Norway: FARC and Columbian government return to negotiation table

The Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebel group are holding preliminary peace talks in Norway that are expected to set the stage for formal talks in Cuba next month. However, there are already signs of some disagreement, with the government saying it will not stop military operations against the rebels during the talks and FARC saying it is willing to discuss the issue any time.

Negotiators from the two sides appeared together in public for the first time on 18 October in the small town of Hurdal, Norway to launch the talks aimed at ending a 50-year conflict that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. The heads of the delegations, Humberto De la Calle for Colombian government and Ivan Marques for the rebels, appeared on the same podium without shaking hands at a hotel. Earlier, both parties were whisked through a VIP section of Oslo airport, with the media completely shut out, for planned meetings in the next few days.

This is the latest attempt to negotiate peace with the drug-funded rebels since they were formed back in 1964. Past discussions ended in shambles, even strengthening the guerrillas’ ability to attack civilian and military targets. Together with Cuba, Norway is playing the role of facilitator in the peace process that seeks to put an end to a conflict that has claimed thousands of lives in the past 50 years in the Andean nation.

 Road map to peace

The five-point discussions are likely to be thorny as they focus on the drug trade, victim rights, land ownership in rural areas, FARC participation in politics and how to end the war. Despite the talks, Colombian troops have continued their offensive against the rebels and guerrillas have stepped up attacks in recent days against energy and mining installations. In addition to that Juan Manuel Santos, Colombia’s president, has refused to call a ceasefire until a peace accord is reached.

As well as being a personal victory for the President Santos, a successful end to the talks would increase Colombia’s weight in investment portfolios after years of being considered one of the world’s most dangerous places to visit and do business. Direct foreign investment this year is expected to reach approximately $17bn, a record, and well above the $2bn it attracted in 2002. Back then, the FARC was at its very strongest and able to easily launch attacks on the capital, Bogota. Still, peace with the FARC will by no means end violence in Colombia as drug trafficking and criminal gangs – many born out of the demobilisation of right-wing armed groups – may continue to operate across the nation. 

Profile: The army of peasants

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a self-described “peasant army” first formed by members of the Colombian Communist Party, has been fighting a guerrilla war to overthrow the government since 1964. Known widely by its acronym, FARC, the movement grew out of years of conflict in the 1950s and 1960s between rural, agrarian communities that communists had tried to organise and the national government, which was trying to industrialise the country after a devastating civil war. The Colombian government and other states accuse the modern-day FARC of using wanton bombings, kidnappings, assassinations and extortion to finance itself and further its goals, and the group has been labelled a terrorist organisation by the United States, which has provided Colombia with billions of dollars worth of assistance to combat the guerrillas.

Human rights organisations have condemned the FARC’s use of child fighters and its indiscriminate targeting of civilians, and a 2005 International Crisis Group report claimed around 65 of the movement’s 110 operational units were involved in the cocaine trade. The FARC has benefited from Venezuelan sponsorship, and documents recovered in 2008 from the computer of slain rebel commander Raul Reyes indicated that President Hugo Chavez and others may at various points have funded and supported FARC activity for strategic benefit against Colombia and the United States. In 2012, after releasing its last remaining military and police hostages, and in the wake of military setbecks and the loss of top leaders, the FARC entered into negotiations with the government for a final peace. Hundreds of civilians are thought to remain held in FARC custody. 

The group’s roots lie in what is known in Colombia as La Violencia, a bloody period in the 1940s and 1950s sparked when Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, a popular left-wing politician, was assassinated, leading to a wave of violence between right-wing and left-wing armed groups. The civil war left up to 300,000 people dead and spawned several groups, including the FARC, the National Liberation Army and 19th of April movement.

In the wake of the violence, a national government negotiated between conservatives and liberals sought to improve the country’s economy through industrialisation, leading to the eviction of thousands of farmers and conflict with communist-influenced agrarian communities. FARC was born when Manuel Marulanda Velez, a member of the Communist party, declared one such community, Marquetalia, autonomous and escaped into the mountains with a small group of fighters after a large government attack. The movement developed a formal army structure in the 1980s, organising into squads and fronts governed by a seven-member secretariat, and was believed to have boasted about 16,000 fighters in 2001, though that figure later decreased to between 6,000 and 8,000, according to the government. 

Previous peace talks

The current peace talks are the fourth official attempt in 30 years at ending the conflict. The last dialogue collapsed a decade ago when the Colombian government determined that the guerrillas were regrouping in a demilitarised zone it had created to help reach a deal. However this time around, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has ruled out a ceasefire during the talks.

In recent years, FARC has suffered the capture and killing of some of its top leaders, and the depletion of its ranks to half what they were at their peak in the 1990s. Since his election in 2010, Santos has been preparing the groundwork for an agreement, introducing a law on land restitution that has been a deal-breaker for the rebels. In addition to land issues, any peace deal is also expected to tackle armed groups’ involvement in drug trafficking, a thorny subject in Colombia, which is the world’s biggest cocaine producer. The government has said it will give the process just a few months to yield results.

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