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Matthew Smith

Matthew Smith

Matthew Smith is Oilprice.com's Latin-America correspondent. Matthew is a veteran investor and investment management professional. He obtained a Master of Law degree and is currently located…

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Can Gustavo Petro Bring Peace To Conflict-Torn Colombia?

  • Colombian President Gustavo Petro aims to secure total peace amid ongoing conflicts fueled by profits from cocaine production, extortion, and control over valuable resources like oil.
  • Petro's major accomplishment has been securing a ceasefire with the National Liberation Army (ELN), the largest guerilla group operating in Colombia, scheduled to start on August 3, 2023, for 180 days.
  • A successful peace deal could bring significant economic benefits, potentially revitalizing Colombia's struggling economy and oil industry, which has suffered from attacks on infrastructure.

The June 2022 electoral victory of Colombia’s first-ever leftist President, Gustavo Petro, was heralded as a moment of monumental change for the strife-torn country. 

It represented a popular rejection of decades of hard-right governments which had failed to deliver on frequent promises of peace and economic security. Deep dissatisfaction with the status quo reached boiling point in 2021 when protests exploded across Colombia over growing poverty, rampant corruption, gaping social inequality, rising violence and the failure of then-President Ivan Duque to secure peace. A central part of Petro’s reform-driven agenda is to secure total peace in Colombia, although that appears shaky after a string of scandals caused the impetus for those reforms to grind to a halt.

Colombia is caught in a multidecade low-level asymmetric multiparty conflict that has claimed at least 450,000 lives, mostly civilians. The civil war expanded in scope as well as violence with the arrival of the tremendous profits generated by cocaine production and trafficking. Those profits continue to fund the multitude of illegal armed groups operating in Colombia. It was the U.S. War On Drugs and the massive July 2000 aid package, known as Plan Colombia which caused the conflict to escalate even further. While cocaine production added a new violent dimension to the civil war, the battle for control of valuable resources, notably petroleum which eventually became Colombia’s largest legitimate export, also stoked the conflict. 

By the late-1980s, the extortion of petroleum companies operating in Colombia by leftwing guerilla groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces Of Colombia (FARC – Spanish initials) and especially by the National Liberation Army (ELN – Spanish initials) had become a highly lucrative source of income. The inability of Colombia’s military to protect oilfields and industry infrastructure saw energy companies turn to alternatives. This included paying leftist guerillas protection money and employing private entities, such as paramilitary groups, to provide security. Damning evidence from former paramilitary combatants and commanders highlighted the links between Colombia’s public forces, international corporations and the rightwing death squads.

Former paramilitary fighters alleged foreign businesses, including oil companies paid paramilitary groups to protect vital industry infrastructure, murder organized labor leaders and suppress community dissent against their operations. While the paramilitary umbrella organization, The United Self Defense Forces of Colombia, known as the AUC, demobilized in 2006, although various subunits refused to demobilize while others rearmed after then-President Alvaro Uribe extradited senior AUC commanders to the U.S. in 2008. One paramilitary group which refused to disband and grew exponentially after the AUC’s demobilization to become Colombia’s most powerful criminal organization is the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces (AGC – Spanish initials).

President Juan Manuel Santos’ 2016 peace deal with the FARC failed to usher in a much-anticipated era of peace. Logistical setbacks coupled with Santos’ successor President Ivan Duque refusing to fully implement the accord saw dissident FARC factions, elements of the leftist guerillas which refused to accept the agreement, emerge. By late-2017, when the FARC had demobilized, there were an estimated 800 combatants in various dissident bands. As Colombia’s internal security unraveled, with violence against demobilized FARC fighters soaring, and Duque failed to complete the promised reintegration of former combatants’ dissident groups saw their numbers swell. By early 2020, after Duque had been in office for over a year, there were believed to be 2,400 combatants, triple the number that had existed three years earlier, with former guerillas and new recruits swelling the ranks of dissident FARC bands.

These events further exacerbated an already fragile security situation where the substantial profits from cocaine production continued to fuel fighting in rural regions where the Colombian state has a weak presence. Many conflict hotspots are in areas, such as the departments of Arauca and Putumayo, where Colombia’s oil industry has significant operations. Colombia’s civil war for decades has impacted the country’s oil industry and hydrocarbon-dependent economy. There is the notion that any concrete, tangible peace will deliver a much-needed economic dividend for Colombia. It will also give the hydrocarbon sector a considerable boost at a crucial time when its future is in doubt.

Nonetheless, the splintering of the FARC into various smaller dissident factions complicated Colombia’s internal security situation. This is being further aggravated by clashes between the ELN and the AGC for control of former FARC territory as well as lucrative coca cropping areas and smuggling routes. Those illegal armed groups are primarily driven by economic motives, not political ideology, with illicit activities including extortion, illegal gold mining and cocaine trafficking funding their operations. For these reasons, it is exceedingly difficult for Colombia’s military and police to suppress the diverse array of smaller, nimbler and less ideologically driven illegal armed groups confronting the state. 

The proliferation of illegal armed groups involved in illicit economies, notably cocaine production, is responsible for a marked increase in violence. By 2022, violence, including massacres and the murder of community leaders, human rights defenders and environmental activists, was at its worst level in over a decade. Recently, massacres, along with the murder of social leaders, as counted by Colombian peace thinktank Indepaz, reached an all-time high. Those worsening events are adding to the sense of urgency surrounding the need to deliver peace in a conflict-fatigued Colombia and end the endemic violence which has engulfed the crisis-riven country for decades.

While Petro’s plan for total peace kept stumbling, notably after he was forced to declare the cessation of a ceasefire with the Gulf Clan, a major coup was securing a ceasefire with the ELN. This will start on August 3, 2023, and last for 180 days, in stark contrast to the only other such deal struck with the ELN in September 2017, which was in force for 101 days. The United Nations and Catholic Church will monitor the ceasefire, and there is an option to negotiate an extension if both parties are satisfied. This is an important prelude to hammering out a lasting peace with the ELN, which with 3,000 fighters, is the largest guerilla group operating in Colombia. There are concerns the ceasefire will see hostilities cease because it is only between the ELN and the government, leaving the guerillas free to continue operations against opposing armed groups and the civilian populace. 

The government and the ELN started peace talks in late-2022. These have progressed in fits and starts, with the ceasefire agreement being the most significant development. Peace with the last major leftist guerilla group operating in Colombia may prove elusive. The ELN is a less centralized organization than the FARC, making it difficult for the senior leadership located in Havana, Cuba, to exert operational control over the various commanders of the war fronts operating in Colombia and Venezuela. Those commanding fighters in Colombia and Venezuela, notably Gustavo Aníbal Giraldo, alias El Pablito, who leads the ELN’s most powerful war front, will be reluctant to surrender the power they have accumulated. To secure a deal, Petro needs approval from Colombia’s powerful conservative right centered around former hardline rightwing President Alvaro Uribe and his Democratic Center political party, which has dominated politics for two decades.

If a peace deal eventuates, aside from important humanitarian benefits, it will deliver an economic windfall at a crucial time. Colombia’s economy is struggling to grow, with the IMF forecasting that 2023 gross domestic product will expand by a meager one percent and then by 1.9% for 2024. The ceasefire, as well as any lasting peace will benefit Colombia’s beaten-down oil industry, which is facing considerable uncertainty because of Petro’s plan to cease awarding new exploration contracts. There will be substantially fewer attacks on oil infrastructure, particularly pipelines because the ELN is the primary perpetrator of those acts launching seven attacks on the Cano Limon-Covenas pipeline during the first three months of 2023 alone. Those acts of sabotage saw the pipeline shuttered, causing oil production to decline. Fewer production outages due to attacks on energy infrastructure will benefit not only oil companies in Colombia but also the economy because petroleum is the largest legitimate export.


By Matthew Smith for Oilprice.com

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