Continued dissatisfaction with the Colombian peace process may impact the final outcome of next year’s presidential elections. The stumbling talks may also come to represent yet another missed opportunity to end decades of conflict between the state and FARC rebels, or so warns Robert Valencia.

By Robert Valencia for World Policy Institute

In mid-April, billboards that compared notorious kingpin Pablo Escobar with guerrilla leader Iván Marquez filled the skylines of several cities in Colombia, including Medellín. In the advertisements, these figures face each other and a sentence reads, “Guess who has killed the most policemen?”

These ads belonged to former vice president Francisco Santos, who has announced his candidacy for president in 2014. Francisco Santos, who is a staunch critic of the Colombian peace process, has been criticized for sabotaging public dialogue with such advertisements. Pablo Escobar is perhaps the most hated and divisive figure in Colombia’s contemporary history, and using his image to compare a current guerilla leader who is an intrinsic part of the negotiating process in Havana can potentially ingrain more mistrust in the population toward the peace process. As the presidential elections heat up in Colombia, so does the political discourse. The growing tensions could erode the chance of long overdue peace in Colombia.

The Colombian peace process officially started in October 2012 in Havana and Oslo. The Colombian population has endured 50 years of bloodbath and socioeconomic unrest. But over the last six months, peace talks have been hindered by disagreements between the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Santos administration. The guerrillas, helmed by Iván Márquez, had been requesting the presence of former guerrilla leader Simón Trinidad, who is currently serving 60 years in a U.S. federal prison and is unlikely to be granted amnesty to join the peace accords. The guerrilla has also requested a ceasefire agreement, which the government has been hesitant to concede to, given the string of attacks guerrilla cells had perpetrated against military compounds and after strengthening of its insurgent rank-and-file during moments of peace. The government has also put a hold on the FARC petition to include an economic blueprint to overhaul agrarian laws, foreign investment, and private property. The Santos delegation, however, allowed new members at the negotiating table (including Victoria Sandino Palmera, Freddy González, Lucas Carvajal, Laura Villa, Sergio Ibáñez, and Pablo Catatumbo) in the new round of talks this year, a sign of trust in edging toward a peace agreement.

Though disagreements have historically been a part of Colombia’s peace talks, an unprecedented external component could lead Colombia astray. The political brinksmanship between Juan Manuel Santos and former president Álvaro Uribe has the potential to instill more resentment and rage among the population who still see active and demobilized guerrilla members as criminals, compromising the possibility of a full, easy reintegration to Colombian society. The Uribe administration saw the FARC suffer the most significant military blows in the guerrilla’s history, and even after his presidency, Uribe has strongly criticized brokering peace with FARC, considering it a pardon to years of crimes against humanity and social unrest, which has yet to see penalty.

Despite his administration having ended three years ago, Álvaro Uribe still wields enormous clout among Colombian public opinion and his views over the peace process has split the country on the subject. On April 9th, President Santos, FARC victims, and servicemen spearheaded a rally called “The March for Peace.” Technically, it took place nationwide, but few citizens turned out in the streets with the exception of Bogotá, whose rally gathered around 900,000 people. While the Organization of American States, Colombia’s first Attorney General Eduardo Montealegre, and several members of Congress supported the rally, others joined Alvaro Uribe’s disapproval of it, including the left-leaning Polo Democrático Party and second Attorney General Alejandro Ordóñez, who believed the rally would have little to no effect over FARC’s commitment to signing a peace accord.

Meanwhile, Antioquia department governor Sergio Fajardo took a friendlier approach to the peace talks when he raised a billboard in Medellín that reads “How are you preparing for peace?” His was an attempt to raise awareness among the population and its role in potentially reintegrating with guerrilla members. Relying on the population’s opinion will be paramount to achieving success in peace talks because, according to the government’s peace talk mission chief Humberto de la Calle, any agreements between the guerrilla and the Santos administration will be subject to a referendum.

Signing a peace accord would have ramifications for Colombia and some of the region’s most polemic issues. Take, for example, drug production that in turn fuels the War on Drugs. More than 10,000 cannabis bushes were discovered and confiscated in the Cauca region, totaling a number of 100,000 cannabis plants seized in the first quarter of 2013. FARC has allegedly had connections with Mexican cartels, which has bought cocaine from the Colombian insurgents at least as of 2008. If the guerrilla members lay down their arms and criminal activities, Latin America may experience a shift in drug production and policies.

The drug trade’s lucrative business, along with the election of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, spurs the skepticism of some Colombians on whether a peace accord could become a reality. FARC had found a key ally in Hugo Chávez and his Bolivarian Revolution followers, turning Venezuela into a vital base of operations. According to some accounts, Venezuela has become a crucial passageway of drugs produced by the guerrillas, as well as a place to escape from the constant pressure from Colombian security forces that have devastated FARC’s ranks from 10,100 guerrilleros to 7,800 guerrilla as of 2007, according to consultancy firm Decisive Point.

In the past, Colombians have been rightfully skeptical of peace attempts with FARC, but the peace talks in Havana and Oslo provide an opportunity previous ones did not. The guerrillas are losing men by the day, and it’s simply untenable for FARC to keep fighting Latin America’s third largest armed forces that in turn spend the second highest proportion of GDP, after Chile, in the region. A peace agreement is the only way to solve a long-lasting internal conflict without resorting to an expensive military bloodbath of FARC rebels.

(ISN) As powerful as its military may be, and even though FARC is losing guerrilleros, it does not bode well for Colombia to spend 3.7 percent of its GDP in military expenditure in the long run, while also potentially risk the lives of servicemen and civilians who suffer terrorist attacks as well as forms of extortion and displacement. Other pressing issues like the overhauling of infrastructure to compete in global markets would make good use of the money Colombia currently spends on its armed forces.

Though President Santos has not expressed his intent to run for president in 2014, his legacy will hinge on whether he achieved peace for Colombia, and his political future would be at stake. Conversely, if Francisco Santos wins the 2014 presidential elections, it will mean more military strikes against the guerrillas­ and more military expenditure, making it unlikely to establish peace talks. Both the guerrilla and the Santos administration must look beyond the constant bickering from the Uribe-Santos cohort and address the country’s real problems: rural development and human rights violations. Only a peaceful exit to the armed conflict will bring the peace in civil society, and no political interests should pose a hurdle to this reality.

Robert Valencia is a New York-based political analyst and is a contributing writer for Global Voices Online.