COLOMBIA: Santos still striving for total peace

December 28, 2017

Latin News

President Juan Manuel Santos announced the appointment this week of Gustavo Bell as the new chief negotiator in peace talks with the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN). Bell will assume the position on 9 January. Santos said the government was working to extend the bilateral ceasefire with the ELN, which is scheduled to expire then, and introduce some new conditions. Santos also welcomed the announcement of an open-ended unilateral ceasefire by Colombia’s largest neo-paramilitary group, Clan del Golfo, which is seeking to negotiate its surrender.

Bell replaces Juan Camilo Restrepo, who stepped aside at the start of December, ostensibly for personal reasons although there was widespread speculation that he had grown frustrated with the lack of progress in the talks. Bell, a journalist and historian, served as ambassador to Cuba during the recent peace process with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Farc). He was vice president and defence minister under former president Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002), who has been a fierce critic of the peace process with the Farc in Cuba. The ELN issued a statement welcoming Bell’s appointment and expressing its hope that it would spur progress towards “a complete peace with social justice”.

The Clan del Golfo is keen to be part of this “complete peace”. It released an eight-point statement on 13 December announcing a unilateral ceasefire in a renewed bid to negotiate with the Santos administration. Santos hailed the “positive” announcement but insisted that there would be no let up by the security forces.

Blows sustained by Clan del Golfo

In September, the leader of the Clan del Golfo, ‘Otoniel’ (Dairo Antonio Úsuga), sued for peace, days after his number two, Gavilán (Roberto Vargas Gutiérrez), was killed in an operation by the security forces. The latest peace offer comes shortly after the number three in the command structure, ‘Inglaterra’ (Luis Orlando Padierma), was killed, in addition to some large drug seizures at the neo-paramilitary group’s expense [WR-17-45].

The Clan del Golfo sought to portray itself as a political actor in the statement. In the first point it argued that “despite the lack of a legal framework for its collective handover [surrender]” it was committed to ending the violence in Colombia and embracing a national reconciliation process because “the public deserves definitive peace”. It urged human right groups, the Church, the media, and the international community to verify its compliance with the proposed unilateral ceasefire. It also encouraged other illegal armed groups to join the ceasefire, specifically the ELN, alluding to “areas where for territorial circumstances we are confronting each other”, especially in the south-western department of Nariño and the north-western department of Chocó [WR-17-48].

Despite the language employed in the statement by the Clan del Golfo, the government is adamant that it is not a political actor and that as such there will be no negotiations and no offer of amnesties for any of its members. A bill outlining the juridical framework for collectively submitting to justice members of the Clan del Golfo, and other drug trafficking organisations (DTOs), who surrender was sent to congress in late October. But it was not approved under the fast track mechanism to expedite peace-related legislation through congress. With deputies and senators set to be distracted by elections in the first half of 2018 it might not be approved before Santos leaves office next August.

Santos alluded to the preparation of various decrees, which could enact parts of this legislation without the need for congressional sanction. The national daily El Tiempopublished a piece in October claiming that the bill contained the offer of a reduction in prison sentences of up to 50%, special prison conditions, no extradition, and other benefits depending upon the quality of information supplied to the authorities, such as full disclosure of drug-trafficking routes and the location of drug laboratories. The Clan del Golfo made no mention of drug-trafficking in its statement, or who exactly would be surrendering given its atomised nature. This is crucial because the Clan del Golfo makes extensive use of sub-contractors who could simply inherit control of the command structure after any surrender.

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