From March 8 to 10, I had the opportunity to participate in a professional exchange of over 400 military officers and other defense sector professionals in Bogota, Colombia to discuss security issues of importance to the region. Not surprisingly, the Colombian government’s ongoing peace negotiations with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarios de Colombia (FARC) was a central topic of discussion.
During the week that the event took place, both the government and the FARC acknowledged that they would not be able to come to a final agreement by March 23, as previously announced. Yet aside from the missed deadline, which went almost unmentioned during the exchange, it was remarkable how few of my Colombian counterparts expected that the eventual agreement would bring about an immediate or enduring peace. Indeed, many expected that, in the short term, it would produce an escalation in violence and criminality in the country. Reflecting such concerns, many of the presenters at the event refrained from using the word “peace,” or even the softer term “post-conflict,” but rather, referred to what was to come as the “post-agreement” environment.
The Colombian officials and scholars with whom I spoke clearly hope for an end to the 50-year long conflict that has cost an estimated 260,000 lives and has generated so much suffering in the country. Indeed, despite the more cynical beliefs of some, the vast majority of the Colombian security forces are honorable professionals working earnestly toward a nation free from the dual scourge of terrorist and criminal violence. Yet in the short term, the bleak post-conflict environment that many of them expect is very different from the way many perceive Colombia’s “peace process” outside of Colombia.
The FARC currently has an estimated 8,000 combatants in Colombia, and approximately 20,000 affiliated with the guerrilla group or who provide support to it. The organization also has substantial quantities of cached arms, as well as funds accumulated in clandestine bank accounts throughout the world—a product of decades of illicit activities. Most Colombian security professionals with whom I spoke do not expect all FARC personnel to fully demobilize after the peace accords, nor to relinquish all of their weapons or clandestine finances.
Although officially the FARC negotiators in Havana, Cuba represent the entire organization, in reality various factions, such as the Bloque Catatumbo, and the Bloque Occidental, led by Ivan Rios, are maintaining a cautious distance from the process. Many Colombian security professionals expect that following an agreement, some FARC fighters will join the ranks of Colombia’s second-largest ideologically-organized terrorist group, the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN), while others will become mercenaries or criminals for hire, as happened previously following the 2006 agreement demobilizing the right-wing paramilitary fighters of Autodefensas Unidos de Colombia (AUC).
Many Colombians, including former President Alvaro Uribe, argue that some elements of the FARC are already passing into the ranks of the ELN.
Colombian security experts pointed to recent increases in ELN strength and activities, possibly driven by FARC defections and support, in at least nine of Colombia’s 32 departments, including Antioquia, Nariño, Santander, Amazonas, Cauca, Tolima, Guaviare, Caquetá, and Putumayo. ELN activity in the last four is particularly striking; before there had been little previous evidence of the group’s presence in those departments.
The passing of FARC combatants to the ranks of the ELN may reflect disagreement among rank-and-file FARC members with the negotiations being conducted in their name in Havana, particularly in areas such as Catatumbo, where the FARC and ELN have worked closely for decades. At the same time, aligning with, and injecting fighters and resources into, the ELN may be part of an insurance strategy of some FARC elements. Recalling the fate of the Unión Patriotica political party, formed by the FARC and the Colombian Communist Party in 1985, only to have hundreds or thousands of its members assassinated, FARC members may be taking refuge in ELN ranks, much as they are hiding reserves of weapons and materials for the post-agreement environment.
Whatever the logic, only a portion of FARC elements are expected to join the ELN, owing to the separate histories, organizations and ideological orientations of the two groups. Nor is the Colombian government blind to the risk, although its strategy to counter the morphing of elements of the FARC into the ELN is unclear.
As a mitigating factor, even with the expanded material support and personnel from the FARC, the power of the ELN will probably not reach that of the FARC currently—let alone at its peak. Moreover, the reduction of Colombia’s civil war to one group will mean that it receives more focus from the government and the security forces as the one remaining ideologically-oriented, criminal-terrorist group in Colombia. Indeed, many of those to whom I spoke in Colombia believe that the ELN will eventually seek their own peace negotiations with the Colombian government.
But, even under those conditions, an ELN rejuvenated by FARC defectors will likely increase the types of criminal activities in which the ELN has historically focused: kidnapping and extortion, as well as the growing of coca and other narcotrafficking activities.
According to a some of the other people I spoke to is the risk is that a substantial number of FARC fighters will hire themselves out to Colombia’s criminal bands (collectively called the BACRIM) after, or instead of, participating in demobilization. In some areas, former FARC fighters may cooperate with, and in other areas compete against, the dominant BACRIM groups such as the Úsuga clan, the Rastrojos, or the remnants of ERPAC, even as strengthened elements of the ELN move to fill the void left by the formal withdrawal of the FARC from the region. Collectively, such maneuverings are likely to expand violence between the competing groups, even as a war-weary Colombian people cautiously celebrate the government’s announcement of “peace.”
Beyond such new criminal dynamics, the security experts I spoke to also believe that the demobilization of the FARC will likely be accompanied by the proliferation of new politically motivated but violent groups. Such groups, they believe, will employ a combination of intimidation, criminality and social agitation to support new political leaders carrying forward the FARC agenda, including an attempt to assert control over territory and populations through different tactics.
Further complicating matters, it is not yet clear how the accord eventually to be signed between the Colombian government and the FARC will be legitimized, whether through a national referendum (as President Manuel Santos has insisted), or by a constituent assembly in which the FARC is represented. If the question is not clearly resolved to the satisfaction of both sides, the fragile societal support for the agreement may break down as the agreement stalls and, in the interim, criminality, violence and suffering increase.
The Colombian state will face multiple constraints in facing these challenges. On one hand, Colombian government resources will be limited by the likely persistent weakness of the Colombian peso against the dollar, as well as low prices for petroleum, which is an important source of export revenue for the Colombian government.
U.S. President Barak Obama has asked Congress for $450 million in funding to support the Colombian peace process, an increase of approximately 50 percent from U.S. funding to Colombia in previous years. Yet it is not clear that, in the midst of a contentious U.S. presidential election cycle, funding for an agreement will be forthcoming, especially when that agreement doesn’t produced the hoped for “peace.”
Adding to the complications, the Colombian government will also likely be under pressure to reduce the size of the military, and its presence throughout the country, in order to realize the expected “peace dividend.” Added to this will be the expectation (supported by some sectors and likely stoked by FARC politicians) of demobilization of state security forces as a byproduct of peace.
This pessimistic scenario expected, in some form, by many Colombians, does not suggest that the government should abandon the peace process. Rather, it must work for an agreement that minimizes such risks, while maintaining a flexible post-agreement strategy which anticipates and addresses them.
Given that such risks are well understood, although not openly expressed in Colombia, the greatest change in expectations must occur with respect to Colombia’s international partners, particularly with the U.S. and Europe. All must be prepared for the increase in violence and criminality that is likely to occur in the coming years, and continue to stand by Colombia in its fight, with realistic expectations of the challenges it faces. Overselling the peace agreement and not anticipating the possible violence and chaos that may only follow will only lead to mischaracterizing the considerable progress Colombia has made as a policy failure and abandoning it.
Colombia’s neighbors have their own problems with transnational organized crime, gangs, and terrorism. The progress made by Colombia during the past 15 years has many lessons that its neighbors can selectively draw upon as appropriate to their own experience, just as Colombia’s fate will weigh heavily on the region.
The author is Professor of Latin American Studies at the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute. The views expressed in this article are strictly his own.