In Colombia, 2015 Could Be Decisive Year for Rebel Talks

4 MINS READJan 9, 2015 | 15:13 GMT
In Colombia, 2015 Could Be Decisive Year for Rebel Talks
A FARC member guards a checkpoint in San Isidoro, Colombia, in 2012.

Negotiations to end Colombia's five-decadelong insurgency are entering a crucial phase. The government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, appear committed to negotiations for a peace agreement in 2015. The talks will continue to focus on how and when the group will demobilize, but it will be the discussions concerning the militants' outstanding criminal charges and potential punishments that will determine how soon an agreement is reached. In the meantime, energy infrastructure in northeastern and southwestern Colombia will remain at risk of consistent attacks by militants, which could further disrupt Colombia's oil exports.

Colombia and the FARC have been hung up discussing the group's demobilization for months now, but recent moves by both sides suggest an attempt to lay the groundwork for successful negotiations in the coming year. The FARC recently brought in several mid-level commanders of the group's blocs and other units to participate in the talks. Given their direct control over units in the field, these militant leaders will be crucial in implementing an eventual cease-fire deal.

The FARC unilaterally implemented an indefinite cease-fire across the country Dec. 20; unlike previous ones that had a fixed end date, the group has provided no time limit for the current break in hostilities. On the government side, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos signed a bill into law Jan. 6 allowing a referendum to be held along with municipal elections in October on whether to approve the outcome of the FARC peace talks. Although the talks remain far from complete, the move suggests that the government expects to have a deal completed by that date.

A major sticking point in the negotiations has been which criminal charges will be filed against FARC members. For at least several months, the FARC has been pressuring the government to classify charges against its members as political crimes. Such a reclassification would allow demobilized FARC leaders to run for office and to potentially join special legal mechanisms that could be more lenient than criminal courts.

Because the negotiations will continue to focus on sensitive topics in the coming months, Colombia's energy infrastructure will likely remain at risk in the short term. For the past three decades, militants have carried out attacks on oil and natural gas pipelines, wells and energy sector employees. In recent years, the militants have used such attacks to pressure the government and gain revenue from extortion campaigns. The FARC and the National Liberation Army, commonly known as the ELN, will continue to apply this pressure as long as the main points of the talks remain unresolved.

In Colombia, 2015 Could Be Decisive Year for Rebel Talks

Colombian Energy Infrastructure and Underexploited Reserves

Though it is true that attacks on energy assets dropped from a 12-year high of 253 in 2013 to about 140 in 2014, violence is likely to continue. The drop was influenced by the Colombian armed forces' persistent military activity in the southwestern department of Putumayo. Also, the FARC implemented several unilateral cease-fires that year. While the moves reduced the number of attacks, they did not eliminate them, and the country's energy sector will remain at risk until a demobilization agreement is signed.

In the upcoming months, there will be two major factors indicating whether a peace agreement is near. First, if the FARC sticks to its indefinite cease-fire or if the government reciprocates with a cease-fire of its own, it would be a sign of progress in the talks. So far, the government has been reluctant to reduce the pace of military activity against the militants, even though Bogota admits that the group has abided by its unilateral cease-fire. The Colombian government will likely become more open to reciprocating a cease-fire as outstanding issues are resolved at the negotiating table.

A second sign of progress in the talks would be if the ELN were to enter formal negotiations toward a peace deal. So far, the ELN has been hesitant to enter a formal peace discussion, likely because of the unresolved issues around the FARC negotiation. But the ELN is militarily weaker than the FARC; it only has about 1,500 members compared to the FARC's nearly 8,000 members. The ELN can significantly pressure the government in the northeastern Colombian departments of Arauca, Norte de Santander and Santander, but it cannot significantly reach beyond them, unlike the FARC, which has a wider area of operations. According to records from Colombian state-owned energy firm Ecopetrol, only 43 of 130 attacks recorded against its infrastructure were attributable to ELN. If the FARC receives enough concessions from the government to facilitate a peace deal, the ELN would likely move to open formal negotiations of its own.

These developments would indicate that negotiations are progressing toward a final deal between the FARC and the Colombian government and that the ELN and the FARC are moving closer to disarming. However, in the meantime, both sides will continue to pressure the other for concessions, and the attacks on energy infrastructure will continue.

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