Colombia launches talks with rebel group led by fighters who returned to arms after 2016 peace deal

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — Colombia launched peace talks with the Second Marquetalia rebel group on Monday as the administration of leftist President Gustavo Petro tries to pacify rural areas of the country that have seen rising violence despite efforts to broker ceasefires with various armed groups.

The talks were announced in Caracas, Venezuela in a ceremony that included government delegates and rebel leaders who signed a 2016 peace deal but later took up arms again after saying they had become disillusioned with the implementation of the deal.

“We want to participate in politics without resorting to the use of weapons,” said the Second Marquetalia’s lead negotiator Walter Mendoza. “The condition for that will be for the government to fulfill its side of the accords.”

With an estimated 2,000 fighters, the Second Marquetalia is one of the nation’s smaller rebel outfits. The government’s decision to begin peace talks with the group has been criticized by Colombian opposition leaders who accuse Petro of being soft on crime.

Negotiations with the Second Marquetalia are controversial because the group is led by members of the former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, who signed the peace deal but took up arms again, as some of them faced drug trafficking investigations.

“For the sake of peace I wish good luck to these talks,” Humberto de la Calle, a senator who was the government’s chief negotiator in the 2016 peace talks with the FARC, wrote on the social media platform X. “But this sends an awful message to society: which is that cheaters and those who do not keep their word can get ahead.”

Government officials said that Colombia’s constitution gives them a mandate to end conflicts through peaceful means.

“None of the current conflict in Colombia began with President Petro,” said Armando Novoa, the government’s lead negotiator. “But we have an ethical and moral duty to protect victims, communities and people in areas of the country that have long been forgotten.”

The Second Marquetalia group is led by Luciano Marin, a former FARC commander who was the group’s chief negotiator in the peace talks that led to the disarmament of more than 13,000 rebels fighters.

The former rebels were spared prison sentences and given 10 seats in Colombia’s congress as part of the 2016 peace deal, including a senate seat that was awarded to Marin, who is more commonly known by his nom de guerre of Ivan Marquez.

But the rebel leader grew weary of the peace deal in 2018, after one of his close comrades, Seuxis Paucias, was arrested by Colombian police on a U.S. arrest warrant, for allegedly conspiring to export 10 tons of cocaine to the United States.

As the investigation closed in on Marin, the rebel commander disappeared from public events, retreated into the jungle and announced the creation of his new rebel group in an August 2019 video where he claimed he had been betrayed by the government.

Marin has been fighting the Colombian state since then with his Segunda Marquetalia group, but began to hold talks in private last year with officials from the Petro administration at secret locations in Venezuela.

On Monday, Marin made his first appearance in public since his 2019 video.

The rebel leader sported his trademark beard and delivered a speech in which he accused Colombian officials of trying to “trap” him and other former FARC members with drug trafficking investigations.

Marin noted that Petro was making “honest efforts” to tackle poverty and inequality and hinted that a reform of Colombia’s constitution is necessary for a political accord to prosper, echoing statements made in recent months by Petro.

“In other moments of history, (political leaders) have opted for changing existing legal frameworks,” Marin said. “In our vision, we agree with those who say that it is time to launch dynamic processes that generate the conditions for a redefinition of the norms that regulate our society.”

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