Colombia’s leader promised ‘total peace’. Then violence surged

Former guerrilla Gustavo Petro’s strategy criticised as security vacuum allows kidnappings and extortion to soar

Colombia’s left-wing president Gustavo Petro, a former guerrilla, promised “total peace” when he was sworn in last year. So far, the result has been a surge of violence from the armed groups that wield outsize power in the South American nation.

The fast-deteriorating security situation has stirred fear that Colombia is sliding back into the violence of past decades, a concern that attracted global attention with the kidnapping of the father of Liverpool football star Luis Díaz last month.

Across Colombia, kidnappings have increased more than 80 per cent under Petro, extortion is up 27 per cent and the murder rate has barely fallen, according to official figures comparing the first year of the new government with the last 12 months of Iván Duque’s centre-right administration. Instead of clashing with security forces, illegal armed groups now fight each other to expand their territory and control lucrative smuggling routes.

Díaz’s father was taken hostage by the National Liberation Army (ELN), the largest rebel group negotiating with the government, throwing into question the credibility of the peace process. Luis Manuel Díaz was released unharmed on November 9th but about 25 other hostages remain in ELN captivity, according to non-party conflict monitoring group Cerac.


“The initial suggestion of ‘total peace’ accelerated the violence,” said Elizabeth Dickinson, senior analyst for Colombia at International Crisis Group.

“Armed and criminal groups escalated operations to consolidate territory to improve their negotiating position before Petro took office. The ceasefires he declared in the first half of this year amounted to a tactical gift to these groups. With no army pressing them, they were free to rearm, recruit and resupply.”

Colombia now appears to be paying a high price for the security vacuum in its conflict zones. “If there’s no territorial control by the state, people lose faith in the process,” admitted a political ally of the president. “There isn’t a peace process in the world which isn’t accompanied by a robust security policy.”

Petro, a member of the now-defunct M-19 guerrilla group that demobilised in 1990, remains committed to the peace plan, arguing that changing course “would pave the way for a new cycle of violence”.

The government is in peace talks with the ELN and Estado Mayor Central, a breakaway group linked to the disbanded Farc rebels. It has also expressed interest in negotiating surrender deals with non-political criminal gangs, such as drug traffickers.

Colombia’s descent into violence began after the 1948 assassination of a leftist leader, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, and intensified after Marxist guerrilla groups began operating in the early 1960s, inspired by the Cuban revolution. The rebels waged a low-level war on the state before becoming involved with drug trafficking. Landowners in turn funded paramilitaries to fight the guerrillas. The conflict cost an estimated 450,000 lives between 1958 and 2016, according to Colombia’s Truth Commission.

A turning point came in 2016 when the government achieved a peace deal with the Farc, the largest guerrilla group at the time. The Marxist rebels agreed to lay down arms in return for political concessions, justice for conflict victims and a greater state presence in remote areas. But implementation has been patchy.

Of the 578 commitments made in the 2016 agreement, about half had either been implemented at a minimum level by November 2022 or not implemented at all, according to a study published in June by the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.

Juan Manuel Santos, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for reaching the peace agreement with the Farc while president, said Petro needed to implement the existing accords properly in order to create a solid foundation for talks with other rebel groups.

“‘Total peace’ will fail unless it is built on the base of what has been achieved with the Farc,” he said. “If the foundations fail, everything else will fail.”

Oliver Wack, general manager of Control Risks for the Andean region, said Petro had not balanced peace talks with tactics to guarantee security. The “erosion of the operational and intelligence capabilities of the security forces . . . has resulted in a strengthening of armed groups’ control of rural areas and an expansion of drug trafficking, illegal mining and extortion and kidnap”.

Petro’s peace commissioner Danilo Rueda did not respond to requests for an interview but Iván Cepeda, a senator from the coalition government who has been negotiating with the ELN, defended the “total peace” strategy, blaming the deterioration in security on criminal trends that had created tempting opportunities for armed groups in Colombia.

“It’s a mutation of drug trafficking in the Americas and worldwide,” he said. “New cocaine markets have emerged, marijuana markets have picked up and if that were not enough, there is the market for synthetic drugs. That means the emergence of new transnational criminal organisations.”

Cepeda said the gangs had also profited from the smuggling of migrants from South America and the Caribbean through Colombia.

“Taking a migrant from a country in the south to the US is a fantastic business if you do it with thousands of people,” he said. “Illegal mining has become stronger too.” He said the solution was an economic “revolution” in remote areas to replace illicit activities with sustainable growth.

The peace process has been further tarnished by allegations that Petro’s son Nicolás took campaign finance contributions from suspected drug traffickers in return for promises to include them in peace talks.

The younger Petro was arrested in July and initially offered to collaborate with prosecutors but then changed tack and denied charges of money laundering and illicit enrichment. The president said he was not aware of any wrongdoing.

Opinion polls meanwhile show that Colombians are losing faith in the “total peace” plan. Only 37 per cent say the ELN peace talks should continue, while 53 per cent are against them, according to a poll by Datexco published on November 12th. Some 52 per cent say Rueda, the peace commissioner, should resign.

The ELN, founded in the 1960s by radical students, is particularly unpopular because of its predilection for kidnapping. Its leader Eliécer Herlinto Chamorro, who uses the alias Antonio García, conceded in a message on Telegram that the kidnapping of football hero Díaz’s father was a “mistake” because of the star’s popularity.

Nonetheless, the 5,800-strong ELN has refused to halt abductions even after agreeing a ceasefire with the government in August, saying it needs the money to fund itself.

Cepeda acknowledged that the ELN’s continued use of kidnapping was costing the peace process support.

The senator said the government would not walk away from talks but if the ELN did not play its part “something more serious will happen: people will mobilise ... people will come out to say ‘no more’ [to the peace process]”.

“If the ELN doesn’t understand that, it will clash with the people.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023