The Last Guerrillas

BOGOTÁ – During the Cold War, tensions between the West and the Soviet Union affected virtually all countries worldwide. As a result, throughout Latin America, guerrilla groups emerged, seeking to destabilize military dictatorships and attain democracy, freedom, and policy reform – goals that they believed could not be achieved peacefully.

Above all, it was the Cuban Revolution of 1959 – in which armed revolutionaries successfully overthrew the military dictator Fulgencio Batista – that inspired this movement. Indeed, Che Guevara, an icon of the revolution, died in Bolivia while attempting to export the guerrilla project.

Support Project Syndicate’s mission

Project Syndicate needs your help to provide readers everywhere equal access to the ideas and debates shaping their lives.

Learn more

At the end of 2012, conditions in Latin America are very different. Democracy is not the exception, but the rule; military regimes have succumbed to the power of the ballot box; and guerrilla groups have largely become a relic of the past.

But Colombia – the region’s oldest and most stable democracy – is still plagued by illegal, armed guerilla organizations. Unlike in other countries, where guerrillas pursued exclusively political demands, Colombia’s guerilla groups became involved in drug trafficking, which transformed them into lethal institutional monsters, one part subversive organization and one part criminal mafia.

In response, citizens illegally formed armed self-defense groups. But these organizations ultimately exacerbated violence, generated land dispossession and forced displacement, and helped to prolong the conflict for nearly five decades. As a result, generations of Colombians have grown up surrounded by violence, never having known real peace.

Former members of several of the guerrilla groups that arose during the 1960’s and 1970’s have been reintegrated into Colombian society following peace agreements. Some have even held important political positions, serving as ministers, members of congress, governors, and mayors. For example, Bogotá’s current mayor, Gustavo Petro, was a member of the M-19 guerrilla group in the 1980’s.

Nowadays, only two groups remain immersed in an anachronistic struggle: the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC), the larger, older, and better funded of the two, and the National Liberation Army (ELN). After winning the presidency in 2002, Álvaro Uribe vowed to defeat the guerrillas – who have added terrorism to their repertoire – mounting an offensive that employed all of the power of the state and its law-enforcement authorities.

I have had the opportunity – first as Uribe’s defense minister, and now as President – to deal the strongest blows to the guerrillas and drug-trafficking gangs. The government’s commitment to the fight against terrorism has already caused FARC’s membership to plummet, from more than 20,000 a decade ago to little more than 8,000 today.

We will not let up until Colombia is free of guerilla armies. But this irrevocable commitment to defeat terrorism does not preclude us from also prudently pursuing a solution to the conflict through dialogue – while avoiding mistakes made in an earlier round of talks, during which a prolonged cease-fire allowed the FARC to regain some strength.

Last month, after nearly two years of exploratory conversations, formal peace talks were initiated in Oslo, Norway. This month, the talks moved to Havana, Cuba, where they will be held until their conclusion.

The talks will be direct, will follow a brief and precise thematic agenda, and will be conducted within a defined time horizon. Norway and Cuba have served not only as host countries, but also as guarantors of the dialogues. Representatives from Venezuela and Chile are also attending the negotiations.

The Colombian people are counting on the talks to result in agreement on a clear path toward the end of internal armed conflict. This opportunity must not be wasted. But, given that the guerrillas have thwarted Colombians’ hopes in the past, we are approaching the negotiations with cautious optimism.

The peace talks will not paralyze the state or weaken its ability to act. Indeed, until a final agreement is reached, Colombian law-enforcement authorities will continue to confront forcefully all illegal armed groups whose members insist on threatening the peace and lives of the Colombian people.

Moreover, the government will continue to take action to build peace. This includes implementing social and economic programs aimed at reducing poverty and creating jobs, defending the victims of the conflict, ensuring that stolen land is returned to displaced peasants, and creating more equitable conditions throughout the country.

The serious, realistic, and sober peace process that we have begun with the FARC could end the internal armed conflict in Colombia, implying the defeat, once and for all, of the continent’s guerrilla groups and bringing down the curtain on a half-century of senseless violence. Indeed, this outcome would contribute to peace and stability for the entire region.

The conflict’s end would also bolster development efforts in Colombia – already a model of democracy and political and economic stability. Even in the wake of the global economic crisis, Colombia’s economy has been growing at an average rate of close to 5%, while benefiting from unprecedented inflows of foreign investment. And Colombian governance is admired worldwide.

Reaching an agreement with the FARC to end the conflict – which implies the group’s disarmament and demobilization – would allow Colombia’s star to shine more brightly than ever. The Colombian government is committed to making every possible effort to realize the dream of a guerilla-free country – and continent – in 2013.