The Policy of ‘Paz Total’ (Total Peace) in Colombia: Challenges, Failures and Opportunities Photo courtesy of Ministerio del Interior

The Policy of ‘Paz Total’ (Total Peace) in Colombia: Challenges, Failures and Opportunities

‘Paz Total’ is a central pillar of Gustavo Petro’s presidential administration from 2022 to 2026. What are the prospects for negotiations with insurgent and criminal armed groups and for security and peace in Colombia under this policy?

The election victory of Colombia’s first avowedly left-wing President, Gustavo Petro, in 2022 marked the start of yet another series of peace negotiations with armed groups in the country’s longstanding history of internal conflict. The policy of ‘Paz Total’ (Total Peace) was a central pillar of Petro’s election campaign and ongoing Presidential administration that saw Law 418 of Paz Total passed in November 2022 within months of the start of his presidential term.

The policy offers the opportunity to negotiate with both insurgent and criminal armed groups to address the various sources of internal conflict in Colombia. However, after one year serious questions remain about the very concept of ‘Paz Total’, the lack of a security policy to accompany peace negotiations with no less than ten armed groups, and the resultant surge in violence following the 2016 peace agreement with the country’s once largest insurgent group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC-EP).

What is the policy of ‘Paz Total’?

The very concept of ‘Paz Total’ as a policy is controversial and contested. For President Petro, the defining feature of this peace policy and subsequent legislation is that it sets the legal framework for the government to extend negotiations with a wide variety of armed groups, from insurgents, namely the National Liberation Army (ELN) and FARC dissidents under the umbrella organisation Estado Mayor Central (EMC) to organised criminal groups, such as the Clan del Golfo, the country’s largest drug cartel.

First, peace negotiations with insurgent organisations are political in nature and have a long history of dialogue, albeit largely unsuccessful. However, negotiations with criminal organisations are markedly less political and require engagement with regional criminal “offices” and networks that see frequent shifts in leadership. This also highlights the lack of a consistent framework to conduct negotiations with a diverse range armed groups with different political and economic goals and interests.

Second, it is unclear how the legal framework and guarantee for victims for truth, justice, reparation, and non-repetition, as set out in Legislative Act 01 of 2017 following the 2016 peace agreement with the FARC-EP, can apply in the policy of ‘Paz Total’, particularly with regards to criminal organisations.

Failures and opportunities

The idea of a total peace in Colombia is ambitious. It is a country with one of the longest running internal conflicts in the world. In the first year of the implementation ‘Paz Total’, there have been notable setbacks and failures. Most importantly, the policy has not resulted in improved conflict conditions despite government announcements of ceasefires with no less than five armed groups.

The ELN claimed never to have signed up to the ceasefire declared by the government and has continued armed action and kidnapping, including an attack in March 2023 on an army base in Catatumbo, Norte de Santander, that killed nine soldiers. In the same month, the ceasefire with the Clan de Golfo was suspended following their involvement in a miner’s strike after military action against illegal mining in the Bajo Cauca region that paralyzed the area for weeks.

The security conditions in critical rural areas have markedly worsened. According to INDEPAZ, kidnappings have risen by up to 80 per cent and extortion by at least 27 per cent which reflects the widening territorial advances of armed groups. Whilst combat action between the Public Forces and armed groups have decreased by 47 per cent, armed action between non-state armed groups has risen by 85 per cent – the biggest increase in a decade.

Currently, the ceasefire with the EMC remains in place. However, notably there has been increased coordination between dissident FARC-EP factions that has seen an expansion to 3,545 members and influence in 173 municipalities across 22 of the country’s 32 departments.

The policy of ‘Paz Total’ is likely to result in ‘paz parcial’ (partial peace). In November 2023, the Colombian Constitutional Court ruled that the government can only continue peace negotiations with armed groups with political status, not criminal organisations. This drastically changes the prospects of reduced sentences, full immunity, and political representation for criminal organisations. Whilst dialogues with a range of armed groups are ongoing, there are currently only two viable negotiations remaining, namely with the ELN and EMC.

For the second year of the ‘Paz Total’ policy, the central challenge for Petro’s government is to maintain the incentives for both insurgent and criminal groups to remain in dialogue and negotiations. However, it is likely that the policy will suffer further setbacks as criminal groups in particular will respond by expanding their presence and influence.