Marina Daley | Latin America Fellow
With a 90 percent increase in kidnappings in his first year of government, Colombian President Gustavo Petro has far from changed the trajectory of violence in Colombia over the last half century. Despite receiving popular support, Petro’s Total Peace law signed on 4 November 2022 was underpinned by much scepticism about its ability to improve security conditions in the country. The law permits the Colombian Government to engage with organised armed groups responsible for high impact crime and break with the past by working towards incorporating non-state actors into Colombian society. Its ultimate goal is to pacify these groups through dialogues, reintegrate them into civilian life, or transform them into legal entities.
As a former member of the M19 armed guerrilla movement, Petro understands how to engage with such groups and seemed like the perfect candidate to lead peace negotiations with the country’s 26 armed and criminal groups, finally bringing the country to peace. However, political divisions within Colombia and the fall of Petro’s approval rating to 33 percent from 56 percent at the beginning of his mandate highlights the possibility that Colombia will continue on its historical path rather than achieving peace and reconciliation.
Embracing Human Security
With a focus on human security as a means to end armed conflict in the country, Total Peace is a stark contrast to previous approaches. This echoes policy stances of 1990s peace initiatives which defended human rights and promoted social mobilisation, leading to a series of paramilitary group demobilisations and integration into Colombian politics. This peace framework was recently echoed when the Colombian Government concluded a peace accord in 2016 with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) following 52 years of conflict. Despite expectations that the 2016 peace accord would reduce levels of violence, it continues to remain high. Drawing lessons from this experience, Total Peace focuses on negotiating with all armed groups rather than one alone, aiming to avoid repeating the past and spurring an increase in armed groups and violence. Following the 2016 peace accord, other groups sought to fill the power vacuum left by FARC.
Meanwhile, Petro is actively progressing Total Peace’s implementation, demonstrating his commitment to tackling the root causes of violence. He is focusing on land reform, a central part of FARCs mandate and a continued historical issue in Colombia. This represents the most progress achieved in peace negotiation with the ELN since 2007. Petro has so far been successful in negotiating with a wide range of groups, having reached political agreement with Fedegán, the Cattle Ranchers Association, who have historically opposed land reform, to purchase land from the association. Already, Petro’s dedication towards implementing the peace accord has resulted in the National Liberation Army (ELN), the largest guerrilla group, signing a cease-fire agreement on August 3rd.
As Ivan Duque, the most recent ex-President, opposed this peace accord and meandered in its implementation, Petro’s actions contrastingly demonstrate his commitment to the peace process. He is encouraging Fedegán to be involved in negotiations with the ELN, thereby attempting to combine traditionally opposing groups in consolidating the peace process. This dedication to upholding the peace accords has encouraged more groups to come forward, such as some FARC dissident groups who rejected the 2016 peace agreement. However, these early successes are only the first steps in a long, challenging process of negotiations.
New Approaches to Negotiations
Lessons learnt from the 2016 peace agreement will be useful but are not definitive in securing Total Peace’s success as different responses will be required due to the varied goals of the different groups. The ELN is pursuing a role in civil society rather than seeking to gain legitimacy through becoming a political party as FARC did. Negotiations with groups linked to narcotrafficking will require a different approach, as they do not have a political mandate like FARC or the ELN.
As negotiations with FARC lasted a decade, political momentum may need to continue beyond the three years left in Petro’s mandate in order to conclude a similar agreement with the ELN. The breakdown of a ceasefire with Clan del Golfo, the country’s largest drug cartel, after it attacked the police, demonstrates ongoing challenges in negotiating with groups that commit high impact crimes. Negotiations with Clan de Golfo are currently centred around reducing the amount of violence it commits, but ultimately will need to focus on its dismantlement and submission to justice, which it opposes.
By extending social inclusion towards all groups, Total Peace seeks to reduce violence through with a similar approach to that of Ecuador which successfully achieved a reduction in violence after legalising gangs. However, considering Colombia’s current drug policy of prohibition, material incentives will continue to exist for these gangs to operate, making negotiating with these groups challenging as they continue their activities while in dialogue with the Government.
Additionally, without drug legalisation, it is likely that new groups will appear, motivated by the significant economic incentives of illegal markets. Recently, Colombia’s senate voted against the regulation of the recreational cannabis market, demonstrating the lack of political appetite for such a shift in legislation. It appears that it is unlikely that negotiating with groups that commit high impact crimes will lead to much success.
Controversy surrounding the Total Peace Law
Historical divisions in Colombia over how to best respond to high levels of violence include opposition to negotiation with organised armed groups which actively participate in criminal activity. This divide is prominent in discussions around the implementation of Total Peace’s provisions to suspend arrest warrants of these groups once they begin dialogues with the Government. Critics argue that without a legal framework outlining their submission to ordinary justice, these groups are incentivised to continue with their activities while in discussion with the Government. This has raised wider questions about whether suspended arrest warrants should only apply to armed groups with political characteristics, rather than all groups who commit high impact crime. Rejection of the referendum on the 2016 peace deal by Colombian voters is an indication that engagement with criminal groups is likely to create more public opposition than negotiations with FARC.
Negotiating for Lasting Peace
A recent poll suggests that 70 percent of Colombians believe that the nation is heading in the wrong direction and are increasingly concerned about the deteriorating security situation. With local elections approaching in October, the Government faces voters who are discontent and doubtful of the current approach. Depending on Petro's ability to assemble various groups in the negotiation room, it is possible that Colombians may demand a strategy similar to that of Bukele’s in El Salvador which has seen a huge drop in homicides. This approach is based on mass incarceration which has its own issues, as seen in Brazil, which has witnessed increased violence caused by prison-based criminal networks. Petro needs a comprehensive policy to ensure Total Peace’s success, and be clear what criminal groups are willing to concede to achieve peace, such as a legal framework for negotiation. Though Total Peace appears to be the best chance for securing lasting peace in Colombia, the will of the people may prevail in favour of a less effective approach.
Although Total Peace is a new approach to tackling violence in Colombia and already shows promise by making headway negotiations with ELN, the variety of groups that it must successfully negotiate with makes it unlikely that Petro will succeed in significantly reducing violence. Learning from the 2016 peace accords, he is working towards connecting different parts of Colombian society together while tackling long-standing issues facing the country, such as land reform. He faces many obstacles, including difficulties in convincing groups that commit high impact crimes to come to the negotiating table and division over whether the government should be negotiating with such groups.
Ultimately, it is unlikely that Total Peace will deliver the ambitious campaign promise it is named for. As Petro’s term draws to a close, he may be forced to create a separate policy targeting non-political criminal groups to achieve the promised declines in violence in Colombia.
Marina Daley is the Latin America Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.