“Total Peace” in the Face of Territorial Reality

Since his inauguration, the new president of Colombia, Gustavo Petro, has stated that the “Total Peace” policy is one of his priorities. The policy seeks to open dialogues and demobilize all illegal armed structures. Since then, four of these groups have declared a ceasefire[1] and, in November 2022, negotiations was reinstated with the ELN guerrilla (National Liberation Army),[2] which had been suspended during the Iván Duque administration. A bill to bring the other armed structures before the justice system is also planned. The government defines these groups as “high impact criminal groups,” that lack a political character and these would include structures that arose out of paramilitarism, such as the Gaitan Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC, in Spanish).[3]

Photo: Ramón Campos / OACP

As negotiations between the Colombian government and the ELN enter the second phase,[4] the challenges to achieve peace remain evident on a territorial level. In January, PBI accompanied the Association for Research and Social Action (NOMADESC) and the Inter-Church Commission of Justice and Peace (JyP) in a humanitarian caravan in the context of negotiations between the government and the ELN. The objective of the caravan[5]—which included high-level governmental representatives such as the Office of the High Commissioner for Peace, ELN peace promoters, and Colombian and international civil society organizations—was to advance a partial agreement on humanitarian relief[6] in two prioritized regions of the Colombian Pacific Coast.[7] Despite the fact that the Office of the High Commissioner for Peace and the Colombian Army had agreed on a peripheral military presence, at several points during the mission, PBI observed incursions of the XV Army Brigade.[8] The military presence was interpreted as an intimidating act that put at risk the physical wellbeing of the communities[9] since, historically, a militarization of the territory has not signified security guarantees for them.

During the humanitarian caravan, the importance of implementing the ceasefire, humanitarian de-mining, and conditions for the return of displaced communities,[10] among other measures, was reiterated. The communities expressed their concern regarding similar missions because, to date, the promises have not translated into concrete actions.  On the contrary, the communities continue to be affected by a serious humanitarian crisis and the extent to which the armed actors are willing to lay down their arms is still in doubt. Numerous voices also questioned the effectiveness of initiating negotiations between two actors, while the AGC reinforces its presence in the region amid a major military presence.[11] Additionally, there is concern about the persistence of illicit drugs being grown and trafficked under the control of armed structures, a factor that perpetuates violence in Colombia. Without international measures and policies that lead to a global legalization of drug, efforts for “Total Peace” may fail, since this lucrative business could encourage the emergence of other drug trafficking groups, replacing the current structures as has happened in the past.

Among the most important conclusions of the humanitarian caravan is that the humanitarian relief measures to be defined in negotiations between the government and ELN must include an implementation and verification plan with community participation.

PBI Colombia

[1]The armed structures that have declared a ceasefire are as follows: the Central Command, the Second Marquetalia, the Gaitan Self-defense Forces of Colombia, and the Sierra Nevada Self-defense Forces.

[2]Infobae: Empieza la reinstalación de la mesa de diálogo con el ELN en Caracas, Venezuela, 21 November 2022.

[3]WRadio: Listo proyecto de ley de sometimiento del Clan del Golfo y bandas criminales, 15 February 2023.

[4]On 13 February, the second round of negotiations began between delegates of the Colombian government and the ELN (National Liberation Army) in Mexico.

[5]Other human rights violations affecting the communities of the San Juan River include mass forced displacement and confinement.

[6]The relief would focus on two very concrete measures: achieving a demining of the area—a unanimous request from all of the communities—and ending roadblocks and mobility restrictions along the San Juan River and its tributaries.

[7]Bajo Calima (Valle del Cauca) and Medio San Juan (Chocó).

[8]Through the 15th Battalion of Engineers and the Ground Operations Battalion No. 26.

[9] Al Jazeera: “Peace carvan” in Colombia met with fear and distrust, 27 January 2023.

[10] El Espectador: ¿Qué son los acuerdos humanitarios y por qué importan en los diálogos con el Eln?, 12 December 2022.

[11] Al Jazeera: “Peace carvan” in Colombia met with fear and distrust, 27 January 2023.

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