Queen's Policy Engagement

Negotiating with militias and criminal groups: What the Colombian government negotiations with paramilitary groups can tell us about possible peace talks with Clan del Golfo/AGC

Militia and criminal groups in Colombia, excluded from previous peace agreements, have called a ceasefire. The new President Gustavo Petro has vowed to pursue “total peace” with these groups.

Negotiating with militias and criminal groups: What the Colombian government negotiations with paramilitary groups can tell us about possible peace talks with Clan del Golfo/AGC

Various militia and criminal groups including the Clan del Golfo (also known as the Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia – AGC), currently the most powerful drug-trafficking militia, announced a unilateral ceasefire and called on the Colombian government to engage in peace negotiations.


This comes at an important juncture for Colombia. In 2016 the Colombian government signed a comprehensive peace agreement with the country’s largest communist insurgency, the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia).  While this peace deal included a series of measures to address the roots of the decades-long conflict, it excluded other armed groups such as the ELN (Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional), a smaller communist insurgent group, and a variety of militia organizations and criminal groups, such as the Clan del Golfo. These armed groups have remained active and perpetrated many human rights abuses.  However, now the new leftist President Gustavo Petro (sworn in 8th of August 2022) has vowed to pursue “total peace” with remaining rebel groups, militias, and criminal organizations. He has already promised to re-open talks with the ELN, which were suspended in 2019 after the ELN bombed a police academy in the capital city of Bogota. The call for renewed negotiations by the Clan del Golfo might offer a way towards a more peaceful Colombia.


Recent research has shown that negotiations with criminal organizations look very different to dialogues with insurgents. Since militias and criminal groups do not directly challenge government authority like insurgents do and are usually more motivated by financial gain than changing political systems, negotiations and agreements with such non-state armed groups are often more limited and fractured compared to those with insurgents.  Yet, the Colombian government has experience negotiating with the AUC (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia), an umbrella pro-government militia and drug-trafficking organization prominent in the early 2000s. This led to a demobilization program between 2005-2006 and measures to address victims of the conflict.  So, what can Colombia’s experience with negotiating with militias and criminal groups teach us about potential future government negotiations with the Clan del Golfo and other factions?


  1. Negotiations are likely to be secretive. The Colombian government negotiations with the AUC beginning in 2003 were secretive and much of what was discussed remains so. Much of what was agreed was also not published for public audiences. More recently, the Colombian government has concealed details about exploratory talks with the Clan del Golfo. The Colombian government will want to avoid public scrutiny of these discussions and to avoid giving these organizations a political platform. If the government does engage in dialogue with the Clan del Golfo or any other militia or criminal group, these talks will most likely be held behind closed doors.


  1. Expect fragmentation and “spoiling”. During dialogue with the AUC in 2003, which was an umbrella paramilitary organization, the government had to engage simultaneously with various factions. There was also considerable AUC in-fighting, with fierce resistance (“spoiling”) to some leaders’ plans for demobilization.  Now, early signs indicate that there are many within the Clan del Golfo who oppose dialogue with the government.  Moreover, there are many similar militia and criminal gang factions to deal with, such as the Aguilas Negras, Nueva Generacion, Los Paisas, among others.  If dialogue is to proceed, the government would have to find a framework acceptable to most of these organizations to have broader appeal.


  1. The conditions that both parties have for entering dialogue will narrow the scope for these discussions. The government of Colombia had to alter legal structures in the early 2000s to open dialogue with the AUC. Now, new legal structures created as part of the implementation of the 2016 agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC have introduced legislation for dealing with militias and criminal groups. These could constrain the government’s mandate to engage in dialogue and the scope of these potential discussions. On the other hand, the Clan del Golfo and other organizations have pre-conditions on negotiations, demanding that the government restricts extradition to the United States and promises to limit harsh prison sentences in exchange for participation in peace. These limit the scope for discussions and provide an immediate focus around specific issues.


  1. The scope of negotiations is also likely to be limited by other factors. The agreements with the AUC in 2003 focused on demobilization and lenient jail terms in exchange for truth-telling and addressing victims as part of a transitional justice framework. These agreements were limited compared to the comprehensive nature of the 2016 agreement with the FARC insurgents which were designed to address various aspects of the conflict. For example, the Santa Fe de Ralito agreement between the government and AUC was 3 pages long, compared to the over 300 pages of the FARC-AUC agreement.  This is partly because the Colombian government is keen to avoid recognizing militias and criminal groups as political actors.  It will therefore have to strike a balance between a more comprehensive set of agreements over peace in the country and avoiding recognizing any political ambitions these groups might have and/or providing them a platform that legitimizes their activities.


  1. There is potential for more comprehensive dialogue and engagement around narco-trafficking. This could be a promising exception to the above.  The 2003 agreements with the AUC, then one of the country’s leading narco-trafficking organizations, failed to fully address the underlying issues that fuelled the drug economy.  Now, the new President Gustavo Petro declared in his inaugural speech that the US-led “War on Drugs” in Colombia was a failure and has vowed to pursue new ways to tackle the problem.  Dialogue with the Clan del Golfo, currently amongst the most powerful drug-trafficking organizations, could open new avenues to explore for addressing long-standing issues.


  1. If any agreement is reached, implementation will be difficult. The government-AUC agreements in 2003 led to the demobilization of around 35,000 fighters, according to official figures. However, there were some significant problems, and remnants of the AUC formed new groups, such as the Clan del Golfo, Aguilas Negras, La Constru, Los Rastrojos, Los Paisas and Nueva Generacion, among others.  Similarly, the implementation of the 2016 agreement with the FARC has suffered some setbacks. The government will have to find long-term political will and new mechanisms to see any negotiated agreements through.


Colombia faces challenges dealing with armed groups that have continued activities beyond the 2016 government-FARC agreement.  While the newly inaugurated government of Gustavo Petro has promised to re-open dialogue with the ELN, there is currently less certainty that it will do so with the various militia and criminal groups that are still operational.  If the government decides to proceed with negotiations with militia and criminal groups, such as the Clan del Golfo, the government’s 2003 negotiations with the AUC provide a hint at what potential discussions might look like.  Negotiations are likely to remain secretive and limited in scope, primarily focusing on the conditions for demobilization. On the one hand, there is some potential optimism for providing new solutions to drug-trafficking. But on the other hand, the negotiations are likely to be fraught with “spoilers” and defiance among those that seek to continue their lucrative drug-trafficking activities. Finally, even if an agreement can be reached, previous experience tells us that implementation can be difficult.  Even if dialogue does occur, there will still be a lot of work to reach “total peace”.


The featured image has been used courtesy of a Creative Commons license.

Dr Andrew Thomson
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Dr Andrew Thomson is a Senior Lecturer in the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics at Queen's University Belfast. His research interests include conflict, peace processes, US foreign policy, and non-state actors in civil war.

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