The power of fear

On 17th January 2019, Colombia woke up with the news that a car bomb had exploded in Bogotá, its capital city. A car had entered the compound of the General Santander police academy, killed 21 people and left 68 injured.

The news were striking as many people thought that bomb attacks in urban areas had already become part of a painful, yet old, chapter in the history of the country due to the peace agreement signed in 2016 with the Revolutionary Armed Forces — the FARC — and the negotiation table established that same year with the left wing rebel group — the National Liberation Army, the ELN.

However, the attack leaves uncertainty and an open window for the government to justify going back to the “firm hand” policy; a policy used for eight years during the government of ex-president Alvaro Uribe Velez, political mentor of the current president Ivan Duque.

A divided society

On the last years, the different opinions in the Colombian society have caught the attention of the media around the world. The results of the peace referendum held by former president Juan Manuel Santos (2010 – 2018) in 2nd October 2016, portrays the disagreement with the agreement signed between Santos and the FARC.

The referendum consisted on asking the approval of Colombians of the peace agreement between the government and the FARC, after almost four years of negotiations. Many felt that the agreement was too lenient towards the FARC, a guerrilla movement that played a leading role in the armed conflict with the Colombian government for more than 50 years. The agreement was rejected by 50,2% of the voters; however, a revised version of the accord was pushed through on 24th November 2016.

Unfortunately, the car bomb came to divide the Colombian society once more. On one side, there are those who condemn the attack perpetuated by the ELN, but defend the deal with the FARC. On the other side, there are those who claim that the ELN attack is the result of sealing an unfair accord with the FARC, and portray the agreement as a monument to impunity. Ex-president Alvaro Uribe Velez, today a national senator, has repeatedly claimed that the peace agreement signed with the FARC has set a bad example, by sending the message that the government does not punish persons who committed crimes against humanity.

Talks to end 52 years of war

After the four years of negotiations that culminated in an agreement with the FARC, former president Santos began formal negotiations with the second biggest rebel group of the country in November 2016. The government and the National Liberation Army (ELN) began talks after three years of failed attempts, in the hope of clinching an agreement similar to the one sealed with the FARC.

On September 2017, a cease-fire agreement was reached; however that agreement has been tested by attacks from both sides.

President Ivan Duque, who took office on August 2018, said he would not resume the negotiations with the ELN, unless they freed the hostages they were keeping.The group responded in a statement posted on its website: “By not recognising the deals made with the state and adding, unilaterally, unacceptable conditions, this government is closing the negotiating table, ending the process of dialogue and the efforts made over several years by the ELN, society, the previous government and the international community”. 

The “Firm Hand”

“Firm hand, big heart” was the slogan of Alvaro Uribe Velez when he ran for president in 2002. His promise was to do all in his power to restore the security in the country, build up the armed forces, seeking more US aid in the fight against rebels, whom  he calls terrorists. At the beginning of his campaign, Uribe claimed that by using the firm hand, rebels would eventually come to the table and negotiate with the government. Paradoxically, Uribe has always been strongly opposed to negotiations with the FARC and to the resulting agreement.

The proclaimed “firm hand” used during Uribe’s government might have gone too far. During his time in office, particularly during his second term, his administration has been involved in a series of scandals regarding corruption and human right violations.

The first head of the DAS — the Colombian secret police — that was supposed to take orders only from the president is in jail, accused of supplying lists of suspected rebel sympathisers to right-wing paramilitary death squads. The organisation was also accused of phone hacking journalists, judges and politicians from the opposition.

Another scandal during Uribe’s presidency was the “false positives”. With the aim of improving statistics and gaining promotions, civilians were murdered by the army and then dressed in rebel clothing to be presented as insurgents killed during combat.

Additionally, Uribe’s family, his close political circle, business partners and senator Uribe himself have been accused of paramilitary ties. Paramilitary groups in Colombia were created by landlords to protect themselves from left wing rebel groups such as the FARC. Later on, they became feared by their perpetrated crimes: rural massacres, sexual abuse and drug trafficking. In fact, Santiago Uribe, Uribe’s brother, is currently awaiting trial for running the paramilitary group called “The Twelve Apostles”. Senator Uribe himself is now facing accusations related to paramilitarism. The Supreme Court is investigating him for allegedly having threatened witnesses that linked him to paramilitary groups.

After eight years in power, Alvaro Uribe’s left a safer country in fear. Fear from the FARC, the ELN, the army and the paramilitary.

A mentor

Today, Alvaro Uribe is a senator leading the dominant right wing bloc and the mentor of current president of Colombia, Ivan Duque. His government must cope with the reinsertion of former FARC rebels into society, the violence in the areas vacated by the FARC, the systematic killings of local leaders, the arrival of venezuelans, cutting both the fiscal deficit, which is 3.5% of GDP, and the corporate-tax rate (from 33% to a still-high 30%). Beset with challenges, Uribe is seen by many as the power behind the inexperienced Duque.

The power of fear

After the attack, many questions arose. Hours after it occurred, President Duque ended the negotiations with the left wing rebel group ELN. One day later, ELN posted a statement claiming responsibility for the attack.

President Duque has urged Colombians to “stand united”, and assured that  “this despicable act will not go unpunished … we shed tears for these heroes, but that we will honor their memory by building a stronger Colombia”— all of which brings into question whether president Duque is planning to follow the same principle as his mentor, showing a “firm hand” to former and current rebel forces.

Perhaps as a first act, Duque announced his refusal to honor the agreed protocols with the international community in case peace talks with the ELN guerrilla ended. Said protocols had been agreed at the beginning of the negotiations and stated that, in case of rupture, the leaders of the ELN group would be allowed to reunite their troops.  Although Duque claims he is not bound to the commitment made by the preceding government, guarantor countries and the international community have strongly advised Duque to remain committed to the protocol. Ignoring the protocol harms the country’s reputation and credibility for future peace talks.

In 2002, fear helped Alvaro Uribe to get elected as president, with his promise of taking a more aggressive stand against the rebels. Although Uribe was very successful in a number of fronts, presumably intimidation and threats in the regions controlled by the paramilitaries also played a role in his re-election in 2006. In 2010, Juan Manuel Santos, who was defense minister in the government of Uribe, won the elections. Political analysts explained his success as  the product of the fear of Colombians that Uribe’s improvements in security could vanish if any other candidate was elected. Nevertheless, after the elections, Santos started to show his desire to govern by himself and differentiate from Uribe.  In 2014, Santos was re-elected using the flag of peace against Uribe’s candidate Oscar Ivan Zuluaga, whose almost entire focus was the opposition to peace talks with the FARC. In 2018, the fear of “becoming another Venezuela” after the peace agreement with the FARC won many votes that got elected President Duque.

Final words

The attack perpetrated by the ELN sealed the doom of the peace negotiations with Colombia’s last-remaining rebel group. Unless ELN shows clear willingness to negotiate, this leaves only the military solution on the table. Nevertheless, trying to defeat the guerrilla group, who has been present in Colombia since 1964, is far from been an ideal option.

In Colombia, fear produced by the armed conflict has served to do politics and encouraged the election of politicians with a certain profile. But if anything, war is long, painful, fought and most suffered by the poorest people.

by Valentina Narvaez


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