On August 30, 2022, Colombian President Gustavo Petro submitted his Total Peace plan to congress. The goal: ending the violence that has plagued Colombia for decades. The method: brokering simultaneous ceasefires with various armed and criminal groups, and then trading judicial leniency and other benefits for permanent disarmament. The promises were and are big, but so is the scope of the problem.
One year on, enough time has elapsed to take stock. Critics argue Total Peace has ceded ground to illegal armed groups without securing any real concessions in return. Supporters fire back that Petro can already count some major wins, from obtaining congressional approval for his plan to brokering a six-month bilateral ceasefire with the country’s largest still-active insurgency, the National Liberation Army (ELN), which took effect August 3.
They’re both right. The consequences of Total Peace have been mixed: some good, and some bad. While that may rule out a future for Total Peace as a resounding success, it’s too soon to count it out as a total failure.
What’s Gone Right
Petro took office facing a daunting security situation, which had deteriorated badly under his predecessor, Iván Duque. But at least at the start, the wind was at Petro’s back. Unlike the 2016 Peace Accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which polarized the country and triggered intense backlash, Total Peace met curiously little resistance. An unlikely coalition, including lawmakers from traditional and conservative parties, passed a law that created frameworks for negotiating with criminals organizations and rebel groups.
Petro also made progress, in fits and starts, brokering bilateral ceasefires with armed groups. The furthest along is the ceasefire with the ELN, cemented after a round of talks overseen by half a dozen guarantor countries and a broad cross-section of Colombian civil society groups. The ceasefire is still embryonic. There are real questions about how the ELN’s leaders will enforce compliance, given the group’s federated structure. Fully aware of their strength, the group’s leaders are pushing for a slow disarmament plan like the one used in Northern Ireland, rather than surrendering their arms before signing an accord like Colombia’s FARC.
But the talks haven’t been fruitless: clashes between state authorities and armed groups have decreased by 48 percent, and Petro has enlisted a broad cross-section of civil society in brokering the deal. The United Nations and Catholic Church have both signed on to verify compliance. If the bilateral ceasefire holds, it will be as far as any government has gotten since 1975. And the Petro government has made some progress toward tackling root causes of violence. The government’s National Development Plan, which passed congress in May, hiked funding for implementation of the 2016 Peace Accord by 36 percent. Restorative justice and land reform have moved forward.
What’s Gone Wrong
Petro, even with those early wins under his belt, is barely keeping pace with his losses. A bilateral ceasefire with the Gulf Clan—Colombia’s largest criminal syndicate—broke down in March, as the group’s fighters launched new violent attacks against civilians and state officials. In May, FARC dissidents violated a similar deal, only returning to the negotiating table after Colombia’s Attorney General suspended over a dozen arrest warrants against their leaders last month. No one is taking for granted that the ceasefire with the ELN will last, least of all Attorney General Francisco Barbosa, who alleged in early August that the group was plotting against his life.
Restarting talks with criminal groups like the Gulf Clan won’t be easy, if it happens at all. Colombia’s Inspector General and members of the Attorney General’s office have questioned whether criminals are eligible for the same treatment as rebel groups. The Constitutional Court in March decided not to suspend the provision of the Total Peace law that allowed the government to negotiate with organized criminal groups. But the Court is still hearing challenges to the law from the opposition in Congress, and has reserved the right to potentially suspend the law in the future if they find any article to be unconstitutional.
Some observers fear illegal and armed groups are just angling for time and taking advantage of the lull in operations by security forces to redouble their forces. There’s some evidence to that effect. Since Petro took office, violent encounters between illegal armed groups have increased by 85 percent, as they wage all-out-war for control of drug trafficking routes and territory. Forced displacement and confinement, kidnappings, and extortion are all up, suggesting illegal armed groups’ hold on territory is as strong as ever. Targeted killings of social leaders have barely ticked downwards. And while homicides have decreased by around two percent nationwide, in traditional conflict hotspots along the Pacific Coast and border areas, violence is raging.
The lapsed ceasefires underscore the biggest challenge for Petro, and for Total Peace: armed and criminal groups that reap huge profits and control vast swathes of territory have weak incentives to give it all up. For the time being, business is booming. Petro’s ambitious plans for reforming Colombia’s drug policy and sapping the drug trade of its huge profit-making potential remain just that—plans. And even then, the problem isn’t limited to drugs. As the dynamics of the conflict shift, so too have illegal armed groups’ incentives for staying involved. Drug trafficking remains a major revenue source, but illegal armed groups have also diversified, expanding into illegal mining, illicit cattle ranching, arms smuggling, and human trafficking.
Colombia’s military has taken a blow. Defense funding and combat readiness began to drop off in the final years of the Juan Manuel Santos government and never recovered. But once Petro took office and immediately dismissed top brass, morale sunk to a new low. There’s a deficit of personnel and intelligence capacities and uncertainty about the military’s mandate, given the on-again, off-again ceasefires. If Total Peace fails, and the state once again needs to fight illegal armed groups head-on, none of it bodes well.
One year into Petro’s four-year term, Colombia has hit an inflection point. Even if Total Peace doesn’t resolve Colombia’s violent armed conflicts, it’s already leading to a reconfiguration. If the ELN ceasefire holds, it could preface a more permanent disarmament and reintegration program along the lines of Colombia’s peace agreement with the FARC. Even on its own, that would be a major achievement. But if Colombia’s illegal armed groups, the ELN included, walk away from the table, Total Peace could preface increased violence and only tighten criminal groups’ territorial control. Petro’s legacy—and Colombia’s future—rides on what happens next.