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Colombia to Negotiate with FARC

A FARC guerrilla mans a checkpoint in the southwestern department of Cauca A FARC guerrilla mans a checkpoint in the southwestern department of Cauca

After weeks of rumored negotiations, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has confirmed that the government will begin peace talks with the country’s largest guerrilla group in Havana, Cuba.

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President Santos has confirmed reports that the Colombian government is gearing up to begin peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and has conducted "exploratory talks" with rebels.

According to reports by RCN Radio and Venezuela’s Telesur, the Colombian government and guerrilla representatives signed a preliminary agreement in Havana, Cuba. The agreement apparently lays the basis for future talks to be held in Oslo, Norway beginning on October 5. If these are successful, the negotiations will continue in Havana.

This report comes one week after former President Alvaro Uribe accused the government of negotiating with the rebel group, something that President Santos had previously dismissed.

If the talks move forward as planned, this would mark a historic turn for the FARC’s nearly 50-year conflict with the government. The last round of official talks took place over a decade ago between 1999 and 2002 under then-President Andres Pastrana.

The details of this latest truce are not clear. The Oslo negotiations will reportedly revolve around six themes, which according to Caracol Radio include: rural poverty and development, participation in the political process, turning in arms, truth and reconciliation,drug trafficking, and insecurity.

So far there have been no reports that the FARC will be temporarily granted any territory as a safe haven, a feature of the last round of talks which has been widely criticized since. As part of a gesture of good faith, the Pastrana government ceded a Switzerland-sized swath of land in the south of the country to the guerrillas by demilitarizing the area. The FARC then famously used this area to regroup, stepping up recruitment and attacks in rural areas.

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One of the biggest variables in a future peace process is the percentage of guerrillas which would actually participate. Many analysts fear that it could mirror the failed demobilization of the paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) from 2003 to 2006, when many mid-level commanders and those under them demobilized in name only, later returning to their criminal past. These successors to the AUC are today known as BACRIM (“criminal bands”), and include major players in the drug trade like the Urabeños.

The risk of the FARC following a similar path in the aftermath of negotiations is difficult to gauge. The question amounts to a test of the prevailing narrative of the guerrilla group: that despite their roots in Marxist rhetoric of class struggle and popular uprising, the political cohesiveness of the FARC has become eroded due to its involvement in criminal activities like drug trafficking, arms trafficking and kidnapping. The group’s political integrity is also believed to have been affected by the loss of several members of its leading Secretariat in recent years, many of whom (like former leader·alias “Alfonso Cano”) were considered ideological heavyweights within the organization.

At the same time, the FARC still largely conform to a military hierarchy, as has been recently demonstrated by its overall adherence to a self-imposed·ban on kidnapping civilians·in February. While this was apparently broken with the April kidnapping of French journalist Romeo Langlois, the rebels eventually released Langlois after initially claiming that he was a legitimate “prisoner of war.” Ultimately, if the Secretariat were to engage the government in meaningful peace negotiations, they still have the capacity to speak for the organization as a whole, although there would likely be at least some dissidents who do not comply.

If such a split happened it could take a toll on Colombia’s crime rate. Kidnapping has risen so far in 2012, but the rebels’ share of the crime has fallen considerably since their announcement in February. With the prospect of dissident FARC cells who do not properly demobilize, their involvement in the crime may rise as well, causing the number of kidnappings to increase.

The splintering of the FARC could also affect the dynamics of cocaine production in the country. The guerrillas are known to control many rural areas where coca is grown, and are believed to sell coca base to BACRIM for processing. With the ideological barriers of the armed conflict removed by a potential FARC demobilization, certain rebel factions may develop even closer ties to BACRIM groups, resulting in more fluid production chains from field to laboratory.

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