The key to ending Colombia's five-decade civil war could be the US

When Washington appointed a special envoy to peace talks between the Colombian government and the leftwing rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), it was billed as a show of support for the process and for President Juan Manuel Santos.

There is no love lost between the Farc and the US: Washington put the guerrilla group on its list of terrorist organizations in 1997 and poured billions of dollars of military aid into a campaign to defeat them. The rebels accuse the United States of imperialist meddling, and consider Americans among their most prized hostages.

But according to several sources close to the peace talks, the presence of a high-ranking US envoy may actually be the key to ending nearly five decades of civil war in Colombia.

Following repeated requests from Santos, US president Barack Obama appointed veteran diplomat Bernard Aronson in February to accompany the peace talks in Havana which began in 2012. 

“The US realized the process is on its last and most difficult leg,” said Sergio Jaramillo, Colombia’s peace commissioner and a member of the government negotiating team. “We were reaching the time for critical decisions.”

And many of those decisions, according to several sources close to the negotiations, hinge on the United States, including whether Farc members will face extradition to a US supermax prison and the security of former rebel fighters in a post-conflict Colombia.

Bernard Aronson, US envoy to the Colombia peace talks
Bernard Aronson, US envoy to the Colombia peace talks Photograph: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Aronson does not participate directly in the negotiations, but since his appointment he has been to Havana on three occasions, meeting separately with the government and rebel sides. His open presence at the talks was made possible by the thaw in relations between Cuba and the United States, which lifted travel and business restrictions after more than 50 years.

Aronson – who participated in peace talks to end civil wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua in the 1990s – underscores that he is not a go-between. “The United States is not playing the classic role as mediator, nor is it a neutral figure,” Aronson said in an interview.

His role, in part, is to help the government reach a deal with the rebels by explaining US policy to the Farc.

“The Farc wanted to have a conversation with the United States” on a number of issues, said Aronson, a former assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs.

That request might have seemed unexpected: US officials describe rebel fighters as “narco-terrorists”, accusing them of crimes including drug trafficking, kidnapping and murder. Covert aid from the CIA and National Security Agency has reportedly helped Colombian government forces kill dozens of rebels leaders

But the Farc welcomed Aronson’s appointment, saying that a US voice in the process was “a necessity, given the permanent presence and incidence that the United States has had in the political, economic and social life of Colombia”.

Rebel commanders are seeking assurances from Washington that if they sign a peace deal with the Colombian government, the United States will not be an obstacle to implementing agreements reached at the table.

The Farc and government have agreed on three of five negotiating points, including rural development, political participation for former rebels and fighting the drug trade. The Farc wanted to hear the US views on those agreements already reached, Aronson said.

‘The Farc need constant reasssuring’

But the Farc also needed US input for the thornier subjects now on the table, such as what sort of punishment – if any – the group will have to pay for its crimes, and what demobilization may look like.

A life-size cardboard cutout which accompanies the Farc negotiation team in Havana is a symbol of their worst fears: it shows an image of rebel commander Simon Trinidad, who in 2004 was captured and extradited to the United States where he was convicted on terrorism charges. Trinidad, whose real name is Ricardo Palmera, is serving a 60-year sentence in a maximum-security prison in Colorado.

Commander of the Farc Ivan Marquez, right reads a statement during the peace talks; at left is a poster of commander Simon Trinidad, presently in prison in the US.
Commander of the Farc Ivan Marquez, right reads a statement during the peace talks; at left is a poster of commander Simon Trinidad, presently in prison in the US. Photograph: Adalberto Roque/AFP/Getty Images

At least 60 other living Farc members – including the top tier of the negotiating team in Havana – have been indicted in the United States on charges ranging from drug trafficking to the kidnapping and killing of US citizens.

“The Farc have expressed concerns about their legal status as pertains to the United States,” according to a source close to the peace process.

Santos is sensitive to that concern. “I don’t believe that any guerrilla is going to turn in his weapon only to go and die in a US jail,” Santos saidin March.

It is ultimately up to the Colombian president to decide whether to agree to an extradition request from any nation, and Santos has already denied the extradition of the brother of Farc leader Fabián Ramirez, a member of the rebels’ negotiating team.

Several US officials have suggested privately that diplomatic relations would not be affected if Colombia choses to desist from extraditing demobilized guerrillas.

Michael Shifter, president of the Inter American Dialogue, a Washington thinktank, says that the US position on such a sensitive issue is crucial. “For the Farc it’s the one issue that really matters,” he says.

The Farc have publicly demanded that Trinidad, one of the Farc’s top ideologues, be allowed to participate in the peace process in Havana. Though US officials have denied that a pardon or commutation of sentence for the convicted rebel has even been discussed, Jaramillo told the BBC this month that Trinidad would have to be part of any agreement with the Farc.

Aronson says the issue of Trinidad’s future has come up in his encounters with Farc negotiators but that the rebels haven’t dwelled on it and the US is not prepared to discuss it. “It’s an issue, but from our perspective it isn’t on the table,” he said.

Another option would be for Trinidad to serve out his sentence in Colombia or a third country, such as Norway, one of the countries that is accompanying the peace process.

Even if they aren’t shipped off to a US prison, the Farc worry about the security of their members in Colombia once they give up their guns.

And with good reason. As part of an attempted peace process in the 1980s the Farc created a small leftwing party called the Patriotic Union (UP). Those talks soon fell apart, and more than 3,000 members of the party, including two presidential candidates, were murdered during the 1980s and 1990s by rightwing paramilitaries linked to the armed forces. Many of those who escaped death went into hiding or exile.

Because of the Americans’ long-running and close ties with the Colombian armed forces, the Farc hope the United States will help ensure that this time the military, or its proxies, don’t hunt them down and kill them.

“The Farc need constant reassuring because they are very, very mistrustful,” Shifter says.

Aronson says his mission is to accompany the current peace process until it’s over one way or another, aware that the process could still take many turns.

“Even though it involves revolutionaries, the process is evolutionary,” Aronson said.



Popular posts from this blog

Pak off FATF Grey List; ‘Black Spot’ on Fight Against Terror Irks India; J&K Guv Says 'World is Watching'

‘The chances of nuclear use are minimal. Both Russia & Ukraine are well aware of results’: DB Venkatesh Varma

3 Pakistanis among 7 terrorists gunned down in Kashmir Valley, says J&K Police