Amidst two and half years of negotiating a framework for a peace agreement in Havana, the process is facing its most serious challenge after the temporal hostage taking of General Alzate in November 2014. On April 15 around midnight, an intensive combat between military forces and the FARC column “Miller Perdono” took place in La Esperanza/Buenos Aires (Cauca Department) that reportedly killed eleven Colombian soldiers, one FARC guerillero, and injured at least 21 combatants.
As to date, there has been no neutral observation and investigation in the field to examine the bloodshed and reports about the facts remain highly controversial and contradictory. According to official sources provided by the military and the Governor of the Cauca Department Temístocles Ortega, Colombian soldiers were attacked by surprise in a deliberate ambush with explosives, grenades and firearms. A spokesperson of the “Fuerza de Tarea Apolo” battalion stated that the armed forces were conducting “operations of territorial control to guarantee the security of the civil population”. Consequently, this would constitute a blatant breach of the unilaterally declared cease-fire four months ago by the FARC.
A guerilla spokesperson in Havana, senior commander ‘Felix Alape’, however denied the accusation and claimed that the combat was a “legitimate action” due to the “incoherence” of the military to order “military action against a guerilla in a state of truce”. Testimonies given by inhabitants of the village of La Esperanza and the Colombian NGO “Frente Amplio por la Paz” claimed that militaries had established a base in a public area to conduct anti-narcotic and anti-guerilla operations in the area. They further rejected the official governmental version of a unilateral attack. Nevertheless, the huge disparity of the casualties could be an indication for a planned assault by the guerilla.
It also remains unclear – in case of unilateral attack – whether the combats were undertaken upon command by the guerillas’ general secretariat to pressure for a bilateral truce or an uncoordinated ambush of the local FARC column. Inconsistent declarations about the ground facts by governmental, local and guerilla forces illustrate the urgent need for an impartial observation team that investigates the cruel events. As the International Crisis Group suggests, this could be conducted by a mutually trusted actor such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) or by agents of Cuba and Norway, the accompanying partners of the peace process.
As Ariel Ávila, researcher of the Colombian think-tank Fundación Paz y Reconciliación, points out, a unilateral cease-fire is very difficult to verify and the temporal suspension of bombarding FARC camps did not include the full cessation of hostilities. The incidents show the difficulties of negotiating in between of hostilities and without a clearly defined bilateral cease-fire, as FARC, leftist parties and some civil society groups demand it.
However, this doesn’t seem likely at the moment as President Santos is facing more pressure after the violent confrontation. Instead, he ordered the renewal of aerial shelling and also insinuated an eventual time limit for the peace process. A fixed deadline for the process however, could further threaten the peace negotiations as the most difficult issues such as transitional justice, the abandonment of weapons and the conditions for a final ceasefire remain on the table.
Other peace processes in the world suggest that the period to achieve a negotiated agreement lasts considerably more than two or three years. It took the Guatemalan parties to the conflict nine years of negotiation after an armed conflict of approximately 20 years and their Salvadorian neighbors eight years after twelve years of civil war to reach a peace contract. For both the government and the FARC rebels, it is important now to renew their commitments for peace and to show real and visible efforts, for example in pursuing the path of humanitarian demining and acknowledge their involvement in serious crimes. The plenipotentiaries of the government and the guerilla alike could accelerate the process and rebuild trust in discussing the modalities for the selection of the most serious crimes and get closer in their diverging views on alternative punishment and deprivation of liberty for those most responsible of capital crimes. It remains clear, that after roughly half a century of armed confrontation, trust building measures are crucial for the successful continuation of the negotiation. Renewed confidence is essential, not only between the adversaries but particularly to reassure the Colombian people their commitment to peace.