FARC deserters put Colombia’s peace process at risk

FARC deserters put Colombia’s peace process at risk

Colombia faces an immediate danger to peace in the form of demobilising FARC, with the risk of recycling guerrilla fighters into criminal activity looming. Other, more complex challenges await, but successful demobilisation is crucial for the peace process.

This time is different

Discussions concerning the security situation, post-peace, are mostly dedicated to past failed efforts at disarming illegal groups, with reference to grisly examples like the murderous campaigns of the right-wing paramilitary United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) against demobilised guerrilla fighters. These campaigns led to murders of up to 4,000 members of the Unión Patriótica (UP) and two presidential candidates since 1985. However, the current situation is largely different.

In 1985 the UP party, made up of FARC and other leftist guerrilla members, entered the political scene, which was previously limited to two parties of Liberals and Conservatives. This led to a systematic campaign to eliminate the new leftist voice in Colombian politics. However, political plurality and diversity in Colombia has improved dramatically, and several non-traditional parties have since entered the political space, making their entry into the democratic process less dramatic.

Moreover, the remnants of the AUC – that gave birth to the country’s largest criminal organisation Los Urabeños – are now predominantly focused on narco-trafficking and other illicit activities instead of fighting the guerrillas. They even cooperate with the FARC in their particular business. In addition, a special security force called National Protection Unit of 30,000 personnel will be charged with protecting demobilised FARC members, and the US also vowed to provide additional funds for such purposes.

Deserters from FARC could be a more potent source of risk

Although the process is unlikely to crash due to an even less likely outburst of violence against the demobilised guerrilla, the risks are mounting elsewhere. To be sure, there were minor scuffles in March and a firefight with the guerrilla in Meta department on 11 July. However, armed confrontations between the insurgent group and the government have been nearly absent since August 2015. Such relative peace demonstrates a high degree of reliability in the chain of command within the armed group, although it does not guarantee a complete truce by all parts of the FARC. Up to 30 percent of the fighters are estimated to be deserting the FARC and avoiding the demobilisation process.

The high desertion rate does not derive from a zealous will of some parts of the FARC to continue their ideological fight against the capitalist government, but solely by interest in freely continuing illegal activities. The FARC is a key player in the country’s criminal landscape, and narco-trafficking, coca cultivation, illegal mining and kidnapping are as much a part of their core identity as their Marxist battle.

One faction of FARC, the 1st Front Armando Ríos, already announced it would not adhere to the peace agreement or demobilise, unless there is a solution to economic and social problems in the country. That is sophisticated reasoning for a 400-men group heavily involved in coca growing and drug trafficking in the southeastern Amazonian departments of Vaupés and Guainía. A similar stance is expected from the 16th Front operating in the same region across Vichada and Guainía departments. There are at least eight other fronts believed to have extensive connections with Los Urabeños as well as with the Mexican Sinaloa Cartel, which are likely to be next.

FARC insurgents

FARC insurgents

FARCrims might cause trouble in the demobilisation process

Just as the demobilisation process of right-wing paramilitaries led to the creation of various organised criminal groups known as Bacrims (Spanish bandas criminales) – we can expect the creation of several FARCrims, organised crime groups of deserted FARC fighters. This is a major risks in the 23 transformation zones set up for FARC’s demobilisation across the country, where its leadership will demobilise the rank-and-file members and lecture them on how to live and integrate peacefully into society – already a difficult job, and much more challenging in the areas where other criminal groups or guerrillas operate.

Besides the vast Amazonian forests ideal for coca growing and illegal mining, another area vulnerable to desertion is along the Venezuelan border, precisely across Tibú municipality in Norte de Santander department, where one of the demobilisation camps will be set up. Other than the National Liberation Army (ELN) and Popular Liberation Army (EPL) that operate in the region, smuggling across the Venezuelan border also offers a very lucrative business. In the northwestern departments of Chocó, Antioquia and Córdoba, Los Urabeños will be looking to fill the gap left by the disarmed guerrilla and either include any deserting FARC members, or quickly destroy them to protect market share.


Creating meaningful alternatives for fighters is going to be crucial

Offering functioning alternatives to the fighters in rural areas together with fighting coca cultivation will be key in making guerrilla fighters abandon narco-trafficking – an essential source of income for thousands of people.

Dealing with narco-trafficking is one of the main pillars of the peace agreement. FARC and government officials launched a pilot program for substituting coca with alternative crops across Briceño municipality in Antioquia to offer help. The pilot program includes access to credit to farmers who stop sowing coca for coffee beans or fruits instead. Success will depend on finding demand for the new crops, as well as figuring out a way to provide farmers with credit in areas where illiteracy remains an issue.

Many more long-term challenges to peace lay ahead after the final signing of the agreement. These go from social and economic inclusion of former guerrilla fighters, financing the entire peace process to delivering on promised benefits across rural areas. However, security is the first pillar of all the above. The risk of recirculating FARC members into criminal activities represents the main early threat to the already fragile demobilisation period, but not one that should derail the road to peace in Colombia.

Categories: Latin America, Security

About Author

Petr Bohacek

Petr Bohacek is a Political and Security Risk Analyst for Latin America at Riskline, a travel risk management company. He is also a research fellow at the Association on International Affairs, a Czech think tank, where he publishes and comments on foreign policy in local media. He has previously worked as an analyst at the Czech Ministry of Defense. Petr holds an MA in Security studies from Charles University in Prague, a BA in Political Science from St. Norbert College and studied Latin American politics at Universidad de Buenos Aires and Universidade de Nova Lisboa.