IN A CEREMONY held at an ornate opera house in downtown Bogotá, the Colombian government and the country’s largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), last November signed a historic peace agreement that ended Latin America’s bloodiest and longest running conflict.

In a place of honor onstage sat Frank Pearl, a 2011 graduate of the Kennedy School of Government’s master in public administration program. The 55-year-old businessman and former Colombian cabinet minister played a leading role in getting the peace process started and then as a member of the government’s negotiating team during four years of grueling talks in Havana.

With the negotiations finally behind him, Pearl had come to Teatro Colon to witness the culminating moment. He looked on as Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos MC/MPA 1981 and the FARC leader Rodrigo Londono Echeverri, alias Timochenko, signed the accord and then shook hands to thunderous applause, a sight many Colombians thought they’d never live to see.

Frank Pearl MC/MPA 2011 at airport in Florencia, Colombia
Colombian High Commissioner for Peace Frank Pearl MC/MPA 2011 at airport in Florencia, Colombia, on his way to help in the release of a hostage held by FARC rebels in 2010

“I thought about the millions of victims, all those wasted years of violence, the families I saw suffering and living without dignity in distant regions in the middle of the conflict, how at times it seemed the war would go on forever,” said Pearl in a recent interview at his Bogotá home. “But I also saw it as a new day and chance for Colombia finally to realize its potential, if Colombian society could accept the challenge.”

The Havana negotiations proved to be a real-life laboratory where Pearl applied what he had learned during his year at the Kennedy School, especially in leadership classes taught by professors Ronald Heifetz and Marshall Ganz. Those skills would prove invaluable in keeping the marathon talks on track, as was Pearl’s “serene and rational manner,” according to Colombian Vice President Oscar Naranjo, who was also on the government’s Havana team.

For clues to ending Colombia’s seemingly interminable insurgency, which began in 1964, Pearl studied dozens of wars and how they had been resolved. He also took a critical look at a half-dozen failed peace initiatives in Colombia’s recent past to bring forward the lessons they held.

“Above all, I learned that in difficult negotiations you have to work toward a clear objective shared by both parties and to respect the dignity and legitimacy of your counterpart,” said Pearl, the son of a Canadian father and a Colombian mother. “You also have to be able to work silently and, even though you are frustrated, ignored, or even betrayed, find a way to be effective, because you are working for a greater purpose.”

“Take nothing personally.”

Pearl’s empathetic style especially helped during the initial six-month secret phase in early 2012, when the two sides, still mortal enemies, first met in Havana and over six months warily established a degree of rapport and an agenda.

“There were moments of highest tension, and I remember that Frank was always concentrated on conciliation and determined to achieve points of agreement even when they seemed quite far away,” Vice President Naranjo says.


THE TOLL from half a century of warfare is mind-boggling: 7 million Colombians displaced, 220,000 killed, 9,000 kidnapped, and as many as 10,000 mostly poor or indigenous minors forcibly recruited to the FARC. Thousands of private citizens and businesses were extorted for millions of dollars in “war taxes” over the years. 

Confusing, especially to outsiders, are the causes of the guerrilla conflict, which persisted in Colombia long after similar Cuba-inspired insurgent movements in Peru, Uruguay, El Salvador, and elsewhere had been resolved. Fernan Gonzalez, a historian who was a consultant to Pearl and the government negotiating team in Havana, says the war was due to the government’s historic failure to bring economic development and state services to the countryside, making it fertile ground for the FARC.

Another cause was the lack of political space for leftist movements and their “demonization” by Colombia’s elite classes, says Maria Victoria Llorente of the Bogotá-based think tank Ideas for Peace Foundation. She adds that the FARC’s embrace of drug trafficking in the early 1980s accounts for its longevity, because the avalanche of cash enabled the rebels to finance the war long after it otherwise would have petered out.

Efforts by previous Colombian presidents to bring peace to Colombia failed for a variety of reasons, the most recent being the so-called Caguan talks from 1999 to 2002, in which Colombian President Andres Pastrana attempted to engage FARC founder Manuel Marulanda, alias Sureshot.

By then, the rebels’ interest in seeking a negotiated settlement was questionable under any terms. When the Caguan talks finally broke up, the FARC was at the apex of its strength, had encircled the capital, Bogotá, and fostered legitimate hopes of seizing power militarily. U.S. intelligence described Colombia as on the verge of becoming a failed state.

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Members of FARC at a meeting at their camp in the northwest Andes of Colombia (left); Frank Pearl MC/MPA 2011 with the press in Bogotá, Colombia in August 2016 (right)


PEARL’S BACKGROUND is unlikely for a peacemaker. Holder of an economics degree, a law graduate degree, and an MBA, Pearl built a highly successful business career prior to joining the government. He worked as an executive at Dow Chemical and then as a McKinsey & Co. consultant tending to clients in Colombia, Brazil, and Venezuela. He later became CEO of Valores Bavaria, a conglomerate consisting of 45 businesses controlled by the Santo Domingo family, one of Colombia’s wealthiest.

But as he rose in the business world, Pearl felt more and more drawn to public service, an inheritance from his mother, who during Pearl’s youth made regular trips to church groups in Bogotá to donate food and clothing for the poor, and often took her young son along. In 2002, he joined a civil society group called No Mas, or No More, a public campaign that, he says, tried to “convey a strong anti-kidnapping message from civil society to the FARC.”  Like many Colombians, Pearl had been touched by that scourge: The grandfather of his then fiancée and now wife, Mara, had been kidnapped in 2000 and later rescued in a military operation.  

Soon thereafter, then President Alvaro Uribe’s wife, Lina, knowing of Pearl’s bent for social work and broad business contacts, sought his help in establishing public-private partnerships to finance social projects. Asked for suggestions about what to focus on, Pearl mentioned his concern for the hundreds of paramilitary and rebel fighters who were then starting to leave the ranks through desertion or demobilization and were receiving no help reintegrating into society.

“There was no system or strategy to help with their transition, so many were simply returning to illegal activities, mainly drug trafficking,” Pearl recalled.

His concern led to Uribe’s calling on him to form and head a new cabinet-level department in 2006, now called the Colombian Agency for Reintegration. It would educate and counsel ex-fighters while giving them a small stipend to make ends meet until they found jobs. To keep the new agency free of political interference, Pearl accepted on three conditions: He could staff it on the basis of merit, exert total control of the budget, and independently decide the program’s content.

A decade later, outside studies describe the agency as the most successful ex-combatant reintegration program of its kind, returning 76 percent of demobilized guerrillas and paramilitaries to productive society, says Alejandro Eder, the scion of a wealthy family that owns Colombia’s largest sugar manufacturing company, Manuelita. Eder, too, felt the pull of public service and joined Pearl in helping set up the agency. He succeeded him as agency head in 2011, after Pearl left for the Kennedy School. 

“When you’re dealing with people who represent terrorists and drug-trafficking organizations, you can’t be buddy-buddy, but you need a certain level of charisma to establish rapport, and Frank has that,” Eder says.

At the start of his final year in office, in 2009, Uribe asked Pearl to take on another job as high commissioner for peace. Again Pearl set conditions, saying he would accept only if he could try to contact FARC leaders to set up talks. 

Using the Cali businessman Henry Acosta as an intermediary, Pearl was able to connect with the rebel leaders Alfonso Cano and Pablo Catatumbo. In correspondence with the insurgents, he got the unmistakable impression that they were ready to make peace. Why then? Marco Calarca, a member of the FARC’s negotiating team, said in an interview that the rebels’ receptivity was due to a new government approach.

“The government convinced us they would not try to dictate terms as victors to the vanquished, that we wouldn’t enter into discussions about who was responsible or who caused the most damage, and that it was serious about achieving our goals of avoiding more suffering by the people,” Calarca said.

But the University of Miami professor Bruce Bagley says the FARC was motivated because its ranks were decimated and because the rebels finally realized that victory over an improved Colombian military was impossible. That improvement owed much to Plan Colombia, the U.S. military aid program that started in 2000 and showered more than $10 billion on the country’s armed forces and anti-drugs programs.

Essential pieces of the aid were 20 Black Hawk helicopters and 83 UH-1N and UH-II transport choppers, which gave the Colombian army new mobility for attacking the rebels in remote locations, according to Adam Isacson, a Colombia analyst at Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a think tank. The armed forces also got access to satellite-based listening and tracking technology that enabled the military to locate and kill FARC leaders and their troops. The United States also provided satellite-guided “smart bombs” used to kill two members of the FARC’s seven-man secretariat and several front commanders.

Finally, Pearl and others believe that the FARC decided to negotiate at the urging of the rebels’  foreign sponsors, including the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. A strong backer of the Havana talks, Chavez most likely directed FARC leaders’ attention to Uruguay, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, where former guerrillas ascended to the presidency through elections, not military campaigns.

Pearl got as far as persuading Brazil to host initial talks and the International Red Cross to transport FARC negotiators to a meeting venue. Peace talks seemed imminent. But with time running out in Uribe’s term and his relations with Chavez foundering, FARC leaders told Pearl in 2010 that talks would have to wait for Colombia’s next president.


BY THE TIME President Santos took office in August 2010, Pearl had applied and been accepted to the 2010–2011 term at the Kennedy School, not knowing he would subsequently end up negotiating peace in Havana. But on the day following Santos’s inauguration, the new president summoned Pearl to say he wanted him to pick up where he had left off with Uribe to pursue peace. Pearl agreed to take charge of the new campaign, but only after finishing his year at Harvard.

Knowing his negotiating skills would be put to work as soon the Kennedy School term was over, Pearl chose a sharply focused curriculum, even as he formed a secret team with Eder and Acosta to lay the groundwork for Santos’s peace initiative.

“I got right to work,” he said. I chose subjects in Cambridge that would suit us and help devise a strategy.”  During the school year, he secretly flew back to Bogotá to meet with Santos four times. “Not even my parents knew I was in Colombia those times,” Pearl said .

Among the HKS classes Pearl feels were most beneficial was Professor Ronald Heifetz’s adaptive leadership course, in which he learned to “distance oneself from personal considerations to focus on what common ground can be attained.” The technique came in handy in Havana when the negotiations on rural reform reached an impasse. Pearl was able to persuade the FARC to take a step back and see that certain “capitalist tools” such as farm credit and formalizing land ownership, could help the poor achieve a better life.

Another crucial class for Pearl was the moral leadership course taught by Marshall Ganz, in which students learn to confront moral dilemmas and that real leadership is demonstrated by “helping others achieve their purposes in times of uncertainty.”

“Mine was the dilemma of balancing duties toward my country with those toward my family, of leaving my wife and three kids in Bogotá during what I knew would be long negotiations, and how I reconcile that,” Pearl said.

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Ceremony marking the abandonment of arms and FARC’s end as an armed group in June, 2017, in Colombia; front row, left to right: Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos MC/MPA 1981, head of the UN Mission to Colombia Jean Arnault, and rebel leader Rodrigo Londono Echeverri (‘Timochenko’), back row, second from left, Frank Pearl MC/MPA 2011

Working with Eder, Pearl also drafted a list of preconditions for the start of talks that were largely lessons learned from 22 conflict negotiations of the past. Number one: The talks had to take place outside Colombia so that they wouldn’t turn into a media circus, as had happened in Caguan. The public phase should be preceded by a secret phase to lay the groundwork, including a clear and limited agenda.

The four and a half years of talks, starting in February 2012, went relatively smoothly as negotiations go, says Virginia Bouvier, a senior advisor at the U.S. Institute of Peace, although several crises threatened to derail them. One occurred in November 2014, when the FARC kidnapped the army general Ruben Dario Alzate, the highest-ranking officer the rebels had ever seized. But demonstrating their desire to keep the talks moving, they released him two weeks later.

A worse crisis, according to WOLA’s Isacson, occurred in April 2015, when rebels killed 11 soldiers in an ambush in southwestern Cauca province. The government reacted by withdrawing from the talks for two months and resuming aerial bombing of rebel encampments. The talks were salvaged—but just barely, Isacson says.

Each of the peace deal’s six points took about six months to negotiate, with the exception of transitional justice, which took 18 months—a reflection of its complexity. The final accord is innovative for a number of reasons, including the formation of a special tribunal to try war crimes to which both sides will submit, according to Juanita Goebertus, a government advisor in transitional justice who got her Harvard law degree in 2010.

Throughout the negotiating process, Pearl helped maintain momentum, according to the government’s chief negotiator, Humberto De La Calle. Pearl’s effectiveness relied much on his “mental honesty,” De La Calle says. Frank recognized that successful talks were not an exercise in tricks but in transparency.

“Frank always knew how to lower the temperature when tempers flared. He was the amateur psychologist who always kept his cool.”


BIG HURDLES REMAIN in implementing the accord. The Colombian government has promised to spend billions of dollars over the next decade to bring economic development, justice, and security to its long-neglected countryside. Millions of acres of “unproductive” public lands are to be redistributed to landless peasants, and incentives will be offered to farmers who, accustomed to growing coca, the raw material for cocaine, switch to legitimate crops, such as cocoa and avocados instead.

Despite the prestige conferred on the accord by the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to President Santos last December, Colombian public opinion on the deal is sharply divided. The accord was rejected in a nationwide plebiscite last October because many Colombians felt its terms were too generous to the FARC. An amended, tougher version was finally approved by the congress last December, after the November signing ceremony.

Pearl is nevertheless optimistic that peace is finally en camino, on the way.

“The peace plan will work because changing our society to one in which we don’t kill each other will make it possible for us to concentrate on resolving the fundamental problems we haven’t solved yet, “ he said.  “We have the opportunity to build a different country.”

A former foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, Chris Kraul is a freelance writer based in Bogotá, Colombia.

Photos by Fernando Vergara, Rodrigo Abd, Daniel Garzon, John Vizcaino, Raul Arboleda; (top image) FARC weapons stored at a rebel camp in Putumayo, Colombia

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