Colombia’s ‘Total Peace’ is achieving slow but steady progress

By Carlos Cruz for Justice for Colombia

Just over a year into passing Colombia’s ambitious Total Peace Bill, it is clear that Gustavo Petro’s administration has its work cut out. Although the country’s more mainstream militarist voices have already announced its failure (many doing so before it passed), the Total Peace Bill offers an ambitious alternative to the approach of previous governments. Passed through Congress in November 2022 as Ley 227, the bill’s primary purpose is to endow the government with legal powers to advance talks and negotiations that could lead to peace agreements with the country’s main armed groups. It seeks to reinforce the implementation of the deal already signed with the FARC in 2016 (neglected by the previous government) whilst building upon it and extending it to other guerrilla groups and armed criminal organisations including paramilitary successor groups.

The idea is that an approach based on dialogue and cooperation could lead to the disbanding of these armed groups (so long as they submit themselves to special judicial processes) putting a definitive end to the country’s historic armed conflict — which, the new administration maintains, must be complemented with tackling structural forms of violence. Though undoubtedly ambitious, with obstacles such as the country’s traditional elites undermining the government’s efforts there has been at least some measurable progress.

Peace talks and negotiations

The principal achievement of the Total Peace Bill is the establishment of talks and negotiations with eight of the largest armed organisations operating in the country. The progress with each ranges from exploratory meetings to advanced discussions and negotiations. Namely, Petro’s administration is in advanced talks and ceasefire with the Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional (National Liberation Amry – ELN) and the Estado Mayor Central (formed of FARC members that did not enter the 2012-2016 peace process – EMC)  — the two largest remaining guerrilla organisations in the country. The other groups it has entered into discussions with (ranging from exploratory to established) are the dissident guerrilla group Segunda Marquetalia – formed of FARC members who left the peace talks after its signing – and five of the most significant criminal groups in the country, notably among them the Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia (AGC), also known as the Clan del Golfo.

The most recent development is a welcomed extension of the government’s ceasefire with the EMC and an extension of the ceasefire with the ELN during recent talks in Cuba — with this latter group also expected to release the 26 hostages it currently holds after announcing an end to the practice.

Although going further than prior governments in their genuine readiness to dialogue and negotiate with the above groups— most prior governments adhering to an open-ended militarist approach to the conflict— the progress is protracted and full of challenges. It is observed that the government’s efforts with the armed criminal groups, some of which have historic links to elements of the Colombian state, have been incredibly strenuous. For instance, the government’s talks with the AGC have encountered several obstacles, even forcing the government to suspend an earlier agreed ceasefire after the group was found to have played a central role in organising an armed strike in the Bajo Cauca region following an operation to stop illegal mining in the area.

The most immediate effect of these talks and negotiations is the multiple ceasefires with the country’s most significant armed groups, leading to a reduction in violence — especially in the regions most afflicted by conflict. What remains to be seen is whether the government can negotiate more permanent agreements with the armed groups to put a more definitive end to the violence against the country’s citizens.

Total peace and civil society 

One of the critical aspects of the Total Peace Bill and the discussions that have resulted from it is a greater effort to integrate civil society into the discussions and negotiations. Namely, in the talks with the ELN, both negotiating parties have insisted on civil society participation, opening up channels for their ideas to be considered. As reported by Justice for Colombia recently, the negotiations with the ELN include the creation of what has been called the National Participation Committee, which met last July— a forum in which a variety of different civil society and trade union organisations were given the opportunity to propose strategies for greater inclusion of citizens in the talks and negotiations.

Similarly, the discussions with the EMC have also insisted on the centrality of civil society participation, with the most recent agreement prioritising the involvement of marginalised civilian groups including peasant, indigenous, and Afro Colombian communities and victims of violence. According to local analysts, the above approach can be strengthened through a more significant and influential presence of peace officials in the relevant territories, including creating departmental peace commissions, among other proposals.

The importance given to including ordinary Colombians in the current peace discussions is a welcomed development as they are the ones most impacted by the war — not just taking into account the estimated 450,000 lives lost but also other aspects that have affected them, such as displacement, torture, and forced disappearance.

As Petro’s administration acknowledges, for the Total Peace Bill to achieve its objectives, it must be reinforced by tackling the historical structural forms of violence experienced by civil society. That is, the socioeconomic conditions that reproduce the armed conflict.

It was announced last December that the government would inject $2.1 billion Colombian Pesos (£500,000) into the Colombia in Peace Fund, created after the 2016 peace agreement to support the conflict’s victims and those who have laid down their arms. Part of the fund has already been paid out to thousands of peasant families who have signed up for an illicit crop substitution programme which is aimed at allowing peasant families in conflict areas to move away from coca crops and invest in more socially sustainable agricultural production and businesses. At the end of the most recent cycle of negotiations with the ELN, it was also announced that a multi-donor fund would be created to ensure the sustainability of those peace talks.

With the Total Peace Bill, a complementary endeavour exists to address the historic state abandonment of regions at the heart of the armed conflict. President Petro and his governmental team, as part of this effort, recently completed a week’s tour of the country’s long-neglected Pacific region, where consultation and strategy meetings were held with locals, resulting in the drawing up of a plan to transform the region’s economy and address some of the social issues linked to the narcotics trade and the armed conflict.

An assessment of just over a year of the Total Peace Bill demonstrates that there has been significant progress regarding dialogue and negotiations with Colombia’s principal armed groups and the integration of civil society into the process. Moreover, Petro’s government has correctly identified and is seeking to take action to address the structural violence (impoverishment, exploitation, inequality) that reproduces the armed conflict. Though the portrayal of the bill as a ‘failure’ from the more militarist mainstream media is premature, it must be acknowledged that progress toward achieving its goals has been sluggish — especially considering that civil society, trade unions, and social organisations continue to experience urgent conditions. Nonetheless, it appears to be the most viable route towards a more permanent peace, one that is not only working towards ending the armed conflict definitively but also the structural forms of violence that fuel it.