The Marxist rebel army of the FARC is gone, disbanded and reborn as a political party. But the ex-FARC mafia is just coming into being. And it is poised to become the dominant force in the next era of Colombian organized crime.
In November 2016, a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) was signed, bringing to a close over half a century of insurgency. By March 2017, the rebels were gathered in 26 specially designated demobilization and reintegration zones across the country. In August, the official disarmament of the rebel army was completed, with almost 9,000 arms handed over, and in September, the new political party, the Revolutionary Alternative Common Force (Fuerza Alternativa Revolucionaria del Común – FARC) was formed.
A census conducted in mid-2017 showed over 10,000 former FARC members had participated in this process, 55 percent of which were guerrilla fighters, 29 percent members of the FARC’s militia networks and 16 percent released prisoners. However, thousands more either rejected the peace process or simply did not participate, and it is from this pool of battle-hardened underworld operators that the ex-FARC mafia is forming.
By InSight Crime’s estimations, the ex-FARC mafia currently comprises of at least 2,500 former FARC members, who have established a presence in over half the country’s departments. These new groups have taken several different forms, some closer to their guerrilla predecessors than others. But all of them have already made themselves key actors in the Colombian cocaine trade.
With their military experience, knowledge of the drug trade and deeply entrenched roots in rural communities, the ex-FARC mafia have the potential to become the most powerful territorial actors in the Colombian underworld for a generation.
The FARC Dissidents
Even before guerrilla leaders signed the peace agreement with the Colombian government, the FARC’s 1st Front pronounced itself dissident. Since then, this rebel unit has acted as a lightning rod for guerrilla elements in the Eastern Plains region who were never interested in peace, entered the process and became disillusioned, or simply wanted to return to what they knew.
The FARC dissidents now encompass elements of 10 different fronts calling themselves the “Eastern Bloc” (Bloque Oriental) after the FARC’s most powerful fighting division, now has at least 600 fighters and an equal number of militia or collaborators. In contrast to the clear hierarchies of the FARC, the dissidents operate more as a federation, with the various dissident commanders coordinating in the interests of business rather than working as one coherent insurgent force. These groups have expanded to control critical drug trafficking arteries into Venezuela and Brazil, and now combine to form a network that offers a complete cocaine service from production to trafficking across Colombia’s borders. They maintain a tight hold over key strategic territories and a significant military capacity.
The demobilization of the FARC has also spawned a new generation of criminal groups comprised of ex-FARC members that did not declare themselves dissidents but simply walked away from the peace process and stayed in the underworld. These criminalized ex-FARC elements have formed new groups that are taking over the criminal economies formerly run by rebel networks.
The FARCRIM vary in size from small cells of a handful of former fighters to powerful structures with hundreds of members. Among the members of the FARCIM are not only former guerrilla fighters and militia members but also youth gangs and common criminals that the FARC had used as sub-contracted criminal labor but cut adrift during the peace process, and even former paramilitaries now working with their old enemies.
Unlike the dissidents, these groups have made no attempt to establish even a facade of continuing the FARC’s political struggle or social role. Instead, they have focused on laying claim to as much of the cocaine supply chain as possible. They have predominantly emerged and expanded in areas of high concentrations of coca crops and along internal trafficking corridors and international dispatch points, and their presence has been most evident in the southwest of the country.
The FARCRIM have rapidly become one of the main drivers of violence in some of Colombia’s fiercest new criminal conflicts, especially the fighting that has torn through Nariño. They have violently clashed with underworld rivals such as the ELN and the Urabeños. And in stark contrast to the network of cooperating dissident groups, they have also fought each other over drug trafficking interests.
The ‘Hidden’ FARC
After the foundation of the FARC’s Bolivarian Movement in 2000, the rebels’ guerrilla fighters were supported by militias that provided logistics and intelligence support, ran finance networks and illegal economies, penetrated organs of the state and carried out political work, and acted as a reserve force that lived at home with their families but carried out armed attacks.
Both military and rebel sources have always insisted that for every uniformed rebel there were at least three militiamen, which means that if around 5,500 guerrilla fighters demobilized then there should have been at least 15,000 militia members, and many more if estimates include the guerrillas that did not demobilize. But just under 3,000 militia took part in the process. The rest remain where they have always been — hidden among the civilian population in FARC areas of influence, and in many cases, running the same criminal economies they have long run. These elements comprise the Hidden FARC.
The presence of the Hidden FARC is most evident in areas where the FARC held undisputed sway and now there there are no open dissident or FARCRIM elements present but there has been little change to the drug trade, like Caquetá and Putumayo. The fact that this trade continues uninterrupted suggests it is because the same people are running it: former FARC elements.