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Colombia peace talks miss goal and are likely to go on for months, observers say

A Colombian police officer patrols a street in Toribio.
A Colombian police officer patrols a street in Toribio.
(Luis Robayo / AFP/Getty Images)
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Wednesday was supposed to mark the end of 52 years of armed conflict in Colombia.

But peace negotiations underway in Havana between the government and the country’s main rebel group are likely to stretch on for months, according to observers close to the talks.

“It’s a delay that was predictable given the complexity of the issues still to be decided,” said Bruce Bagley, a University of Miami professor who is close to the government’s negotiating team. “That doesn’t mean it doesn’t raise concerns. But I’m still optimistic we’ll have a signing by June.”

The government had hoped to at least reach a permanent cease-fire agreement with the rebels, known at the FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, in time for President Obama’s visit to Cuba this week.

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It would have been a milestone with potential opportunities for Colombian negotiators to pose for celebratory photographs with Obama.

But several issues remain unresolved, including the mechanics of how the rebels will lay down their arms and how a final deal will be approved. The rebels want the terms of a peace deal incorporated into a new constitution, while the government favors a simple vote by the public.

Also undecided are the size, number and location of “concentration zones,” where about 18,000 demobilized rebel fighters and their supporters and families will stay as the peace process unfolds. The rebels want more than 50 such zones spread across the country while the government is offering 20 “peasant reserves” in remote areas, Bagley said.

Once they are disarmed, the rebels must trust that they are safe from marauding right-wing paramilitary groups. A 1989 peace deal quickly fell apart after the slaughter of an estimated 3,000 ex-fighters and leftist political leaders.

“The smaller zones make sense because they are easier to protect,” said Adam Isacson, a Colombia specialist tracking the peace negotiations for the Washington Office on Latin America think tank. “But the FARC is concerned they will be cut off from areas they have controlled for 50 years.”

The United Nations has agreed to send about 350 observers to the concentration zones to monitor a cease-fire and verify that the rebels are laying down their arms. The observers will not be armed, leaving it up to Colombia’s armed forces to guard the demobilized insurgents, a prospect that many top military commanders are resisting.

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“The FARC won’t put down their arms unless there are ironclad guarantees that they will be protected,” Bagley said. “The government is negotiating with the military to provide that protection but exactly how is an open question. The idea has not gone over well with the armed forces.”

The missed deadline comes at a time of declining public support for President Juan Manuel Santos, who has staked his presidency on the success of the talks underway in Havana since November 2012. The U.S. has strongly supported the negotiations and appointed a special envoy, Bernard Aronson, a former assistant secretary of State.

Former President Alvaro Uribe, now a senator and a foe of Santos and the negotiations, has argued that the terms offered by the government to the FARC are too generous. Santos wants demilitarized rebels to receive monthly stipends and to be subject to prison terms of no more than eight year for crimes ranging from mass murder to drug trafficking.

“Santos is going through a rough patch politically,” said Michael Shifter, president of Inter-American Dialogue, a policy think tank in Washington. “With the missed deadline, he will incur some additional political cost, especially with former President Uribe’s relentless criticism of the peace process.”

Nonetheless, Shifter believes that “prospects for signing an accord remain good.”

“It would certainly behoove the FARC to do so,” he said. “This is the best deal they will ever get.”

Kraul is a special correspondent.

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