Criminalization of FARC Elements Inevitable

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While there is no doubt that the FARC have only a tenuous control over some of their more remote fronts, there is no evidence of any overt dissident faction within the movement at the moment.

The two-month unilateral truce revealed that most of the units in the FARC are adhering to the orders of the Secretariat. The Eastern and Southern Blocs, where allegations of nonconformity have been strongest, were the two blocs which most respected the truce. Likewise, almost all guerrilla units have obeyed the Secretariat’s demands to halt the practice of kidnapping, despite the corresponding financial losses suffered by many fronts.

There is little risk of the FARC fragmenting, or criminalizing more than they already have, during peace talks. There is urgency on the part of the Secretariat for a bilateral ceasefire, so that they can put their house in order, speak to all the local commanders, impose discipline on the more autonomous fronts, and ensure that all the key positions are filled by trusted commanders.

The ongoing policy of the Colombian armed forces to kill “high-value targets” increases the risk of fragmentation/criminalization. As the older, more ideologically committed FARC commanders are killed, the likelihood increases that discipline will break down. The new generation of guerrillas, recruited after the ending of the safe haven in 2002, have had much less ideological formation, much less contact with the higher echelons of the movement, and much less training. This generation is now reaching a point where they could become replacements not only for column commanders, but even front commanders in certain areas.

If the FARC are not given a chance to resolve current issues, and lose yet more high profile and ideological leaders, then the risk of fragmentation and/or criminalization becomes higher in the second scenario, once a peace agreement is reached. The negotiators currently in Havana are not of sufficiently high, or military, profile to sell any deal to the rank-and-file on their own.

The risk of FARC elements criminalizing in scenario three, once an agreement has been signed and demobilization has occurred, is very high, even almost inevitable. The only way to minimize this is to aid the FARC in its transition from an irregular army to a political party. This must involve ensuring it has the ability to employ many of its fighters and supporting the movement during the immediate post-conflict period.

There is, perhaps, also a misconception about the pressure on the rebels to sign a peace agreement. There can be no doubt that their 1982 “Strategic Plan for the Taking of Power” is now impossible to achieve. The possibility of moving once again from a traditional guerrilla war to a war of movement is extremely remote, unless the FARC can gain enough anti-aircraft missiles to neutralize the state’s greatest advantage: its air power. There have been indications that the FARC have bought some missiles,1 but not enough to alter the strategic balance.

However, an outright military defeat of the FARC, as in the case of the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, is also unlikely. While the Tamil Tigers were a far more innovative rebel group, their geographical room for manoeuvre (Sri Lanka is just over 65,000 km²) in the northern part of the island was severely restricted, as was their funding, and the organization relied on a single, charismatic leader (Thiruvenkadam Velupillai Prabhakaran). As has already been seen, the FARC command structure is extremely resilient, funding is still plentiful, and the FARC suffer from few geographical restrictions, with the department of Meta (over 85,000 km²) bigger than the entire island of Sri Lanka. FARC income is still far higher than its expenditure and this means that the rebels can continue to fund themselves almost indefinitely, unless the government somehow manages to do away with the drug trade.

Thanks to Alfonso Cano, and his “Plan Rebirth” and “Plan 2010,” the FARC have successfully adapted to the changing conditions of the civil conflict, and have managed to minimize some of the state’s greatest advantages. The present-day fighting in Colombia is increasingly similar to that of the Provisional IRA in Northern Ireland, with rebels operating in civilian clothing, hiding among the civilian population, using explosives and snipers, and performing ever less conventional attacks on security forces. There are even indications that the rebels have managed to increase their territorial presence since 2010, thanks principally to militiamen.

The war has changed from a traditional counterinsurgent one to a judicial one. The only way to dismantle the increasingly powerful militia networks is to build cases against individual members, arrest them and condemn them. While the police and military have experienced a quantum leap in their abilities since 1998, the judiciary has not kept pace, and now presents the Achilles Heel in the entire security policy of President Santos.

It is worth noting that the casualties inflicted on the security forces by the FARC during 2011 (2,089 wounded, 483 dead), were almost equivalent to those of 2002 (1,537 wounded, 699 dead).2 While the nature of rebel attacks has changed dramatically over the last decade, with far fewer large-scale ambushes or pitched battles with security forces, the ability of the FARC to inflict casualties, now predominantly through the use of explosives, mines and snipers, remains high.

The great increase in attacks on infrastructure, which have become the centerpiece of the current FARC offensive strategy, have an enormous economic cost for the country. Attacks on the oil, gas and energy sectors are hitting the soft underbelly of the Colombian economy. For the guerrillas, these attacks present a cheap and relatively safe method of inflicting damage on the state, and are in keeping with their rhetoric against the international exploitation of Colombian resources, as well as giving weight to their extortion demands on the sector.

The decrease in the FARC’s military capacity has been offset, somewhat, by an increase in its political activity. One of Alfonso Cano’s key messages when he took over as commander-in-chief was that the guerrillas had to return to their roots and engage the local communities in their areas of influence. Cano was able to sell this in military, as well as political, terms. If local fronts wanted to ensure high quality recruits who would not desert at the first sign of trouble, they would have to engage politically with the local communities. If they wanted to prevent infiltration into their areas, and into their ranks, they would have to get the local communities on their side. If they wanted to be able to hide their fighters when the security forces flooded an area, again, they would need the local communities to protect them. It was a no-brainer for the FARC, and almost all the fronts took the message to heart. From 2009 onwards, FARC fronts started making a great deal more effort to influence, and even control, the grassroots community organizations of the Community Action Boards (Juntas de Accion Comunal – JACs). Most villages have their own JACs, which serve as the conduits for state interaction with local communities. During field research over the last two years in Antioquia, Cordoba, Cauca and Putumayo, InSight Crime has seen a significant increase in FARC interaction with the JACs in their areas.

The FARC also believe, perhaps erroneously, that the tendencies at a regional level are moving in their favor. The move towards left-wing governments, from El Salvador down to Argentina, has been seen by the FARC as an indication that the left is gaining strength in the region, and that with this trend their political relevance and recognition will inevitably increase.

All of this means that the FARC do not have to sign an agreement with the government right now. The rebels are going to want significant concessions that justify an end to the conflict and show that the last 50 years of struggle have had concrete results, both for their fighting rank-and-file and the communities that live under their influence. Timochenko does not want to be the FARC commander who presided over the breakup of the movement, or who “betrayed” almost five decades of revolutionary struggle.

Colombia has a unique opportunity. Never have the conditions for a peace agreement been as propitious as they are now. It is almost inevitable that sectors of the rebel army will become criminalized. The percentage that follow this path, however, will depend on the generosity of the agreement the government negotiates with the Secretariat, the opportunities presented to demobilized fighters, and the efficiency with which state institutions, especially the judiciary, are able to process the results of the peace deal and fill the vacuum that exists in FARC-dominated areas.

Footnotes

  1. Inside Defense, “DOD: Colombian Rebel Group Has Acquired Surface-To-Air Missiles,” March 28, 2013. http:/dedefense.com/201303272429176/Inside-Defense-General/Public-Articles/dod-colombian-rebel-group-has-acquired-surface-to-air-missiles/menu-id-926.html
  2. Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris, Del Caguan a La Habana; Los Cambios de las FARC, March 2013.
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