Colombia

Latin America and Caribbean Report N°63 - Colombia’s Armed Groups Battle for the Spoils of Peace

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Executive Summary

The peace process with Colombia’s largest and longest standing guerrilla group has defied its detractors and brought 11,200 ex-combatants to the cusp of civilian life, but the aftermath of war has not been safe for all. Since the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) withdrew from their rural heartlands to gather in cantonments in early 2017, rival armed actors have taken their place, waging a battle for spoils: control of isolated communities and territories, many rich in illicit business. In the Pacific cocaine hub of Tumaco, in hamlets of Chocó, or in contraband zones on the Venezuelan border, established armed groups and new insurgent breakaway factions have attacked state forces, intimidated communities and vied to become undisputed local overlords. Grassroots security is crucial to assure the success of the peace process with the FARC as it shifts from a UN-monitored weapons handover to deeper structural reforms of politics and society. Efforts to combat remaining armed outfits are essential, but in so doing the government must not alienate the population and exacerbate poverty in ways that would aggravate the conditions that propel these groups’ growth.

Most of these armed factions now cluster in coastal and border areas. Around 1,000 FARC dissidents, who disown the peace deal for various reasons, are de facto rulers of disparate territories, several of them dependent on the drug trade. Colombia’s second main guerrilla force, the National Liberation Army (ELN), has brokered a temporary ceasefire with the government despite looking to conquer new territories, especially along the Pacific coast. The Gaitanista Self-defence Force, currently the largest neo-paramilitary group in the country, combines a vertical military hierarchy centred in the country’s north west with a web of subcontracted local gangs. It is now the country’s leading drug trafficking organisation.

Thriving illicit businesses – booming coca plantations, illegal gold mines, extortion rackets and contraband – account for the survival and expansion of many of these groups. But economic interests alone do not explain their support within some communities. By resolving disputes and defending illicit livelihoods from law enforcement, these groups have crafted a rudimentary, authoritarian form of local political leadership. The Colombian state has responded through a nationwide “Victory Plan”, deploying 80,000 soldiers and police officers to occupy vacated FARC territory. Yet even if security forces could seize all disputed territory, coercion alone cannot establish bonds of trust between the state and local citizens; instead, they need to be persuaded that there is a better alternative to the summary justice and social discipline meted out by illegal groups.

The next phase of reforms under the peace accord aims precisely at building such trust between state and citizenry. It includes a more plural democratic system, reintegration of ex-FARC fighters, justice for conflict victims and a coca substitution program. But its implementation faces myriad difficulties. Comprehensive reintegration plans are on hold. Voluntary coca substitution, one of the accord’s flagship programs, will require a long-term commitment from the state and far more international political and financial backing. Corruption debilitates the government’s campaign against armed groups, and must be countered by stronger and more independent agencies operating within and outside the military and police. Urgent consideration also should be given to the design of new judicial approaches that might encourage other armed groups to lay down their weapons and follow the FARC’s path to peace.

The initial accord’s defeat in a 2016 plebiscite demonstrated the public’s mistrust of the peace process, raising the risk that the 2018 elections could bring a government to power that is intent on rewriting or gutting the agreement. Implementation of the accord is threatened both by an opposition that believes it pandered to FARC guerrillas, and by armed factions that regard the deal either as a fraud or an opportunity to expand. The combination of local armed activity and divisive national politics could decisively weaken public support for the accord unless the results of the peace process defy expectations once again. For that to happen, the government must aim its sights at both local insecurity and the broader weaknesses of local governance that underpin it.