Colombia is at a crossroads. Several paths lay before it. One sees the ex-FARC mafia consigned to the dustbin of history in a short period of time. However, there are other, less appetizing scenarios.
Here are three possible future paths for Colombia and the rebel dissidents:
1. The Best Case Scenario: The Ex-FARC Mafia Gradually Disappear
1.1 – Peace Process: While damage has been done to the peace process, the vast majority of former rebels appear committed to peace and have no desire to return to a life of violence and crime. The government can reassure those still in the process, step up funding and implementation in the 170 municipalities laid out in the Development Plans with Territorial Approach (Planes de Desarrollo con Enfoque Territorial – PDET) and to strengthen the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (Jurisdicción Especial para la Paz – JEP). Under these conditions, further desertion from the peace process will be minimal and the government will be able to gradually consolidate state presence in areas formerly under FARC influence.
1.2 – Criminal Actors: The ex-FARC mafia are unable to unite and indeed end up fighting one another for control of illegal rents, be they drug trafficking, gold mining or extortion. This is already happening in some parts of the country, for example Nariño, where the Óliver Sinisterra Front has been fighting the Guerrillas Unidas del Pacífico (United Guerrillas of the Pacific – GUP) for control of the cocaine trade. In this scenario, the former guerrillas do not show any ideological commitment and simply become small players on an increasingly fragmented criminal stage.
1.3 – Criminal Economies: The government, through its eradication program and security policy, is able to strangle the ex-FARC mafia economically, systematically attacking its sources of funding. At the heart of government policy at the moment is the eradication of drug crops and ambitious goals have been set at 80,000 hectares of coca for 2019. According to data from the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), coca crops, after years of explosive growth, leveled off in 2018. The government is now poised to start significantly reducing drug plantations.
In this scenario, the government would have a serious impact on illegal mining, another big earner for the ex-FARC, using tools such as the Deployment Force against Transnational Threats (Fuerza de Despliegue contra las Amenazas Transnacionales – FUDAT). Thanks to investigations by the Information and Financial Analysis Unit (Unidad de Información y Análisis Financiero – UIAF) and the effective use of asset seizure laws by the Society of Special Assets (Sociedad de Activos Especiales – SAE), the earnings and assets of the ex-FARC mafia would be systematically attacked and undermined.
1.4 – Security Policy: through an integrated and cohesive strategy, as laid out in the government security doctrine, the Policy of Defense and Security (La Política de Defensa y Seguridad), the state would target the ex-FARC mafia, gradually reducing their territorial reach, killing or capturing their leadership and isolating them from the civilian population. They would be gradually dismantled. There have already been some notable victories, like the killings of Walter Patricio Arizala, alias “Guacho,” in December 2018, and that of Edgar Mesías Salgado Aragón, alias “Rodrigo Cadete,” in February this year. Here, the government would be able to establish a dependable state presence in remote areas where the dissidents currently operate, providing basic services and protecting the rights of inhabitants.
1.5 – Political Environment: The Common Alternative Revolutionary Force (Fuerza Alternativa Revolucionaria del Común – FARC ) political party begins to get traction, not only in the rural areas formerly under FARC influence, but among urban voters. The threats against FARC political activity are minimized and former combatants see that there are real democratic opportunities for them, and that there is fair and open competition for political posts at municipal, departmental and national level.
SEE ALSO: Could the FARC Peace Process Still Fail?
1.6 – Venezuela: President Nicolás Maduro is removed from power, elections are held and Colombia once again has a trustworthy and willing partner in a democratic government in Caracas. This new government will fight ex-FARC mafia elements on Venezuela soil and work in a coordinated fashion with Colombia to secure the border between the two nations.
1.7 – International Panorama: Neighbors like Panama, Brazil, Peru and Ecuador all work together in the fight against the presence of ex-FARC mafia elements operating on their soil. Regional cooperation in the fight against transnational organized crime is strengthened. The United States steps up aid to help Colombia fight to strengthen the rule of law, respect of human rights and the struggle against corruption and transnational organized crime. The international community lines up against the ex-FARC mafia.
1.8 – Conclusion: This would be a continuation of the gradual improvement that Colombia has seen since the mid-1990s, when there were fears that the FARC could actually take power and the country would become a narco-state. There will always be hiccups on the way, but the long-term pattern has been one of gradual improvement in terms of homicide reduction, respect for human rights, economic development and improvements in state presence across the country. Under this scenario, the Duque government finds slightly firmer footing than shown to date and is able to implement many of the policies outlines in the Plan of Security and Defense announced by the president in February 2019. While the ex-FARC mafia would not be eradicated during the Duque administration, it would be continually weakened and become more and more irrelevant over time.
2. The Worst-Case Scenario: the Rebirth of a Nationwide Insurgent Army
2.1 – Peace Process: Trust in the peace process is permanently damaged, both among former rebels and the communities that once lived under FARC influence. Former combatants continue to desert the process and strengthen the dissidents, while local communities once again support these criminal elements and work with them in the interests of protecting illegal economies. The killing of a former rebel inside the reintegration camp in Mesetas, Meta, shows that no-one is safe, not even in a specially protected zone. Faith in the idea that real change is possible in the remoter coca-growing areas of the country is shattered and locals come to believe that no real alternatives exist. The ELN sees the failure of the FARC peace process and simply hardens its belief that the only real way forward is through armed struggle. The government continues to undermine the terms of the peace agreement, starves funding to the JEP, the coca substitution program and the PDETs.
2.2 – Criminal Actors: the currently disparate elements of the ex-FARC mafia unify under new leadership. This leadership is able to impose discipline, ideology and cohesion on the different groups. A new Marxist-Leninist insurgent force is born, picking up where the FARC left off before they demobilized. Strengthened by hundreds more veteran FARC fighters who desert the peace process, and thanks to a concerted recruitment strategy, the ex-FARC mafia grow their numbers from around 3,000 today, to 4,000 in 2020 and continue to expand, projecting themselves nationally. A real alliance is forged with the ELN, not just ensuring delineation of territory and cooperation in terms of illegal economies and earnings, but coordination in insurgent strategy and attacks on the state. The ex-FARC mafia is able to forge agreements with other criminal groups ensuring its efforts are not divided by fighting other non-state actors, but rather concentrated on the government and security forces.
2.3 – Criminal Economies: The Duque administration is unable to contain, let alone reduce, cocaine production in the country, which along with illegal gold mining and other illicit activities like human smuggling, human trafficking, marijuana, heroin and extortion, provide the ex-FARC mafia with plenty of money to fund their expansion. Evidence suggests that so far under this government, criminal economies have continued to grow, rather than shrink. Apart from increasing eradication efforts there is no evidence of any innovative strategy to undermine the criminal economies, suggesting that criminal rents will continue to grow and offer plenty of opportunities to the ex-FARC mafia to strengthen themselves in many parts of the country.
2.4 – Security Policy: despite the drawing up of a national security strategy document, the Duque administration shows remarkably little innovation in its approach to security policy, following tried and failed strategies of the past. The security situation in terms of homicides, displacements, targeting of former FARC fighters, community leaders and land restitution activists, gets worse. The extreme focus on crop eradication, under US pressure, sucks up resources while further alienating rural communities, something that is likely to increase if aerial spraying restarts. Leadership in the Defense Ministry continues to flounder, with the shadow of the false positives (the scandal where civilians are killed by elements in the military to show results) and continuing actions like aerial bombardments killing children. These actions undermine state legitimacy and strengthen local support for non-state actors, particularly the ex-FARC mafia.
2.5 – Political Environment: One former senior FARC commander said on condition of anonymity that “the rose (the symbol of the FARC political party) had withered and died.” The weak showing of the Common Alternative Revolutionary Force during the November regional elections revealed that the former rebels have not been able to turn territorial control and influence over local communities as a rebel army, into votes. The pursuit of the political road to power was the justification for ending the armed struggle. It is clear that, in certain parts of the country, FARC political activists are being targeted and that political participation is from being a level playing field. The killing of former members of the FARC reminds many of the campaign against the Patriotic Union (UP), the last rebel attempt to enter the legal political arena. Thousands of UP members, including a presidential candidate, were assassinated and this convinced many on the hard left that the only way to achieve political power was through military action. Many may be thinking that the political route is doomed and the armed struggle is still the only way forward.
2.6 – Venezuela: In this scenario, Maduro not only stays in power, but actually starts helping the ex-FARC mafia with weapons as well as sanctuary and logistics. A potential gamechanger here could be the dissidents getting their hands on the SA-24 Man-Portable Air-Defense System (MANPADS) missiles, also known as the Igla-S, used by the Venezuelan military. With this weapon, the ex-FARC mafia could neutralize the state’s principal strategic advantage, air power. This could noticeable change the balance in any civil conflict. Another variation of this scenario might be that a civil conflict emerges in Venezuela after the forcible removal of Maduro. This situation might suit the ex-FARC mafia, which could present itself as an international insurgent force and fortify is presence and legitimacy in Venezuela, facilitating recruitment and territorial control in the neighboring country. The Acacio Medina Front and the 10th Front already have a deep and permanent presence in Venezuela, in the states of Amazonas and Apure respectively.
Maduro has already openly supported dissident leaders, announcing in June that “Iván Márquez and Jesús Santrich are welcome in Venezuela and at the Foro of Sao Paulo whenever they want to come, the two are leaders of peace…”
2.7 – International Panorama: The importance of US aid in the strategic defeat of the FARC in the 2000s is hard to underestimate. However, President Trump has proven himself a fickle ally to the Duque government, criticizing the Colombian president and the fight against drugs, and denying Colombia pleas for more aid.
“More drugs are coming out of Colombia right now than before he was president, so he has done nothing for us,” Trump stated in March this year, referring to Duque.
Combined with lethargy from the White House, in this scenario, the regional response also sees no help coming from Latin partners. The presidents of Brazil, Ecuador, Peru and Chile are engaged in fighting scandals or social unrest in their own countries, distracting them from the fight against transnational organized crime and elements of the ex-FARC mafia on their territory. Colombia stands alone to contain the dissidents and the transnational criminal economies that fund their growth.
2.8 – Conclusion: under this scenario, Colombia takes a quantum leap back in security, and the ex-FARC mafia are able to re-establish themselves as a nation-wide insurgent force, perhaps in alliance with the ELN, with firm ties to, and presence in, Venezuela. The Duque administration continues to undermine the peace deal, pushing more former rebels into the dissidents, while unable to produce innovative security responses or undermine the illegal economies.
3.1 – Peace Process: While confidence in the peace process is badly shaken, it is unlikely that the Duque administration will do any more to undermine the agreement or further weaken implementation. On the contrary, the desertion of Iván Márquez rang enough alarm bells to send Duque into the reintegration zone at San Vicente del Caguán in Caquetá, to make reassuring noises. And Emilio Archila, presidential adviser for stabilization and consolidation, went on a media blitz to highlight the implementation work being carried out.
While there will continue to be some isolated desertions of former FARC, there will not be any larger mass exodus. Those who felt the situation was desperate have already left. However, the ending of government subsidies and the temptations of real money will ensure more rebels return to criminality, although not necessarily join the dissidents. The peace process as such will not fail, even if the ex-FARC mafia continues to grow, as most of those who demobilized remain within the legal world and the FARC political party is a reality.
3.2 – Criminal Actors: As has already become clear, Iván Márquez has not been accepted as the undisputed leader of the different dissident factions. Nor will he be. There is a broad spectrum of different groups within the ex-FARC mafia. Most want to cling onto their heritage in a criminal landscape where reputation and credibility are all-important, but few are prepared to accept the hierarchical structure of the former rebel army. Even fewer want to share the spoils from the criminal economies.
Most likely is that different ex-FARC elements will not fight each other on a large scale, and some may even work together, mainly in the interest of money. However, these relations will not imply subordination, but rather mutual benefit. Where there is no mutual benefit, each group will act autonomously. The ex-FARC mafia will become a loose criminal federation.
As far as relations with the ELN are concerned, Gustavo Aníbal Giraldo Quinchía, alias “Pablito,” a member of the ruling Central Command (COCE) has long shown himself to be pragmatic and will make agreements with ex-FARC elements so long as they serve his purpose. But a nationwide, working alliance between the ex-FARC mafia and the ELN is not likely. There is already evidence that Pablito has relationships with both Iván Marquez and Gentil Duarte, the two main leaders seeking to reunite disparate FARC groups.
There are agreements with the ELN in other places, such as Antioquia, where elements of the former 18th and 36th Fronts are working with the ELN’s Darío Ramírez Front. It is in the ELN’s interest for the FARC to be back on the scene, not least to distract security force attention, which has been firmly focused on the ELN since the January car bomb at the General Santander National Police Academy in Bogota, which claimed 21 lives. There is further evidence of agreements between ex-FARC mafia and other criminal organizations like the Caparrapos. These agreements will be even more uncertain and volatile.
3.3 – Criminal Economies: The government eradication campaign is likely to bring about a fall in the coverage of coca crops in under cultivation in 2019, but the reduction in actual cocaine production will be smaller. Also, due to the fact that there is an overproduction of cocaine at the moment, and that criminal syndicates have large stores of the drug within Colombia, any reduction in production is unlikely to be felt for at least a year. This means that earnings from cocaine will not drop dramatically before the end of the Duque administration in 2022. For the next 18-24 months, the criminal bonanza from the record levels of cocaine production will be able to underpin ex-FARC mafia finances and will easily be able to fund expansion plans. Earnings from marijuana are feeding the ex-FARC mafia elements in Cauca, and driving up violence there. Gold is another major earner for dissident groups, particularly those in Antioquia, Bolívar, Chocó, Cordoba and Nariño. Rural extortion is also common in areas of former FARC influence and while it is not as lucrative as the drug trade, these earnings are sufficient to maintain logistics and militia networks in certain parts of the country. All this means is that the money is there to fund aggressive expansion plans, large-scale recruitment and the purchase of weapons.
3.4 – Security Policy: While the Duque administration was elected on the back of security promises, and even with the publication of a new national security blueprint, there have been few major innovations so far. Indeed, several indicators, especially homicides and displacement, show the situation is getting worse.
The main focus of Colombia’s security policy now seems to be concentrated on eradication efforts, with rumors that aerial spraying of drug crops will restart in 2020. Even if coca crops do fall, as happened to a limited extent in 2018, the improvements in yield per hectare and efficiency in laboratories meant that cocaine production rose. Replanting rates in eradicated fields, even by government measurement, are between 50 and 67 percent.
Add new plantations to that and the government appears to be caught on a stationary bicycle, pedaling furiously but making little lasting progress. Even if aerial spraying is able to make a significant dent, we will see a return to smaller, more atomized coca plantations, spread over more departments, with large amounts planted amid other crops or under jungle canopy. This will make estimating drug production harder and may over time neutralize any gains made against production thanks to spraying. It is not like this is a new strategy. There were not any fatal blows dealt to the cocaine trade before 2015, when aerial spraying was still in effect.
While the killings of Guacho and Cadete revealed that the security forces have the ability to track and eliminate senior ex-FARC mafia commanders, the fact that many are now resident in Venezuela limits the impact this strategy can have in dismantling dissident leadership.
However, what really limits the room for maneuver of the Duque administration is lack of funds. There simply is not the money for new large scale operations and any focus on the ex-FARC. This would mean taking resources away from campaigns against the ELN and Urabeños, also serious national security threats.
3.5 – Political Environment: FARC politics does seem to be in trouble, under threat in certain parts of the country, undermined by the growing dissident movement, fraught with internal divisions and simply unable to connect with voters, even in rural areas of influence. However, this was always going to take time and thanks to the peace agreement, the presence in congress is intact and will remain in place for enough time to perhaps allow the Common Alternative Revolutionary Force to build up a real support base and political machinery. It is hard to be optimistic here, but there is still hope. The government must protect FARC politicians and create the conditions in remoter parts of the country for trust in the democratic system to grow. Community leaders and land restitution activists must be protected as well, as all of this is linked to the peace process.
3.6 – Venezuela: the long-prophesied fall of Maduro has simply not come to pass. And information from InSight Crime staff based in Venezuela reveals some signs of improvement, although the situation is still catastrophic. The informal dollarization of the economy has provided some small stability amid hyperinflation. Protests have reduced, and help from Russia and other allies seems to have mitigated some of the effects of US sanctions, although the government remains in dire financial straits.
Colombia is seen, correctly, as actively working to bring about the fall of the Chavista regime. Maduro therefore would like to see nothing more than the reconstitution of the FARC, a friendly, anti-US force with shared ideology. However, he will not want to be seen as actively arming and supporting the ex-FARC mafia or the ELN. Being designated a sponsor of terrorism would further complicate Venezuela’s already bleak international reputation and limit the regime’s diplomatic tools to rehabilitate itself on the world stage in the future.
Venezuela is already of huge importance to the ex-FARC mafia as a sanctuary, a base for the exploitation of criminal economies (main cocaine and mining) and as an ideological reference point. Maduro will not provide surface-to-air missiles to the ex-FARC mafia, as they would be too easily traced back to him. However, one cannot underestimate corruption in the Venezuelan military and some of these weapons ending up in dissident hands.
The threat of civil conflict cannot be ruled out in Venezuela, especially if there is US military intervention, a border conflict with Colombia, or the assassination of Maduro. This might favor the FARC dissidents as well as the ELN, allowing them to present themselves as defenders of the Bolivarian Revolution and the Chávez legacy.
3.7 – International Panorama: While there is continuing US interest in Colombia, it is mainly in connection to Venezuela and the eradication of drug crops, not in supporting security policy dedicated to containing the ex-FARC mafia. It is hard to predict what President Trump will do and the abandonment of Kurd allies in Syria shows that no relationship is totally safe, even though Colombia has been a steadfast US ally for decades.
While relations between Duque and neighboring governments are good, the Brazilian and Ecuadorean presidents are busy fighting scandals and unrest at home and have little bandwidth to focus on issues linked to ex-FARC mafia and transnational organized crime operating in their territory. Therefore, a cash-strapped administration can expect little specific US aid, or much international cooperation, at least for the moment.
3.8 – Conclusion: Hamstrung by a lack of funds, battered by the Venezuela crisis and unable to get major new funding from the United States, the options open to the Duque administration are limited.
The ex-FARC mafia is going to grow over the next couple of years. Using booming criminal economies and a safe haven in Venezuela, the dissidents have far more room for maneuver than the government.
However, the FARC is not being reborn. There will not be a new unified insurgent movement under Iván Márquez. The best that he can hope for is a criminal federation that pays lip service to former FARC ideology and discipline, while its members cooperate with each other. Conflict within the ex-FARC mafia is likely, just as there was fighting between different factions of the paramilitary AUC. Agreements with elements of the ELN are already in place and will continue, but a fully-fledged, working alliance with the ELN is very unlikely.
The future of the ex-FARC mafia lies firmly in the hands of the Duque administration. And the grip of the government since 2018 has not been the firmest. It has faced a series of defeats in congress, in the Constitutional Court, and during the recent regional elections, at the hands of the electorate. It needs to find firmer footing and dedicate a great deal of thought, and a portion of scant resources, into containing the threat posed by the ex-FARC mafia. If it is able to do this, then the dissidents will be restricted to more remote areas of the country, mainly along the borders. If they cannot unite, a government with a cohesive strategy can start to pick off the renegade units and their leadership, one by one.
Venezuela is certainly a wild card, but there is not much more that Colombia can do except to ensure that no radical military options or clumsy tactics are deployed to unseat Maduro. These might spark civil conflict and create an even greater long-term challenge to Colombia than its current crisis. Colombia is bearing the brunt of the Venezuela collapse, and shouldering much of the burden alone. The future of the ex-FARC mafia and Venezuela are bound together. Patience, caution and cunning are required by Colombia to manage this crisis and ensure it does not get worse.
*This article was written with assistance from InSight Crime’s Colombian Organized Crime Observatory.
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