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  • Writer's pictureMichael MacArthur Bosack

Colombia's tricky path to "Total Peace"

A guerilla fighter with the Ejército de Liberación Nacional takes a break during drill training, 2018 (photo via Flickr: Brasil de Fato)


Guerilla fighter-turned-politician Gustavo Petro took office as the president of Colombia in 2022 after campaigning on the pledge of Paz Total, or “Total Peace.” He vowed to end once and for all the fighting that had persistently plagued the country in some way since 1964. For Petro, this is a continuation of what was achieved in 2016 with the signing of the peace agreement between the Colombian government and the country’s largest paramilitary organization, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia—known more simply as the “FARC.” The goal, as expressed in the Total Peace legislation that Petro championed, is a “peace that will have a regional perspective and focus; a peace that will have the possibility of making partial agreements. A peace that creates conditions so that the Cabinet for Peace, which is also created in the law, can build government coordination to support the entire process of dialogues, negotiations, and conversations.

But the Colombian government has a long and complex path towards achievement of a complete and durable peace. Root sources of conflict remain. There are armed dissident groups, some of which are still engaging in skirmishes with the Colombian police and armed forces, as well as with each other. Exacerbating matters is the continued presence of drug cartels, whose illegal activities fuel direct conflict with the Colombian government while propping up guerilla organizations willing to facilitate their illicit activities. Further, as a democratic government, Petro only has three years left to achieve substantive progress before the next round of national elections, with opposition parties ready to exploit every setback in the implementation of the Total Peace policy.

While those issues may seem insurmountable, the Colombian government is employing a holistic approach to its peacebuilding efforts. To understand that approach, it is necessary first to identify the myriad players involved in the peace process. It is then useful to examine the Total Peace policy designs through the lens of the six fundamental tasks for peacebuilding. That examination ultimately reveals the tricky path that Colombia faces en route to a lasting peace but explains how the policies as designed offer practical approaches for moving forward in the peace process.

The major players in a “Total Peace”

A peace process that requires negotiation and conciliation between just two parties is difficult enough, but Colombia has over a dozen formal stakeholders including the government, myriad guerilla organizations, and illegal groups such as the cartels. These parties are spread across Colombia’s rugged, diverse territory which is broken up into thirty-two departments (or states), as shown in the graphic below:

To secure a Total Peace, the government is seeking ways to engage all the stakeholders in hopes of achieving progress in the aggregate.

Central Government

Within the central government, there are four core organizations responsible for the peace process: the Presidential Office, the Alto Comisionado de Paz (office of the “High Commissioner for Peace”), the Fuerzas Militares de Colombia (Military Forces of Colombia), and the Policía Nacional de Colombia (National Police of Colombia). The first two offices serve as the policy coordinators and decision-makers. They are also the negotiators of peace agreements with the other stakeholders. Meanwhile, the military and police comprise the “Public Forces” responsible for maintaining the security and stability needed to underpin peacebuilding efforts.

Formal guerilla organizations

Spread across the country are armed organizations of varying sizes, interests, capabilities, and commitment to the peace process. The most influential was the FARC, which negotiated and concluded a comprehensive peace agreement with the Colombian government in 2016 and has since demobilized. However, prior to concluding the peace agreement, several dissident groups splintered from the FARC and continued violent resistance, the most notable of which being the FARC-Ejército del Pueblo (FARC-EP), Estado Mayor Central (EMC), and the Segunda Marquetalia. Meanwhile, there are other standalone armed groups, the most significant being the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN). Each of these groups maintain well-armed forces and at least some semblance of administrative bodies overseeing their actions.

Guerillas from the ELN during a training event, 2018 (photo via Flickr: Brasil de Fato)

Criminal organizations

Although Colombia’s Public Forces dismantled Pablo Escobar’s well-known criminal enterprise based out of Medellín in 1993, drug cartels have remained a persistent problem in the country. Today’s cartels, such as the Clan del Golfo (also known as the Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia, or AGC), operate outside the bounds of domestic and international law, and are well-funded and well-armed. They also seek to prop up guerilla organizations and other armed groups in Colombia who are willing to facilitate (or at least tolerate) their activities within their respective regional power bases.

Along with the cartels are smaller criminal groups that have filled the vacuum following the post-2016 demobilization of the FARC. The Colombian government refers to them as “illegal armed structures,” which neither rise to the level of cartels nor formal guerilla organizations. They are nevertheless relevant to the Total Peace effort, as demonstrated by the “Illegal Armed Structure of Medellín and Valle de Aburrá,” who in April 2023 promised to observe a ceasefire against Colombia’s Public Forces.

The practicality of the “Total Peace” plan

As with any peacebuilding effort, there are six fundamental tasks that focus on transitioning a society from a state of conflict to one of a positive peace; that is, where there are relationships, linkages, and other conditions which render the use of force as a means of settling disputes either untenable or unfathomable. In the complex environment that exists in Colombia, the holistic approach is even more necessary, which the central government is seeking to carry out in practical and meaningful ways.

Achieving and preserving a cessation of hostilities

The greatest challenge that Colombia faces in achieving a Total Peace is the persistent violence that continues with and among the myriad armed groups that operate inside the country. While the 2016 peace agreement was comprehensive, it was only with one guerilla group, the FARC. Fighting persists, sometimes between the Public Forces and guerilla organizations; other times, the guerillas are fighting each other, which has been an off-and-on occurrence between the EMC and ELN in places like Cauca; and then there are the skirmishes with illegal groups.

The central government’s primary mechanism for achieving and preserving a cessation of hostilities has been the negotiation and implementation of bilateral ceasefire agreements. While some might advocate for pursuing a consolidated negotiating effort that includes all the players in one setting, such an approach introduces too many sets of competing interests and makes the “zone of possible agreement” far too small to achieve anything that is either meaningful or implementable. The bilateral approach may be onerous and piecemeal in nature, but it allows the central government to tailor its negotiated agreements to each of the stakeholders for something that is more durable.

A pre-negotiation session between delegates of the central government of Colombia and the Estado Mayor Central, 17 September 2023 (photos via the Alto Comisionado de Paz)

Resolving sources of conflict

While there are several sources of conflict in Colombia, at the core is a systemic inequality fueled by Colombia’s geography, legacy land ownership issues, and the illegal drug trade. Colombia is a geographically diverse country with mountainous terrain and dense forests and jungles. This makes infrastructure improvement both difficult and costly, which in turn affects the economic prospects for rural communities and impedes the central government’s ability to deliver goods and services to those populations.

Exacerbating this issue is legacy land ownership problems, where a small number of groups control a disproportionate share of the land. What this means is that rural communities not only struggle to make ends meet through farming, but they have had to do it on someone else’s land.

The cartels exploit these conditions. In some cases, they pay better than the alternative options available to rural communities. In others, they simply use coercion to compel local residents in areas where their power can go unchecked by Public Forces. Either way, they leverage the situation to perpetuate the conditions of fractured governance that allows them to thrive, no matter the expense to peace and stability for the country.

Colombia’s Public Forces seize nearly 800 kilograms of cocaine off the coast of the island of Tintipán in the department of Bolívar, 22 September 2023 (photo via the Colombian Navy)

Given these factors, the central government has pursued two major efforts: land reform and eliminating economic inequality. In an example of the former, the central government purchased three million hectares of land from Colombia’s Cattle Ranchers Association with the intent of redistributing it to rural farmers. Meanwhile, to help eliminate inequality, the Colombian government has set forth an ambitious infrastructure improvement plan—the “National Development Plan”—to build and improve roadways in rural communities as well as the telecommunications network across the country. While there is much work to be done, this longer-term approach privileges sustained progress over quick fixes.

Mitigating obstacles to peace

For Colombia, the main obstacle to peace is criminal activity, principally in the form of drug trade and acts of violence against peace advocates. The legal impetus to eliminate drug production and trafficking contributes to confrontation, and it incentivizes the cartels to back guerilla organizations who are willing to look the other way when it comes to the illegal drug industry, especially if those guerillas can distract the government from disrupting the drug trade. It also creates a barrier to gaining international financial and material support for the peace process, because addressing drug trafficking can become a prerequisite for delivery of that aid.

This is why outside observers have seen Petro advocate for relaxing laws related to drug production. This was something he addressed in his last two speeches during the UN General Assembly debates, essentially calling for the international community to stop punishing the suppliers and work on eliminating the demand. While his call in 2022 for cocaine to be legalized may have seemed absurd to some, it was pitched from a perspective of eliminating a major obstacle to his country’s peace process.

Meanwhile, assassinations and abductions of peace advocates and Public Forces persist. Since 2016, dissidents and illegal armed groups have targeted and killed hundreds of signatories to the peace agreement, members of the Public Forces, and social leaders. This undermines trust in the process while introducing practical roadblocks to negotiation and implementation of peace agreements.

The central government of Colombia has sought to address this through direct engagement with illegal groups. Rather than seek to isolate and eliminate criminal actors, the government has worked to co-opt them into the process. For example, in June 2023, the government established a space for ‘socio-legal conversations’ aimed at advancing the peace process at La Paz de Itagüí prison. The goal was to find common ground for reconciliation and progress with incarcerated members of the cartels and illegal armed structures while linking them with members of civil society who are also participants in those talks.

Colombia’s High Commissioner for Peace Danilo Rueda speaks at the inaugural socio-legal dialogue with members of the illegal armed structures of Medellín and Valle de Aburrá, 2 June 2023 (photo via the Alto Comisionado de Paz)

Institutionalizing the peace process

With several potential spoilers to peace and an election looming in three years, a key requirement for the central government in implementation of its Total Peace policies is finding ways to institutionalize the peace process. In other words, they must take steps to formalize interactions with each of the relevant stakeholders and to normalize those engagements. In such a large country with so many players involved, this might seem too tall an order, but the central government is tackling it via two practical measures.

The first is through the creation of formal dialogue mechanisms. The Colombian government refers to them as peace tables and has employed them with both guerilla organizations and criminal groups. These have offered mechanisms for the negotiation and implementation of ceasefires, and they will provide utility as the parties seek to expand their peace-related efforts.

The second is through the continuous inclusion of third parties. Third party involvement is an essential component to durable peace processes, as it can offer various capacities including mediation, peacekeeping, policing, humanitarian aid, monitoring, observation, and fact-finding or verification, among other things. In Colombia, third parties principally fulfill the functions of monitoring and verification. This is essential for two reasons: first, it reinforces the legitimacy and viability of dialogue mechanisms when third parties participate. For example, members of the Organization of American States’ Mission to Support the Peace Process in Colombia (MAPP/OAS) are consistent attendees at engagements between the central government and other parties to conflict.

Members of the Organization of American States’ Mission to Support the Peace Process in Colombia attend the start of pre-negotiations between the central government and the FARC-EP, 19 September 2023 (photos via the MAPP-OEA)

Second, third party oversight helps mitigate obstacles to de-escalation including confusion, mixed messaging, and mis-/dis-information. The utility of this function was demonstrated in August 2023 when there were allegedly death threats against Colombia’s Attorney General coming from members of the ELN—a direct violation of the ceasefire provisions recently concluded with the central government. The two parties agreed to conduct a fact-finding mission with a team composed of officials from the central government, the ELN, the Episcopal Congress of Colombia, and the UN verification mission to Colombia. Two weeks later, the team was able to dispel concerns over the validity of those threats, thereby reducing tensions and eliminating a potential roadblock to follow-on engagement.

Incentivizing the peace process

A key to any peace process is ensuring that it yields greater benefits to stakeholders than the alternatives. One of the ways the Colombian government has tried to do this in the past is via agricultural subsidies and crop substitution; that is, providing financial support and material resources for combatants to trade weapons for farming tools and for rural communities to grow crops like cocoa and coffee instead of coca. However, this has yielded poor results as those communities still lacked the infrastructure necessary to make legal crops more profitable than illicit ones. Additionally, without addressing land reform issues—an underlying source of conflict—sustaining this incentive has proven difficult over extended periods.

This is where foreign support can have a significant impact. The Petro administration set forth an ambitious spending program as part of its National Development Plan and Total Peace-related efforts, and it has worked with international organizations to secure supplemental funding. For example, the government has obtained an additional $55 million for spending in 2023 from a United Nations multi-donor fund established in 2016 to assist in implementation of the peace process. Additional financial aid will likely be necessary to augment the Colombian government’s spending plans as it balances between its competing resource priorities.

Creating opportunities for non-violent engagement

The final fundamental task in peacebuilding focuses on fostering peaceful interactions among the various parties to conflict. As mentioned earlier, the Total Peace policy calls for the creation of formal dialogue mechanisms between official delegates, but it also encourages engagement with civil society. The central government has hosted peace rallies across the country to facilitate non-violent engagement and to integrate the civilian populace into the peace process. Members of the government and Public Forces have also pursued grassroots engagement with local communities in the form of sporting and cultural events. This form of relationship- and trust-building is important for eliminating enmity and fostering positive ties not only among former combatants, but future generations.

Members of the Public Forces hold a sports festival with the local community in La Guajira, 19 September 2023 (photo via the Alto Comisionado de Paz)

The path forward

Ultimately, there is a long and tricky path to Total Peace for Colombia, and success is no more guaranteed for the Petro administration than it was for those who came before. From a practical perspective, meaningful progress will require managing myriad stakeholders while weathering the setbacks that will inevitably come. When problems arise is when the central government will need to be at its most clear, consistent, and transparent in its implementation of its Total Peace policies. Continuous, robust engagement from partners in the international community will be critical to help keep the momentum. Despite the myriad challenges the country faces, the Colombian government is steadfastly and comprehensively moving forward in hopes of achieving key milestones in the peace process. The Total Peace program is targeting every fundamental task needed for peacebuilding and the government is maintaining a steady effort at implementation of its peace-related policies. While it is uncertain how far the Petro administration will be able to go before the next election arrives, it is evident that the Colombian government is working to achieve meaningful progress for the years to come.


Michael MacArthur Bosack is a seasoned international negotiator and the founder of the Parley Policy Initiative. He is the Special Adviser for Government Relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies. Michael is a former East-West Center Fellow, a military veteran, and the author of “Negotiate: A Primer for Practitioners.”

Cable No 38_Colombia's tricky path to Total Peace
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