Colombia's Armed Groups Give Peace Another Chance

4 MINS READSep 11, 2017 | 11:27 GMT
A guerrilla in the National Liberation Army, Colombia's second-largest leftist militant group, keeps her rifle close during an interview with AFP.

The prospective demobilization of two more armed groups is welcome news for the Colombian government. The benefits of their surrender, however, wouldn't extend throughout Colombia.

(LUIS ROBAYO/AFP/Getty Images)
  • Should they demobilize, Colombia's largest drug-trafficking organization, the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, and its second-largest leftist militant group, the National Liberation Army, would reduce the overall threat that armed groups pose to the Colombian government.
  • The groups' surrender, however, would have no lasting effect on the international cocaine trade, and it would spur localized violence in Colombia as remnants of the organizations compete for resources and land.
  • Negotiations between the groups and the government will extend beyond the current congressional period and into the next presidential administration, complicating the peace process. 

Yet another Colombian armed group may soon try to demobilize. On Sept. 3, the commander of the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC), Dario Usuga, approached the Colombian government about a possible surrender. And his isn't the only organization trying to make peace with the government. On the heels of the landmark peace deal that President Juan Manuel Santos' administration struck with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the National Liberation Army (ELN), the country's second-largest leftist militant group, is hoping for a truce of its own. The group recently reached an agreement with the Santos government, now in the last year of its tenure, to implement a three-month bilateral cease-fire starting Oct. 1.

The prospective surrenders would be welcome news for Bogota. Declaring peace with the groups' leaders and demobilizing their rank-and-file members, after all, would leave only breakaway factions for Colombian security forces to deal with. Still, the groups' demobilization carries its own set of risks, and even if the government is ready to accept the organizations' surrender, the country's legal system may not be.

Another Shot

Both groups have considered surrendering before. The ELN, in fact, has been in negotiations with the Colombian government for more than four years, but because its central command lacks control over some of the group's factions, progress has been slow. The AGC likewise approached the government about a possible surrender two years ago, though it didn't make much headway.

This time could be different. As Santos' time in office comes to a close, the AGC and ELN are eager to close a deal that would enable them to lay down their weapons and come out of hiding. (The AGC, moreover, suffered a crippling loss Aug. 31 when a military and police operation in northwestern Colombia killed its second-in-command.) Usuga said in a recorded statement released to the press that the AGC is prepared to retire from its illicit businesses, which include drug trafficking, human trafficking, kidnapping and extortion.

While the surrender of the AGC and ELN would reduce the overall threat to the government and bring benefits and safety to some areas of the country, parts of Colombia would experience spikes in violence. The flow of cocaine from Colombia, for example, probably will continue undisturbed even if the AGC, one of the main suppliers of cocaine to the United States and Europe, demobilizes. Criminals, including former AGC members, will step up to meet foreign demand. Furthermore, in the parts of Colombia where the AGC and ELN currently supply illegal goods and services, the groups' dissolution could cause greater violence as competing factions vie to take over their market share. Should the AGC's leaders reach deals with the government and begin disbanding their units, dissident members likely will break off to stay involved in criminal enterprises. The renegades eventually will cross paths and fight with one another or with other criminals, including the remnants of the FARC and ELN, for control of key territories such as Norte de Santander, near the Venezuelan border, and the Uraba region, near Panama.

Colombia After Demobilization

Making It Last

Turning offers to disband into a lasting peace deal will be easier said than done. Notwithstanding the groups' apparent willingness to negotiate with the government, talks are just the first step on a long path toward surrender. The ELN and AGC, like the FARC before them, will need Congress to pass legislation to govern the peace process. Congress approved the bill for the FARC's deal in 2012, the same year their negotiations began. For the AGC and ELN, on the other hand, legislation isn't even on the table yet. The ELN is hoping that its impending cease-fire will get the ball rolling by demonstrating to the Santos administration that its members have the discipline to abide by a peace agreement. If it succeeds, the group may be able to keep a peace negotiation alive through the end of Santos' final term in office and into the next one.

Even so, Colombia's upcoming political transition will pose a challenge for the AGC and ELN. Congressional elections will take place in March 2018 and presidential elections in May. The next administration will come to power three months later. Whether the groups get the laws they need to pave the way for formal peace negotiations next year will depend largely on the mood and composition of the Congress, and how far they have gotten in their negotiations with the government.

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