Bogotá on Verge of Clinching Historic Reconciliation with FARC Rebels

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Colombians love a good party, and in a year already stained by terrorism — from Brussels and Beirut to Paris, Orlando, Istanbul, Dhaka, Baghdad and now Nice — South America’s second-most populous country has finally given the world something to celebrate.

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Photo: Lawrence Ruggeri
As defense minister from 2011 to 2015, Ambassador Juan Carlos Pinzón pursued hardline policies against leftist FARC rebels, dramatically reducing the size of jungle territory they controlled.

On June 23, the government of President Juan Manuel Santos signed a ceasefire with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC in Spanish), effectively ending the longest armed conflict in Latin American history. Over the last 50 years, that war has cost as many as 220,000 lives and displaced nearly 6 million people.

It’s not a done deal until the two sides sign a formal peace treaty, in a ceremony unlikely to take place until mid-August at the earliest. The details still have to be ironed out, including the scheduling of a referendum that voters must approve for the agreement to move forward. To be sure, many of Colombia’s 49 million inhabitants aren’t pleased about the idea of making nice with one of the world’s most feared terrorist groups. Leading them is former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, a fierce opponent of the deal who calls it a “capitulation” to FARC.

But Juan Carlos Pinzón, Bogotá’s man in Washington, and other supporters of the deal say it is a historic milestone in Colombia’s transformation from a narco-state wracked by insurgent violence to one of the world’s most attractive, stable emerging markets.

“We got here through lots of sacrifice by our armed forces,” said Pinzón, who on Aug. 3 marks his first anniversary as ambassador here. “We hit hard against the terrorists, against crime and against violence. That’s how President Santos has been negotiating: peace through strength. This is a very important achievement after four years of negotiations.”

FARC emerged as a left-wing guerrilla group in the 1960s in response to socio-economic inequalities. Inspired by Marxist-Leninist ideology, the group vowed to defend Colombia’s peasants against wealthy landowners and right-wing governments. In recent decades, however, FARC embraced kidnappings, bombings, assassinations, landmine explosions, extortion and other brutal tactics. Facing attacks from right-wing paramilitary forces in the 1990s, it also entered the lucrative coca market, taxing growers and trafficking cocaine.

A multibillion-dollar U.S. aid package targeting drug production and trafficking known as Plan Colombia, along with a tough military crackdown led by Uribe, squeezed the FARC army. In recent years, its ranks dwindled from an estimated 17,000 in 2001 to roughly 7,000 or fewer today. Asked how many fighters the group currently has, Pinzón said he had an idea but refused to say, for strategic reasons.

Pinzón, 44, is an expert on Colombia’s anti-FARC campaign. As Santos’s defense minister from 2011 to 2015, he pursued hardline policies against the leftist rebels, dramatically reducing the size of jungle territory they controlled while also scoring successes against another guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), which is not a party to the current accord.

Interestingly, Santos sent Pinzón to Washington to replace his predecessor, Luis Carlos Villegas, who was promptly named defense minister — in essence giving the two men each other’s jobs. Before joining the Ministry of Defense, Pinzón held various positions as senior advisor to the executive director of the World Bank; vice president of the Colombian Banking Association; assistant vice president of investment banking at Citibank; chief of staff for the Ministry of Finance; and economist at Citigroup.

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Photo: Larry Luxner
Colombian soldiers patrol the countryside while at left, a police officer looks out over a colonial street in Cartagena. Violence in Colombia, fueled by drug gangs, leftist rebels and paramilitary squads, has gone done dramatically in recent years.

“FARC was once the largest guerrilla group in the Western Hemisphere. We were able to force them into a position of having no other choice but to negotiate peace,” he said. “We expect them to stop their criminal activities and violence, and take advantage of the opportunity to participate in Colombia’s political life.”

The ambassador added: “Of course, there are still other expressions of violence in Colombia, like ELN and some criminal organizations. We will confront them as well.”

Jason Marczak, director of the Atlantic Council’s Latin America Economic Growth Initiative, said the ceasefire is “an incredibly significant” step for Colombia.

“There have been a number of temporary ceasefires over the course of the negotiations, but the permanence of this one is a game-changer and shows that the end of the conflict is hopefully near,” he said. “The key will be to agree to final terms of a comprehensive peace deal that goes beyond the ceasefire itself. I am very optimistic that will happen. The government and the FARC have shown incredible progress. It’s been an uphill discussion over the last few years, but all the pieces are at least in place.”

Marczak calls Pinzón “not only a great diplomat, but also a well-respected member of Colombia’s military establishment” who knows his way around Capitol Hill.

“Ambassador Pinzón is a fantastic representative for the Colombian government in the U.S., having served honorably as minister of defense and personally overseeing much of the campaign against FARC,” he said. “He is the right advocate in Washington for the peace deal, and also for assuring members of Congress and the human rights community that the Colombian government will not let up militarily on the FARC if they don’t comply with the agreements.”

Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, agrees that Pinzón enjoys credibility on the issue, precisely because he was formerly the minister of defense.

“He’s widely seen as somebody who represented the interests of the armed forces,” said Shifter, whose think tank has invited Pinzón to speak on various occasions. “It was very shrewd to have him during this period as ambassador in Washington. He can counter the argument that somehow Santos is turning the country over to the FARC or being soft on terrorists.”

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Photo: Larry Luxner
A police officer looks out over a colonial street in Cartagena. Violence in Colombia, fueled by drug gangs, leftist rebels and paramilitary squads, has gone done dramatically in recent years.

Pinzón spoke to The Washington Diplomat in mid-July at his elegant residence just off Dupont Circle.

“The main role of the Colombian armed forces is to protect people,” he told us in between meetings with various lawmakers. “Let me remind you that Colombia has had a demobilization effort for years. It’s a challenge, but Colombia is one of the few countries that even has a reintegration agency precisely dedicated to this. What was once the most violent country in the world is moving to peace and prosperity.

“Experts say we will see between 1 and 2 percent of additional economic growth as a result of this peace agreement,” added Pinzón. “This will give Colombia the chance to increase investment in areas that were not active in the economy before.”

The ambassador said the peace agreement is moving full steam ahead — and that there is no going back. “We expect that during the next two weeks, the constitutional court will rule in favor of the plebiscite, or referendum, as a means to ratify the agreement. Then there will be the signing of the final agreement with FARC, within the next 30 days,” he told us, explaining that the referendum will take place some time in late September.

Nevertheless, significant hurdles remain. Among the concerns: how to verifiably disarm FARC foot soldiers and commanders — some of whom, as the New York Times pointed out, were kidnapped as children and know of no other life — and reintegrate them into society? A “transitional justice” system, which will offer reduced sentences to rebels who confess their crimes, was also a bitter pill to swallow for many Colombians who wanted tougher punishments. And with illegal coca production on the upswing, many Colombians worry that criminal gangs or rebel groups such as the ELN will swoop in to take over FARC’s old cocaine stomping grounds, sparking a bloody power struggle.

Nevertheless, public support for the peace deal appears high, though Santos, who has staked his legacy on the landmark agreement, has seen his personal approval ratings tumble.

So now the campaigning begins. Just as ardently as Santos advocates for the peace deal, Uribe and his allies are trashing it and urging followers to resist it. In a recent interview with Americas Quarterly, the former president — who left office with a 75 percent popularity rating — said that despite the government’s claims, security has actually worsened, and that cocaine production has doubled from 200 metric tons a year to more than 400 tons.

Uribe, who hails from a prominent ranching family, may have his own agenda for undermining the peace process. He’s been accused of having ties to right-wing paramilitary groups, which have helped wealthy landowners consolidate territory and have been implicated in massacres and human rights violations. (As a former president, Uribe enjoys immunity from prosecution.)

The fact that a former president has come out so strongly against the agreement, says Pinzón, “proves that Colombian democracy is open and strong. It allows any vision to be part of the discussion, and those debates are welcome.”

a4.cover.colombia.glance.storyMarczak said Uribe has been campaigning in Washington for some time now against the peace deal.

“His message has been heard loud and clear, and now Santos has to dispel those concerns,” he warned. “It’s incumbent upon the government to show that this deal will be implemented according to the standards, and that those who have committed heinous human rights violations will face jail time. This is the only option.”

Cynthia Arnson, director of the Wilson Center’s Latin American Program, agrees.

“There’s been vigorous opposition by Uribe, who was here to make his case against the peace process,” she said. “But most countries have been overwhelmingly supportive, and it’s to be expected that, even in the midst of the deep, fractious political debate in our own country, that support will continue.”

Working in Bogotá’s favor is the fact that U.S. support for Colombia has been bipartisan. Both Democrats and Republicans have long backed Plan Colombia, a military aid program that has cost $10 billion since its implementation 16 years ago. In March, during a visit by Santos to the White House, President Obama announced he would ask Congress to allocate $450 million for a new program called Peace Colombia to help guide the country as it enters the post-conflict phase.

“For over 15 years, Congress has worked on a bipartisan basis to support Colombia in its fight against the FARC. Looking ahead to the future, U.S. support for Peace Colombia will be just as critical,” Shifter said. “It’s easy to rally members of Congress around an imminent security threat in our hemisphere, especially with one of our closest allies. It’s another thing to rally members of Congress to support peace.”

Congress is concerned, he said, not only about Colombia’s rising drug production but also because of the impunity issue. “The Colombians have come up with transitional justice, whereby if people acknowledge their crimes, there will be reduced penalties. Even Human Rights Watch is very concerned about this.”

Drugs are a very real issue, especially in light of a new United Nations report showing that Colombia has overtaken Peru as the world’s top source of cocaine.

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Photo: By Dougwash - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons
El Poblado is an important economic center in the revitalized Colombian city of Medellín, once known as the most violent city in the world.

“FARC is very much involved in the drug trade,” said Shifter. “They see this is going to be all over soon, so they’re trying to increase production as much as they can before the agreement is implemented.”

On July 15, Colombia’s senior presidential advisor for post-conflict issues, Rafael Pardo, gave a detailed presentation at the Wilson Center on what will actually happen now that a ceasefire has been reached.

With the ceasefire in effect, five of the six items under negotiation in Havana are now closed: comprehensive agriculture development; political participation; rebel reintegration into civilian life; illegal crop eradication; and transitional justice and compensation to victims.

The sixth element, the disarmament of FARC and implementation of the deal, will follow a detailed timetable, with the surrender of weapons and ammunition monitored and verified by a 240-member United Nations peacekeeping mission.

“Our first challenge is how to stabilize regions where FARC is located now as an armed group,” said Pardo, explaining that the former guerrillas will be moved from the 100 jungle municipalities where they are now scattered to 23 specific centers. “We have to make sure that once FARC leaves these regions, no other illegal group will take their place or enter those regions to do illegal activities.”

In simple terms, Colombia is following three roadmaps. One is related to the immediate peace agreement at hand, the second deals with FARC’s future and the third covers Colombia’s progress over the next 10 to 20 years.

The government’s overall Rapid Response Strategy — the first of the three steps — will last for 18 months and cost the equivalent of $400 million. It involves four lines of action and 26 projects, as well as compensation for 30,000 victims of FARC violence.

“The second and third steps are long term. The goals are to implement the agreement and the other is to transform rural living conditions,” said Pardo, adding that the government will introduce tax incentives for companies to invest in previous conflict zones. “This will take at least 20 years and would cost a lot. There are other programs beyond the agreement, and the purpose is to close the gap between living standards of Colombians in the cities and living standards in the 20 percent of our population that lives rural areas.”

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Photo: Larry Luxner
Pedestrians throng a covered walkway along a picturesque street off Parque Bolívar in Cartagena's historic district.

Meanwhile, back in Washington, Pinzón declined to speculate how ties with the U.S. would fare under a Donald Trump presidency, though he did say Colombia has tried hard to stay out of America’s domestic politics.

“We’re working very hard to keep this bipartisan,” he said. “In the House, we got approval of $100 million more than what the administration requested, while in the Senate, we got what the administration requested. Both Republicans and Democrats support our efforts.”

Regarding the November election (Pinzón plans on attending both parties’ national conventions), he said: “It’s their country. I just hope the American people make up their minds, and regardless of who becomes president, we will need to work with the United States. U.S.-Colombian relations have survived different administrations, from Presidents Clinton to Bush to Obama. So we expect the next president to continue that.”

The same cannot be said for Colombia’s tense relations with neighboring Venezuela. On July 10, more than 35,000 desperate Venezuelans poured across the border into the Colombian city of Cúcuta to buy food and household goods like toilet paper and cooking oil that are no longer available at home.

Shifter calls Venezuela “a real wild card,” especially if Nicolás Maduro’s government continues to face unrest in the wake of massive food shortages, political repression and declining prices for oil, the country’s only real export (also see “Venezuela’s Envoy Insists Embattled Country Won’t Collapse” in the July 2016 issue).

“There’s no issue of greater concern for senior Colombian officials than the possible implosion of Venezuela and the spillover of unrest into Colombia,” Shifter said. “If things completely break down in Venezuela, that would really upset Colombia precisely at a time when they’re trying to stabilize the situation.”

Pinzón said he’s confident Colombia will overcome that “situation” — and that in the end, voters will support the peace plan.

“We Colombians were always a very resilient country, despite the violence. It was always able to keep its democratic institutions, a set of sound policies and an entrepreneurial attitude by its people that allowed us — even in hard times — to keep moving forward,” he said. “Through hard work, sacrifice, a strong determination and the heroism of our armed forces, we were able to overcome this.”

Pinzón — whose family’s legacy of military service spans more than 120 years — has never lost his enduring love of the country’s armed forces.

“Even as I’m sitting here in Washington, I keep thinking about our soldiers and policemen,” he said. “And the more I think about them, the more I respect them and am thankful for what they did. No matter what, I will always be on their side.”


About the Author

Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on July 27, 2016

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