TSG IntelBrief: Colombia’s Fitful Transformation
November 5, 2012

As of early November 2012, the recent ambush conducted by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) that killed six police officers in Cauca provides graphic evidence of the instability that continues to plague Colombia almost 50 years after the start of its rebellion. The murders occurred even as the first formal peace talks in a decade between the Colombian government and the FARC were being mediated in Norway and Cuba. Only days before, President Juan Manuel Santos had rejected FARC demands for a ceasefire during the negotiations out of concern the rebels would use a truce to re-organize and reconstitute their forces in order to launch a new offensive. His fears are not without historical precedent since just such an occurrence happened during Colombia’s 2002 peace talks. The result was catastrophic and enduring. In answer to the President’s refusal and speaking on behalf of the FARC, Commander Mauricio Jarmillio was dismissive of the concerns and publicly proclaimed that the rebels were “fully committed” to the talks.

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Difficult Negotiations Ahead

The entrenched position of both the Colombian government and the FARC makes it clear the insurgency and its collateral effects will likely persist — frustrating the first-term president, prolonging the suffering of Colombians, and draining national coffers. Regardless, the talks will proceed. The two sides held preparatory sessions in Oslo beginning October 18th and followed on with additional informal sessions in Havana later in the month. Formal talks are slated to begin in Havana beginning on 15 November and will focus on ending the armed conflict, land reform, guarantees for the exercise of political opposition, fighter demobilization and amnesty, drug trafficking, and the rights of the victims of the conflict.

Estimated FARC strength is now believed to be near 8,000 fighters, down from a high of 16,000 in 2002. Despite the diminished number of combatants, the FARC remains active in Colombia and continues to attack the oil and transportation infrastructure with alarming frequency.

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Balancing Security and Reform

The FARC’s rebellion is not the only pain being endured by the Colombian people or for that matter by their President, who has promised improved internal security and government reform. Despite those promises and the FARC negotiations, the potential for violence by terrorist and other criminal groups continues to exist in all regions of the country. Likewise, the President’s other well-publicized initiatives — The Justice Reform Act and The Victims and Land Restitution Law — have been met with staunch resistance.

In addition to public petitions for enhanced security, complaints about government corruption and popular demand for judicial reform have long been features of the Colombian political landscape. While studies indicate that public perception of government corruption exceeds the problem’s actual impact on the lives of Colombians, the issue remains at the forefront of public discourse through frequent media coverage of political scandals, especially when it comes to matters of the Colombian Congress. 

As with most democracies, Colombians feel that their elected officials should be held accountable to the national constitution and insist the judiciary is the rightful public agent responsible for enforcing that accountability. In response, President Santos called introduced his Justice Reform Act purportedly aimed at introducing efficiency, equity, and speed into the courts. His timing was problematic for congress since, as of June 2012, 138 former congressmen were awaiting trial while 38 others had recently been sentenced for their ties to paramilitary groups.

Congress promptly determined it was in their best interest to amend the proposed law. Not only did the amendments provide special immunity to members and former members of Congress, but Colombia’s prosecutor general was to be legally denied jurisdiction over cases involving government officials. According to Colombian media reports, that single amendment alone would have derailed more than 1,500 open cases. To add insult to injury, other amendments would have allowed convicted officials to continue serving their official terms and the Administrative Chamber of the Supreme Judiciary Council was to be abolished, likely creating a terminal condition for effectiveness of the nation’s judiciary.

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The Problematic Road Ahead

Public outcry and political embarrassment over the manipulation of the Judicial Reform Act by Congress eventually caused President Santos to reject the bill, sending it back to Congress where it was finally and unanimously killed by both the Senate and House of Representatives. Casualties of the sordid affair include the President’s reputation, the relationship between Congress and the judiciary, and the career Justice Minister Juan Carlos Esguerra who resigned in disgust on June 22nd.

The Victims and Land Restitution Law (Law 1448) may face the same fate of the Judicial Reform Act. The law, signed in June 2011, constitutes the first piece of legislation enacted to redress the suffering caused to millions of victims and internally displaced persons by the country’s longstanding internal conflict. Specifically, Law 1448 is designed to facilitate the restitution of millions of hectares of land abandoned or stolen as a result of human rights violations during the FARC rebellion. Seen by some as reparation for the persecuted common man, the law is also viewed by many politicians and academics as a necessary concession to FARC demands for land reform.  

According to Amnesty International, redress and reparation obstacles faced by the government, landholders, and alleged victims include the complex processes that need to be undertaken to identify misappropriated lands, provisions that may have the effect of legitimizing tenure of stolen lands, and inadequate support for victims returning to their lands. Not all Colombians see the Victims and Land Restitution Law as wise, altruistic or equitable and they have voiced their opposition through the employment of both protest and violence in the form of assassinations. In some cases, land is held by armed groups who are threatening all parties — government or otherwise — who intend to retake the properties. In other instances, those who have been deprived of their rightful and legally-owned family estates are forming groups to forcefully seize that which was at one time theirs. In either situation, the encounters promise to be a bloodbath which will require government intervention, political will, and public support, none of which may bode well for the political future of President Santos.

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