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Can Petro’s ‘Total Peace’ Plan Protect Colombia’s Civilians?

Colombian president Gustavo Petro campaigned on a plan to end the war on drugs and bring peace to the country. Since his inauguration in August 2022, he has begun the process of ‘Total Peace,’ working on ceasefires and peace agreements with a number of armed and criminal groups – including left-wing guerrillas ELN, groups made of former members of the FARC who rejected the 2016 peace deal like the Segunda Marquetalia (FARC SM) and Estado Mayor Central (FARC EMC), and drug trafficking groups like Clan Del Golfo.

The trajectory to peace has been rocky. Petro has faced numerous setbacks with armed and criminal groups breaking, rejecting and ignoring agreements. The kidnapping of Liverpool footballer Luis Díaz’s parents by the ELN, in particular, became an international story undermining the peace process and drawing criticism to Petro’s new approach. 

That is not to say there hasn’t been some success. Since the peace process began, “the focus of the government [has been] to secure bilateral ceasefires with different armed and criminal groups,” Elizabeth Dickinson, a senior analyst for Colombia at Crisis Group, told TalkingDrugs. These talks with criminal groups, such as a temporary ceasefire with the country’s most powerful group Clan Del Golfo, set up high hopes for future agreements and eventual peace. 

The ‘Total Peace’ project, according to Luis Trejos, a professor at Universidad del Norte in Colombia, has only been partially successful: “In territories such as Arauca and Catatumbo, homicide has decreased as well as armed actions between illegal groups.”

However, Trejos added, “In other areas of the country…the humanitarian situation has worsened dramatically since in those places there are open wars between different armed groups for control of illegal rents and the communities that inhabit them.”

Dickinson told TalkingDrugs that the unilateral ceasefires, “have succeeded in reducing clashes between the military and these groups, however, that was never the centre of gravity of violence.” According to Dickinson, the centre of gravity of violence orbits around two forms: violence against civilians, and clashes between armed and criminal groups, both of which have increased since Petro’s inauguration.


Violence against civilians

Violence against civilians, Dickinson says, is a form of “violent social control that armed and criminal groups exercise against the population in an attempt to coerce and silence them into accepting the illegal groups’ presence.”

There are a plethora of tactics adopted by armed and criminal groups. Kidnapping is commonly used, up by 80% during Petro’s administration. Likewise, extortion, also common, increased by 27%. The population subject to this violence are poor, rural, and often indigenous communities living in areas key to the cultivation or trafficking of cocaine. Armed and criminal groups create a climate of fear, establishing control in areas void of legitimate governance where they can conduct illicit enterprises. 

Another common tactic is the forced recruitment of civilians. This is seen particularly against children in rural communities. A recent UN report detailed grave atrocities against children in Colombia: it recorded 615 violations committed against children between July 2021 and June 2023, with the majority (347 cases) of these violations being forced recruitment of children as soldiers in the conflict. Most of the violations (328) occurred between July 2022 and June 2023 during Petro’s presidency.

Women have also been continuously subject to violence from armed and criminal groups. A UN Human Rights report highlighted that there were 100 allegations of gender-based violence within Colombia’s conflict in 2023, including sexual violence and sexual trafficking conducted by armed and criminal groups.

Dickinson told TalkingDrugs that the goal of the Petro administration was, “specifically reducing violence towards civilians.” Yet, there has been an abject failure of the state to protect civilians. In fact, by focusing solely on reducing clashes between armed and criminal groups and the military, Petro’s policies may be enabling criminal groups to enact violence on civilians. 


Seized ammunition and weaponry from past militias in Colombia. Source: National Police of Colombia.


Violence between criminal groups

The number of criminal and armed groups in Colombia is enigmatic, in a constantly shifting criminal landscape. The key players – ELN, Clan Del Golfo, and some former FARC factions – have grown relatively stronger during the ‘Total Peace’ process, emboldened by ceasefires and a desire to strengthen criminal economies.

“Total Peace allowed the growth and expansion of armed groups because in practice the government sacrificed the security and defence strategy for the peace policy,” Trejos told TalkingDrugs. The unilateral ceasefires, the central strategy of ‘Total Peace’, “allowed armed groups to free themselves from a war front (with the state) and concentrate their criminal resources on the defeat of other illegal competitors, expand, and put pressure on the communities that inhabit those territories.” 

Clan Del Golfo, the country’s richest criminal group due to its role in the lucrative cocaine trade, has grown significantly during the process of ‘Total Peace’ and now bolsters 9,000 armed members and de facto control of large regions in the rural north of the country. 

As groups were freer to consolidate and expand, bolstering their negotiating positions with the Petro administration, clashes between groups increased: Latin American think tank Insight Crime reported that clashes between armed groups increased by 85% during Petro’s first year as President, notably in areas key to cocaine cultivation and trafficking such as the department of Chocó, and in territories key to the lucrative human smuggling business, such as Arauca.

A recent report by Crisis Group warns that Clan Del Golfo poses an intractable threat to the overall process of ‘Total Peace’ due to constant clashes between the group, ELN and former FARC factions over territorial control. The report concludes: “No other armed group is likely to contemplate laying down its arms for the duration while the Gaitanistas [Clan Del Golfo] are poised to grab their former lands and businesses.” 


The future of ‘Total Peace’

There are, however, signs of hope for the future of ‘Total Peace.’ Recently, the ELN agreed to halt kidnapping for ransom operations against civilians – an important sign of progress. This is a clear signal of the Petro administration prioritising the protection of civilians, not solely focusing on reducing clashes between government and armed groups. 

However, the nature of the ELN agreement is limited. “The ELN agreed to temporarily suspend (for 180 days) the practice of kidnapping for economic purposes but can continue kidnapping for political purposes, territorial control, or as a sanction for non-compliance with behavioural norms,” Trejos clarified to TalkingDrugs.

Likewise, the EMC, a former FARC faction, agreed in December last year to stop ransom kidnappings. However, the peace process with EMC has been turbulent. The group continues to attack civilian communities, breaking the ceasefire agreements; this led to the Defence Minister Iván Velásquez suspending the ceasefire in the southwestern departments of Cauca, Valle del Cauca, and Nariño. 

As negotiations with the large armed and criminal groups have faltered, Petro recently began a process of negotiating with regional and faction forces within larger criminal structures like the FARC-EMC. Yet, this has seen regional conflict between state forces and regional criminal groups. Earlier this week the FARC-EMC western faction attacked the military and local police, leaving at least two officers dead. The western faction is the only group currently attacking Colombian state forces, as the rest of the FARC-EMC continues negotiations and is a worrying development for Petro’s already fragile peace process.

Despite these roadblocks to progress, Dickinson told TalkingDrugs that she believes that the “commitment from the ELN and FARC EMC is very significant; what is necessary now is to ensure that it is monitored [and] implemented.”

Colombia’s journey to peace was never going to be easy; the country’s decades-long struggles with insurgent and drug-related violence will be difficult to fully uproot. Still, the agenda set out by the Petro administration has been flawed; it has seriously struggled to protect civilians, and allowed for armed and criminal groups to strengthen and clash with each other, causing serious collateral damage. The fragmented landscape of armed groups and the various negotiation fronts needed to keep all parties happy and at peace poses a serious challenge ahead of the Colombian government.

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