Can Colombia’s Petro Escape His Labyrinth?

January 5, 2024 Topic: Columbia Region: Americas Tags: ColumbiaGustavo PetroFARCDrug CartelsCrimeLeftism

Can Colombia’s Petro Escape His Labyrinth?

Amidst a struggling economy, a worsening rural security situation, and an uncertain peace process, Petro faces a sea of challenges.


When former guerrilla Gustavo Petro assumed Colombia’s presidency in August 2022, it appeared that the country was in for big changes from the latest in the “pink tide” of leftist leaders sweeping Latin America. He promised to make peace with the armed groups still plaguing the country and build an egalitarian and environmentally sensitive economy. But a year and a half later, these ambitious goals seem as far away as ever.

Peace with everyone

Petro’s signature effort has been to negotiate “total peace” with the irregular armed groups active in Colombia. This would include those elements of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) which did not accept the peace agreement reached in 2016 after the Colombian government, with U.S. assistance, had reduced it from over 20,000 fighters to fewer than 7,000. These “FARC dissidents” are divided into various entities, several of which are combined under the title of the Central General Staff (FARC-EMC).


Petro also has sought a settlement with the National Liberation Army (ELN), a longstanding leftist insurgent force with ideological roots in 1960s radicalism and the largest of the still active guerrilla groups. Although negotiations had taken place during the administration of conservative Ivan Duque, Petro’s immediate predecessor, he had broken them off after an ELN attack on a police academy which left twenty-two dead.

The other element of Petro’s total peace initiative is an effort to negotiate with so-called “paramilitary” groups, originally militias formed by landowners facing leftist guerrillas, which evolved into powerful forces protecting drug cartels. An accord had been reached in 2003 with the largest of them, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, in which it disarmed in exchange for lenient prison sentences.

However, equally violent successor forces have emerged, notably the Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC), also known as the Gulf Clan. Negotiations with the ELN, FARC-EMC, and the AGC have been underway through Petro’s term, marked by periodic ceasefires that have repeatedly broken down. However, until recently, tangible results have not been seen. 

A breakthrough… or not?

In December, Petro had what may be his first significant success when both the ELN and the FARC-EMC promised to give up kidnapping for ransom, a major revenue source, even as the army and police continued to refrain from offensive military actions against them. These developments could lead to a genuine reduction in violence and pave the way for a comprehensive settlement if maintained. 

However, skepticism may be in order as Colombia waits to see if these groups are truly committed to keeping their promises. After this seeming breakthrough, the ELN has insisted that it must receive financial compensation for the lost earnings from kidnapping. And even if one assumes sincerity on the part of its leaders, the ELN is divided into separate autonomous “fronts” operating in different parts of the country, which may resist instructions to cease kidnapping. A recent brutal attack on a rural village was attributed to the FARC-EMC, calling into question its commitment to the peace process. The paramilitary AGC remains active despite conversations with negotiators while coca cultivation trends upward.

And, even if the agreements to end kidnapping hold, it is unclear what the final peace accords would look like. The original agreement with the FARC is extremely complex, including provisions for disarmament, seats in Congress for the FARC’s successor political party, a “transitional justice” system to which perpetrators of human rights violations would submit, compensation for victims of violence, and an extensive program of rural development, land reform, and reintegration of former fighters. Implementation of the justice and development elements has been slow, hindered by funding concerns, limits on administrative capacity, and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But it will be difficult for the government to offer terms which significantly differ from those which the FARC had accepted but which were rejected by those forces still fighting. And with the protection of coca fields (and, indeed, actual participation in cultivation and cocaine production) and other criminal activities still available to the armed groups, many doubt that they are truly prepared to come out of the cold.

Coca production up, security down

While it is to be hoped that the ELN and FARC-EMC will fulfill their new commitments to end kidnapping, the reality is that throughout Petro’s term thus far, Colombia’s overall security situation has worsened. Rural residents, be they subsistence farmers, cattle ranchers, local government officials, or human rights activists, have faced threats, extortion, and assassination from guerrillas and paramilitaries. Coca production has increased dramatically and efforts to coax coca farmers to switch to alternative crops have failed to take off. The Petro administration has dialed back on coca eradication efforts, although, not wanting to completely break with the United States, it has maintained interdiction of shipments and extradition of traffickers.

But from the beginning of his administration onward, Petro has kept the military on a short leash—keeping its budget below inflation, restraining its operations, and retiring some of its most experienced senior officers with the expectation that this will encourage negotiations while reducing the level of rural violence. Instead, he has preferred to focus on development efforts as the way forward in pacifying the countryside. While there are periodic high-profile military actions, usually after a headline-grabbing outrage, overall, the policy toward the armed groups seems to be one of almost all carrot and very little stick, with limited results thus far.

A lackluster economy

While he deals with a sluggish peace process and a deteriorating security environment, Petro also faces a troubled economy. Colombia enjoyed high GDP growth of 11.02 percent in 2021 and 7.5 percent in 2022, as it bounced back from the COVID-19 pandemic. However, 2023 has shown growth of only 1.2 percent, leaving Colombia among Latin America’s worst performers, and 2024 is not expected to show great improvement. One factor in this poor performance is the lack of business confidence, in which the failure of the much-hyped “total peace” initiative to gain traction and increased rural violence has played a role. 

But Petro’s broader management also raises concerns. Initially, he was able to construct an ample legislative coalition, including, to the surprise of many, supporters of hardline former President Alvaro Uribe. However, this coalition has fallen apart, leaving Petro to govern with a smaller base of support. He has shuffled his cabinet, including replacing his finance minister, who was well-regarded in business circles, with a lesser-known figure. And Petro’s tendency toward hot rhetoric and threats to bring his supporters out in the streets has jangled nerves. He has also been dogged by a campaign finance scandal which has hurt him politically.

He had some initial success, while his coalition was intact, in passing a revenue-enhancing tax reform. Since then, his top priority has been passing controversial legislation to overhaul Colombia’s health system, greatly increasing the state’s presence. A version of his health reform plan has passed the Chamber of Deputies but faces an uncertain future in the Senate. The wrangling over health reform has stalled action on the rest of his ambitious legislative agenda, which includes labor, education, and pension reform.

One element of Petro’s economic vision that has captured international attention has been his determination to phase out Colombia’s role as a hydrocarbons producer—a subject on which he has spoken passionately, including at the recent global summit, where he cast climate change in apocalyptic terms. He has refused to grant new licenses for oil and gas exploration. While existing permits have not been revoked, which may allow some exploration to go forward for another decade, the long-term future of this sector is now in doubt,

There is an argument to be made that, if indeed the world is moving away from the internal combustion engine, he is getting Colombia ahead of the curve. However, oil and gas (and coal as well), play key roles in Colombia’s economy. Petro’s renunciation of future exploration comes while other Latin American countries are doubling down on petroleum and natural gas. For instance, Argentina is developing its massive “Vaca Muerta” reserves while Brazil is looking to explore in the Amazon mouth. Petro has been vague on what will replace this sector, although he highlights tourism and other industries which can take advantage of Colombia’s biodiversity.

Rapprochement with Venezuela

On foreign policy, Petro’s approach has been marked by a shift from that of his predecessors. Most dramatic has been the re-establishment of normal diplomatic relations with Venezuela and the re-opening of the two nations’ border. To some degree, this decision makes sense as this border extends for almost 1,400 miles with a history of extensive two-way flows of people and goods. Petro doubtless also sees good relations with Venezuela as crucial to his hopes for achieving a peace settlement with the ELN, which has a significant presence in Venezuela. 

But the nature of this presence may ultimately thwart his aims. The ELN does not merely hide in Venezuela; it is deeply established there, and its activities—drug trafficking, extortion, and illegal gold mining—take place with the complicity of elements of Venezuela’s armed forces. One may ask if the ELN will actually abandon its criminal activities, disarm, and re-enter national life in Colombia while maintaining its profitable sanctuary in Venezuela.