Colombia’s Total Peace Conundrum


Colombia’s new president Gustavo Petro was elected to office on a progressive campaign to strengthen democracy, implement social reforms, and bring “total peace” to the country. His approach to peace encompasses political negotiations with all remaining insurgent groups and simultaneous dialogues with criminal organizations geared toward their voluntary submission to justice in exchange for punitive leniency. While ambitious, Petro’s proposal is not entirely new. In fact, with the notable exception of his predecessor Iván Duque, virtually every president in Colombia’s recent history has, in one way or another, sought peace with the country’s armed groups.

Eight months into his administration, Petro’s efforts to deliver on his campaign promise are facing numerous challenges. In November 2022, the government resumed peace talks with the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas. Following several failed attempts to broker peace with the rebel group in the past, expectations to reach a comprehensive agreement are especially high this time around. However, the fact that these negotiations are occurring under Colombia’s first-ever leftist government is not a guarantee for success. After all, the ELN is seeking to secure structural and long-term concessions from the country’s political establishment. Another tough nut to crack will be the issue of transitional justice, given the guerilla group’s critical stance toward international humanitarian law and its steadfast conviction that its conduct has been altruistic. So far, the elusive peace agenda to which the parties have agreed, offers little clarity as to how these and other issues will be addressed.  

In the case of Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) dissidents and defectors, the government’s intention to acknowledge their political nature has been met with opposition. Critics hold that, by returning to arms, these individuals have forfeited their right to political recognition and accordingly any chance of participating in the transitional justice mechanisms established by the 2016 Peace Agreement. In any event, such participation would require a constitutional reform and garnering the necessary political support.

Similarly, a myriad of challenges arises when it comes to the criminal organizations presently active in Colombia. Ranging from successor paramilitary groups to powerful post-Pablo Escobar drug cartels, many of these organizations operate as horizontal criminal networks that “outsource” violent activities, such as contract killings. The idea of engaging these “purely criminal” groups in dialogue has sparked heated debate among politicians across party lines, legal experts, and the wider public. In these impassioned discussions, transitional justice in any form seems to get completely sidelined. This is especially worrying considering the limited progress made in the ordinary justice system to dismantle these groups and repair victims.

Armed groups or criminal organizations typically decide to negotiate with the government for one of two reasons: they face imminent military defeat or a negotiated settlement offers them considerable advantages over perpetuating the conflict. Neither scenario is currently a reality in Colombia. Profitable illegal markets in fact continue to grow. However, Petro has yet to complement his total peace policy with a security strategy to effectively combat armed groups and protect civilians. Many criminal organizations have become deeply entrenched in the regions, serving state functions and exercising political control over the communities. Reversing this trend will require strengthening state capacities at all levels, actively involving local governments in the design and implementation of regional peace policies, and fostering interinstitutional cooperation.

Despite these challenges, President Petro is still in a unique position to harness the momentum for change ushered in by his historic presidential win and to capitalize on the widespread international support his peace initiative enjoys. The remaining three and a half years of his administration should therefore focus on responding to the nuanced challenges of negotiating peace with multiple armed groups and implementing more comprehensive peace and security strategies.


PHOTO: In 2021, Colombia’s Truth Commission conducted a workshop for youth and state representatives in Ocaña, Norte de Santander. As part of an exercise, participants were bound to each other by pieces of tape to represent how they depended on one other in society to achieve reconciliation and coexistence. (Maria Margarita Rivera/ICTJ)