Colombia Peace: The War System Yields to Peace

By Nazih Richani*

Colombia Peace Mural

Mural “Nostalgia” painted by the creative collective Deúniti at La Presidenta Park in Medellín, Colombia. Photo Credit: Deúniti, colectivo creativo / Flickr / Creative Commons

Amidst growing optimism at the prospects of achieving a peace agreement in Colombia after more than a half century of irregular warfare, predictions about whether the parties can reach an accord, and sustain it over the long term, should be informed by understanding the underlying logic that fueled the conflict and may now be bringing it to a close. Civil wars are complex social systems with peculiar properties, dynamics, and political economy.  Similar to other social systems, a war system—a set of violent interacting units—rests on a point of equilibrium, which can shift depending on the system’s inner dynamics and external stimuli.  The exponential growth in the 1990s of Colombia’s two main Marxist rebel groups—the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN)—prompted the emergence of right-wing paramilitaries, an instrument of the state’s counterinsurgency strategy.  An expansion of the radius of the war and surge in combat-related fatalities, massacres, land dispossession, and displacements followed.  The failure of peace talks between the FARC and the government of President Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002) indicated that the war system was largely unchanged despite the escalation.

The intervention of a new actor—the United States—disrupted the equilibrium of the war system.  Under “Plan Colombia,” Washington (committing about $10 billion) and Bogotá ($80-100 billion) modernized and restructured the Colombian armed forces.  This new phase in the war system marked a departure from the “comfortable stalemate” that characterized the conflict between 1964 and 2000.  New weapons, air power, tactical flexibility, and expanding mobile commando brigades with U.S. military and technical support, enabled the Colombian armed forces to put the FARC on the defensive.  It took the FARC leadership more than eight years to adjust, losing territory and, more importantly, three of its main leaders: Raul Reyes (2008), Mono Jojoy (2010), and Alfonso Cano (2011).  But the FARC’s “Plan Rebirth”—reverting from “mobile war of positions” to guerrilla warfare, creating more interdependent commando units, and using more snipers and mines—changed the balance anew.

The new equilibrium in the war system, in which the law of the diminishing returns of the war’s investment started kicking in, drove both sides to conclude that the time for peace was arriving.  Colombia’s ruling elites concluded that prosecuting the war would be too costly at a time that U.S. attention was shifting to other theaters and threats.  FARC commander Alfonso Cano, months before his targeted killing, communicated the intention of his movement to seek a negotiated settlement as well.  The cost of continued war had become too great for both sides, and external factors—the death of President Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and the changing Andean regional political environment—were also factors.  FARC became convinced that trading bullets for ballots could help in achieving the remaining objectives of its armed rebellion.  As the two sides continue to make progress in peace talks in Havana, outsiders who want the accords to succeed would do well to remember that disruptions to the war system equilibrium could easily threaten both sides’ commitment to signing and implementing a final deal.

January 11, 2016

Nazih Richani is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of Latin American Studies at Kean University.  In 2014 the State University of New York Press  published a revised and updated version of his 2002 study entitled Systems of Violence: The Political Economy of War and Peace in Colombia.

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