Criminal agendas could represent a critical “blind spot” in attempts to resolve armed conflicts in Latin America, capable of sabotaging negotiations and derailing entire peace processes. Taking these agendas into account in two ongoing peace processes in Latin America could now be the difference between sustainable peace and continued turmoil.
A recent paper by the Oslo Forum, “Strengthening mediation to deal with criminal agendas” [pdf], highlights how criminal agendas are a growing headache for mediators in armed conflicts, which throw into doubt the effectiveness of time tested protocols.
The region is rife with examples of how criminal agendas can affect peace processes. Some, such as the Guatemalan civil war, are now long in the past but have an impact that continues to be felt today. Others, such as negotiations between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are at a critical moment, where these agendas could affect the country long into the future if they are not addressed appropriately.
The last two years have also thrown up a distinct example in the El Salvador gang truce; one of the most significant ongoing global examples of a peace process focused entirely on criminal agendas, with no trace of a traditional political or ideological dispute. This is particularly relevant in the modern era where more violence can be attributed to criminal activity than political. According to the 2011 Global Burden of Armed Violence report [pdf] 55,000 fatalities that year were the result of armed conflict, while 396,000 were caused by criminal agendas and interpersonal violence.
The Oslo Forum paper singles out Guatemala as an example of the long term dangers of not taking into account criminal agendas in mediating armed conflicts, highlighting how the country’s 1996 Final Peace Accords failed to tackle agendas forged through 36 years of civil war between the military regime and leftist rebels. During that period, strong links developed between the military and drug trafficking networks and, after the accords were signed, wealthy traffickers became key political financiers. In doing so, they were capable of subverting police and judicial reforms, as well as attempts to deliver better services to marginalized communities.
Drawing on the more recent past, the report also focuses on the conflict in Colombia, where the 2003 to 2006 paramilitary disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) process also provides an example of a peace agreement subverted by criminal agendas. As the report points out, a combination of poor management of the demobilization process and high-level corruption saw many armed actors escape justice. Additionally, elements of the paramilitary forces fragmented into criminal organizations — representing a sizeable proportion of what is now termed the BACRIM (from the Spanish abbreviation for “criminal bands”) — organizations which today oversee much of the flow of drugs out of the country.
The paper also highlights how the relationship between the civil conflict and criminal agendas in Colombia continues to be a critical issue in negotiations currently taking place. The paramilitary demobilization dealt with just one side of the conflict, and with talks with leftist guerrillas now turning to the illegal drug trade — from which the FARC earns hundreds of millions of dollars per year — criminal agendas are once again taking center stage.
On the issue of peace processes centered entirely on criminal agendas, the report analyses numerous gang truces in Central America. While the most significant is the active truce in El Salvador, the report also mentions a similar — but failed — process in Belize, as well as a mooted truce in Honduras, which now appears dead. Among its key recommendations for such truces is the need to select appropriate mediators and the challenge of achieving a reduction in all crime, not just violent crime.
The report’s many other recommendations include a number of points particularly relevant to the ongoing processes in Colombia and El Salvador. Among them are the need to prepare for fragmentary pressures on the groups involved, the need to identify immediately what legal frameworks will be implemented, the need to account for shifting criminal revenues and the need to bring economic and financial sector actors into the process to offer “meaningful alternative life paths.”
InSight Crime Analysis
As illustrated by the Oslo Forum paper, the effects of the subversion of peace accords can be clearly seen today in both Guatemala and Colombia, while the obstacles to implementing peace processes between criminal actors are demonstrated by the situation in El Salvador.
In Guatemala, the most obvious connection between the war and criminal agendas — the shadowy networks of security forces involved in organized crime known as CIACS (Illegal Clandestine Security Apparatuses) — have largely faded away, but the country continues to feel the impact of these connections. Security forces suffer endemic corruption and powerful trafficking clans such as the Lorenzanas and Mendozas — which current President Otto Perez has been accused of links to — dominate swathes of the country, while Mexican cartels have also taken root. The result is rampant impunity and one of the highest murder rates in the world [pdf].
In Colombia, dozens of imprisoned senior paramilitaries are expected to be released this year after serving the eight year terms dictated by the DDR process, and many more are still ravaging the country as part of the BACRIM. The question of how to bring guerrillas to justice remains unanswered, as does the question of how the possible fragmentation and criminalization of FARC units will be prevented or dealt with. That the report specifically calls for legal frameworks to be established before peace proceedings begin and preparation to be made for fragmentary pressures should be a cause for concern. The fact neither amnesty nor specific sentences for guerrillas have been officially adopted, or yet discussed, remains a major sticking point in the talks which could yet derail the process.
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In El Salvador, the uptick in non-violent crime such as extortion has been a source of heavy criticism and one of the factors weighed against the reduction in violent crime. With one business association last year reporting 70 percent of its members were being extorted, the possibility of retrospectively garnering support from the business sector — as the report recommends from the outset — seems remote.
Two other problems identified by the report can also be seen to place the truce in jeopardy. The first is the difficulty of maintaining public support in the face of criminal elements apparently receiving preferential treatment. Such an issue often comes to the fore in the run up to an election, as is the case in El Salvador at the moment. With elections just weeks away, the outcome remains on a knife edge. If the anti-truce political opposition manages to carve out a victory it will likely be in part due to the truce’s unpopularity and will probably spell the end of the process.
The second is the need to provide stable, long-term employment for gang members. While pioneering job schemes have seen some success in El Salvador, they have come nowhere near close to providing the tens of thousands of jobs needed to cater to all gang members in the country. The Salvadoran government has not made assurances or mapped out any strategy to overcome this hurdle, leaving a major question mark over the truce’s longevity.
It is the last two of these examples where the necessity to take on board the report’s conclusions are most pressing, as the processes currently underway in Colombia and El Salvador will heavily influence the countries’ short term and likely long term futures. While by giving criminal agendas significant consideration, both processes have achieved the central tenet of the report’s conclusion, there are a number of areas in which those processes are still sorely lacking. If these are not addressed, then, as shown by Guatemala, the violence that has plagued both countries for decades is unlikely to be brought under control.