Colombia and FARC to Negotiate Demobilization

5 MINS READJul 3, 2014 | 09:37 GMT
Colombia and FARC to Negotiate Demobilization
FARC Commander Ivan Marquez holds a news conference May 27 in Havana on the 50th anniversary of the group's foundation.

Negotiations between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the Colombian government have reached a decisive moment. Over the past year, both sides have come to agreements on major points of the agenda toward an eventual peace deal, including land reform, political participation and the subject of the militant group's involvement in producing and selling illegal drugs. However, none of these deals are yet final, and the two sides must now decide on the terms and nature of the group's withdrawal from the field.

Over the next few months, the Colombian government will likely try to craft a demobilization agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, more commonly known as the FARC, that avoids the drawbacks of the last major negotiated demobilization of a Colombian criminal group, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia. That agreement resulted in only part of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia demobilizing; some of its members remained involved in the cocaine trade and other criminal activities.

Given the FARC's deep involvement in the cocaine trade and other illegal activities, such as kidnapping for ransom, reaching an agreement that results in most of the FARC disarming will likely be difficult. In the case of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia agreement, entire paramilitary units made a public show of surrendering their weapons to the authorities in a series of demobilizations held between 2003 and 2006. However, thousands of former United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia members subsequently coalesced into competing criminal organizations that continued trafficking cocaine and participating in other illicit activities. Many isolated criminal groups active in the country to this day — such as the Urabenos, the now-divided Rastrojos and the Aguilas Negras — once belonged to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia.

Regions of Coca Cultivation in Colombia

Regions of Coca Cultivation in Colombia

These groups had the incentive and the ability to stay involved in illegal activities, and although the remnant criminal groups are militarily weaker than the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, they remain a persistent, albeit localized, problem for Bogota. The largest of these is the Urabenos, which has several thousand members and exports cocaine to the United States and Europe from both of the country's coasts.

Some of the factions of the FARC that may not demobilize despite an agreement are those operating in areas where coca is grown and processed into cocaine. These regions are the southwestern departments of Putumayo, Caqueta and Narino, as well as the northeastern department of Norte de Santander. Together, these areas accounted for nearly 65 percent of the country's 48,000-hectare (118,610-acre) coca crop in 2013. The FARC fronts there have either taxed cocaine production or directly administered it for more than two decades. Even if the insurgency's top leadership is willing to withdraw from the cocaine trade, these groups may split off to form their own criminal organizations.

The success of any peace deal in pulling these militants out of the field depends largely on whether FARC leaders continue to exert authority over them. According to a Colombian media report, the FARC leadership ordered coca planters in Norte de Santander department to slow the pace of coca planting for at least four months beginning in January because the topic of drug production and trafficking was under discussion at the Havana negotiations. The leaders' likely control over the militants is further suggested by the fact that only 11 clashes between security forces and the FARC occurred throughout the country during the militants' self-imposed electoral truce from June 9 to June 30. Before the truce, attacks occurred nearly daily. These facts suggest that the FARC's central command still has the ability to influence the decision to grow coca in at least some parts of the country. However, in an interview published on June 3, FARC's top leader Rodrigo Londono Echeverri admitted that some divisions exist within the militant group; some FARC fronts deeply involved in drug trafficking have stopped following orders.

Another key point in the demobilization is how the Colombian judicial system will treat surrendered militants. It is unclear which militants will be held accountable for crimes committed during the decadeslong insurgency. It is also unclear whether the government will punish all the legal infractions. According to a legal roadmap for peace approved by the Colombian congress in 2012, the president will be allowed to present a statutory law determining which crimes will prevent FARC members from participating in politics and what types of legal mechanisms will be used for judging militants. The mechanisms set up by this law cannot be too lenient on FARC members because the law still has to clear congress. However, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has some leeway in crafting a law because his coalition retains a majority in both houses of congress and because he faces no re-election campaign.

The government will also use the coming months to pursue a separate set of negotiations with the National Liberation Army. Representatives from the Santos administration held confidential preliminary discussions with the group in Ecuador in January and in Brazil in April. In June, Santos announced the government's intention to negotiate toward a formal peace process with the group as it did with the FARC. However, the National Liberation Army has increased the pace of its attacks against oil infrastructure and security forces in northeastern Colombia in recent months, likely in an attempt to bolster its negotiating position.

The Colombian government responded to a June 29 mortar attack that injured 15 oil contractors and halted production of oil by Occidental Petroleum Corp. by ordering more troops to Arauca department. The Colombian Defense Ministry also raised existing rewards on militants in the area from about $2,000 to $2,700 and offered about $10,700 for those responsible for the attack. Despite these events, the Santos administration appears to be maintaining its stance on pursuing negotiations with the group.

Discussions in upcoming months will undoubtedly attempt to determine how the FARC will demobilize. The Colombian military will likely be involved in this step of the peace process; Santos has tasked them with handling the logistics of militant disarmament and demobilization. However, the remaining details of demobilization and judicial treatment will need to be settled before the rebels leave the field. 

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