The contrast between the FARC’s 10th Conference and the last peace process in this same place 16 years ago could not be more marked. The FARC has changed and cannot go back to the war it once waged, funded by billions from the drug trade.

In 2000 at the launch of the FARC’s Bolivarian Movement I saw thousands of FARC guerrillas, armed to the teeth in crisp green uniforms, filled with revolutionary fervor, marching in formation, ready to topple the Colombian government and impose a Marxist regime. Even as they talked peace with then president Andres Pastrana, the giants of the FARC — founder Pedro Marín, better known by his guerrilla alias “Manuel Marulanda,” the rebel field marshal Víctor Julio Suárez Rojas, alias “Mono Jojoy,” and ideologue Guillermo León Sáenz, or “Alfonso Cano” — strutted across the plains and the patches of jungle here, certain of a promising future. The rebel army then numbered up to 16,000 fighters and as many militiamen.

Yet Marulanda died of a heart attack in 2008; Mono Jojoy was struck down in an aerial bombardment in 2010 and Cano killed in combat in 2011. A new generation of leaders, more urban and political, took over, headed by Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri, alias “Timochenko,” along with Luciano Marín Arango, alias “Iván Márquez,” and they began to negotiate. The FARC now count perhaps 7,000 fighters and the government has spoken of up to 14,000 rebels demobilizing when it includes militias.

For the opening ceremony of the 10th Conference, just a few miles from San Vicente del Caguán, where the triumphant launch of Bolivarian Movement was held 16 years ago, there were barely 200 rebels. There was not a weapon in sight. None of the guerrillas were dressed in full uniform, rather a patchwork of green and civilian clothes. It was all about the FARC as a political, rather than a military, movement.

Many of the middle and lower ranking FARC commanders have little to gain from the peace agreement and a great deal to lose.

The difference in atmosphere between today and 2000 is stark. During the previous negotiations (1999-2002) order was strict and journalists were told what they could do and not do, and they obeyed, waiting hours for the chance of a talk with a guerrilla commander, all under the watchful eye of armed FARC veterans. This time FARC organizers tried to coral the media into a taped off area and failed miserably.  It was like trying to herd cats. The FARC officials were disobeyed or simply ignored as reporters wandered through guerrilla ranks and clustered around the stage to get photos.

The awe that once surrounded the FARC’s ruling body, the seven-man Secretariat, is also much reduced. At the opening ceremony of the 10th Conference, 28 men and a single woman trooped out onto the stage, wearing white 10th Conference t-shirts. They were introduced as the Central General Staff (Estado Mayor Central – EMC) the beating heart of the FARC, which provides the members of the Secretariat. FARC sources said the EMC currently numbers 31, although there did appear to be several key figures missing from the stage.

The FARC Commander-in-Chief “Timochenko,” looked like a cheerful Mennonite, with his carefully sculpted beard and ready smile. There was none of the menace of the previous generation of FARC leaders as he inaugurated the 10th Conference. He successfully projected the image of a peacemaker.

SEE MORE: 50 Years of the FARC

The FARC conferences are the ultimate expression of FARC planning and decision-making. What is set out in a conference becomes FARC doctrine. One of the most famous conferences was the 7th, also held not far from here on Colombia’s eastern plains in 1982, when the rebels set out their strategic plan to multiply their fronts and build up their military machine. It was then that they added the “EP” — “Ejército del Pueblo” (People’s Army) — to their title.

One of the principal aims of this 10th Conference is for the rebels to vote on the peace agreement negotiated in Havana. If approved, as it is certain to be, Timochenko said “it obligates all guerrillas to obey.”

The lack of weapons and military display is perfectly in keeping with the peace agreement and the presentation of the FARC as a political rather than a military force. It is the right message to send to the Colombian public, that the days of violence and killing are over.

YouTube video

Inaugural speech of FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri, alias “Timochenko.”

The same message will be received by the criminal actors now eyeing more than a billion dollars of criminal economies in areas currently under FARC control. It will also be welcome to them, although for different reasons. If journalists now have little fear of the FARC without guns and military discipline, then organized crime will have none. A FARC without weapons is likely to fall prey to other criminal groups looking to take over the criminal economies the rebels have dominated for decades, not least the trade in coca base, the sticky paste that is later crystallized in hidden laboratories into cocaine. The FARC have long held a near monopoly on the production of coca base in the country, effectively controlling up to 70 percent of Colombia’s cocaine supply.

I spoke with a member of the 1st Front, where a significant portion of the unit has refused to recognize the peace deal and remains in the field. He spoke of how he and a handful of loyalists had to flee a 1st Front camp in Guaviare and walk for four days to find another loyal FARC unit. This is the first openly dissident element of the FARC, but is unlikely to be the last.

SEE MORE: FARC Peace and Possible Criminalization

The FARC are hoping to keep hold of their fighters and use them to form a political force. Yet many of the middle and lower ranking commanders have little to gain from the peace agreement and a great deal to lose. Most have little education, come from poor and remote communities where illegal economies predominate: coca, gold and extortion. They are used to handling a lot of money and getting the pick of the local girls. Without guns, many have already admitted, they feel naked. They may be unwilling to let go of the criminal economies that have sustained them to date, let alone see them taken over by other illegal actors.

There are now hundreds of millions of dollars in earnings up for grabs. And those with guns will be the ones to take them over. The Colombian military has guns and decades of experience fighting the FARC, yet it will not be able to fill the vacuum left by the retreating guerrillas. The tasks of fighting the FARC’s criminal successors should really fall to the National Police, but rural security is currently in the hands of the army, which is looking for a post-conflict role. 

The cocaine trade is about to lose a key and disciplined player. The rebels’ replacement is likely to be a great deal less disciplined and perhaps more dangerous for the communities who have lived under FARC rule for so many years. All change on Colombia’s criminal landscape.

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Jeremy McDermott is co-founder and co-director of InSight Crime. McDermott has more than two decades of experience reporting from around Latin America. He is a former British Army officer, who saw active...