Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and former President Álvaro Uribe

Colombia's surprise rejection of a peace agreement between the government and the hemisphere's longest-running insurgency could push rebel factions to abandon the tenuous peace process and return to criminal activities.

Most observers expected the October 2 plebiscite to be an easy last hurdle for a long-negotiated peace accord between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC). But a number of factors -- including low turnout, bad weather and the deep scars left by more than a half century of conflict -- led to a razor-thin victory for the "No" campaign.

This has put the four-year-old peace process in limbo, increasing the chances that FARC members will peel away from the planned disarmament and demobilization with each passing day.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC commander Rodrigo Londoño Echeverry, alias "Timochenko," were quick to reassure the country that a bilateral ceasefire announced in August will remain in place.

On October 4 -- a day after Timochenko stated that "guerrilla fronts across the country will remain in a bilateral and definitive ceasefire" -- Santos confirmed that the armistice would be extended until October 31. Although Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas has said that the ceasefire will be extended as many times as necessary, the president's declaration was seen by some as putting a time limit on crucial discussions between his administration and the leaders of the "No" campaign.

President Santos formed a delegation on October 3 to engage in a dialogue with the opponents of the peace deal, headed mainly by the Democratic Center (Centro Democrático) party. The purpose of the talks is to seek to ameliorate the concerns of those who voted against the peace agreement, and to consider their recommendations for how to achieve an accord that is acceptable to a broader swath of the Colombian public.

Former President Álvaro Uribe and other leading figures of the "No" campaign have so far made a few key demands:

  • That FARC rebels immediately stop all crimes, and that they receive adequate protection.
  • That rebels not involved in serious crimes be granted amnesty.
  • That members of the armed forces accused of crimes be offered "judicial relief" in a separate jurisdiction from the FARC.
  • That FARC members accused of crimes against humanity be barred from future political participation.

Government negotiators are currently talking to FARC representatives to gauge the possibility of opening up certain points of the accord for renegotiation based on the demands of the "No" campaign.

However, setting a time limit on the ceasefire while these talks continue could be a double edged sword. On one hand, it could pressure the "No" supporters to put forth modifications or alternatives to the deal more quickly. On the other hand, the possibility that the ceasefire may not be renewed could increase skepticism and hostility toward the process within the ranks of the FARC, who are already in a vulnerable position without the legal protection offered by the rejected accord.

Timochenko appeared to voice concern about this possibility in a recent Twitter message: "'@JuanManSantos announces that the ceasefire with the @FARC_EPueblo continues until October 31.' After that will the war continue?"

FARC Secretariat member and peace negotiator Félix Antonio Muñoz, alias "Pastor Alape," also responded on Twitter by ordering all FARC units to move to "secure positions," although he did not give further details about what this means. He added that the move would avoid "provocations" by those opposing the peace deal.

On October 5, rebel units began moving from the site of their last conference in south Colombia back to their places of origin by road and plane, under the protection of the armed forces, local media reported.

The international community has responded to the unpredictable scenario by reiterating support for a peaceful, negotiated solution to the conflict. The United States and the United Nations have expressed their continuing support for a peace agreement, while the European Union has kept the FARC suspended from its list of terrorist organizations.

The way forward now hinges on how the talks between the various negotiating parties unfold.

While the Clock Is Ticking…

The longer Colombia takes to salvage the peace process with the FARC, the greater the odds that guerrilla members will return to, or continue, criminal activities. InSight Crime understands that Congressional President Mauricio Lizcano has estimated that forming a new commission to negotiate with Colombia's opposition will take at least a month.

The FARC will need to fund themselves during this indefinite period, and will presumably do so as they always have done -- through extortion, drug trafficking and other criminal activities. This may already be happening; InSight Crime has found that many FARC units across the country have ignored Timochenko's mid-2016 order to stop extortion.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of the FARC Peace Process

The uncertainty surrounding the outcome of the various ongoing negotiations may push FARC factions to break away from the peace process altogether. Although the guerrilla group voted unanimously to approve the peace deal at the rebels' most recent conference, they have since lost -- at least for now -- the judicial and political guarantees that the agreement offered them.

Even before voters rejected the peace accord, there were indications that elements of the FARC were beginning to split away from the organization to form new criminal groups. The outspoken dissidence of the FARC's First Front and the unit's subsequent expulsion from the organization was one of the clearest warning signs that the guerrilla group was not fully united behind the peace deal.

The unpredictable future of the peace process could encourage FARC units to abandon the idea of an eventual demobilization and to instead choose to pursue the potential riches offered by the drug trade and other illegal activities.

Territorial Control

Another issue of concern is where FARC fighters will go next. Prior to the October 2 "No" vote, some FARC units had already begun moving to the concentration zones where they were set to disarm. But this process now appears to have come to a standstill.

With some FARC units apparently returning to their traditional areas of influence, this could both accelerate a return to criminal activity and bring the guerrillas into confrontation with other armed actors that had already been moving into their territories.

One example of this dynamic has been observed in the municipality of El Bagre in the department of Antioquia, a zone rich in gold deposits and coca crops that is heavily disputed between armed groups.

According to a prosecutor from the Medellín branch of the Attorney General's Office consulted by InSight Crime, the FARC recently handed the area over to the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN) guerrilla group in an apparent "exchange." In return, the ELN apparently gave the FARC permission to establish one of their concentration zones in Carrizal, also in Antioquia.

Additionally, both guerrillas have been battling in El Bagre against the Urabeños, the most powerful drug trafficking organization in the country. A FARC return to this territory could generate even more violence.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of the FARC

A worrying scenario could also unfold in the port city of Tumaco in Nariño department, an area already gripped by violence between various criminal groups. In preparation for their planned demobilization, the local FARC faction had apparently given militia members permission to detach from the larger structure and continue managing illegal activities, rather than join the the peace process.

According to some reports, these militia members have since allied with the Urabeños, who have been increasing their presence in Nariño. Should the FARC try to return to business as usual in Tumaco, this could be met by fierce resistance by the area's newly dominant criminal powers.

At the same time, it is possible that certain FARC factions choose not to return to their old strongholds. Even some opponents of the rejected peace deal have called to activate the planned concentration zones, stating this would ensure the guerrillas' safety and prevent violence that could further disrupt the peace process. However, such a development could come with the risk that areas formerly under FARC control would experience a power vacuum that could be filled by the Urabeños, the ELN, or other armed actors, rather than government forces.

Under the terms of the rejected peace deal, the state would have begun trying to establish a presence in these largely rural areas -- many of which have seen little to no government activity for decades -- by improving infrastructure and access to social services. In addition, the designated concentration zones would have immediately seen a boost in the presence of government security forces. But without the presence of either the FARC or the state, some of Colombia's most ungoverned areas may be left more even more vulnerable than before.

Prison and Extradition

While much of the current debate around the future of the peace process has revolved around the standoff between the Santos administration and the "No" campaign, the demands of the FARC leadership are as important as ever. Public opposition to the peace deal has largely centered on the part of the agreement that would have allowed most FARC members to avoid prison sentences and extradition for their crimes. But the FARC have made it clear that this is a non-negotiable condition for their agreement to any peace accord. If the "No" campaign insists on seeking prison time or extradition for the rebels -- and particularly if the government agrees to such a demand --  it could spur guerrilla fighters and their leaders to abandon the peace process.

Democratic Center delegate Óscar Iván Zuluaga recently suggested to InSight Crime that extradition may be back on the table, as negotiators from the "No" campaign" would be pushing for drug trafficking to not be considered a pardonable crime. The removal of drug trafficking from the amnesty list proposed by the government and the FARC would leave guerrillas far more exposed to extradition; at least 50 FARC leaders are apparently wanted in the US for such crimes.

For now, however, it appears unlikely that the United States will push for the extradition of FARC members. In 2015, US Ambassador to Colombia Kevin Whitaker stated that his country would respect Colombia's decision to refuse extradition requests as a "contribution to the peace process." A spokesperson from the US Embassy in Bogotá confirmed this stance to InSight Crime on October 5, adding that the United States would nonetheless "keep asking" for the extradition of those suspected of violating US laws.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Extradition

Even more problematic could be the issue of jail time. Zuluaga told InSight Crime that the "No" campaign has been requesting 6-year prison sentences for guerrillas accused of crimes against humanity. Also among its proposals are "farming colonies" as alternative confinement areas. For now though, Colombia's attorney general has confirmed that arrest warrants against FARC rebels remain suspended.

What happens next depends largely on how the opposition's ongoing discussions with the government play out, and on how the FARC choose to react.

Investigations

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