Q&A: Colombia peace talks

Farc and government negotiators at a news conference in Havana on 16 May, 2014 The current talks in Cuba are the first direct attempt to reach a deal in a decade

The formal talks between the Colombian government and left-wing rebels from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) aim to end the country's civil conflict.

It is the first attempt to strike a deal in a decade, and - despite several agreements already reached on a six-point peace agenda - huge obstacles remain. Still, for some it is the best chance for a negotiated settlement since the Farc launched its armed struggle in 1964.

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How did the current process start?
A Farc fighter. File photo The conflict has left some 220,000 people dead since it began in the 1960s

President Juan Manuel Santos has said initial informal discussions with the Farc started shortly after he took office in August 2010. Those contacts led to the start of direct exploratory talks with the rebels' representatives in the Cuban capital, Havana, in February 2012.

These discussions concluded with the signing of an agreement that set out a six-point agenda for the formal negotiations. The negotiations were launched in Oslo in October 2012 and began in Havana the following month.

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Does the agreement include a ceasefire?

No. Mr Santos has said he made it clear from the beginning that military operations against the Farc will continue until a final deal has been reached. This is one of the main differences with previous peace processes, which many believe were used by the rebels mainly to regroup and strengthen.

At the same time, the decision to continue with the military operations has also tested the Farc's resolve.

The rebels' decision to continue contacts even after government forces killed Alfonso Cano, the rebel leader who started the negotiations, in November 2011, has been presented as proof of their willingness to secure a deal.

Farc announced that they would stop their policy of kidnapping people in order to show goodwill.

But after seizing two soldiers in November 2014 in the eastern province of Arauca they clarified that that policy applied only to civilians.

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How have the talks been going?

After the formal talks were launched in October 2012, progress was made.

But the negotiations were suspended on 16 November 2014 after Farc rebels kidnapped General Ruben Dario Alzate and his two companions - the first time in 50 years of conflict that a general has been taken.

President Santos demanded the immediate release of the captives, and a spokesman for the Farc in Havana said that the rebels' negotiators would investigate the incident. ‎

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What is being discussed?
Archive Farc photo from the 1960s The Farc launched its Marxist-inspired armed struggle to defend the rights of peasants

The agenda covers six issues;

  • land reform
  • political participation
  • drug trafficking
  • rights of victims
  • disarmament of the rebels
  • the implementation of the peace deal.

Six months into the talks, on 26 May, negotiators reached an agreement on land reform, which they said would result in a "radical transformation of rural Colombia".

The deal, which has been hailed as a significant step in the peace negotiations, provides for the creation of a land bank to reallocate land, especially that which was seized illegally during the decades of conflict.

In November 2013, the two sides agreed on a political future for the rebels should a peace deal be reached. This included guarantees, conditions and support for the creation of new political parties.

Farc leader Ivan Marquez called the deal "an important step in the right direction to end the conflict and to achieve a real democracy in Colombia".

Relatives of kidnapped Colombian soldiers in 1996 Relatives of soldiers kidnapped by the Farc have demanded justice for their relatives

Colombia's chief government negotiator Humberto de la Calle said it would provide a "new democratic opening".

In May 2014, the two sides agreed on a plan to deal with the illegal drug trade.

The Farc, which controls large patches of rural Colombia, is believed to be partly funded by money generated by the illegal drug trade.

In June 2014, Farc and government negotiators in Havana announced they would set up a truth commission to investigate the deaths and human rights violations during five decades of conflict.

They also agreed to hear the demands of the victims, who will travel to the Cuban capital.

The agenda has been described as realistic compared with previous peace processes when the Farc demanded to discuss radical changes to Colombia's political and economic model.

However, with negotiators taking half a year to reach agreement on the first of the six issues, there are fears they will take years rather than months to conclude a deal.

President Santos had pushed for November 2013 to reach a significant agreement but now says he hopes for progress by the end of 2014 if he is re-elected.

The kidnapping of General Ruben Dario Alzate also cast doubt on the President's plan of a quick resolution.

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So how strong is the Farc?
Farc rebels in April 1998 The government says the Farc has lost more than half of its fighters since the late 1990s

The Farc is Colombia's largest guerrilla group and one of the world's richest rebel movements, allegedly due in large part to drug-trafficking and illegal gold mining. But according to the Colombian military there are now some 8,000 fighters, down from 16,000 in 2001.

The rebels, who a decade ago controlled nearly a third of Colombian territory, now mostly operate in remote rural areas or through hit-and-run attacks.

Several Farc commanders have been killed or captured in the last few years. But the rebels are by no means defeated and have demonstrated great capacity to adapt.

"The government realises military means alone cannot end the conflict and (the) Farc appears to recognise that the armed struggle permits survival but little else," the International Crisis Group has said.

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What about Colombian public opinion?
People light candles during a peace vigil in Bogota Numerous vigils and protests in support of the peace process have taken place in recent years

Numerous opinion polls in recent months have suggested that a large majority back dialogue, with just over half saying they are optimistic about the outcome.

In recent years, tens of thousands of Colombians showed their support for the negotiation at peace marches in major cities throughout the country.

But a significant number also share the views of key opponents of the negotiations. These include former president Alvaro Uribe, who opposes the idea of an amnesty or allowing the rebels to enter politics.

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What happened at previous talks?
Photograph taken at an undisclosed place and released on November 30, 2007 by the Colombian presidential press office of former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, The kidnapping of presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt was one factor in discrediting previous attempts at talks

The last attempt dates from 1999-2002. A condition for talks was the creation of a demilitarised zone in southern Colombia. The Farc was accused of using this safe haven to import arms, export drugs and build up its military machine.

The talks came to an abrupt end after the rebels hijacked a plane in February 2002 and kidnapped Senator Jorge Gechem. Three days later, the rebels also seized presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt.

The peace process was widely seen as a complete failure and long made the idea of talking to the rebels anathema to many Colombians.

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So, no success stories?

President Virgilio Barco negotiated the demobilisation of the M-19 guerrilla group in March 1990. And despite the assassination of its presidential candidate, Carlos Pizarro, in April that year, the M-19 party came third in the presidential elections.

Many former M-19 rebels also helped to draft the current constitution. In 2011 former M-19 member, Gustavo Petro, was elected mayor of the Colombian capital, Bogota, considered the country's second most important elected post.

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What about other armed groups?
ELN members lay down arms. 07/2013 The number of ELN rebels has almost halved in the last 10 years

Colombia's second-largest rebel group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), announced it wanted to enter into peace talks shortly after the negotiations between the government and the Farc began.

At the time, President Juan Manuel Santos dismissed the ELN's move as "just words". He said the guerrilla would have to free all of its hostages and stop its attacks on civilians and the security forces before the government would engage in negotiations.

On 28 August 2013, a day after the rebels released a Canadian mining executive they had held hostage, Mr Santos said he was now "ready to talk" to the guerrilla group.

The president said he wanted to start the dialogue with the ELN, which is estimated to have some 1,500 to 2,000 fighters, "as soon as possible, to see if we can end the conflict once and for all".

In June 2014, the government and the ELN announced in a joint statement that they had been holding exploratory peace talks since January and had agreed on some points of an agenda to discuss in formal talks.

They are the issues of victims and participation of civil society. The negotiations are expected to begin once all the points to be discussed are agreed.

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