Rebels without a cause: the FARC’s demise & Colombia’s slow-moving peace process

In the Cuban capital, Havana, we are witnessing the death throes of a conflict that has spanned over half a century.

It is symbolically appropriate that the Castro regime, a government that so often nourished and supported the Marxist insurrection in Colombia, play host to these talks. Violence associated with fighting between militant groups like the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC – the largest insurgent group within the country) and the Colombian Government has claimed the lives of around 220,000 people (80% of which are estimated to be civilian casualties), a figure comparable to those killed in the Syrian Civil War.

The FARC’s interest in peace reflects their political, economic and military collapse of recent years. Membership of the group has fallen precipitously over the course of the last decade; numbering around 7,000 in 2014 vs an estimated 17,000 in 2003. This reflects a constellation of factors: an effective military campaign spearheaded by the Colombian army with generous U.S. funding; violent confrontation with competing paramilitary organizations; the political and economic woes of the FARC’s biggest international backer Venezuela (although Hugo Chavez had a complex relationship with the group).

The spasmodic peace process has been 30 years in the making, but despite a setback earlier in the year, it seems a deal has never been closer.

One step forward two steps back

President Manuel Santos’ Government and the rebels had set a (perhaps ambitious) deadline of the 23rd March this year for a peace accord. And as many commentators predicted, the deadline came and went. However, in positive news, the following week saw the country’s second largest revolutionary group, the National Liberation Army (ELN) agree to enter into the multilateral negotiations in Havana to end fighting.

This is a welcome development. The reality of Colombia’s situation is not a Manichean opposition between FARC and Government forces. Frankly, a solely bilateral accord between the FARC and the military would have a limited impact. The country is divided into spheres of regional influence where drug lords, the FARC, the ELN and parmilitary groups compete for position. What is more, the line between ideologue fighting for socialist values and petty criminal is fairly gray. Both the FARC and the ELN have used kidnapping, illegal mining and most notoriously the drug trade to fund their activities. Despite pledges to cease kidnapping operations, the FARC have continued to abduct and ransom, likely underlining the autonomy afforded to regional chiefs and chaotic leadership structure within the group.

Even if the rebels formally agree to peace, it seems unlikely that those heavily invested in crime will turn to the straight and narrow. Moreover, a post-FARC Colombia would leave a power vacuum in its wake, which some analysts believe will result in an escalation of violence, as local barons and paramilitaries fight for influence.

So why did the talks fall through?

It seems it was the nature of the demobilization process that proved a sticking point. The primary issue surrounds the “Concentration Zones” (“Zonas de Concentración”) where guerrilla forces will demobilize. The combatants are expected to register and surrender their weapons (but to whom is another contentious issue – relinquishing arms to the government would be seen as a defeat). There seems to be no consensus surrounding the number of these zones, their geographic positioning or for how long they will exist. Nor is there agreement as to who will police or enforce the demilitarization and guarantee the security of the ex-combatants.

The number and extent of the Concentration Zones is significant, the FARC are reported to be demanding 60 zones spread across the country, the government have countered with suggesting as few as 10. This has obvious implications on allocation of resources for the military, and the FARC’s potential post-insurgency footprint. The revolutionary group has one eye on its future political mobilization, and wants to be able to reach communities over which it has traditionally held sway. Conversely, the government wants to limit the group’s influence, and therefore is pushing for the zones to be kept away from population centers.

This would mean demobilizing on largely rural land, which is likely to encroach on indigenous and Afro-Caribbean territory. Reports have illustrated that the indigenous and Afro-Caribbean groups have been amongst the most impacted by violence and destruction associated with fighting in the country. What is more, despite pleas from community leaders, the government has ignored a request to form an ethnic commission as a part of the Cuba delegation. The areas inhabited by these communities may also be the amongst worst affected in the wake of a peace accord, and the government’s high-handed denial of political participation to groups like CONPA (the Afro-Colombian Peace Council) and ONIC (the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia) is reprehensible.

History repeating itself

The question of the security and protection of the demilitarized FARC fighters is crucial. While a U.N. mission has been mandated to monitor the peace process (lead by the Veteran diplomat Jean Arnault), the organization will not provide a Peace Keeping mission. As such, the force of around 350 unarmed military personnel will be on the ground only to supervise the laying down of arms. The Colombian military will be responsible for safeguarding the revolutionaries, and this has FARC fighters worried.

For the more seasoned veterans amongst the revolutionaries’ ranks, this process will seem chillingly familiar. In 1984 the Colombian government and the FARC agreed to the Uribe Accords, a ceasefire that lasted from 1984-1987, and which set out to integrate the rebels into the Colombian political mainstream. This lead to the formation of the Patriotic Union (U.P. – a coalition of the Communist Party and the FARC), that ran for elections in 1986 with great success. Members of the U.P. and its politicians rapidly became the targets of violence on the part of the military, drug cartels and rival factions, and between 1988-1992 an estimated 4,000-6,000 U.P. members were murdered.

In 2002, the architect of the 1980’s ceasefire Álvaro Uribe won the presidency and aggressively pursued the insurgents. In the same year, the U.P. was outlawed as a political party. Clearly, the authorities and the U.N. will have to persuade the revolutionaries that they take their security concerns seriously if a deal is to be made.

Jobs for the boys

But it won’t just be groups like the FARC that will have to adjust to a new post-conflict norm. Guerrilla activity and violence has been the raison d’être for Colombia’s armed services. Indeed, the prospects of less generous funding and reduced remit and influence have likely been behind the military’s stance regarding the peace process in the past. President Obama’s foreign aid package, put before congress in February, attests to such a transition; now 50-55% of aid is destined for exclusively civilian institutions. The Whitehouse seems to think the fighting, at least, is approaching an endgame.

While some in the military might be concerned about funding cuts others will fear the judicial implications of a peace treaty. Members of the armed forces are to be held to the same ethical standards as guerrillas and will have to answer in like terms for their crimes. It is likely that the immediate aftermath of any peace negotiation will involve a deluge of ugly revelations as military personnel seek to commute their sentences in exchange for a confession of their crimes. Likely budgetary cuts combined with a FARC shaped hole in Colombia’s regional power structure may prove fertile ground for opportunistic paramilitary factions looking to gain influence.

It would be dangerous to assume that a peace treaty would mean an end to violence. An accord offers a platform for reintegration, but Colombia is a long way away from stability. The government must focus on a swift resolution that accommodates the legitimate concerns of the ex-combatants. Retraining and supporting a band of nomadic guerrilla fighters is no mean feat, it will be costly.

If Colombia is to develop economically the nation needs investment, and ratings agencies have already threatened a downgrade if uncertainty persists around the peace talks, making borrowing and direct investment more expensive. What is more, the authorities must confront the corruption endemic amongst its institutions. In a recent and promising development, more than 1,400 officers have been purged from Colombia’s police force in a crackdown on graft. Finally, the government must do more to incorporate indigenous and Afro-Colombian perspectives into any post-insurrection discourse. The peace process is not so much a reconciliation of two sides as it is a first step towards reconstructing a fragmented and divided nation.

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