Gustavo Petro’s “Total Peace” Proves Elusive, opinion by Mauro Echeverría.

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Colombian Guerrillas Leverage Crime to Negotiate for Largess

Key Findings:

Despite promising “total peace” in Colombia, President Gustavo Petro’s policies have failed to halt violence. Reported extortion and kidnappings are up 27 and 83 percent, respectively, since the incumbent administration took office in August 2022.

Most of the peace negotiations between the Colombian government and armed groups have ended, since officials saw criminals not complying with ceasefire agreements. Similarly negotiations with the National Liberation Army (ELN), Colombia’s largest guerrilla network, have reached a stalemate.

Colombia’s insecurity spike got world attention after the ELN kidnapped football star Luis Díaz’s parents. The armed group released his mother swiftly but took 12 days to release his father to a delegation of Catholic Church and UN officials.

The Gustavo Petro Strategy for Total Peace

When Colombian president and former guerrillero Gustavo Petro took office on August 7, 2022, he pledged to achieve “total peace.” His plan was to broker ceasefire agreements with all armed groups.

However, the executive suspended negotiations with the Gulf Clan and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) dissidents in 2023. Agreements appeared to count for little as the armed groups carried out multiple attacks against civilians and law enforcement agents.

On August 3, 2023, the Petro administration reached a 180-day ceasefire deal with Colombia’s largest guerrilla organization: the National Liberation Army (ELN). Since December, though, high-ranking ELN members have been conditioning any potential ceasefire renewal. They want taxpayers to guarantee alternative sources of income to provide for ELN members. Presumably the income could come from employment in government projects rather than mere welfare.

The ELN, which has more than 6,000 members, is pretending that state support is the only way for them to stop kidnapping and extorting citizens. Old habits die hard, so ELN members would like to continue extortion, but now from the taxpayer instead. Getting regular jobs and entering the community of their own volition, even when not facing punishment for their many crimes, is apparently off the table.

On January 17, 2024, Petro responded to the ELN proposal. He contended that the peace negotiations and the ceasefire’s extension depend on whether the ELN completely stops criminal activities, including kidnappings and extortion. The guerrilla has not responded to Petro’s statements yet, although this appears to have descended into a game of cat and mouse with crime remaining the ELN’s bargaining chip.

Putting the Plan into Law

The Petro administration made total peace a Colombian state policy, seeking to end six decades of internal conflict with armed groups. On August 30, 2022, the executive submitted the Total Peace Law to Congress. Three months later, after four debates, Congress approved the law.

The Total Peace Law allows Colombia’s executive, through its surrogates, to negotiate with armed groups. For instance, the law established the Office of the High Commissioner for Peace. This office is in charge of advising the president on peace-related issues and leading peace negotiations with armed groups.

The law also established a high-level commission, which comprises Defense Ministry officials, the national intelligence director, and the high commissioner for peace. The commission has organized peace negotiations with multiple armed groups, including the ELN, the Gulf Clan, and FARC dissidents.

Despite hitting a wall, state negotiations with the ELN have been the most advanced so far—when compared to those with other armed groups.

More Kidnapping, Extortion under Petro

Colombia’s reported murder rate has actually decreased slightly during the Petro administration, although that likely reflects normal variation. However, other forms of violence—notably kidnapping and extortion—have increased. Both official data and local NGO studies have identified this latter trend since August 2022.

A November 2023 Financial Times report clarified that kidnapping and extortion had increased by 83 and 27 percent, respectively, since Petro took office. The homicide rate, on the other hand, had fallen by 3 percent.

An August 2023 report by the Colombian Ideas for Peace Foundation claims “armed groups, such as the ELN, the Gulf Clan, and FARC dissidents have become [militarily] stronger” during Petro’s first year in office. The report adds that these armed groups have “gained a larger influence” over hundreds of Colombian municipalities. The ELN, Gulf Clan, and FARC dissidents have alleged influence over 176, 200, and 171 mostly rural municipalities, respectively.

On the other hand, the Ideas for Peace Foundation report asserts that confrontations between law enforcement agencies and armed groups have decreased by 47 percent. This appears to stem from altered law enforcement tactics, since they have relied less on bombings of and direct confrontations with armed groups.

The caveat here is that armed groups have been fighting a lot more among themselves. Such conflicts, for territorial control and political influence, are up 85 percent since Petro took office.

The Ideas for Peace Foundation has also identified a decrease in Colombians’ perception of safety in their home municipalities. Between August 2022 and 2023, citizens feeling safe in their cities fell from 41 to 37 percent.

The Case That Made a Mockery of Total Peace

On October 28, 2023, the ELN kidnapped Luis Manuel Díaz and Cinelis Marulanda, parents of Liverpool Football Club star Luis Díaz. The kidnapping took place in Colombia’s northernmost province: La Guajira. According to the National Statistics Department, La Guajira has the second-highest poverty rate in the country, behind only Chocó.

While the kidnappers released Díaz’s mother in an empty car hours after her capture, they held on to Díaz’s father for 12 days before releasing him to a delegation of Catholic Church and UN officials. The details are spotty, but regional news outlet Infobae has revealed that UK and Colombian intelligence officials collaborated to capture four of the alleged kidnappers.

Colombians, local and foreign media outlets, and even soccer players across the world showed their contempt toward Díaz’s kidnapping. The most important soccer association in the world, FIFA, sent Luis Díaz “support and prayers” while the ELN still had his father in custody.

Díaz’s case is one of more than three dozen recent kidnappings reportedly carried out by the ELN. In December 2023, Defense Minister Iván Velásquez explained that the ELN was holding at least 38 Colombians. He added that the guerrillas were asking for money from the citizens’ families and friends in exchange for their release. The 38 abductees are unlikely to receive the same outcome as Luis Manuel Díaz. His case generated immediate condemnation from people across the world because his son is Colombia’s most prominent soccer player.

Although Petro’s peace plan appears to have coincided with a slight decrease in the number of murders in the country, the ELN and other armed groups have barely skipped a beat. Rather, they appear to have felt more emboldened to carry out kidnapping and extortion as sources of income, in addition to narcotrafficking. Despite the lofty rhetoric, more than a year of the so-called total peace plan has failed to deliver concrete results. If anything, the plan has exacerbated kidnapping and extortion. At least as executed, the strategy of negotiations—rather than direct confrontation and punishment—has failed to solve Colombia’s ever-present violence.

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