The demobilization of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC) has simultaneously represented a significant challenge and a singular opportunity for the Colombian government.
An essential part of the government’s work to achieve lasting peace has been regaining control over territories that have for decades suffered from state neglect and the humanitarian impacts of the conflict. However, the government has faced a series of obstacles while trying to implement the peace accords, and develop a comprehensive strategy combining military action with development projects. If the government does not find a way to resolve these issues, it will be increasingly difficult to prevent violence fueled by armed groups and lucrative criminal activities from returning to these territories.
The Colombian government’s main military strategy for reclaiming territory is known as “Plan Victoria.” The primary objective of the strategy was to occupy territories vacated by the FARC before other criminal groups in the country could claim control. As part of Plan Victoria, joint task forces were established in strategic departments affected by the armed conflict and organized crime, including Guaviare, Caquetá, Nariño, Chocó, Antioquia and Norte de Santander.
The Hercules Task Force, for example, is in charge of maintaining public order in the Pacific coastal region of Nariño, an important coca cultivation and cocaine trafficking zone with established routes to international markets. The Omega Task Force in southwestern Colombia is responsible for addressing the threat posed by dissident factions of the FARC, the 1st and 7th Fronts. The Titan Task Force operates in Chocó, a department that has recently been the site of grave human rights violations.
Nonetheless, one year after the FARC’s demobilization, Colombian security forces have yet to reach many of the places once occupied by the country’s largest former guerrilla group. Instead, throughout 2017 the vacuum of criminal control was filled by new actors like the Urabeños and the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN).
In addition, security forces have struggled with the emergence of an ex-FARC mafia, a phenomenon most clearly represented by the 1st and 7th Fronts that have strengthened and consolidated territorial control in southern Colombia. The military response to this new problem has been further complicated by the fact that dissident groups would first need to be classified as Residual Organized Armed Groups (Grupos Armados Organizados Residuales - GAO) before military action is taken, in order to comply with international human rights standards. Army head General Alberto José Mejía has called for changes to be made to Plan Victoria in order to tackle the new threats posed by the ex-FARC mafia.
With the criminal landscape in Colombia changing rapidly and significantly since the FARC’s demobilization, the country’s armed forces face the difficult challenge of adapting agilely to this dynamic situation.
Coca Eradication and Substitution
Over the course of the last year, the Colombian government has also struggled with implementing an essential part of the peace accords tied to addressing illicit crop cultivation. According to the agreement, the government’s solution to drug production would focus on helping rural farmers to shift away from growing coca by offering incentives to grow legal crops.
Colombia has maintained its ranking as the world’s top cocaine producer throughout recent years. According to the United Nations, illicit coca cultivation increased by 50 percent between 2015 and 2016, growing from 96,000 hectares to 146,000. In response, the Colombian government established a strategy combining voluntary crop substitution programs with forced eradication operations, and set a goal to eradicate 100,000 hectares of coca by the end of 2017. Government officials claim that this goal was met, but experts have raised doubts about the veracity of these claims.
The mixed eradication and substitution strategy has not been well received by local populations because of its incoherence. Some farmers were offered subsidies to abandon illicit cultivation, while security forces arrived at the farms of others to forcibly eradicate their crops. This reflects a lack of coordination between government institutions. At the same time that the peace accord established the creation of the National Comprehensive Program for the Substitution of Illicit Crops (Programa Nacional Integral de Sustitución de Cultivos de Uso Ilícito – PNIS), the armed forces received orders to begin eradicating crops in order to meet the ambitious government-set goal for crop removal.
In several territories, coca farmers known as “cocaleros” clashed with eradication forces over frustrations that the selection of which crops were eradicated and which were substituted appeared to be arbitrary. Intense protests against eradication reached a tipping point in October 2017 with the massacre of a group of farmers protesting in Tumaco, the municipality with the largest concentration of coca cultivation.
Currently, the crop substitution program has only been initiated in 32 of the 183 prioritized municipalities, which covers just 52 percent of the total area covered by illicit coca cultivation. As part of this initial implementation, 28,660 families have begun receiving monthly subsidies of 1 million Colombian pesos (approximately $350) meant to cover their basic needs during the substitution process. However, delays in the early implementation of these social programs have dulled their effectiveness.
Although PNIS appeared to have taken into consideration the past failures of similar strategies, a slew of new issues have plagued the substitution program, including the lack of clear marketing strategies and delays returning land to farmers and beginning infrastructure projects. These persistent problems have discouraged many farmers from participating in substitution efforts because of the concern that once government subsidies end in a few years, legal crops will no longer be profitable enough to sustain them and the coca economy will return.
Security in these communities remains the most concerning issue. More than half of the zones were the substitution program was initiated experienced a significant increase in threats against and murders of community leaders supportive of the effort. In some parts of the country like Guaviare, farmers interested in joining the program have also been terrorized and pressured by FARC dissident groups.
Disputes over land ownership and state neglect of rural areas were at the root of the Colombian conflict. As such, rural development has been a key condition for guaranteeing lasting security. A more robust economy would not only deter the population from engaging in drug trafficking and illegal mining, but would also reduce the influence of armed groups.
The first point of the peace accord calls for a structural transformation of rural zones over the course of 10 years. The main objectives are to reduce poverty and strengthen the reach of state institutions in rural areas. To do so, the government has created Territory-Focused Development Programs (Programas de Desarrollo con Enfoque Territorial - PDET) meant to bring investment to 170 municipalities most affected by the conflict and the presence of illegal economies. The program includes projects focused on education, health, housing, infrastructure, land titling and other social services.
The Territorial Renovation Agency (Agencia de Renovación del Territorio - ART) in charge of the rural development program has faced a number of obstacles tied to the political climate surrounding the upcoming 2018 elections and a newly implemented “law of guarantees,” which makes it more difficult to access investment funds. In addition, local government officials in many of the territories prioritized by the program have not yet received training, increasing officials’ doubts and making it more likely they will not comply.
Although the rural development projects are intended to be a long-term public policy for achieving lasting peace in affected territories, the first year of the program’s implementation has been slow, leaving municipalities across the country in a vulnerable state.