Fabio Andrés Díaz

Recent fighting in which soldiers from the Colombian Army were killed in the province of Cauca seems to have placed the current peace process between the FARC and the Colombian government in jeopardy. Any analysis of these events requires one to take account of how confusing the explanations of events occurring in the middle of war can be—especially as a negotiated peace settlement is being brokered.

The death of eleven government soldiers and the wounding of more than nineteen in this latest incident are significant developments. The Colombian peace talks had been focused on the issue of de-escalation of the conflict, and the country had enjoyed a unilateral cease fire by the FARC. For its part, the government had reciprocated (in spite of the opposition from some sectors of public) by ceasing aerial bombardments of the FARC guerrillas during the same period. It seemed as if momentum was beginning to build towards a lasting peace. These latest attacks have reopened old wounds, however.

The general population in Colombia is still mostly distrustful of the FARC. For many, the group’s commitment to peace and its actual intentions as the process unfolds is in serious doubt, despite strong signals of good faith from the FARC leadership during negotiations. The general public has reason to be distrustful. Previous negotiations have failed spectacularly, particularly that between 1999 and 2002 in which the guerrillas took a genuine offer for peace by the government of President Carlos Pastrana as an opportunity to re-arm and continue fighting for power throughout the country. 

Colombians are reminded of a period when they felt hopeless and trapped, where they came to understand the FARC’s previous commitments to be false, and where peace and its prospects provided the opportunity for the guerrilla group to strengthen its forces. However, in recalling this period, most Colombians do not remember it as the period that gave birth to paramilitaries and drug lords, or as the era in which nearly 30 percent of the Senate was controlled by paramilitary forces and their affiliates—some of the country’s most powerful drug mafias. The arrogance of the FARC at that stage of Colombian history is undeniable, but basing current sentiment on the memories and trauma of the past is unhelpful for ensuring a better future.  

Nobody can justify deaths and killing; this article certainly does not intend to do so. Nevertheless, details about what happened in the most recent skirmish between government forces and the FARC exemplify the “fog of war”—the confusion and lack of clarity that is common on battlefields. Colombia is no exception, and the fighting in which these soldiers died raise several questions that need to be answered. Indeed, until these questions are met with satisfactory explanations about what occurred, the government cannot reasonably decide how to move forward with the peace process, if at all. 

The first question to be answered is this: Was the battle, in fact, initiated by the FARC? Evidence (the area, tactics, and information gathered from the field) seems to indicate that it was. Given that the evidence points to the FARC’s responsibility for the attack, the next question should be: Was this an authorized attack by the central command of the FARC? An authorized attack from the leadership of the FARC (those negotiating with the Colombian government in Havana) would make for a very risky tactic of confrontation. While the FARC have openly proposed a bilateral ceasefire, an authorized attack like this could point to their fatigue with the unilateral cease fire. Either that, or they have decided to promote the bilateral ceasefire through military attacks. 

If this attack was not authorized by the leadership, but was undertaken by one of the FARC units on their own initiative, other questions emerge. For one, serious concerns about the integrity of the FARC’s command structure—where decisions are normally taken on a hierarchical basis, and respected—would come to the fore. This could point to the fatigue of some units with the peace process. It could also signal their frustration at the loss of tactical initiative as a consequence of the declaration of the ceasefire. (The FARC has authorized their cadres to use their weapons only in self-defence). As the attack occurred deep in territories where the FARC is established, one reading of the events could point to a scenario of this kind. 

Other accounts of these events describe fighting where both actors were engaged, and do not necessarily describe an ambush. This narrative belies the “assassination of soldiers” storyline in other accounts narrative, but frames it can affect the understanding around the commitment (or lack of) by the FARC to their unilateral cease fire. This, then, raises further questions: Why is the military framing this episode as an ambush? If it has indeed not been agreed that the Armed Forces will cease the initiative on the field, what does it mean that government forces are presenting distorted facts in regards to the deaths of these soldiers?

None of the aforementioned questions have been answered clearly. The difficulty is that the information that comes from combat zones is and will be always mediated by different actors and their agendas. It will be always hard to tell what is true and what is not true, especially in an era where the speed at which information is shared often undercuts or obscures its accuracy. Decisions are therefore made in the midst of the “fog of war.” 

The first information that comes from the field is that which informs public opinion, and usually this information is presented with an assertiveness that lends validity to the facts presented as the truth. In Colombian media, and within Colombian public opinion, there has been little engagement with any of the questions presented above. 

The refusal of the government to declare a bilateral cease fire so far suggests residual trauma from the previous peace process.  The FARC has insisted from the beginning of the process that a bilateral cease fire be established and has been repeatedly rebuffed by the government. Declaring a bilateral cease fire implies big political costs to the government in a context where former president Alvaro Uribe opposes the current peace process, along with some sectors of the Armed Forces. This has created an environment in which any concession from the government in the negotiations will be read by certain sectors as the surrendering of the state and the defeat of the state apparatus. 

Gestures such as the declaration of a unilateral cease fire by FARC were creating the conditions to make a bilateral cease fire more plausible, giving the actors time to prepare accordingly. Colombia has an area of around one million square kilometres, and the dispersed nature of the presence of the FARC would demand a detailed and careful verification process to guarantee that any mutual cease fire could hold. Capacity to assess breaks in the cease fire (as are common in transitions from war to peace) would be needed, and institutions established solely for this purpose would be required. The recent fighting and the resumption of aerial bombardments by the government are clearly a step backwards. But they do not signal the end of hopes for peace. Hopefully, the actors at the table are able to learn from this this episode and prevent future occurrences.

The main problem with the peace process as it stands is the lack of ownership by the public of the peace process itself.  Colombians refer to it as something separate from themselves, so there is less appreciation for its possible long-term implications than is needed. Again, history has left scars on the imagination. Many have failed to realize that the peace process is not about the past of the country, but about its future and what that future entails: either a repetition of the actions of the last sixty-five years, or a different panorama. Change might be hard to visualize given that the only way we have learned to deal with the existence of armed groups in the country is through confrontation. However, if the common purpose of avoiding more deaths is shared by the entire country, we should be able to figure out how to leave war and death behind once and for all.  

Fabio Andrés Díaz holds a MSc in Engineering and a MA in Development Studies. He has formerly held research positions with the Center for Conflict analysis and Management (CICAM) at Radboud University, Nijmegen, and is also a member of the REDH Network of Scientists and Researchers on Colombia in the Netherlands. He is currently Visiting Lecturer at the Department of Politics and International Relations at Rhodes University, South Africa.