Even a Stalled FARC Deal Has Jump-Started Colombian Stability

6 MINS READJul 18, 2017 | 09:00 GMT
FARC insurgents, flying a white flag of truce, head toward the Pacific coast city of Buenaventura, Colombia, to surrender their weapons to U.N. monitors. In agreeing to lay down its arms, the rebel group lost the power it once had to threaten the government. Some FARC factions have continued to pursue criminal interests.
(LUIS ROBAYO/AFP/Getty Images)

FARC insurgents, flying a white flag of truce, head toward the Pacific coast city of Buenaventura, Colombia, to surrender their weapons to U.N. monitors. In agreeing to lay down its arms, the rebel group lost the power it once had to threaten the government. Some FARC factions have continued to pursue criminal activities.

A little more than a year after a peace deal between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, was struck, the rebels have officially surrendered their weapons to U.N. mediators, bringing the country's largest and longest-running insurgency a step closer to ending. But perhaps the most crucial challenge for the successful implementation of the peace agreement hammered out over a four-year span lies ahead. In exchange for the rebels' laying down their arms, FARC negotiators insisted that their leaders who face criminal convictions receive amnesty and that the group be integrated into the country's political process. To enact those concessions, several pieces of legislation must be approved by the Colombian Congress, where the margin of error for the ruling party is razor-thin.

If President Juan Manuel Santos is to see FARC's demobilization before his term ends in August 2018, he and his ruling coalition will have to push through the laws needed to authorize political participation by the group's political wing and to create the courts that will rule on amnesty for its leaders. But that goal will not be easy to fulfill, especially in the Senate, where the ruling party controls a slim majority of 52 out of 102 seats, requiring it to maneuver the body's disparate factions into quick and efficient passage of the enabling legislation. That outcome is achievable, but any disagreements that crop up in committee discussions or in the voting process on any particular aspects of the legislation — such as how many congressional seats the rebels ultimately will be granted — could delay a vote. That, in turn, could push final approval into next year or even into a new, and possibly more conservative, presidential administration. But that eventuality probably would not unravel the progress made so far. Even if key sections of the deal are delayed, the FARC leadership likely would not want to walk away from the hard-won peace deal, even if a new presidential administration balked at aspects of it, such as amnesty courts.

A More Fractured FARC

Even if the debates over the fine details of amnesty and political participation draw out discussions beyond Santos' term, the peace deal has achieved at least one key success for Colombia’s long-term stability: It has fractured the once-cohesive FARC into smaller, often warring groups that cannot challenge the central government, accelerating a trend that had long been developing. More than a decade of pressure by the Colombian military already had weakened FARC, and the peace negotiations splintered the rebels into factions, some of which defected from the group’s high command. Those factions, which no longer follow orders from the top, have basically become isolated criminal groups bereft of ideology. The factionalization means that even if a part of the insurgency decides it will return to militancy, it would be much diminished from the FARC's strength when peace negotiations were launched. The threat to the state from this point will be much smaller than at any time in the country’s recent history.

But even after the FARC’s demobilization, smaller cities and rural areas outside Colombia’s central core will still face security problems. As the main body of FARC has stepped back, it left behind a high concentration of dissident members in some regions of the country. In those areas and in others, elements of the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia, or AGC (a group formerly known as Clan Usuga), have moved in to contest territory, sustaining criminal activity there. Those and other criminal groups have moved in to fill the power vacuum left by the FARC's departure along the northeastern border with Venezuela, in Colombia's southwest and in northwestern regions such as Choco department. The turf wars being fought among those groups affect isolated rural populations far from Colombia’s major urban areas and have threatened major economic sectors such as the oil industry and agribusiness. Despite these isolated risks, the overall security picture after the FARC deal looks improved. As the FARC demobilization continues, specific regions of the country will continue to face increasing violence from competing criminal groups, but it will likely remain localized and not spread to more populated areas. 

A Growing Threat of Regional Violence

The regions along Venezuela’s border will remain particularly vulnerable. Criminal groups involved in smuggling there take cocaine into Venezuela and return to Colombia with illicit and untaxed consumer products and fuel. In remote border departments, such as Vaupes, Guainia and Vichada, neither FARC dissidents from the central regions of the country nor the ELN will be able to challenge already established criminal groups. But the fight for control of coca-growing areas in more accessible departments, such as Norte de Santander, will raise the risk to residents and visitors. Of particular interest is a turf war in Norte de Santander between the ELN and the Popular Liberation Army, a minor criminal group. Both groups have been moving into territory along the Venezuelan border abandoned by the FARC. The Popular Liberation Army, bolstered by dissident FARC remnants, may be in a position to engage the ELN in a lengthy competition there for control of coca-growing areas and border crossings.

The southwestern Pacific region of Colombia — which includes the departments of Cauca and Narino — appears to be more volatile than last year. In both departments, major criminal groups, including the AGC, the ELN and remnants of the FARC, will continue their violent competition for control of coca-growing areas and cocaine-trafficking routes to the Pacific coast.

The departments of Choco, Antioquia and Cordoba will also suffer from more violence as competition heats up. The main criminal groups clashing here, again, will be the ELN, the AGC and the dissidents from the FARC’s demobilization. Violence among those groups there will be motivated mainly by turf wars over illegal mining, drug production and extortion operations. Control of rivers in Choco, which allow the transportation of illicit merchandise in and out of the area, is particularly important to the groups. With the exception of Cordoba, where violence can occur even near key cities such as Monteria, most of the violence in Choco and Antioquia will be limited to sparsely populated rural regions frequented less by travelers.

The next few months will be crucial in defining how and when FARC militants become civilians. Whether the FARC amnesty courts are up and running within a year and whether political participation legislation is approved depend on lawmakers. But the peace deal has already led to defections from the FARC, and the group has ceded swaths of territory to other groups. The FARC is weaker now than at any point in the past three decades, and its power is diminishing as other groups move into territory it is vacating. Even though FARC demobilization still requires specific laws to be approved, widespread insurgency in Colombia is virtually over — and smaller and more isolated criminal groups will now be the government’s main concern. 

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