Evolving relationships with criminal and paramilitary actors in several areas of Colombia could complicate efforts to establish concentration zones intended to facilitate the demobilization of the country's largest guerrilla group as a historic peace process continues to unfold.
According to a recent report from investigative journalism outlet La Silla Vacía, factions of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC) have begun to develop complicated relationships with criminal groups known as "bandas criminales," or BACRIM, in several areas key to the peace process.
One such area is the municipality of Tierralta in the department of Córdoba. Like other areas mentioned in La Silla Vacía's report, Tierralta is the site of a proposed concentration zone where FARC members will be expected to begin the process of disarming and preparing to transition to civilian life in the event of a final peace agreement between the government and the guerrilla group.
La Silla Vacía reported that knowledgable sources indicated the FARC is "the owner" of the rural zones of Tierralta, while the BACRIM control the urban centers. According to the news outlet, the FARC receives coca grown by local farmers and sells it to representatives of the BACRIM, who control regional cocaine distribution routes.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of the BACRIM
In another proposed concentration zone -- the western municipality of Tumaco, located in the department of Nariño near the border with Ecuador -- the situation appears to be more complicated. Sources consulted by La Silla Vacía said local business owners reported they had been visited by BACRIM representatives who informed them the FARC had voluntarily ceded control of certain territories to BACRIM actors.
However, other reports suggest that recent turf disputes between the BACRIM and the FARC resulted in violent clashes in Nariño that led to the displacement of hundreds of people earlier this year. Moreover, La Silla Vacía writes that a series of apparent assassinations in recent months points to the possibility of a local power struggle between the two groups.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of the FARC
La Silla Vacía also writes that BACRIM members move "like fish through water" in the municipality of Tibú, which lies in the northeast part of the country near the border with Venezuela and is the site of another proposed FARC concentration zone. The department of Norte de Santander, where Tibú is located, has become the principal coca growing region in the world's number one coca cultivating country.
The news outlet suggests that the presence of BACRIM in areas like Tibú, which were formerly under firm FARC control, indicates that the BACRIM may be moving to take control of illegal activities that the FARC will be expected to abandon in the event of a peace deal.
InSight Crime Analysis
The report from La Silla Vacía echoes the findings of field research carried out by InSight Crime in recent months: BACRIM groups are seeking to take over criminal economies that the FARC will presumably leave behind if and when the guerrilla group and the government reach a final peace accord. Such a development could complicate the establishment of the concentration zones, which many analysts expect to play a key role in the process of demobilizing and reintegrating guerrilla fighters into civilian life.
Under the proposed framework for the zones, a one-kilometer buffer area will separate the FARC, which will assume responsibility for internal security within the zones, from the Colombian military, which will be tasked with guarding the zones' perimeters. The presence of actors like the BACRIM, which are not bound by the provisions of the peace agreement, could cause frictions between the FARC and the government that may disrupt the demobilization and reintegration process.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of FARC peace
At the same time, it remains unclear how the establishment of concentration zones will affect the operations of the BACRIM. As InSight Crime has previously pointed out, "the possibility of the FARC leaving the field provides new opportunities for the BACRIM to expand their operations, but it also puts them in greater danger," since security resources currently dedicated to combatting the FARC could be reallocated to target the BACRIM instead.