HomeInvestigationsIs Colombia Condemned to Repeat History?

Is Colombia Condemned to Repeat History?


There were always going to be dissident elements from the FARC, from those who were unconvinced by the peace deal or simply refused to consider it. However, the ex-FARC mafia is now growing at such a rate that Colombia’s entire peace process is at risk.

Almost every peace process has had combatants who refuse to give up their arms. There was no reason that the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) should be any different.

Looking abroad first, the Northern Ireland peace process saw the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA, more commonly known as the IRA) reach the “Good Friday Agreement” with the British government in April 1998. It did not take long for the "Continuity IRA" and the "Real IRA," which has now morphed into the "New IRA," to appear. But while a series of bombs have been set off and some isolated killings have taken place, Irish dissident groups have been unable to win any significant support or rebuild the military capacity of the PIRA.

*This InSight Crime investigation into the ex-FARC mafia was carried out over four years and involved field trips to 140 municipalities under threat across Colombia. Read the full series here.

And there have been dissident breakaways in former Colombian peace deals. The Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación – EPL) demobilized in March 1991, with some 2,200 guerrillas surrendering their arms. However, up to 20 percent of the guerrilla army remained in the field. Today, a last remnant still exists, although its members are battered and perhaps on the road to extinction, more due to a war with the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN), than thanks to any campaign by the Colombian state.

The demobilization of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC) saw a variety of dissident groups spring to life, commonly termed the BACRIM ("bandas criminales"). To this day the most powerful of these groups, the "Urabeños," now called the "Clan del Golfo" by the government, still numbers over 2,000 members.

Colombian dissident groups are so hard to eradicate because of the criminal incomes which sustain them, especially the drug trade (cocaine, marijuana, heroin, and even some synthetic drugs), illegal mining (principally gold) and extortion.

The EPL today appears to be on their last legs, while the Urabeños have suffered a series of blows, pushing them back from a nationwide movement into a regional criminal power in their home territories of Antioquia, Chocó and Córdoba. Neither of these dissident movements was able to rebuild the strength or appeal of their predecessors. Surely the FARC dissidents, or as InSight Crime has named them the “ex-FARC Mafia," are condemned to the same inevitable, albeit slow, path to extinction?

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Ex-FARC Mafia

This will hopefully be the case. But there are red flags, which hint that the ex-Farc mafia may become something more dangerous than the EPL and the Urabeños combined.

The Red Flag

1. Leadership - One of the most senior and respected leaders of the FARC has deserted the peace process. Indeed, many in the rebel rank and file thought that Luciano Marín Arango, alias "Iván Márquez," should have been the FARC commander-in-chief, not Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri, alias “Timochenko.” Normally dissident factions are not led by their most senior commanders, particularly those who negotiated the peace deal, as with Márquez.

SEE ALSO: Major Implications of FARC Leadership Returning to War

2. Numbers - The number of FARC dissidents now stands at around 3,000 combatants, already accounting for more than 20 percent of the 13,000 FARC members who demobilized. This number continues to grow and is likely to keep growing in the short and medium-term. While there are no indications that the ex-FARC mafia will ever reach the numbers of the FARC prior to demobilization, it is clear that the dissident elements are a threat to national security and could become more than just a localized threat within Colombia.

3. Faith in the FARC Peace Process - This is low, among the Colombian public, among former rebel combatants, and even within the government itself. Unless significant action is taken to reassure those rebels that remain in the peace process, the risk of further desertion is high. Add to this the killing of former FARC members, including some likely carried out by security forces, and the precariousness of the peace accord becomes clear.

4. Criminal Economies - The criminal economies that sustained the FARC for more than five decades are more lucrative than ever, with Colombia producing record amounts of cocaine. However, the ex-FARC mafia rely on more than cocaine. Marijuana, especially in the violence-ridden department of Cauca is a big earner, while the profits from poppy and the heroin it produces are also considerable.

5. State Weakness - The Colombian state has been unable to fill the vacuum in much of the territory formerly under the influence of the FARC. It is laboring under significant financial constraints, which has allowed criminal groups and illegal economies to flourish in certain parts of the country. Another aspect of this has been the widespread killing of human rights and community leaders as well as land restitution activists, making the state appear impotent. Between January 2016 and May 2019, up to 800 community leaders and former FARC members have been killed.

6. Ideology - Many elements of the ex-FARC mafia continue to profess the Marxist-Leninist ideology of the FARC, suggesting that they intend to rebuild an insurgent force, not just a criminal enterprise. The EPL and Urabeños (who call themselves the Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia, harking back to their paramilitary heritage) also an ideological façade, but have never engaged in serious grassroots political work or acted like anything other than criminal syndicates. There is evidence of some ex-FARC Mafia elements continuing political actions, especially in Meta and Guaviare, but these efforts seem sporadic.

7. Poor Political Performance of the FARC Party - While nobody expected the transition from a rebel army to a political party to be an easy one, the results to date of the Common Alternative Revolutionary Force (Fuerza Alternativa Revolucionaria del Común - FARC) have been distinctly underwhelming. A key argument when the FARC leadership sold the peace agreement to their rank-and-file was that the military struggle for power could be replaced by the political fight. Yet the FARC made remarkably little impact in Colombia’s 2019 recent regional elections. Only two local councilors were elected directly under the FARC banner, although another six former FARC members were elected under coalition or on other party lists. Equally worrying has been the killings of former FARC members and threats to FARC political activity. The shadow of the extermination of the Patriotic Union (Unión Patriótica - UP) is still fresh in the mind of many FARC politicians. The UP was a political party set up by the FARC in 1985 during the peace process with then-president Belisario Betancur. Anything up to 3,000 of its members, including a presidential candidate, were assassinated. This massacre drove many left-wing activists to take up arms. While the current climate is not the same, there are systematic threats against FARC political activists in large parts of Colombia.

8. Venezuela - The situation in Venezuela gives the ex-FARC Mafia a sanctuary, and possibly a powerful international ally. While a FARC presence in Venezuela is nothing new, and former president Hugo Chávez provided the Colombian rebel group with sanctuary and limited support, he did not sell them weapons they requested, particularly surface-to-air missiles, that could have neutralized the Colombian state's principal strategic advantage. The current government of Nicolás Maduro is far more isolated than Chávez ever was, and is battling economic collapse. Colombia is directly supporting the US-backed opposition movement, headed by Juan Guaidó. It is very much in the interests of Venezuela to distract and undermine the Colombian government by providing aid to the ex-FARC mafia. Iván Márquez lived for many years in Venezuela and has links with senior Chavista officials. It is likely that he and much of the ex-FARC mafia leadership is based in Venezuela at this moment.

SEE ALSO: Ex-FARC Mafia: Colombia's Criminal Army Settling Down in Venezuela.

9. Support from the United States – While the US is deeply invested in the Venezuelan situation, and to a lesser extent is interested in Colombian drug production, it is far less support today toward fighting illegal factions than before. Whatever its failings as a counter-narcotics strategy, the US-backed “Plan Colombia” was fundamental in containing FARC ambitions in the early 2000s and in forcing the group to the negotiating table. There is not the same will or funding coming from the White House at the moment. Colombia must shoulder much more of the burden in fighting the ex-FARC mafia, although these dissident groups now have a far greater capacity than ever before. But again, operational funding is short, as much of the country’s defense spending goes to salaries.

10. The National Liberation Army (ELN) - The last remaining insurgent army in the field has been enjoying significant growth over the last three years, revealing the government’s inability to contain it and indicating that the ex-FARC mafia may have the same room for maneuver and expansion. There is a significant risk that the ELN, or at least elements within it, may well ally themselves with sections of the ex-FARC mafia. Together, the ELN and ex-FARC mafia may be able to field as many as 7,000 fighters. This is still nowhere near the 13,000 that the FARC once commanded but the needle is moving upwards.

Government Strategy

Can the government address the red flags listed above? Or indeed is the government part of the problem and itself feeding the ex-FARC mafia through its policies?

It is easy to lay the blame for the strengthening of the ex-FARC mafia at the door of the government of President Iván Duque. It inherited a peace deal it had sought to block, winning the October 2016 referendum on the peace agreement, which former president Juan Manuel Santos largely ignored.

But Santos also squandered much of the time he had to prepare for the post-conflict situation. There was no way Duque would have been able to fully carry out the implementation of the peace agreement as left to him by Santos, even if he had wanted to. And he did not.

Duque made it clear from the start that he wanted to change the legal framework of the agreement, essentially moving the judicial goalposts. He was unable to do so, thanks to a ruling by the Constitutional Court, but for the FARC, this was evidence enough that the president was trying to undermine the peace deal and would not honor the promises for which they had laid down their arms. Duque was never a true believer in the crop substitution program begun by the Santos administration and even less of a fan of its high cost. If and when aerial spraying of drug crops starts again in 2020, it will only confirm to coca farmers and communities living in former FARC-held areas that this government has betrayed the promises to them.

SEE ALSO: A Death Foretold: Colombia's Crop Substitution Program

The perception, true or false, that Duque and his political godfather, former president Álvaro Uribe, want to fatally undermine the FARC peace agreement has been one of the driving forces for the ex-FARC mafia. Márquez quoted this as the main reason for his desertion of the process.

“This is the continuation of the rebel fight in answer to the betrayal by the state of the Havana peace accords. We were never beaten or defeated ideologically, so the struggle continues,” Márquez said during a rebel address announcing his return to arms in August 2019.

The full nature of the ex-FARC mafia threat has yet to fully manifest itself. It is not clear the number of fighters Márquez took with him out of the peace process, or the territory from which he will operate. Apart from a couple of propaganda videos, there is very little evidence of the capacity of this section of the ex-FARC mafia.

The dissident factions under Miguel Botache Santillana, alias “Gentil Duarte,” have also not launched widespread attacks on Colombia’s security forces. Is this because they do not have the capacity to do so, because they are successfully being contained by the military, or because they have a different strategy altogether? InSight Crime field research in Meta and Guaviare during 2017 suggested the latter. Sources in the local government, security forces and among former rebels all stated that the ex-FARC mafia here had deliberately adopted a largely non-confrontational approach.

“Do not be deceived,” said an official source in San José de Guaviare, “the dissidents here are a sleeping lion.”

*This InSight Crime investigation into the ex-FARC mafia was carried out over four years and involved field trips to 140 municipalities under threat across Colombia. Read the full series here.

*This article was written with assistance from InSight Crime's Colombian Organized Crime Observatory.

Photo Credit: AP

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