So, about that peace deal: prospects for peace in Colombia

As a recent article noted,

The “how” and the “when” of Colombia’s latest peace breakthrough are of course important — but so is the “where” and “with whom.” On June 23, the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army (FARC) signed a bilateral ceasefire agreement, after more than five decades of armed conflict. For Colombia’s peace process to succeed, it will need to break the cycle of conflict, organized crime and state neglect in Colombia’s border regions.

That’s fantastic. After nearly sixty years of conflict, we are all glad to hear it will soon be over. Four years of negotiations, a nifty new ceasefire and bob’s your uncle, now you’ve got a peace agreement, right? And then everyone will go home, happily ever after…right?

Anette Idler wrote a very nice piece for the Washington Post explaining how marginalized communities in border areas aren’t looking forward to any quick-fix situation. Quotes such as,

Any potential peace agreement with the FARC therefore raises a number of questions: What will happen to all those other armed groups who operate in Colombian territory and across the borders? Who will take care of the local population and provide economic opportunities? Who will be deciding on the rules of behavior that people need to follow to be safe? Will these marginalized regions face an upsurge in violence or see wider peace?

…ought to be common knowledge to policy-makers, politicians, and journalists who persist in the fiction that Colombia’s troubles begin and end with the FARC. Yet the evident complexity of the situation seems to pass over the heads of policymakers fixed on a peace accord as a solution to Colombia’s decades-long conflict.

The ongoing peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC have been an extremely positive step in what has been an extraordinarily protracted conflict with several mutations. But the current conflict does not particularly resemble the kind of stylized ideological warfare, your “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” with a side of Che Guevara (for those who are into that sort of thing) that it once might have been . The FARC has lost a lot of its ideological base, and now relies substantially on activities and sources of income that are both commercial and illegal: drugs, extortion (NB: Timochenko announces that the FARC will helpfully no longer be engaging in extortion), mining, and pretty much anything else they can think is economically viable. Practices such as kidnapping for profit and recruitment of minors, both of which were officially disavowed, yet still continue (again, as a gesture of good faith, apparently the FARC will release all of their child soldiers). The FARC and other groups also have far-flung alliances as with the Russian Mafia, Mexican cartels, Hezbollah, and others.

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Photo: Al Jazeera (allegedly)

 

Anyways, there are a number of reasons that any peace accord is not likely to result in a smooth transition to peace:

1. It did not go all that well the last time

Colombia does not have a particularly robust history when it comes to disarmament, demobilization and reintegration. In 2004-2006, Colombia attempted to demobilize the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, AUC, an umbrella paramilitary organization that was created to provide armed resistance to the FARC but turned out to commit horrendous atrocities and massacres). The main result, aside from a few prominent individuals who spent around six or eight years in jail under the Justice and Peace law (Ley de justicia y paz) and several of whom were now released! – in the main, the demobilization efforts managed to shatter the central command structure of the AUC but resulted in local factions returning to their power base, changing their names, and continuing with business as usual. (See: HRW, Paramilitaries’ Heirs: The New Face of Violence in Colombia, 2010).

2. The FARC isn’t the only game in town

The supposed demobilization of the AUC resulted in a number of neo-paramilitary groups such as the Urabeños, Águilas Negras, Los Paisas, Los Rastrojos, La Cordillera, Oficina de Envigado, Libertadores de Vichada, Los Machos, ERPAC… Some of these groups have fused with prior criminal structures associated with major Colombian cartels left over from the days of Pablo Escobar. While the respective fortunes of these groups have waxed and waned over the years, conflict among these groups and with authorities have created a shifting landscape were some groups may lose territory and strength, only to be replaced with new groups such as La Empresa. Some of the groups have further fractured to smaller groups (Los Traquetos, Los Nevados), or are outsourcing their violence to local gangs via oficinas de cobro, where one can hire a hitman or an extortionist. All that is to say that contemporary Colombia is a shifting landscape with a multitude of actors with national reach, and a multiplicity of actors in any given territory. Although international focus is on the FARC and an associated peace deal as the key to peace and security, this approach does not take into account other groups such as the left-wing National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN) who recently began peace negotiations, or powerful groups such as the Urabeños, who have not (but may want to – except that the Colombia government does not want to admit they exist).

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Map from El Espectador

3. The FARC may not be as united as one might think

The dismobilization experience of the AUC has provided ample evidence that factions of a national-level group can assess their economic prospects for survival as an independent faction, possibly with an eye to allying themselves with other armed groups participating in illegal activities, and refuse to demobilize. The first Front to state their refusal to do so is the 1st Front, operating in Eastern Colombia:

Although the 1st Front gives ideological justifications for staying in the field, there may well be financial reasons behind its decision. According to El Tiempo’s intelligence sources, the unit currently manages coca crop cultivations — which are abundant in the region — drug laboratories and strategic trafficking routes to Venezuela. Extortion and illegal coltan and gold mining are also mentioned as key revenue streams by other local media sources.

InSight crime further estimates that at least 30 percent of FARC fighters will not subscribe to the peace deal.

4. Uncertainty makes for strange bedfellows, and a power vacuum makes for a good opportunity

In the last two years or so, reports have increasingly indicated alliances between armed groups that would not normally be allied: namely, the FARC with anyone at all, and in particular, the FARC with groups such as the Rastrojos and Urabeños.

As InSight Crime describes it,

[A]ccording to a Semana source, with peace negotiations increasing the likelihood of FARC and ELN demobilization it is probable that the criminal bands want to take over spaces and “illegal economies” controlled by the guerillas. This new threat may have caused “the FARC and ELN to unify” in El Bagre, the source said.

While an ELN-FARC alliance might be seen as the natural outcome of competitors whose main point of difference is territorial rather than ideological (both groups are allegedly left-wing guerrilla organizations), there is no similar affinity that would explain reports of (working) alliances between the FARC and the Rastrojos or the FARC and the Urabeños. These functional alliances might provide an additional area of support for FARC factions that do not wish to disarm and demobilize.

Furthermore, uncertainty and shifting territorial controls among armed actors create confusion, tension and clashes in the context of possible disarmament of what has been a major player. For example, in Tumaco, according to InSight Crime,

Sources consulted by La Silla Vacía said local business owners reported they had been visited by BACRIM representatives who informed them the FARC had voluntarily ceded control of certain territories to BACRIM actors.

However, other reports suggest that recent turf disputes between the BACRIM and the FARC resulted in violent clashes in Nariño that led to the displacement of hundreds of people earlier this year. Moreover, La Silla Vacía writes that a series of apparent assassinations in recent months points to the possibility of a local power struggle between the two groups.

The article continues to note that,

BACRIM groups are seeking to take over criminal economies that the FARC will presumably leave behind if and when the guerrilla group and the government reach a final peace accord. Such a development could complicate the establishment of the concentration zones, which many analysts expect to play a key role in the process of demobilizing and reintegrating guerrilla fighters into civilian life.

Under the proposed framework for the zones, a one-kilometer buffer area will separate the FARC, which will assume responsibility for internal security within the zones, from the Colombian military, which will be tasked with guarding the zones’ perimeters. The presence of actors like the BACRIM, which are not bound by the provisions of the peace agreement, could cause frictions between the FARC and the government that may disrupt the demobilization and reintegration process.

5. The periphery was never under all that much control to start with

Eight of the proposed 23 concentration zones (or normalization zones) in which the disarmament is expected to take place are located in border areas.These include places like Tumaco, Nariño, which has a murder rate five times the national average and the presence of just about all of the major armed groups. Puerto Asís, in Putumayo, has long been a FARC stronghold, although less so than San Vicente del Caguán and zona de distensión, an area the size of Switzerland under FARC contril from 1998 until 2002. The outright disengagement in these areas, as with the negotiations with President Pastrana that led to the Caquetá-Meta-Guaviare territory being turned over to the FARC, or the chronic inability of the Colombian State to exercise control or provide services to marginalized border areas, has led to armed groups such as the FARC “essentially replacing the State in terms of health and road infrastructure.”  Not only was there substitution in terms of services; armed groups also have had strict rules for comportment in their territory, and local populations have little choice but to participate in the cultivation of illicit crops, and to some extent, willingly or unwillingly support armed groups.These areas will require significant attention if they are not to descend into violence and terror. (see also: HRW, The Crisis in Buenaventura: Disappearances, Dismemberment, and Displacement in Colombia’s Main Pacific Port, 2014)

 So now what?

Colombia’s transition will not go smoothly, and if not conducted carefully, it could result in yet another mutation of what has been a constantly evolving conflict. Some analysts have additional reasons for skepticism as well.  Most importantly, policy makers, analysts and journalists should consider Colombia’s long and difficult history before rolling up the red carpet in Havana and considering it a done deal with no further responsibility to engage to ensure a more stable and secure future.

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