This week, Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) —a terrorist drug-trafficking organization —will come together to participate in peace talks aimed to end the war that has claimed thousands of lives since its outbreak in 1964.
FARC is entering negotiations claiming that the organization is willing to lay down its weapons. However, the government led by Santos would be wise to disregard this claim, as FARC has shattered its own credibility in the past. It has announced that it detests drug trafficking despite the fact that the organization is “a narcotics powerhouse responsible for more than 60% of the cocaine sent to the United States and for vast numbers of murders,” according to a federal indictment, and it denies holding hostages despite the hundreds of families waiting to hear news about their kidnapped loved ones.
Santos must also be wary, as previous negotiations have failed miserably. As a result of peace talks in the late 1990s, former president Andres Pastrana gave FARC a sizable piece of land, which the organization then used for drug trafficking and training troops. This was clearly counterproductive to the goal of creating peace, as FARC, which is widely viewed as a terrorist organization, only gained strength. Moreover, after peace talks in the mid-1980s resulted in a cease-fire, FARC leaders entered politics through the Patriotic Union party. This increased tensions between the government, FARC, and civilians, and hundreds were killed, demonstrating that Colombians are not willing to forgive FARC and they demand retribution.
Despite this, Pastrana says that if the government is “not willing to forgive, the peace process is going to be a failure.” If Santos agrees with Pastrana and decides to essentially forgive FARC in negotiations, “a peace deal would almost certainly include a mechanism for FARC members to avoid prison.” A peace-for-freedom deal would require the powerful leaders of an industry making tens of millions of dollars a year “to actually give it up,” according to the Washington Office on Latin America. More realistically, FARC leaders would continue what they are already doing, albeit they might have to operate underground. The government must not concede to FARC; it must concede to the rule of law.
In doing so, the government also needs to take a look at itself and reform its army practices. In October 2008, 11 men were offered work one day, and a few weeks later, they were found dead and dressed in FARC uniforms, presented to army officials as FARC guerillas. Indeed, the Colombian military has killed up to 3,000 innocent civilians as “false positives,” since cash, promotions, and holidays incentivize members of the military to kill as many guerillas as possible. The army has admitted that some of these victims were not in fact guerillas. However, the justice system, which is compromised by corruption and extortion according to Freedom House, has left a vast majority of those responsible for civilian deaths unpunished, and only a few army officers were fired because of the issue. In addition, the government frequently accuses campaigners, journalists, and victims’ families who seek justice of collaborating with FARC guerilla groups.
If President Santos wants to effectively incite lasting peace, he must not compromise with a terrorist organization or grant its leaders freedom from prison; he must apply rule of law to his country, sentencing both FARC leaders and government military leaders responsible for civilian deaths to retribution.