On Nov. 20, Marxist guerrillas blew up two electricity towers and cut off power to dozens of towns in central Colombia. According to the insurgents, they only later learned that their top commanders had declared a ceasefire the day before the attack, as they sat down for the opening session of peace talks with the Colombian government.
The ill-timed sabotage by the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces, or FARC, brought to mind other fog-of-war miscues, such as allied troops marching into battle hours after the armistice was signed ending World War I. But it also shed light on how ceasefires can sometimes distract from the broader goal of bringing conflicts to a definitive halt. “The downside is that every little violation gets discussed at the negotiating table,” said Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America. “And that could derail the whole thing.” Sure enough, Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón expressed outrage over last week’s attack and accused the FARC of telling “systematic lies.” FARC negotiator Andrés Paris, in turn, charged that Pinzón was out to scuttle the peace talks. So far, however, the two sides continue to meet at the Palace of Conventions in Havana, Cuba, to try to end Latin America’s last remaining guerrilla war.
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Ironically, the last round of talks more than a decade ago collapsed—due in part to the lack of a ceasefire. At the time, the FARC was at its military peak with 15,000 fighters and ignored government pleas for a truce. Negotiations got off to a rocky start in 1999 when FARC rebels murdered three U.S. activists working on behalf of Colombian Indians. In his 2008 book A Billion Lives, Jan Egeland, the U.N. envoy who oversaw those negotiations, wrote that the effort “steadily lost credibility since it didn’t produce any tangible results or decrease violence….Paradoxically, the war had worsened while the peace dialogue took place.”
Since then, the FARC has been devastated by an army offensive that has killed many of its top comandantes. That’s apparently convinced the FARC that it’s time to cut a deal that would allow the rebels to disarm and form a legal political party. Perhaps seeking to recast its bloodstained image, the FARC renounced its longtime practice of kidnapping civilians for ransom. Moreover, it’s now the guerrillas who are pushing for a battlefield time-out.
On Nov. 19, the first day of the talks, Iván Márquez, the chief FARC negotiator, surprised government envoys by announcing a two-month unilateral ceasefire. “The Secretariat of the FARC…orders its guerrilla units throughout the national territory to cease all offensive military operations against government troops and all acts of sabotage against public and private infrastructure,” Márquez said. He added that the announcement could help improve the atmosphere at the negotiating table. But government officials fear a bi-lateral ceasefire would allow the FARC to rest and regroup, and they vowed that army troops would remain on the offensive. “In the past, ceasefires have provided a significant advantage to the guerrillas and that must not be repeated,” says Humberto de la Calle, the chief government negotiator.
Others point out that monitoring a nationwide truce in Colombia, which is home to three Andean mountain ranges and immense stretches of Amazon jungle, could provoke new disputes. León Valencia, a former guerrilla who now heads the New Rainbow Foundation think tank in Bogotá, recalls how the FARC and government troops put down their guns for negotiations in 1984. But those talks were overwhelmed by mutual accusations of ceasefire violations. President Juan Manuel Santos has suggested that a ceasefire should come near the end of the talks rather than at the beginning. He’s under pressure to maintain a hard line due to the failure of past negotiations as well as criticism from former President Alvaro Uribe, his influential predecessor. Uribe launched the offensive against the FARC in 2002 and has lately denounced Santos for offering the rebels and olive branch.
But Santos’ government is now courting a new set of risks. Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin America Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, points out that if an army attack kills a top FARC leader it would spell doom for the negotiations. Pressing the offensive could also provoke a violent reaction of ambushes and terrorist bombings from the FARC, designed to pressure the government into accepting a truce. Since the peace talks were first announced in August, rebel attacks have killed about 50 government troops and civilians. Arnson and other proponents of a bi-lateral cease fire note that it would bring immediate relief to war-torn communities in rural Colombia—and that reducing the bloodshed could increase popular support for the negotiations and for government leaders, a key issue as Santos considers a re-election bid in 2014.
Even the FARC’s one-sided cease fire, which is scheduled to last until Jan. 20, may prove useful. Many guerrilla fronts are heavily involved in drug trafficking, illegal mining and extortion schemes, and it’s unclear whether they would actually honor a peace accord and disarm. The FARC’s truce is seen as a crucial test of the rebel leadership’s command-and-control over its far-flung fighters. “If the FARC can deliver on a cease fire,” Arnson says, “then that’s a very good sign.” Which is why Colombians are hoping that last week’s assault on the electricity towers really was just rebel blunder instead of betrayal.