Colombian leader’s promise of ‘total peace’ may prove too ambitious

Little-known militia groups have surfaced to declare their willingness to strike peace deals – and reap ceasefire rewards

The announcement came in a grainy video from the dense jungles of northern Colombia.

A dozen masked men with camouflage uniforms and automatic weapons stand in a cluster, a roaring stream washing over their black combat boots.

“We’re declaring to the government and the Colombian people our will to negotiate,” one man says in a lofty voice. “The Self-Defense Conquistadors of the Sierra Nevada are ready.”

In a tone implying that this is news to be exalted, the militiaman declares that they want to work toward a “stable and long-lasting peace”.

But most Colombians who saw the clip were probably asking themselves a simple question: who are these people?

Screengrab from a video shows armed men in military fatigues standing in a river in a jungle.
The Self-Defense Conquistadors of the Sierra Nevada from northern Colombia declared they were ready to negotiate with Gustavo Petro. Photograph:

The message was a response to a bold promise made by Colombia’s first leftist president, Gustavo Petro, when he took office last month. He declared he would achieve “total peace” in a nation that has been plagued by armed conflict for most of its history.

Perhaps even more ambitious was the way he would go about it. Petro – himself a former member of the now defunct M-19 urban guerrillas – called upon the country’s ever-expanding list of armed groups to join him in a “multilateral ceasefire” and strike peace deals.

But just a month into his administration, his efforts to untangle an elaborate web of armed groups have already had an adverse effect, and observers worry the new leader may have bitten off more than he can chew.

Militias in every nook of the country from long-feared guerrilla armies to little-known factions such as the Self-Defense Conquistadors of the Sierra Nevada have stepped forward to get in on peace talks, hopeful to reap the rewards from a ceasefire.

Chief among those are guerrillas from the National Liberation Army (ELN), which is now set to restart negotiations in Havana after years of failed talks.

But at the same time, violence has only increased as each armed group scrambles to expand its territory and gain a strategic advantage in the lead-up to potential dialogues. Rates of mass killings, assassinations of human rights activists and attacks on police have all shot up since Petro took office.

Gustavo Petro speaks to an unseen crowd.
Gustavo Petro, president of Colombia, called upon the country’s armed groups to join him in a ‘multilateral ceasefire’. Photograph: Joaquín Sarmiento/AFP/Getty Images

“This plan for total peace actually caused a major shuffle in the configuration of the conflict,” said Beth Dickinson, Colombia analyst with International Crisis Group. “It’s really remarkable how significant the increase in violence has been … The mere idea of potential negotiations has completely changed the game.”

Observers like Dickinson say it underscores that the road to true peace will be a long one and filled with many hurdles.

Colombia has long struggled to consolidate peace after previous deals with armed groups including rightwing paramilitaries in the 2000’s and with its biggest guerrilla force, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), in 2016.

But failures by previous governments to implement the most recent deal and assume control of large stretches of jungle left by the Farc brought with it a resurgence of violence.

While other big narco gangs and guerrillas moved in on that land, many former Farc combatants grew disillusioned with the peace pact, rearming against the government and joining emerging mafia groups focused on narcotrafficking. More recently, Mexican cartels and Venezuelan gangs have pushed into Colombia, only exacerbating the violence.

Now, if one group demobilizes, there will probably be a slew of smaller gangs waiting in the wings to take what they controlled. For Petro, it creates an ever-expanding puzzle.

In the Pacific port and trafficking hub of Buenaventura, human rights activist Miyela Riascos said her city now had so many warring armed groups that few knew which was in power at any given moment.

“They never stop killing, and right now we’re seeing another peak in the violence,” Riascos said.

An armed soldier walks past a woman sitting under a tarp next to a table of cooked fish.
Violence has spiked in the Pacific port city of Buenaventura, Colombia, since Petro took office. Photograph: Joaquín Sarmiento/AFP/Getty Images

Violence in her city has shot up in the months since Petro took office, and Riascos was skeptical that the armed groups would actually follow through on their promises.

Yet, for her, the new government still inspires hope.

“It’s really complex, but not impossible because we human beings have the capacity to do harm but also to create,” she said. “It’s worth it to try it without expecting much change, but to try it with the deep desire of wanting total peace.”

Camilo Posso, president of the Bogotá-based thinktank Indepaz, which tracks war and peace in Colombia, said he doubted that such a bold ambition can be realistically achieved in four years.

Yet he also said it could mark an important change in strategy for a country that has historically addressed the armed conflict with militarization as opposed to addressing root causes of conflict such as poverty and lack of opportunity.

And while Colombia is far from total peace, he said, striking deals with bigger militias like ELN guerrillas could create an important “domino effect” in pushing other, smaller groups to demobilize and lower levels of violence.

“The people don’t want war, they don’t want arms, or politics as we know it,” he said. “They want change that will give this society a future. That’s what we want with this project of ‘total peace’: a future.”


Megan Janetsky in Bogotá

The GuardianTramp

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