- Colombia's long-running communist insurgencies may end as soon as the government proceeds with peace talks.
- As previous demobilizations have shown, an end to an insurgency does not necessarily guarantee security.
- Rebel leaders will be easily reintegrated into the system, but the rank and file will not, leaving them susceptible to courtship by organized crime.
Colombia may finally see an end to communist insurgencies that have raged for more than 50 years. On Aug. 16, Colombian newspaper El Tiempo quoted Ricardo "Rodrigo Granda" Tellez, one of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) negotiators in Havana, as calling for the release of some 12,000 members of his organization from prison and their reintegration into the political system as part of ongoing peace negotiations. Meanwhile, it appears that the second-largest communist insurgency in Colombia, the National Liberation Army (ELN), will begin peace talks with the Colombian government in September in Ecuador. However, a formal end to the insurgencies will not guarantee peace and security in a nation that has long been plagued by crime and violence.
Marxist militant groups like the FARC espouse communist rhetoric about a classless utopian society, but they have not been able to achieve it. The difference in class and education between the group's leadership and its lower-ranking members is evident. Many leaders are university-educated and come from middle- or upper-class families. They are literate and have job skills and international connections; they therefore have the ability to reintegrate with society, hold jobs and support their families.
In past demobilizations in places such as Guatemala and El Salvador, communist rebel leaders were able to make the transition into legitimate politicians. The former Marxist revolutionary party in El Salvador, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, has controlled the Salvadoran presidency since 2009. Of course, FARC leaders' ability to reintegrate into the Colombian political system will depend on what kind of deal finally emerges from the peace talks. In the past, the Colombian government has considered automatically awarding the FARC seats in Congress as part of a peace deal, but the details of this solution remain undecided. Even if the FARC enters the political process, it probably will not be able to re-create the widespread shift to the left that occurred in El Salvador because it lacks the broad support that the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front enjoyed. Nevertheless, FARC leaders should prove able to join the political process and reintegrate into Colombian society.
But their success will not fully resolve Colombia's security issues. Most of the country's rank-and-file Marxist fighters come from peasant families; they have very little education and few job skills. In countries like Colombia, where insurgencies have spanned many decades, there are generations of men and women who have no job skills aside from their ability to use a gun. High unemployment levels and low prospects for economic development or job creation for rural dwellers only complicate the situation. Colombia has many natural resources, but because of its geography and limited infrastructure, Colombia probably will not see the kind of economic development needed to offer sufficient employment opportunities to demobilizing militant fighters.
The lack of employment opportunities, combined with the weapons remaining in the region after the long-standing insurgencies end, is a recipe for violence. It is no accident that the levels of crime in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are so high. Indeed, in Colombia itself, a significant number of fighters belonging to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia simply became armed criminals after the group formally demobilized in 2006. They formed the backbone of the country's criminal bands, or "bandas criminales" in Spanish, known widely in Colombia as Bacrim.
The Appeal of Organized Crime
Throughout Latin America, from the southern Andes to Mexico's Sierra Madre Occidental, the narcotics trade has provided economic opportunities for demobilized fighters with little to no practical job experience or skills. Such people are able to find jobs guarding coca and heroin poppy plantations, narcotics processing laboratories, clandestine airstrips and stash houses.
Although they were initially formed to fight Marxist guerrillas, some Bacrim groups and leaders have developed good relationships with individual FARC fronts at the local level, working together to secure coca leaves and traffic cocaine paste and the finished product through their territory. It therefore is not a stretch to imagine many demobilized FARC members using these relationships to join existing Bacrim groups or even form new Bacrim groups.
Although Colombian Bacrim groups make most of their income from drug trafficking, they are also active in extortion, kidnapping, murder for hire, illegal mining and micro drug dealing in major cities. They primarily operate in rural areas but have shown increasing influence in major cities such as Cali and Medellin. These groups often have relationships with local politicians, police and military personnel through bribery or intimidation.
Like the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, the FARC largely operates and recruits in rural areas. Rural FARC units will not necessarily return to insurgency, but some rural FARC members — and perhaps entire units — will take off their ideological mantles and become profit-driven criminals, continuing the illegal activities they have been involved in simply because there are no real profitable activities other than cocaine trafficking or illegal mining in those isolated rural areas.
The addition of thousands of new Bacrim members in Colombia will negate any stability or security that officials hope peace agreements with the communist rebels will bring. Large, well-armed organized criminal groups will continue to aggressively target domestic and foreign commercial interests in Colombia. However, like the existing Bacrim threat, the threat from expanded organized criminal groups will vary by location throughout the country. The main areas of concern are the departments along the Caribbean and Pacific coasts, where the Bacrim and FARC are already very active, as well as the Meta and Caqueta departments. The FARC/Los Urabenos alliance in southwestern Colombia has already demonstrated the means and ability to extort energy companies, and there are large sections of Choco and Antioquia where Los Urabenos, Los Rastrojos, the FARC and the ELN are digging up gold that ostensibly belongs to the state.
In the cities and in some rural areas, the Bacrim groups are involved in extortion, kidnapping and many armed robberies, none of which are more likely to target foreigners than locals. The threat of cargo theft along Colombia's isolated highways will also continue. But the main foreign interests likely to face threats from these groups are energy companies and possibly mining firms as they push farther into rural areas where Bacrim and militant groups are already squatting.