require additional resources to counterbalance the influx of new resources received by the military. In response, the FARC issued its “002 Law” in April 2000, instructing individuals with assets of $1 million or more to pay a “war tax” to the FARC or otherwise risk detention.

At the military level, the FARC also changed its tactics by abandoning “mobile warfare” and returning to guerrilla war tactics alongside a general reduction in its military operations after 2000. This change was in response to several important military reversals that started in 1999 and increased in 2000 and 2001. These reversals were due mainly to the increasing air power of the military, particularly its newly acquired helicopters, but the recent military offensive by the FARC might indicate the tide beginning to turn once again, ushering in a fluctuating stalemate that evokes Zartman’s famous phrase.

The agribusiness elite, which inlcudes cattle ranchers, large landowners, the narco-bourgeoisie, banana plantation owners, and owners of palm oil and flower businesses, have always feared that a strong posture by the guerrillas in a negotiated settlement could undermine their class interests. To prevent this scenario they have resisted and have been capable of doing so by their reliance on the increasing power of the paramilitaries. The paramilitaries have grown from a force of 5,000 in the mid-1990s to about 13,000 by 2004. The agribusiness elite continues to favor the sustenance of the war system rather than risk losing their dominant landownership should a settlement be reached under a balance of power that is not decisively in favor of its interests.[17] This analysis explains why they have been dodging a political solution to the agrarian problem for more than eight decades. Such a position has cemented the inertia of the war system and in part explains why, for this sector, the continuity of war is the least costly mechanism for maintaining its vested interests given the much higher costs of peace.

Therefore, the inception of Plan Colombia injected new hopes among members of this group that they would get another chance to defeat the insurgency and avoid any meaningful land and political reforms that could open up possibilities for landless peasants and small landowners. And they remain hopeful that U.S. military aid will uphold the maintenance of the war system, so that the state will not be forced to tax large landowners to support the war, something those landowners have always resisted.[18]

Not surprisingly, the current President of Colombia, Álvaro Uribe, is closely linked to the agribusiness elite through his class origins, ideological orientation and political views. In coming to office, he was capable of capitalizing on the mishaps of an ill-conceived peace process. Uribe sailed successfully to the helm of political power with the help of the winds that started blowing from Washington in early 1999. During the peace process (1998-2002), he championed an opposition camp that included the most conservative elements of the dominant classes and successfully built a significant support base within a middle class disenchanted with the slow pace of the process and pinched by the most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The emergence of Uribe made it extremely difficult for Pastrana to garner critical political support from the agribusiness elite. It also made it hard for him to maintain the backing of other sectors that initially expressed support for the process.[19]

Now we are three years into the presidency of Uribe and his application of the so-called Seguridad Democrática (Democratic Security), which invokes the previous episodes of state repression carried out during the presidencies of César Turbay (1978-1982) and César Gaviria (1990-1994). The salient difference, however, is that Uribe’s repression is carried out under the international political economy of the War on Terror, which in the Colombian theater has entailed subsuming the previous War on Drugs to the ideological, political, economic and institutional imperatives of the war against “terror.” This has meant sacrificing important democratic gains. It has also meant the continuation of a campaign of extermination against opposition political activists, journalists, union leaders and human rights activists. The worst aspects of the long-standing Colombian conflict have thus been exacerbated by the worst aspects of the global War on Terror.

About the Author:
Nazih Richani is a professor of political science and coordinator of the Latin American studies program and the Institute of Foreign Service and Diplomacy at Kean University in New Jersey.


1. In El Billar the army incurred 63 fatalities and 43 of its troops were taken as prisoners; in Mutata the army suffered 39 fatalities, and in Miraflores the army suffered 30 fatalities, 50 injured and 100 of its soldiers taken as prisoners.
2. After the July 1999 FARC offensive, the State Department, the Southern Command and U.S. intelligence agencies started weighing their alternatives in Colombia.
3. For example, Miraflores, a city of about 5,000 people, in Guaviare Department remained under FARC control for seven years until February 2004. The shift from guerrilla tactics to “mobile warfare” was formally adopted by the FARC’s Eighth Conference of April 1993 in which it also proposed a platform for a pluralist, democratic national government for reconstruction and reconciliation.
4. State Department informant, interview with author, New York, April 2003.
5. State Department informant, interview with author, New York, April 2003.
6. State Department informant, interview with author, New York, April 2003.
7. State Department informant, interview with author, New York, April 2003.
8. Rafael Pardo, De primera mano: Colombia, 1986-1994 (Bogotá: CEREC,1996).
9. Francisco Leal Buitrago, La seguridad nacional a la deriva: Del frente nacional a la posguerra fría (Bogotá: Alfaomega, CESO-Uniandes and FLACSO, 2002).
10. Francisco Leal Buitrago, La seguridad nacional a la deriva.
11. Alfredo Rangel, The Peace Process in Colombia and U.S. Foreign Policy (Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, 2000) p. 54.
12. Francisco Leal Buitrago, La seguridad nacional a la deriva.
13. Fundación Seguridad y Democracia, “Fuerzas militares para la guerra: La agenda pendiente de la reforma militar” (Bogotá: Fundación Seguridad y Democracia, 2003).
14. “Queremos gobernar no co-gobernar,” Revista Semana, Bogotá, September, 2001.
15. William I. Zartman, Ripe for Resolution: Conflict and Intervention in Africa (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).
16. As quoted in León Valencia, Adios a la Politica, bienvenida la guerra (Bogotá: Intermedio Editores, 2002), p. 79.
17. This observation is based on my interviews with Jorge Visbal and also the former president of the Colombia Society of Agriculturalists (SAC), Jesús Bejarano who was assassinated in 1999.
18. See Jorge Visbal, El Tiempo, February 16, 2004.
19. Sabas Pretelt, President of Fenalco and current Minister of the Interior, interview with author, Bogotá, July 2003.

Tags: Colombia, peace process, negotiations, FARC, Plan Colombia, military, war on terror

Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.