A Wary Farewell to Arms for the FARC

When Colombians streamed to the polls four months ago to vote in a plebiscite to accept or reject a peace agreement with the country’s leading guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), opinion polls predicted a resounding victory for the accord. Many citizens and internationals expected that the world’s second longest continuous armed conflict and one of its oldest Marxist insurgencies would soon become an historical relic.

In Havana, the FARC leadership and its negotiating team sat with journalists to watch the votes come in. Once the result was announced – the accord was rejected by less than one-half of 1 per cent – the guerrilla group retired to a private meeting at which its leaders decided the loss was only a temporary setback. “The FARC-EP maintains its will to find peace”, declared FARC leader Timochenko that same day, “and reiterates its willingness to use words as the only weapon to build a [new] future”.

Rebel leaders reluctantly accepted that the defeated peace agreement, 300 pages of transitional programs and socio-political reforms, would have to be reworked. All the while, peace held firm on the ground, and roughly 7,000 FARC fighters began moving to 51 pre-grouping areas. Now that a new accord has been signed and approved by Congress, the fighters have moved on to haphazardly-prepared cantonment sites where they will eventually hand over their arms and transform into ex-combatants under UN supervision.

But this show of trust in the process has not yet removed all doubts over how far the FARC will go in search of peace and whether existing cracks within the group may open wider.

FARC fighters wait for a meeting to discuss who will be on guard that night in Cauca, Colombia. CRISIS GROUP/Kyle Johnson

Internal Fractures: Coca and Convictions

The uncertainty of the renegotiation, in which ardent opponents of the FARC rapidly became extremely powerful players, compounded strains on the guerrillas’ unity. Strong and lucrative connections to the illegal drug trade, mixed with lingering doubts about whether any agreement would satisfy the more radical parts of the insurgent group, had already started to expose cracks in FARC cohesion.

Two dissident factions had appeared earlier in 2016. The first arose in Tumaco, one of Colombia’s poorest municipalities, situated on the border with Ecuador with a mainly Afro-Colombian population. A hub for drug trafficking and production – it has the country’s highest concentration of coca crops, estimated at 17,000 hectares in 2015 – Tumaco has been the theatre of operations since 2001 for the FARC’s Daniel Aldana mobile column. Other armed groups have come and gone since then, but the Daniel Aldana, until recently, remained.

Like all FARC units, the Daniel Aldana front includes rural combatants and urban militia fighters. In its case, the militia – in part criminals hired for specific activities, in part direct FARC fighters – was somewhat disconnected from the larger FARC structure. A militia commander Yeison, known as “Don Y” created a dissident group in rural Tumaco. At the same time, two other militia commanders, alias “Camacho” and “Mocho” with 73 other militia members, according to the FARC, decided to cut all ties and set up shop on their own so as to take over the territory the guerrillas vacated. The FARC killed Yeison in November, as it has acknowledged, and ‘Camacho’ was found dead as well. According to reports, these two groups united, calling the new formation “People for Order”.

The most notorious FARC schism is in Guaviare, a low-lying region in eastern Colombia. In June 2016, the FARC’s 1st front publicly announced it was divided and that some of its number would no longer support peace talks. Its commander, with the nom de guerre Iván Mordisco, led a dissident band of 60 fighters, along with the front’s financial commander, alias Danilo.

The FARC put a member of its Central High Command, Gentil Duarte, in charge of the faction of the 1st front that stayed loyal to the peace process. Loyal fighters from its 7th and 44th fronts also moved into the region to track down Mordisco and either persuade him to support peace or kill him.

Around the same time, according to interviews in the region, Danilo and some of his dissident fighters changed their minds and returned to the FARC, but the schisms in Guaviare were not over. Another commander, alias Aldemar, who originally supported peace, joined the dissidents. In December, in an announcement that stunned many Colombians, the FARC declared that it had kicked out five commanders for breaking ranks, including the erstwhile loyalist enforcer, Gentil Duarte, who now said that he believed the insurgency had betrayed its original ideals by negotiating, and that the government would not fulfil its part of the agreement. Three of the banished commanders belonged or had ties to the 7th, 16th and 44th fronts as well.

The role of the drug trade in these decisions to continue the war is undeniable. The current breakaway group – no more than 250 fighters, according to FARC leaders – now operates in Vaupés and Guaviare provinces, and may also have crossed into Brazil, extracting protection payments from local elite and running the lucrative drug trade. The FARC have also argued that the 1st front is motivated only by money, as a way to discredit it internally.

Paying with Paste

To understand these fractures and what they may mean for peace and violence, it is essential to understand conditions in Guaviare, one of Colombia’s most remote and underdeveloped regions. It has one two-lane, clay-coloured, dirt road between its capital, San José del Guaviare, and another of its four municipalities, Calamar. Smaller dirt roads and paths, often impassable due to rain, connect other towns and villages and are best travelled on a dirt bike.

Road conditions can make short trips seem endless. The road from Calamar to the southernmost municipality of Miraflores – a twenty-street hamlet in the heart of the jungle with a dirt landing strip in its middle – does not even appear on maps. Though less than 100 km, the trip takes at best seven hours on a dirt bike; after light rain, twelve hours is standard; often the road is unusable. River travel is more common, but can take up to a day. An alternative is an old DC cargo plane that flies from San José to Miraflores twice a week. While it looks unsafe, a local pilot says its only accident was in the 1990s, when the cows it was transporting became scared on landing, causing it to turn on its side on the runway.

Many towns in Guaviare have only an alcatel – a single telephone. Often located in a shop, it is their single contact with the outside world. In these towns, the FARC demands that one person keep a register of who has called whom in the town or outside it, and who leaves messages if the person called is not around. In May 2016, for instance, when the alcatel was damaged the village of Barranquillita deep in Guaviare’s jungle, Crisis Group was unable to visit because it was impossible to make contact and gain permission to enter.

Open plains with cattle can occasionally be seen between these towns and villages; elsewhere only jungle and trees are visible. So strong is the coca economy in Guaviare that not only do some villages, hamlets and towns totally depend on it, but there is also so little currency that coca paste is sometimes used instead. One gram is about 2,000 pesos – 69 U.S. cents – so a beer, costing in some places 4,000 pesos, can be bought with two grams, for example.

The FARC dissident group in Guaviare plans to continue to run the coca trade there, describing itself in meetings with communities as a “necessary evil”. It also appears willing to use violence to protect that trade. It was likely responsible for the sniper killing in January of a police officer taking part in the manual eradication of coca crops.

A Return to War?

Since many of the areas under guerrilla control are similar to Guaviare in terms of remoteness, poverty and dependence on the coca trade, the main concern for the FARC and its fighters is the government’s ability and willingness to meet the obligations laid out in the peace agreement. This poses the questions: would and could the FARC go back to war if the government does not deliver?

A message from Timochenko to fighters in December suggested the insurgents would be willing to fight again if the validity of the peace agreement was contested or the fast-track mechanism to pass laws through Congress to implement it was not approved. Within the organisation, the answers tend to vary: some argue the FARC would have to return to armed action; others look to the long term and are more committed to peace.

“Historically in Colombia they have killed guerrilla leaders after signing peace … without carrying out the reforms”, one FARC leader told me. Yet, he said, he is still committed to peace, as his time horizon for FARC success in democratic politics is measured in decades, not months or years. Some version of that optimism seems to be true for the vast majority of the FARC. The guerrillas have sought the moral high ground by arriving at the cantonments sites even when these are barely ready to house and feed them. The government estimates that 95 per cent of rural fighters will hand over their weapons, and it may well be right.

Going back to war would be difficult. First, the FARC will soon have handed in the names of all its fighters enlisted for the reintegration process. For an organisation that needs to be clandestine, this marks a definitive break.

Secondly, it may not be able to remobilise all its fighters once they have become acquainted with peaceful civilian life. Figures such as the guerrilla DJ, who at the tenth FARC Conference in September 2016 played a mix of techno and ranchero songs with a Simpsons sticker on his laptop, may show where the future for many lies: with one foot in the guerrilla, and the other in an increasingly globalised, consumerist world which will be new and probably attractive for many fighters.

Thirdly, the political climate would probably be inauspicious, internationally and nationally, but also in the hamlets where the FARC has historically been active, where even an imperfect peace would likely be preferred to a new war.

Lastly, other armed groups are already occupying its old territories, and by the time of a hypothetical FARC rearmament they may well be unwilling to accommodate competitors. That dynamic led to a fierce conflict between the FARC and the National Liberation Army (ELN), Colombia’s second insurgency, in Cauca province between 2005 and 2009.

Security Alarms

The haphazard, under-prepared start to the arms handover has left some guerrillas fretting about the future, worried the government cannot deliver on the most basic parts of the peace agreement. Such concerns will likely grow. Following the guerrilla’s claim that at least two fighters have died because of health complications while in pre-concentration sites since October, the government has tried to extend health services to cantonments, but in one possible site, some twenty FARC had a malaria-like illness.

Insurgent uncertainty is exacerbated by the differences between government and FARC about the killing of social leaders. Between 90 and 117 local leaders active in favour of peace, land restitution or other community causes were reportedly murdered in 2016. While the FARC leadership is willing to move forward, mid-level commanders and low-level fighters argue that these attacks are the result of a resurgence of paramilitary forces opposed to the peace process.

The government insists there are no more paramilitaries and that most of the killings are isolated incidents. Nevertheless, they evoke the FARC’s core fear: concern for personal post-conflict security. At least 3,000 members of the Patriotic Union – a political party the FARC created in 1985 – were assassinated in the party’s early years, something the FARC has not forgotten. Security guarantees are a core part of the peace agreement, but in practice these will not be able to cover everyone who was part of the organisation. Many members could find themselves exposed after handing over their weapons. As one fighter asked, “since they are killing social leaders, what awaits us?”

As the FARC transitions from armed group to political party, it will face many challenges for which its leadership may not be ready. Many fighters will opt to leave the organisation and reintegrate independently. Its early political performance may be worse than it expects, especially in urban areas. It will likely also have less success than it desires in hamlets and areas it previously controlled. Some members may be killed; more may eventually return to violence of some kind, if they have not already. The FARC no longer wants war. But it is about to learn that even peace can be violent, and that there are downs as well as ups in electoral politics.

Kyle Johnson is Crisis Group’s Senior Analyst for Colombia since January 2016. He has over 10 years of experience studying the Colombian armed conflict and related issues, and has lived in Bogotá for more than 6 years. Kyle has extensive field experience in the country and has focused on conflict dynamics and peacebuilding at a local level.

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