What’s Not on the Agenda at the Summit in Cartagena: Conflict Resolution in Colombia

April 13, 2012
By IPJ Executive Director Milburn Line


This weekend 33 heads of state, including President Obama, will trumpet the possibilities for greater prosperity and stability through increased political and economic integration, at the Sixth Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia. Yet the most obvious means to reduce violence and poverty in Colombia would be to end its 50-year internal conflict and focus security efforts on the neo-paramilitary criminal gangs that threaten the rule of law throughout the country. Despite having the most disturbing human rights and humanitarian record in the hemisphere, conflict resolution in Colombia is not on the agenda.


In the lead up to the summit, attention has been focused on proposals by Latin American presidents to decriminalize illegal drugs to reduce the violence of the narcotics trade; whether Cuba should attend; and the declining health of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. But one does not have to wander far from the meetings in colonial Cartagena to see the effects of a half-century of armed confrontation firsthand. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ sultry city is surrounded by shantytowns to which many have fled from violence and fumigations in Bolivar, Sucre and other departments; the displaced now live in squalor. Colombia now has more displaced persons, 5 million, than any other country in the world. And the conflict-driven displacement continues, most recently amongst Afro-Colombians in Chocó on the Pacific coast, villages in Norte de Santander on the border with Venezuela, and across the border in San Lorenzo, Ecuador.


Cartagena, in Colombia

Cartagena, in Colombia (photo by Daviddavid00, wikicommons)

For a decade the Colombian government has, with billions of dollars of U.S. support  – known as Plan Colombia – pursued a military strategy for ending the conflict. The insurgencies, however, still have broad, albeit indecisive, operational capacity, as demonstrated by recent attacks in Arauca, Caquetá, Cauca, Chocó, Meta, Nariño and Norte de Santander. Insecurity in so many places across Colombia demonstrates that this low intensity conflict is only low intensity for those not in the middle of it.


Last week, FARC guerrillas finally released the last 10 Colombian soldiers and police who had been held hostage in the jungle for more than 13 years, partially fulfilling one of the preconditions President Juan Manuel Santos outlined for eventual negotiations. Despite the terrible human costs of the 50-year conflict, policymakers have been jaded about the prospects for a negotiated solution following failed talks a decade ago.


In Cartagena we are more likely to hear praise for Colombia’s efforts to reduce the tremendous violence of the last decades than advocacy for conflict resolution. The last three U.S. presidents, both parties in Congress, and the State Department and Pentagon have been deeply vested in Plan Colombia, making scrutiny of its shortcomings unpopular in both Washington, D.C. and Bogotá. But scratching below the surface – or venturing beyond the picturesque walls of Cartagena – praise for public security advances may be overstated. Colombia’s homicide rate was only recently surpassed by the rampant drug violence in Mexico. Serious human rights violations, including almost 3,000 extrajudicial killings of civilians by the security forces and up to 30,000 forced disappearances – numbers as egregious as historic violations in Argentina, Chile or Guatemala – are under investigation by the Colombian justice system. Last month the United Nations warned that extrajudicial killings by the Colombian Army have continued in four conflict zones. Impunity for rampant sexual violence committed against half a million Colombian women over the last decade remains the norm.


Cartagena Houses and Cathedral

Colonial houses in the foreground, and the Cathedral of Cartagena in the background

President Santos has worked to address the suffering of victims through recent initiatives like the Victims and Land Restitution Law. But he also continues to affirm that he alone will decide when the conditions are right for peace. Latin American presidents should work with their Colombian partners to create those conditions. Both the FARC and ELN guerrillas have issued statements indicating they are ready to move forward on dialogue. While we should not be naïve about declarations of rebel groups, waiting on them to fulfill preconditions only extends the suffering of Afro-Colombians, indigenous, peasants, trade unionists and the urban displaced. Colombian civil society and political figures, ranging from opposition parties to former presidents, have insisted on dialogue and a meaningful participation in the conflict transformation process. Seventy-four percent of Colombians polled a year ago believed their government should engage in talks with the rebels. President Santos, with 80 percent approval ratings, has the political capital to lead for peace.


The Colombian military recently requested more U.S. helicopters and even drones in order to reduce the FARC to half their troop strength by 2014. A better investment would be to negotiate their demobilization. Disarming 8,000 FARC combatants and up to 2,000 ELN fighters is preferable to their fragmenting into hundreds more drug-trafficking gangs.


The Colombian government estimates that 2 percent growth in GDP is lost annually due to the ongoing confrontation. Projected over 50 years, the opportunity cost of not resolving the conflict is potentially greater than current economic growth initiatives like the Free Trade Agreement, especially if you factor in the cost of maintaining over 400,000 members of the security forces.


Even an initial agreement with the insurgents on human rights and humanitarian standards with external monitoring could mitigate the suffering of civilians caught in the crossfire, as occurred at the beginning of the Guatemalan peace process in 1994. While Colombians understandably assert their right to address the armed conflict without external interference, a multilateral international presence – including the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), OAS monitoring mission and U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights – has been functioning throughout the country for a decade. Both the ICRC and Embassy of Brazil provided critical support during the FARC’s hostage release last week.


From a U.S. policy perspective, support for dialogue could create clearer channels for reducing the illicit narcotics trade and achieving free trade certification. Multilateral leadership for peace is also more in line with the democratic values espoused by U.S. presidents – imperative in a region where Latin American presidents continue to use Cold War rhetoric to characterize the United States as an imperialist hegemon. As the United States seeks direct engagement with the Taliban, encouraging the Colombian government to talk with the FARC is not really a leap of faith.


The meeting in Cartagena will no doubt highlight Colombia’s achievements in the first 20 months of President Santos’ administration. It should not ignore the continuing human rights and humanitarian challenges in the Colombian countryside and the possibilities for resolving Colombia’s 50-year civil war.


Milburn Line is executive director of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice, based at the University of San Diego. From 2007 to 2009, he managed a project in Colombia that worked with civil society and state institutions working to protect human rights.