“Total Peace” Still Far Away: Can Petro’s Plan Really Save Colombia?

The Colombian government has started further peace negotiations with the National Liberation Army (E.L.N.) as part of the Total Peace Plan enacted by President Gustavo Petro, the country’s first leftist leader. The Plan seeks to negotiate peace or plea bargains with several criminal groups, including the E.L.N., through diplomacy. Despite a long history of failed peace talks with the E.L.N., mostly due to the rebel group’s decentralized framework and commitment to overhauling the country’s economic structure, several factors suggest the talks show promise this time around. Still, amidst the complications of negotiations, a recent retaliatory strike by the nation’s second-most prominent paramilitary organization, and the increasingly mounting death toll of murdered activists and social leaders, Colombia’s government continues to face severe threats to its authority.

The most recent array of violence traces back to La Violencia, an era of systematic political violence in Colombia which killed an estimated 200,000 people and displaced about 2 million between 1948-1958. The most agreed-upon narrative is that this conflict stemmed from rivalries between two traditional political parties, the Colombian Liberal Party and the Conservative Party. The chaos created by the conflicted government created a space for other regional and local conflicts to emerge – along with state-supported violence. Once the government stabilized through the establishment of the National Front, the central government started subduing rebel and armed groups.

One Marxist guerrilla organization called the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (F.A.R.C.), whose foundational goals involve redistributing wealth to the poor and opposing international influences, faced numerous army attacks around 1964 and continues to persist to the current day. In June 2016, President Petro created a peace treaty intended to end the pattern of violent conflict between the F.A.R.C. and the government, starting the process of dissolving the F.A.R.C. by having its members voluntarily turn over their weapons. But although the overall F.A.R.C. group was dissolved, Human Rights Watch says that several dissidents refused the Peace Agreement, joining other armed groups and continuing to commit violent crimes throughout the country.

Several armed groups have taken control in the power vacuum left behind by the dismantled F.A.R.C. The E.L.N., a far-left rebel group in Colombia and Venezuela originally started by farmers inspired by the Cuban revolution and liberation theology in 1964, is one of the two prominent of these paramilitary groups. (The other is the Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia [A.G.C.], or “Gulf Clan,” which is supposed to control most of the country’s drug trade.) These and other various armed gangs fight to control drug trafficking routes, especially in rural areas, where they can easily rule by fear. The departments of Antioquia, Nariño, Putumayo, Cauca, and Arauca, which happen to be where traditional drug production and trafficking are concentrated, are where the most murders have occurred.

But despite the many people displaced as they attempt to escape the violence, the Colombian government has procrastinated intervening with a military response, claiming that it wants to avoid escalating the situation. Many citizens from areas attacked by the Gulf Clan say they felt abandoned by the central government. Al Jazeera theorizes that this lack of retribution signals that the Colombian government does not have the control over its country that it would like to say it does.

President Petro’s Total Peace Plan is aimed at negotiation rather than national security – which leaves Colombians unprotected. 215 social leaders and human rights activists were killed in Colombia in 2022. This is the highest activist death count seen in years, and the number of targeted murders continues to rise. But while negotiations with the F.A.R.C. only led to further violence, there are several key factors at play in Colombia’s diplomacy this time around. First, the government is in talks with multiple armed groups at the same time, to keep opportunistic rivals from moving into the space if one group demobilizes. Second, the government is leaving partial agreements on the table, allowing the parties to reach smaller deals rather than rejecting anything that does not mean all of their requirements. Lastly, the government is not demanding an initial disarmament. Hopefully these changes will lead to a more successful and sustainable peace.