Colombia’s peace agreement with the FARC grants the guerrillas 10 congressional seats in 2018, but their transition from illegal armed group to political movement will most likely be concentrated in local positions in their traditional areas of influence.  

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia’s (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) political eligibility and automatic access to 10 congressional seats was a significant factor in the unexpected defeat of the first peace agreement in an October 2016 plebiscite. The new agreement was signed by the chief negotiators for the FARC and Colombian government on November 24, 2016 and was approved by Congress on November 30. 

Among other changes, under the new agreement the FARC will not be able to use illicit money in electoral campaigns or other political activities. The party the FARC forms will, however, be able to access money from the state in order to finance its campaign. It will receive no more than “an amount equivalent to the average received by parties or political movements with legal status (in the elections prior to the agreement).” 

Both agreements clearly stated that members of the FARC — including those found responsible for crimes against humanity — will not be restricted from appearing on popular election boards or being nominated to Congress. 

SEE ALSO: Coverage of FARC Peace

State support for the FARC’s eventual political campaign has caused some controversy. President Juan Manuel Santos proposed to the Special Electoral Mission, which is made up of independent entities and charged with proposing reforms to the electoral system, the possibility of “100 percent state funding to eliminate influence from contractors and their economic interests over our democracy.” 

The president’s proposal also aims at preventing illegal groups from financing electoral campaigns, creating a climate of relative equality between the different candidates and parties, and preventing political patrons to interfere with elections. 

Criminal groups have succeeded at influencing congress in the past. During the second term of former president and current Senator Álvaro Uribe Vélez, who is also the main opponent of the peace agreement, it’s estimated that a third of Congress was dominated by the interests of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC), the right-wing paramilitary group and sworn enemy of the FARC. 

While it’s unlikely the FARC will have as much political influence as the AUC did, their economic and social reach in some areas may extend further than that of the paramilitaries.

InSight Crime estimates based on intelligence sources and investigative fieldwork show that in the years prior to their demobilization, the FARC likely had annual incomes of close to $500 million. Most of this revenue has come from illegal mining, control of the cocaine production process, kidnapping, extortion, and marijuana and poppy production. 

The guerrillas’ public relations campaign has already begun.

In 2016, Colombia’s attorney general reached an agreement with US authorities that aimed to dismantle the economic structures of Colombia’s criminal groups, including the FARC. 

That same year, Colombia seized a total of $1.7 billion in illicit assets belonging to criminal groups. According to Attorney General Néstor Humberto Martínez, this accounted for 50 percent of what was seized in Colombia over the last three decades, demonstrating the government’s determination to reduce the economic capacity of the guerrillas and to take over illegally obtained assets.

Another issue clarified in the new agreement is related to the designated peace jurisdiction. The agreement specifies that the guerrillas will not be able to occupy any of the 16 positions in the House of Representatives reserved for the populations most affected by the conflict. 

Under these conditions, the FARC will be entitled to ten seats directly assigned to Congress in the 2018 election. Out of a total of 102 senators and 166 representatives, the FARC will receive five seats in each chamber of Congress. 

After this period, the ex-guerrillas and any other movement seeking political office will have to win election in a popular vote.

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The FARC will face a number of important obstacles in their transition to civilian life and transformation into a political movement. The group’s political survival will largely depend on their ability to change public opinion.

This will not be easy. The latest Invamer-Gallup poll shows the group’s favorability ratings has tripled from 6 to 18 percent. Still, 18 percent favorability would be very low for a political party.

The FARC are widely despised in many parts of Colombia. Former President Álvaro Uribe Vélez — who remains highly influential and one of the country’s most powerful political figures – often refers to the group as “narco-terrorists” and has portrayed it as “Public Enemy No. 1.” The FARC’s deep links to the drug trade and other illegal activities like extortion and kidnapping have not endeared it to the Colombian public, either. For many, the FARC’s lofty, Marxist ideology has long since lost its lustre. 

But the guerrillas’ public relations campaign has already begun, and not just with the chief negotiators trading combat boots for designer shirts during more than four years of dialogue. For several years, a FARC support network has quietly been carrying out political work in urban areas, targeting middle and upper class sectors that have not traditionally identified with the guerrillas. And for the first time ever, the FARC held a conference last year that was open to the press in order to show a new side of the guerrilla group to local and international media.

SEE ALSO: Colombia News and Profiles

It is estimated that the FARC have about 10,000 urban militia members nationwide, a figure that could be higher than the number of armed guerrillas. These militias are linked to some of Colombia’s most radical communist groups, such as the Bolivarian Movement for a New Colombia (Movimiento Bolivariano por la Nueva Colombia – MB) and the Clandestine Communist Party of Colombia (Partido Comunista Clandestino Colombiano – PC3). 

It remains to be seen, however, whether the FARC will succeed in converting these militias into a viable political movement in urban areas. 

Rural areas where the FARC have traditionally exercised control may present a more attractive political opportunity. FARC members are gathering in 20 concentration zones and eight encampments in 13 of the Colombian departments most affected by the conflict. Their best political bet would be to start in these same areas, where the majority of the mayors and the civilian population have already approved the FARC’s demobilization, disarmament and transition process. 

The government has been absent in some of these remote parts of the country. As a result, the FARC have served as a de-facto government, meeting the basic needs of its population and sometimes offering work as coca growers to small farmers. Additionally, they have given the sick access to healthcare and even imposed their own justice system and penal codes. 

Historically, Colombian politics has been plagued by corruption and dominated by the interests of elites and large business groups. This system has created political disillusionment within a significant sector of the Colombian population, and is what the FARC has professed to be fighting against for so long. 

The greatest political opportunity for the FARC is in these areas where their historical presence overlaps with widespread government disapproval. They offer easy access to locally elected positions of power such as city halls, assemblies, local action boards and even state houses.

Of course, the FARC’s aborted forays into politics in the past continue to loom large over the entire transition.

The Patriotic Union (Union Patriótica – UP) was a political party born in 1984 as the result of a peace treaty between the government and the FARC. At its apex, the UP had nine senators, five house representatives, 52 councilors, 14 deputies and 23 mayors. 

Paramilitary groups that were beginning to emerge at the time — which would later become the AUC — systematically massacred members and suspected supporters of the UP. Some of these acts were in coordination with the government. In total, they left between 3,000 and 5,000 dead, including two presidential candidates, which helped to wipe out the UP.

Something similar — albeit on a smaller scale — is now happening to the Patriotic March (Marcha Patriótica), a left-wing political movement which since 2012 has sought to recognize the victims of Colombia’s prolonged armed conflict. During their short time in Colombian politics, at least 120 of its members have been murdered, and many more have disappeared. 

While the FARC must overcome serious challenges in order to ensure their political and social survival, the Colombian government must also provide effective security protocols to ensure that the left-wing militants will not be killed during their long-awaited attempt to join the political arena. 

*This article was translated by Parker Asmann.

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