Carrots Without Sticks in Petro’s Total Peace Policy

Petro’s Total Peace policy’s lackluster results stem from bad timing and a poor negotiation structure with insurgent and criminal groups.


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Petro’s Total Peace policy’s lackluster results stem from bad timing and a poor negotiation structure with insurgent and criminal groups. As violence in urban and rural areas increases, so does skepticism of the government’s ability to deliver on its promise of peace. 

The Total Peace is one of Colombian President Gustavo Petro’s flagship policies. Signed into law on November 4, 2022, it seeks to bring an end to the Colombian armed conflict by carrying out simultaneous negotiations with the existing armed groups and criminal organizations for their eventual disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration. Over a year after the signing of the Total Peace Law, the government’s track record is mixed. There has been some progress, but also many challenges. A peace agreement in 2024 is very unlikely, even with the two armed groups most advanced in talks.

Although peace processes take time, as was the case in Colombia’s peace process with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 2016, the government’s timing for the negotiations and approach to the peace talks have undermined its negotiation position and will likely result in protracted negotiations with few tangible results.

The government is currently negotiating with several armed groups and criminal organizations, including the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN), the Estado Mayor Central (EMC), the Segunda Marquetalia, the Autodefensas Conquistadoras de la Sierra Nevada (ACSN), the Shottas, the Espartanos and the Clan del Golfo (AGC).

There have been some wins for the government, the most publicized of which are the bilateral ceasefires signed between the government and the ELN, as well as with the EMC. The bilateral ceasefire with the ELN began on July 3, 2023, and is likely to be extended for an additional six months today. Likewise, the bilateral ceasefire with the EMC started on October 16, 2023, and was recently extended for six months, until July 15, 2024. Other successes include the ELN agreeing to stop kidnappings as a form of financing, and an increase in seizures of cocaine, heroin, and marijuana. The number of terrorist attacks also decreased in 2023.

The prospect of Total Peace, however, has also been dampened by growing violence. The number of massacres and murders of leaders and human rights defenders has significantly increased according to Instituto de Estudios para el Desarrollo y la Paz (Indepaz). Likewise, 2023 saw an increase in extortion, kidnappings, and forced displacement, and a decrease in the number of hectares of coca crops manually eradicated compared to 2022. Coca hectares and illegal mining indicators show a likely increase during 2023, although reports are yet to come out. More worryingly, armed groups have expanded their territorial control, as evidenced by several instances of armed groups building and inaugurating streets and bridges, as well as influencing the October 29 elections. Furthermore, during a speech in December 2023, Minister of Defense Iván Velásquez stated that territorial control by the National Police and the armed forces had deteriorated since the 2016 peace agreement.

These events demonstrate Total Peace’s limitations when it comes to improving the security situation in Colombia. The government’s approach to negotiations is partly to blame for this. But unfortunate timing has also affected the likelihood for peace during the current administration. 

Petro came to power at a time of increasing violence, after the prior government failed to fully fill the power vacuum left by the disarmament of the FARC. The easy expansion of Colombia’s two most important armed groups (ELN and AGC) during this period, as well as Duque’s dislike for negotiated peace, made meaningful negotiation unlikely. The armed groups lacked incentives to engage fully in a peace process, and the Duque administration saw no political advantage in anything but a military response. While the Petro administration was interested in negotiated peace, it should have waited until the balance of power between the government and the armed groups favored the government before initiating talks. Petro’s clear aversion to armed conflict has potentially set the talks up for failure as the groups are not conditioned by the prospect of a military defeat.

We can also observe shortcomings of the Petro administration’s Total Peace policy as a result of the government’s prioritization of bilateral ceasefires over other agreements. By ceasing hostilities against the armed groups while the negotiations develop, the government has effectively lost bargaining power, as it relinquished its right to use legitimate force against armed groups while simultaneously allowing them to deepen their control over occupied territory.

This strategy of carrots without sticks makes it even more unlikely that the negotiations will be successful, as the armed groups have no incentives for participating in further peace talks other than to continue expanding their territorial control, resulting in significant concessions to the armed groups with a timid response from the government.

This weak response was on clear display when military forces unilaterally withdrew from El Plateado Cauca during the 2023 local elections this past October and when the EMC killing of four minors in May 2023 in Putumayo only resulted in a temporary suspension of the ceasefire. The negotiations with the ELN suffered their most serious breakdown when the group took responsibility for kidnapping Mane Diaz, father of Colombian soccer star Luis Diaz, on October 28, which prompted the government to make greater demands on the ELN to eradicate kidnapping and extortion from their modus operandi. However, although the group did return Diaz, they have yet to agree to end kidnappings unless the government is able to make up for lost profits from the practice. The gall.

The government seems reluctant to force negotiations out of a stalemate by legitimately using force or walking away from the table despite the violent escalation directly affecting the civilian population it promised to protect.

Finally, there is the issue of what to do with the remnants of the 2016 accord. Engaging in a new peace process without fulfilling the commitments made during the 2016 peace accords exposes the government’s lack of credibility to make assurances in ongoing negotiations. The assassination of former FARC fighters who signed the 2016 peace deal continues, with 44 killed in 2023. Likewise, budget execution in government organizations in charge of implementing the 2016 peace accords was worryingly low during 2023, despite a significant budget increase. Lastly, the Illegal Crop Substitution Program (PNIS) showed no advancements during 2023, according to Indepaz. Without guarantees, armed groups are unlikely to agree to a new peace process, and international cooperation is likely to falter if the efforts of the last peace process appear ineffective.

The lack of incentives for the armed groups to move forward with the negotiations will result in increasing levels of violence, as they expand their control and illicit economies. This puts the implementation of the 2016 deal at risk, and more broadly, it affects the government’s legitimacy as a proponent of negotiated solutions to its violent circumstances. We are not optimistic that Total Peace will materialize in 2024.

To address these shortcomings, the Colombian government must forgo the bilateral ceasefires as its first and only move to advance negotiations. The government should build and maintain a credible threat of legitimate use of force against armed groups and criminal structures to incentivize them to participate in a peace process earnestly. It must also set strict deadlines for the negotiations with specific objectives, to avoid protracted peace talks as has been the case with the ELN. Not only is there a set political deadline (with the elections in 2026), but it should also set interim hard deadlines for the talks. 

Likewise, the United States and other supporters of Colombia’s peace process must maintain pressure on the Colombian government for the fulfillment of the commitments made during the 2016 peace process. They should also contribute generously to the financial well-being of the post-accord implementation structure to guarantee security and sustainable development in the future. They should not reward the ELN or other criminal organizations by removing them from lists of international terrorist organizations until an agreement is not only reached but implemented. Financing these groups directly will be out of the question as long as they remain on those lists. With ongoing conflicts in Europe and the Middle East, Colombia is no longer the priority it was in 2016, but that does not mean that the prospect of peace in Colombia should be forgotten.  


Sergio Guzmán is the Director of Colombia Risk Analysis, a political risk consulting firm based in Bogotá. Follow him on Twitter @SergioGuzmanE and @ColombiaRisk.

Gerardo Caneva is an analyst at Colombia Risk Analysis. Follow him on Twitter @GCanevaz99.

Global Americans takes pride in serving as a platform that offers in-depth analyses on various political, economic, environmental, and foreign affairs issues in the Western Hemisphere. The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Global Americans or anyone associated with it, and publication by Global Americans does not constitute an endorsement of all or any part of the views expressed. 

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