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Talking Policy: César Gaviria on the Peace Treaty and Drug Policy in Colombia

César Gaviria governed Colombia from 1990-1994, during which time he fought Pablo Escobar’s Medellín drug cartel and oversaw the civil war between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Recently, the Colombian government signed a landmark peace deal with the FARC to put an end to the 53-year-old war. Gaviria talked with World Policy Journal about the implications of the deal, and how to minimize violence while conducting a war on drugs.

WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: Some have argued that the FARC peace deal offers too much leniency to former rebels—for example, offering reduced sentences in exchange for confessions, and not prosecuting some members at all. Do you think the agreement ensures justice for the people of Colombia?

CESAR GAVIRIA: It’s the first time that a peace treaty has balanced justice and human rights in accordance with the Rome Statute, which codified genocide and crimes against humanity as international crimes. Certain types of crimes, such as those against humanity, will be punished, so it is not a question of too much leniency. Of course, it would have been better if things could have been handled by the justice system, but the FARC have been around since 1962 and the civil war had been occurring for nearly 60 years. The fighting could have gone on for another 20 to 30 years but Colombians wanted to find the right balance between punishing these crimes and respecting the Rome Statute. There is no doubt that the crimes committed against humanity will be punished. What is still not clear though, is how that punishment will be carried out—it may not necessarily mean sending people to jail.

WPJ: Do you think that the International Criminal Court will get involved, and if it does, what will that mean for the peace process?

CG: We do not really know. But as far as I know, the peace deal has the full support of European countries and the U.N. Security Council. I imagine they believed our treaty was compatible with the Rome Statute. One cannot go against that and still get the full support of the international community.

WPJ: The peace process was put into place by the Colombian government. What are the benefits and drawbacks of a domestic government starting peace process versus an international organization?

CG: International organizations can play a role in post-conflict societies through mobilization or disarmament, but a domestic government must carry out a peace process. International organizations do not have the capacity to carry out these processes by themselves. They can mediate and be helpful but they cannot replace the government. In this case, the agreement had to be between the government commission and the guerrillas. What the international community did was support the process in different ways, and the U.N. Security Council helped with mobilization.

WPJ: Now that FARC have signed a peace agreement with the Colombian government, has this opened a door for other guerrilla groups to enter Colombia?

CG: Of course that risk exists. But new groups wouldn’t be the same as the FARC. Most guerrilla groups are just bands of people who have self-organized and don’t have discipline or tradition. The FARC are a well-organized group that have held a lot of power and really destabilized Colombia. They’re not simply drug traffickers, they are big and strong, and they’ve mobilized enough people to become an army. You can’t compare them with a group of drug traffickers.

WPJ: During your administration, you brought down both the Medellín and Calí cartels. How can a government dismantle these kinds of groups while minimizing the risk of violence against civilians?

CG: There are different processes for drug traffickers and guerrilla groups. Drug traffickers will accept the judicial system and the processes of this system. This means they will agree to certain conditions such as going to jail. With guerrillas it is a very different process—you have to think about the Geneva Convention and human rights. The international community sees both processes in very different ways. Humanitarian law accepts the idea of political violence within a country, which is a totally different problem from drug trafficking. This can create a double issue: You might have people who belong to an organization that appeals to violence and at the same time carries out drug trafficking as a way of sustaining their fight. But they’re not the same. A drug trafficker is not the same as a member of a guerrilla group.

WPJ: What policies do you think would be most effective in managing the presence of drugs and reducing the violence associated with the war of drugs?

CG: Colombia has significantly reduced drug-related violence in the country. I think things will continue to improve with the demobilization of FARC, and the possible demobilization of other guerrilla groups. Our countryside, in particular, will be more peaceful. But that doesn’t mean that the drug trafficking problem will be solved. The problem is that the Colombian government alone won’t stop trafficking—there is so much drug consumption in the U.S. that the business can sustain itself from that.

WPJ: Do you think the process and content of the peace deal will deter other guerrilla groups from mobilizing?

CG: There is only one other guerrilla group in Colombia and it is smaller than the FARC. There is a chance that they too will agree to a peace deal, but it is still uncertain. Right now there is a cease fire and the government is confident that it can move ahead with an agreement. I believe it is still too early to know whether or not it will take place.

WPJ: I know that the FARC recently unveiled itself as Colombia’s newest political party. Do you think they will find a place on Colombia’s political stage, and what problems will they face?

CG: We have had experiences in the past with guerrilla groups being integrated into the political system. One example is M19, which got a lot of support from Colombians and was successfully integrated. So we don’t know how the FARC will do but they will get support—particularly in areas where they have been leading people for many decades. 

*****

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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

Visit the Talking Policy archive page for more World Policy interviews. 

[Interview conducted by Anamika Patel]

[Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons]

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