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Flirting with the army, endangering peace

War & Peace
Colombian soldiers

The Colombian army is being drawn into politics. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under a Creative Commons Licence

The path towards the end of Colombia’s armed conflict came to an abrupt halt on 15 April, when guerrilla fighters belonging to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) attacked military troops in the municipality of Buenos Aires, in the department of Cauca, killing 11 soldiers and injuring 24 others.

The FARC, with whom President Juan Manuel Santos’ government has been carrying out peace talks in Cuba since November 2012, had last December implemented a unilateral and indefinite ceasefire that led to a significant reduction in the levels of violence in Colombia’s 50-year-old conflict. According to a study carried out by CERAC, the number of casualties, which had reached monthly averages as high as 213 in the two decades that preceded the truce, dropped to a total of 58 during its first two months.

The FARC’s ambush was the bloodiest attack carried out by the guerrillas since they killed 11 soldiers in Arauca in November 2012. But the consequences of this month’s attack are far worse, because they come at a crucial stage in the peace negotiations. On 11 March the President had declared a month-long halt to air attacks against FARC settlements. On 9 April he extended this for another month. The government’s move, coupled with the decision to begin co-operating with the FARC in joint operations to remove anti-personnel mines, appeared to have marked a new stage in FARC-government relations.  

Any alleged improvement came to an end after the 15 April attack. The President’s decision to resume air attacks against guerrilla targets could not quell the public outrage that followed the massacre.

The FARC’s strike also jeopardized the support for the peace process that the armed forces had begun to offer, at a time when its bond with the government seemed to have strengthened. The military had begun to gradually open up to the possibility of submitting to the government-backed transitional justice system, which would prosecute guerrilla and army members for atrocities committed during the conflict. And General Mora Rangel, having initially rejected Santos’ invitation, had decided to join the government’s negotiating team in Havana, calling for the army to support the government’s efforts and stressing that peace would not harm the armed forces. The military’s ostracism had been one of the key hindrances to the peace processes carried out by previous governments, so Santos’s success in luring the army towards his negotiations was no small achievement.

Former President Alvaro Uribe’s opposition party, Centro Democratico, has been reinvigorated by the FARC attack. While Santos had been trying to calm down other antagonistic political voices by involving them more closely in the supervision of the peace process, Uribe’s party had been left to stand alone as the sole opposition voice. Now, public opinion is swinging towards this opposition voice, which argues that security – that is, a military-led response – is the only means to achieve a durable peace.

Uribe can now also capitalize on the deterioration of the relationship between Santos’s administration and the military. Hours after the FARC ambush, Uribe cancelled a trip to Brazil in order to pay a visit to the victims’ families. On returning to Bogotá, he proposed a reform of the judicial framework which would benefit the armed forces involved in war crimes with reduced prison terms – regardless of the results of the talks in Cuba. The reform includes sanctions of up to five years for military personnel involved in war crimes, and shorter terms for those already paying for the atrocities committed.

The armed forces are an ally which neither Santos nor Uribe can afford to lose: on the one hand, the President cannot hope to seal a durable peace without the backing of the military. On the other, if the army shows solid support for Santos’s negotiations, Uribe would be deprived of one of his strategic sources of support, and a means of influencing the peace talks while standing outside of them.

Uribe has blamed the government for placing the armed forces at the same judicial level of the terrorist FARC militants, while the government has accused the Centro Democratico of fomenting the thesis that a peace with the guerrillas would harm the military.

The Commanders in Chiefs of the Army, Air Force and Navy issued a joint statement calling for party politics to stand apart from the military, denied that the massacre had divided them, and explicitly invited Uribe’s opposition to focus on promoting the country’s development rather than exploiting the army for its own political aims.  

Whether or not the Centro Democratico is the only guilty party, drawing the military into political games could have catastrophic repercussions for the negotiations. The government and opposition risk undermining the strength of a military that played a key role in bringing the FARC to the negotiations table in the first place, and that will eventually play a crucial part overseeing the treaty’s implementation once the talks are over.

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