Notes From The Field: The Complexities of Violence in Colombia and the Peace Process

Yesterday our day was interrupted by the news that two bombs had exploded in the neighbourhoods of Chapinero and Puente Aranda, in the Northern part of Bogotá. I kept the news from my English-speaking partner until this morning, foolishly believing I was shielding her from something I didn’t quite understand yet.

The bombings happened at a particularly sensitive time in Colombian politics, as the government is engaged in peace negotiations with the FARC, the main insurgent group in the fifty-year-old conflict. Peace negotiations began two years ago in Havana, Cuba and their ambitious plan addresses most of the grievances brought up by the insurgency.

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Former presidential candidate, and strong advocate for peace, Antanas Mockus (furthest left) and attorney general of Colombia Eduardo Montealegre debating on post-conflict mechanisms at Pontificia Universidad Javeriana. Bogotá, Colombia. Photo Credit: Kelly O’Connor

Various media outlets have prematurely attributed yesterday’s terrorist attacks to the FARC, although an investigation by the office of the attorney general hasn’t made any definite conclusions. Colombian Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas has refrained from naming any culprits and President Juan Manuel Santos has cut short a foreign tour in Peru to oversee the investigation. Security in the city has been stepped up and, as I write this article, I hear the sound of armed forces helicopters patrolling the city.

I was born in Colombia in 1990, so this isn’t an entirely new scenario for me. While the insurgency and drug violence have existed in Colombia since the mid-twentieth century, the 80s and 90s saw unprecedented amounts of violence in urban centers in Colombia. Pablo Escobar’s infamous Cartel de Medellín led a terror campaign against the population designed to bring the government to its knees. After the drug violence subsided, the FARC filled the void in the drug market caused by the implosion of cartels in the late 90s. This now well-funded, invigorated insurgency frequently carried out acts of terrorism in cities as part of their strategy. I grew up hearing deafening blasts and the chaos that followed the bombings.

Colombians have learned to be at peace with our reality, often making crude self-deprecating jokes on our dire situation. (Did you hear the one about Colombian cocaine dealers?) However, the recent round of negotiations, plus a strong counterinsurgency strategy that drove the insurgents back to the mountains, had quieted down much of the violence in the cities.

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Mural by street artist Macondiana promoting civil society involvement in the Colombian “peace and democracy process.” Photo Credit: Kelly O’Connor

Yesterday’s bombs were a surprise. One awkward conversation to check-in with Canada later, and I was reminded how tenuous and fragile the prospect of peace is in the country. The attacks will bring in to question the goodwill of the FARC negotiators in Havana. An earlier bilateral ceasefire had broken down in April after a FARC rogue faction attacked an army position in the south. The attack left eleven soldiers dead. The Armed Forces have recently accused FARC operatives of planning the assassination of multiple high-ranking military officials. However, an independent third party has not proven such allegations.

President Santos is under huge pressure from opposition members to gut the peace process. Most notably, his former mentor, ex-president Alvaro Uribe, has been banging the war drum since his return to the political scene last year. Incredibly popular with the Colombian population, Uribe was largely responsible for the counterinsurgency policy that returned a minimum standard of peace Colombia’s cities. His strong stance and confrontational approach to the FARC resonates with wide sectors of the population.

Santos banked all his political capital on the success of Havana, but his approval ratings are tanking. The FARC team in Havana know that if the negotiations fail, it will mean a return to the mountains for them and a possible annihilation at the hands of the armed forces. At the very least, failure in Havana means that the very little legitimacy the FARC has will be completely lost.

The Colombian population is growing weary of the process and support for the negotiators is flat-lining. These bombings are not helping the peace cause. Powerful factions who have a stake in the continuation of the war are pulling from both directions. The beaten down citizens of Colombia have their gaze fixed on Cuba, holding their breath.

Christian Medina Ramirez is a Master of Arts candidate at the Norman Patterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University, Ottawa. He was born in Bogotá, Colombia, and did his undergraduate degree in Politics and Philosophy at the University of Hong Kong and the University of Waterloo, Canada.

Featured Photo by Globovision.

 

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