HomeInvestigationsCould Colombia's FARC Rebels Break Apart?

Could Colombia's FARC Rebels Break Apart?


The possibility of ending nearly 50 years of civil conflict is being dangled before Colombia. While the vast majority of the Colombian public want to see peace, the enemies of the negotiations appear to be strong, and the risks inherent in the process are high.

As soon as he took office in August 2010, President Juan Manuel Santos began to explore the possibility of peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). In August 2012, he announced to the nation that exploratory dialogues had been taking place with rebel representatives in Cuba. Formal negotiations began in October 2012, in the Norwegian capital of Oslo. These talks are continuing, once again in Havana, Cuba. According to the two negotiating teams, progress is being made.

This article is part of a series of publications about the challenges of the peace process with the FARC in Colombia. Read the full series here.

President Santos has staked most, if not all, of his political capital on these negotiations. This political capital is being eroded as the civil conflict continues apace, while opponents of the process, including former President Alvaro Uribe, miss no opportunity to undermine the peace process. Public support is already beginning to wane.

The talks face herculean hurdles, as almost five decades of civil conflict have entrenched positions, polarized society and left countless victims. Even if negotiators reach an agreement, there is a very real risk that elements of the FARC will refuse to turn themselves in, or simply criminalize and keep millions of dollars, which currently fund the revolutionary struggle, for themselves. Indeed, some form of criminalization of rebel elements is inevitable.

The FARC fund their fight through a variety of criminal activities. Unlike the Central American revolutionary struggles of the 1980s and 1990s, the FARC never received significant support from Cuba or the Soviet Union. The FARC have always been self-financing, and have turned themselves into perhaps the richest insurgent movement in the world. They have been accused of being one of the planet's most powerful drug trafficking organizations, but this tells only part of the story.

Income from coca base, cocaine, heroin, and marijuana certainly provide the rebels with a large percentage of their income. Since abandoning kidnapping for ransom (one of the government preconditions for sitting down to peace talks), the FARC have increased their extortion demands across the country and diversified their fundraising to include gold mining.

SEE ALSO: Colombia News and Profiles

There are no reliable figures on the FARC's annual income. However, maintaining around 8,000 armed rural fighters and an estimated 30,000 militia members could cost up to $200 million a year. FARC earnings are believed to exceed that, although it is unlikely that all of this money ends up in the movement's coffers. In their fundraising, the only thing that differentiates the FARC from organized crime is ideology, and the fact that profits are, for the most part, used for the rebel cause.

However, it is not the money alone that may prompt elements of the rebel army to criminalize or to refuse to hand in their weapons. FARC guerrillas have status in their predominantly rural communities. While many have little to no formal education, they are respected and even revered. The idea of becoming subsistence farmers, or security guards in a city they do not know, will hold little appeal. The fighters who control the units on the ground, where the coca is grown and the gold is illegally mined, are not the political operators who could have prominent roles in a post-conflict situation. Some are barely literate and have never been to a city, but command forces and earn huge sums of money.

With the dismantling of the Medellín, Cali and Norte del Valle Cartels, and the demobilization of the paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), the FARC are the most powerful illegal army still standing. Should the rebels, or even elements of the group, decide to go into business for themselves, they could quickly become the most powerful criminal syndicate in Colombia.

SEE ALSO: All About the FARC

Possible Scenarios

There are three scenarios for the potential fragmentation of the FARC and the possible criminalization of elements of the organization.

1. The first possible fragmentation scenario is during negotiations, if elements within the FARC decide either that their interests are not being represented at peace talks or that the leadership is "selling out the organization". There is precedent for this, with a faction of the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación – EPL) refusing to join negotiations that ended with the demobilization of that group in 1991.

2. The second scenario is once a peace agreement is negotiated, and could occur if certain rebel elements believe that the agreement is unsatisfactory, that it does not justify the sacrifice of those who have died in the revolutionary fight, or that continuing the armed struggle is preferable. There is a risk of this if the interests of particular units or leaders are not addressed during talks.

3. The last scenario is once an agreement is signed, and after demobilization of the rebel army occurs, in which elements of the FARC criminalize, returning to the same illegal activities as before, but now keeping the money for themselves. The example of the AUC post-2006 provides a solid precedent for this, with numerous cases of former paramilitaries, and even entire units, moving back into organized crime, particularly drug trafficking.

During previous peace negotiations, there was never a significant concern of FARC fragmentation. What has changed and why are the conditions different in 2013?

Part of the answer to this lies in the fact that the conditions are now more favorable for peace than they were in the past. In 1999, when the last round of peace talks were launched, the FARC were at the zenith of their power. They had inflicted a series of defeats on the Colombian military and were circling the principal cities of Bogota, Medellin and Cali. They had moved from a traditional guerrilla war to a war of movement and, in accordance with the 1982 FARC strategic plan, they were planning to move to a war of positions, which would divide the country in two along the line of the Eastern Cordillera (Andes mountain range) and threaten Bogota. The FARC were negotiating from a position of strength and believed that taking power by force of arms was a real possibility. They never really negotiated in earnest.

Today it is the government that has the upper hand. Indeed, it could safely be argued that the FARC have been strategically defeated by the US-backed security forces. Certainly their stated aim of overthrowing the government and imposing a socialist regime is now nothing but a pipe dream. Some analysts have insisted the rebels are now in terminal decline. Regardless of the varying interpretations of the FARC's current position, the rebel group has just a small percentage of the territorial influence or military capacity that it boasted in 1999. President Juan Manuel Santos is negotiating from a position of strength, and even as talks progress, the military continues its campaign to consolidate territory around the country and take down guerrilla commanders.

However, it is precisely the decimation of the FARC's leadership, particularly its more ideologically committed and politically active leaders, that has increased the risk of fragmentation and criminalization of elements of the rebel army. Added to this is a weakening of the command structure and the breakdown of units, often into groups of less than six fighters, which inevitably has an effect on discipline. Finally, there is the existence of agreements, and perhaps even alliances, between the FARC and the new generation drug trafficking groups that emerged after the demobilization of the AUC, known by the government as "BACRIM" (from the Spanish "bandas criminales" – criminal groups).

Since the breakdown of last peace talks and the end of the safe haven in 2002, the FARC have not been able to maintain centralized training camps and new recruits have not undergone the same military training or political education as their predecessors. High levels of desertion have shown the ideological weakness of many FARC members. All of this means that the government is presently dealing with a very different FARC to that of 1999, and even more so compared to the organization that engaged in earlier negotiations in the 1980s and early 1990s.

There are several factors that might lead FARC units to break away or criminalize:

• Lack of contact with the Secretariat or even bloc commanders
• Close relationship with the BACRIM or other criminal groups
• Presence of coca, marijuana or poppy crops in area of operation
• Involvement in drug exportation
• Location along the borders and/or near potential embarkation points for drug shipments
• Presence of illegal gold mining in area of operation
• Lack of political instruction or ideology within unit
• Lack of representation of interests by negotiators
• Poor leadership, discipline and training

There is a significant risk of elements of the FARC breaking away or criminalizing. The government must be aware of this during peace negotiations, once any agreement has been signed and, even more so, should the rebel army demobilize. This risk must be analyzed, steps taken to prevent the break-up of the rebels, and measures enacted to ensure any fragmentation or criminalization does not destroy the chances of ending the nearly five decade civil conflict.

This article is part of a series of publications about the challenges of the peace process with the FARC in Colombia. Read the full series here.

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