Failed peace process
Early failed attempts to mediate peace in Colombia. When the Farc guerrillas formed a political party, the Patriotic Union (UP), in connection with a ceasefire in the 1980s, thousands of party members were murdered.
Andrés Pastrana won the 1998 presidential election with promises of peace. Talks with the FARC were held in 1999, after Pastrana agreed to put an area as large as Denmark, called Caguán, under guerrilla control. The establishment of this Zona de distensión zone in southern Colombia was one of the conditions set by the FARC to enter into negotiations.
However, the peace process was a failure. The guerrillas used their zone to arm themselves, hold the hostages and increase coca production. At the same time, Pastrana lost support due to corruption and severe poverty in rural areas.
The guerrillas stepped up their attacks and in 2002 the military was sent into the guerrilla zone with heavy fighting as a result. In the same year, the FARC changed tactics and targeted several cities to gain access to the political elite through bombings.
A new wave of violence followed, with many civilian casualties and kidnappings. Hundreds of mayors and government officials left their posts after death threats from the guerrillas. At the same time, the AUC threatened to kill them if they gave in to the FARC. It was in this atmosphere that Álvaro Uribe came to power in 2002 with the promise of ending the civil war in a military offensive.
Disputed peace process
Uribe’s election victory was followed by a state of emergency which was, however, revoked by the Constitutional Court. Congress then enacted a new law that gave the military the right to arrest suspects, conduct house searches, and intercept telephone calls without special permission.
The government, with American help, increased the military’s resources but at the same time tried to start peace talks. The AUC paramilitary groups agreed to a ceasefire and disarmament if the AUC leaders escaped harsh prison sentences (they could be sentenced to a maximum of eight years in prison) and would not be extradited to the United States, where several of them were wanted for drug trafficking (see below).
Uribe went to great lengths to meet the AUC in a disarmament law in 2005. As a result, most AUC soldiers – around 31,000 men – were estimated to have given up their weapons in early 2006. But Human Rights Watch said the peace process was a fraud. , and that disarmed soldiers were replaced by new ones and that AUC leaders were still part of mafia-like networks.
Peace talks with ELN
The smaller left-wing guerrilla group ELN also started talks with the government. But despite many rounds of negotiations, there was a lack of concrete results. A ceasefire was discussed, but the government demanded that the ELN stop all kidnappings and stop using anti-personnel mines, which the guerrillas did not agree to.
No agreement was reached with the FARC either, and from 2004 the government army launched a fierce offensive against the guerrillas, who were forced to retreat from populated areas to their old jungle areas in the south and across the border into Ecuador. The weakened guerrillas responded with bloody bombings and all attempts at peace talks failed.
Protection against Chávez
At the same time as President Uribe received popular support for his fight against the guerrillas, he ended up on the front lines of the ideological conflict that divides the American continent. The United States supported Colombia financially and militarily in the fight against the FARC and the drug trade. Washington also saw Colombia as a bulwark against increased influence for Venezuela’s left-wing president Hugo Chávez.
At the same time, Chávez in Venezuela was able to take advantage of his good contacts with the guerrillas, and in late 2007 and early 2008 he negotiated the release of several well-known individuals who had been held hostage by the FARC. Chávez’s propaganda victory irritated Uribe, who rejected Chávez’s call to lift the stamp of terror against the FARC to achieve success in prisoner exchange.
Following an internet call in February 2008, a government-backed protest was carried out by millions of Colombians against Farc’s kidnappings. Similar demonstrations were held in other parts of the world.
Conflict with neighboring countries
Uribe’s goal was to knock out Farc’s lead. As the military went on the offensive against the rebels, several guerrilla units crossed the border into Ecuador, Venezuela and Panama.
In early March 2008, Colombian attack aircraft bombed a guerrilla camp inside the border with Ecuador. At least 17 people were killed, including Farc’s second man Raúl Reyes. Colombian special forces crossed the border and seized the dead Farcleader’s computers, which contained valuable information in the hunt for the guerrillas.
Colombia’s attack in Ecuador caused both Venezuela and Ecuador to move troops to the border area. After a week or so, the acute crisis was over and President Uribe apologized at a meeting with the regional cooperation organization OAS for the attack in Ecuador.