"Ivan Marquez" amid a media scrum in Havana

The FARC’s declaration of a unilateral ceasefire is a good sign for peace talks in Colombia, demonstrating the rebel leadership believes it can control its 9,000 troops, although there are fears that the guerrillas will use the time to build up their earnings from criminal activities.

Speaking on the opening day of peace talks in Havana, Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) commander Luciano Marin Arango, alias "Ivan Marquez," said that the rebels would cease hostilities for next two months. He said that the group would stop military operations against the security forces and acts of sabotage on infrastructure between November 20 and January 20, also set out in a statement published on the group’s website. The FARC described the ceasefire as a good will gesture to demonstrate their commitment to peace, although they said they would defend themselves if attacked.

The government responded that it would keep on fighting the rebels. Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon said he hoped the FARC would carry out its ceasefire, but added that it was difficult to believe the rebels’ words, as “history shows that this terrorist group never keeps its promises,” El Heraldo reported.

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The FARC’s announcement is noteworthy, as this is the first unilateral ceasefire the rebels have declared since a month-long Christmas truce from December 1999 to January 2000, in the midst of the last round of peace negotiations.

The rebel group has called for a bilateral ceasefire while the current round of peace talks takes place, but this was rejected by the government. It would be politically risky for the Santos administration to agree to any pause in hostilities, as many people still remember how the FARC used a demilitarized zone granted during the last negotiations (1999-2002), to build up their strength. The last time the government declared a ceasefire with the rebels was 1984, during failed peace talks with the government of Belisario Betancur.

The declaration is a sign of strength on the part of the rebels, especially coming after a series of attacks in recent weeks which demonstrate that they still have the ability to seize the initiative in many parts of the country. The FARC declared an “armed stoppage” in the Pacific province of Choco on November 8, banning citizens from moving along the main roads and waterways, and paralyzing the region for a week. Dozens were wounded by a November 11 car bomb in Cauca, also on the Pacific, that was attributed to FARC militia units. This was followed by the bombing of an oil pipeline further south in Nariño on November 16. By the count of Caracol Radio, the guerrillas have killed 47 people in attacks since the peace process was announced in August, 17 of them civilians. To call a unilateral pause in fighting after this series of attacks is a strong move which makes the rebels appear able to set the agenda, and could help them gain popularity with the civilian population.

The fact that the rebel leadership is confident it can control its fighters across the entire country is also a sign of strength, suggesting that the group remains unified, and that the leaders might be able to deliver the entire rebel organization should a peace agreement be reached.

It is worth asking, however, how the rebels will spend the next two months if they are not launching attacks on the security forces. It is possible that they could instead focus on attacking their rivals, specifically the neo-paramilitary groups known by the government as BACRIMs, and gain control over more drug routes and production areas. Attacks by the FARC against groups like the Urabeños, who control an increasing share of the country’s drug trade, have been seen in recent months in the crucial drug regions of Cordoba and Antioquia, in northern Colombia.

The FARC could also use the two months to build up their finances, concentrating on activities like illegal mining and extortion. This could be driven not only by the rebel high command, the Secretariat, but also by individual rebel leaders who want to build up a financial cushion should a peace agreement be signed with the government.

The rebels may step up their political operations during the ceasefire, spreading propaganda and working to recruit and coopt local people in regions where they are powerful.

The ceasefire could also be viewed as an attempt by the FARC to gain a breather from the pressure of the armed forces. This is in keeping with the rebels' proposal to bring new regulations to the conduct of the war, should peace talks fail. The guerrillas’ top commander Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri, alias “Timochenko,” issued a statement in October saying that even if the talks did not result in a peace agreement, the two sides should agree a treaty to “regulate” the conduct of the war. One of the points he highlighted was “the question of the bilateral use of explosives and of indiscriminate bombardment operations in densely populated zones." This points to the guerrillas' wish to stop the aerial bombings of rebel camps which have been one of the government's biggest weapons in gaining the military advantage in recent years.