Drug Trafficking Threatens Colombia's Peace Deal With the FARC

6 MINS READMay 7, 2018 | 10:00 GMT
A picture of a Colombian farmer brandishing cocaine base paste at the end of the production process, taken in Guaviare department, 2017.

A Colombian farmer shows cocaine base paste at the end of the production process, Guaviare department, 2017. Cocaine is something of a local currency, and some members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) cannot seem to give up the money that comes from production and transit of the drug.

  • Cocaine trafficking by senior members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia will be the main threat to the government's peace deal with the rebel group.
  • If the rightist presidential candidate Ivan Duque comes to power in August, the peace deal's legislative and administrative constraints will limit him to the use of criminal investigations to put greater pressure on the FARC.
  • If investigations uncover more evidence of criminal wrongdoing against top FARC leaders, then the next administration will have to choose whether it wants to threaten the agreement by issuing arrest warrants or preserve the deal by taking a less aggressive approach.

Colombia is moving toward peace with leftist revolutionaries, but the rebels' old ways continue to threaten any successful peace in the country. As Colombia's government implements its 2016 peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), criminal activity by the group's highest commanders could disrupt the process. One member of FARC's secretariat, the group's highest authority, was arrested in April along with the nephew of another top-level FARC leader. And that nephew has begun testifying to U.S. authorities.

Such testimony may provide Colombian authorities with information about ongoing criminal activities by members of the FARC secretariat. Colombian officials cannot legally ignore such information; the rebels are not immune from prosecution for crimes committed after they signed the peace deal. But the arrests of additional secretariat members, or the issue of arrest warrants, would threaten the peace agreement.

The Big Picture

After more than five years of negotiations, Colombia is closer than ever to ending the longest insurgency in its history. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia have demobilized and its members are awaiting amnesty from transitional justice courts so they can re-enter civilian life. With the militant group virtually at peace with the government, Colombia faces fewer internal security threats than at any point in its recent history. But the group's leaders may still be involved in cocaine trafficking. If the government uncovers evidence that they are, it will likely try to arrest the offenders, threatening a return to insurgency by parts of the rebel movement.

Old Habits Are Hard to Break

In 2015, Stratfor forecast that Colombia's militants would remain involved in criminal activity despite signing a peace agreement with the government. We expected that FARC militants would follow a similar path to the one we saw after the demobilization of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), when many former AUC members moved on to form the backbone of criminal bands referred to as "bacrim." These groups quickly became involved in the narcotics trade and other criminal activity. That same behavior is evident at the lower levels of the FARC, as rank-and-file members and lower-level commanders tax coca production, traffic cocaine and extort businesses.

But the FARC secretariat's ongoing involvement in cocaine trafficking is another matter entirely. On April 9, police in Bogota arrested Seuxis Hernandez, a senior member of the secretariat who's better known by the alias Jesus Santrich. Marlon Marin, the nephew of FARC leader Luciano Marin (also known as Ivan Marquez), was arrested in the same raid. The pair were allegedly coordinating cocaine shipments to members of Mexico's Sinaloa Federation. Santrich is in prison in Colombia awaiting extradition to the United States, while U.S. authorities took Marlon Marin to the United States for further questioning.

Marin's arrest is significant. As an alleged senior figure in a FARC cocaine-trafficking operation, he could provide U.S. and Colombian authorities with evidence to prosecute high-ranking FARC members. Luciano Marin reacted to his nephew's arrest by moving from Bogota to the mountainous department of Caqueta, where he is surrounded by hundreds of FARC rebels awaiting demobilization. If Marlon Marin implicates other FARC commanders in cocaine trafficking — or other serious crimes committed after they signed the peace deal with the government — the next Colombian administration will have to choose whether to issue arrest warrants against the FARC leaders. This could threaten the survival of the peace process, or they could simply try to slow the investigation in an attempt to save the peace deal. 

A Colombian administration that wants to safeguard the peace agreement could find itself in a politically difficult situation.

A More Aggressive Approach

If the next president of Colombia is Ivan Duque, the threat to the peace deal will rise slightly. Duque, who is running as the right-wing Democratic Center party's presidential candidate, is a close ally of former President Alvaro Uribe. Recent polling shows Duque virtually tied with leftist Gustavo Petro, each with around a third of the expected vote. The center-left candidate, Sergio Fajardo, is nearly 15 points behind them. Criminal activity by FARC leaders will remain a main threat to the deal, but Duque may enter office with the will to raise political pressure on the rebels. By law, the Colombian government can't amend the peace deal until 2030. So, should he win the presidency, Duque can't use Congress to roll back protections for the FARC, whose members will continue to receive amnesty for any crimes they committed during wartime through specialized courts set up by the government.

But Duque could order Colombia's security forces and intelligence apparatus to make the investigation and collection of evidence against the FARC leadership a top priority, and he could appoint an attorney general who would attempt to aggressively prosecute alleged criminal activity by former FARC rebels. On the campaign trail, Duque has called for authorities to hold the FARC accountable for ongoing cocaine trafficking and other crimes, something that would clearly risk upturning the peace agreement if pursued.

A graphic showing the estimated number of FARC fighters, 1998-2016.

What Next?

A failure of the FARC deal has consequences, but the consequences should not be overstated. The FARC is a small group and its return to fighting would have a limited national effect. The rebels numbered around 6,000 at the time they demobilized in late 2016. The group is probably smaller now, diminished by frequent desertions, and would number no more than a few thousand if it returned to fighting. The areas at greatest threat from FARC attacks would be in Colombia's southwest, in the northwestern departments of Choco and Antioquia, and in the northeastern regions near the border with Venezuela. Oil companies operating in the northeast and southwest would be at risk because extortion of oil contractors and companies can be a major source of revenue for the group.

Whether a more aggressive approach by Duque would threaten the deal depends on various factors, such as the quality of the evidence available to Colombian authorities and whether congressional proponents of the deal allow Duque to proceed unopposed. FARC leaders may also attempt to disguise their connections to illicit activities by divesting themselves of illegal assets or by using front men to conduct transactions. After all, if there's little evidence implicating other secretariat members, the government will not easily make cases against them. But Marin's testimony, combined with a potentially hostile Duque administration, will increase the pressure on the FARC to go clean.

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