Colombia Peace Process Suspended: Action of Rogue FARC Unit?

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Colombia’s president has suspended a two-year peace process with the FARC guerrillas after the kidnapping of an army general, amid questions of whether this action was sanctioned by the rebel leadership or was the work of a rogue unit seeking to undermine the peace process.

President Juan Manuel Santos has suspended peace talks in Havana, Cuba between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) following the abduction of General Ruben Alzate, the commander of the Titan Joint Task Force in the province of Choco, near the border with Panama. The president said that the general had been snatched, along with two others, by members of the FARC’s 34th Front on November 16, after violating internal security protocols.

The FARC renounced kidnapping in February 2012, as a government precondition for sitting down to peace talks. Because of this, rebel critics, like the head of the Colombian Army, General Jaime Lasprilla, have stated that the FARC have broken their promises with the latest abduction. However, what the FARC promised to do was to stop their policy of kidnapping for ransom; soldiers taken on the battlefield are seen by the rebels as prisoners of war.

The kidnapping of the general comes after a similar action in northeast Colombia a week earlier, in which the FARC snatched two soldiers in Arauca, by the Venezuelan border. In a communique by the Jorge Briceño Bloc — the FARC division which is holding the soldiers — the rebels stated that the two men were “prisoners,” adding that “unlike the state and the government, the FARC-EP shows its willingness to discuss liberation.” 

InSight Crime Analysis

The question is whether the 34th Front was acting without the sanction of the FARC’s seven-man ruling body, the Secretariat, or whether this kidnapping was part of an approved policy.

It is possible that the FARC high command has ordered guerrilla units to capture soldiers, in the hope of forcing concessions — perhaps a bilateral ceasefire — at the negotiating table. The 34th Front would have known that kidnapping a general would cause an uproar, and if the action was unsanctioned, it might have been aimed at undermining the ongoing talks in Havana. InSight Crime investigations last year identified the 34th Front as one of the rebel units vulnerable to criminalizing, should a peace agreement be reached. The 34th Front is believed to be involved in drug trafficking and have ties with the country’s most powerful criminal syndicate, the Urabeños. This FARC unit is also one of the principal targets of the Titan Joint Task Force that General Alzate leads, and it has been feeling the pressure of constant military actions. The fact that the 34th Front opted for capturing, not killing, General Alzate suggests the action had a political purpose.

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Meanwhile, the fact that President Santos has suspended the peace process over the kidnapping shows the power of the Colombian military. A highly placed source in the military told InSight Crime that there is widespread disaffection with the peace process within army ranks, and that threats to the peace process come not only from dissident elements in the FARC, but from within the military. There have been several scandals that have revealed the military’s suspicions regarding the peace talks, with military intelligence units eavesdropping on the communications of government negotiators.

Another sign of the power of the military, and the delicate position of the president, can be seen over the issue of a ceasefire. Since the beginning of the peace talks in November 2012, the FARC have been asking for a bilateral ceasefire, and have even called several unilateral ceasefires in the hope of prompting the government to respond in kind. However the military source told InSight Crime that army generals have agreed, reluctantly, to support the peace process, so long as they are allowed to keep hammering the FARC on the battlefield. The military believe that a ceasefire would allow the guerrilla leaders to get back on the ground, reorganize fronts and finances and rebuild their command and control, which has suffered severe blows since 2002. In the past, the FARC have used peace processes and ceasefire to build up their military strength.

SEE ALSO: FARC, Peace and Possible Criminalization

President Santos has been facing growing criticism of the peace talks, thanks in no small part to the arrival on the political scene of the Democratic Center (Centro Democratico), the party of former president and current Senator Alvaro Uribe, which won 19 seats in the Senate and 12 seats in the House of Representatives this year. Uribe has become the principal opponent of peace talks in Havana, and he commands an enormous amount of respect from within the military establishment.

The military are well aware that should a peace agreement be signed, the generals are likely to see large budget cuts, and a significant loss of influence. They are also aware that their rivals in the police are likely to receive a boost in terms of resources and influence — the natural result of any post-conflict scenario.

The reaction to the kidnapping of General Alzate is perhaps as much about the military as it is about the FARC. While it remains to be seen whether the actions of the 34th Front have been sanctioned by the guerrilla high command, it is clear that elements of the Colombian military also present threats to the reaching of a peace agreement that could put an end to 50 years of civil conflict.

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