When a group of top-ranking Colombian military officials met last week in Havana for peace talks with their old enemies – leaders of Latin America’s oldest rebel movement – a retired Spanish general was present to observe the historic moment.
Luis Alejandre, who has years of experience dealing with peace processes throughout Central America, was invited by the Norwegian government to monitor the negotiations between the five Colombian generals and representatives of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
Norway has been brokering the talks along with Chile, Venezuela and Cuba since the peace negotiations began in 2012. The goal is to put an end to the five-decade conflict that has claimed the lives of more than 220,000 people on both sides.
At Friday’s meeting, Alejandre says, there was “a climate of respect between both parties," but “the most important goal was to gain each other’s trust.”
“They spoke from their hearts and there were even relaxed moments. Everyone took notes but there were no computer tablets or cellphones. It was very positive,” the retired general explains.
He also noted the “active and efficient” roles of diplomats from the Cuban Foreign Ministry.
“Mexico, for example, took a much colder approach during the peace process in Guatemala,” he says, in reference to the talks held during the mid-1990s.
The closed-door meeting took place at the Havana Convention Center, where both sides sat at a large table facing each other. Representing the FARC were its top commanders, Carlos Antonio Lozada and Joaquín Gómez, who oversee the guerrilla group’s operations on the eastern and southern fronts in Colombia.
In the 1990s, Lozada and Gómez played key roles in one of the most decisive offenses against the Colombian army when the FARC kidnapped 500 officers and took over several police stations.
The Colombian generals know everything about their enemies – from the illnesses they suffer to the types of medication they need.
The long list of the rebels’ deadly operations makes for terrifying reading.
A FARC mobile column, named after the late Communist Party leader Teófilo Forero and led by Gómez, was responsible for the February 7, 2003 car-bombing of the El Nogal nightclub in Bogota that claimed 30 lives and injured more than 200 people.
The same unit tried to assassinate Foreign Minister Fernando Londño and murdered Liliana Gavira, the sister of former President César Gaviria.
“The best generals were selected [to go to Havana],” said Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón in an interview with the Bogota daily El Tiempo. “We can’t let them score any goals.”
Friday’s meeting lasted more than four hours and in the end an important agreement was reached: the FARC announced that it will help the military clean up the minefields across the country.
It was also the first time that three experts from a group of 20 proposed by Norway had sat in on the meeting.
Alejandre, a former head of Spain’s army chiefs of staff, has taken part in peace processes in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala.
The other two experts were General Julio Arnoldo Balconi, who was Guatemalan defense minister at the time a peace treaty was signed in December 1996 with the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (UNRG); and Rodrigo Sandino, a former guerrilla turned-politician, who is also the grandson of Nobel prize winner Miguel Ángel Asturias and son of the late former UNRG presidential candidate Gaspar Ilom.
“The Colombians are the ones who make the decisions; we are just there to offer suggestions on how to make peace,” Alejandre said.
During his intervention at the talks, Alejandre told them that “times have changed” and they should adapt to getting their messages across “in the internet age.”
“I told them that the most important thing wasn’t meeting a deadline to complete the agreements if you are not going in a clear direction,” he says, adding that he gave them examples of the Salvadoran peace process, which is similar to the Colombian negotiations.
What mostly concerns the FARC is the manner in which Colombia wants to deal with handing down justice, the Spanish official adds.
“They want a peace process without jail time. In the peace process in El Salvador, there were guerrillas with murderous crimes who left the country and studied abroad. Later, their country accepted them back. The important thing here is to ease off on the pressure,” he explains.
In recent weeks, pressure for justice has been raised by former President Álvaro Uribe. A one-time supporter of current President Juan Manuel Santos, Uribe broke off with him when the Santos government opened a dialogue with the FARC and then his enemy, the late President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela.
Uribe has been one of the most vocal critics of Santos’s negotiations with the FARC.
But Alejandre is optimistic that a truce will be signed in the end. “There will always be obstacles and difficulties will arise, but I think the process is irreversible,” he says.