The general who negotiated disarmament with Colombia’s FARC said questions about the rebel army’s militias have created uncertainty about how many people will demobilize under the country’s newly minted peace agreement.
Gen. Javier Flórez told El Espectatdor that militias of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), which operate clandestinely and semi-autonomously from the rebels’ military structure, may not all decide to join the peace process. This uncertainty about militia participation, combined with the militia’s secret nature, means that no one yet knows how many people will sign up for the demobilization process.
Flórez said the armed forces have good intelligence on the number of FARC guerrillas in the field, putting that number at between 6,300 and 7,000 fighters. President Juan Manuel Santos used a similar figure in March 2016, when he characterized 7,500 armed guerrillas as a “generous number.” The attorney general’s National Anti-Terrorism Office (Dirección Nacional Contra el Terrorismo) reported 6,382 in June 2016, and InSight Crime estimates the FARC has about 6,500 armed members.
Estimates for the size of the FARC’s militia vary more widely. Gen. Flórez puts their number at between 5,800 and 6,300, while the Attorney General’s Office estimates there are 7,510 militia members. Ariel Ávila, Coordinator of the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation (Fundación Paz y Reconciliación), calculates that FARC fighters and militia combined add up to between 20,000 and 25,000 people. Given Flórez’s estimate of fighters, that would mean at least 13,000 militia members. President Santos put the militia strength at about 10,000 members.
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Questions about the number of militia members feed general uncertainty about the peace process itself, which is fundamentally a very complex social experiment. Colombia’s Inspector General, Alejandro Ordóñez, who has been a critic of the peace process and was forced out of office this week, has voiced concern about the numbers. Furthermore, the peace agreement is not very specific about how the militias will be incorporated into the peace process, creating uncertainty about their future.
Militia members provided many support services to the FARC, including helping to run their illicit economies in the drug trade, mining and extortion. If they are left out of the peace process, they will be in a good position to continue those activities or facilitate moving control of those activities to other criminal groups.
People who associate militia members in their towns with the FARC may not perceive the peace process to be real or effective if those individuals do not participate in it. It is also possible that the FARC may leave some of their weapons with militia members who do not take part in demobilization in case the peace process does not pan out for some reason. If the militia try to hang on to control of areas formerly controlled by the FARC, the entrance of other criminal groups may bring new or renewed conflict to those areas.
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Less worrisome is the possibility that people who are not real militia members will try to join the peace process. Colombians were surprised by the demobilization of the country’s right-wing paramilitaries groups a decade ago, when the expected 12,000 fighters turned out to be 32,000 people who signed up for that peace process. Lack of a good count allowed many common criminals who were not active paramilitaries to gain legal benefits through the process.
While this type of last-minute conversion is not expected on the same scale from the better organized FARC structure, Ávila predicted some “regular” criminals would take advantage of the peace process.
President Santos has indicated that the final numbers will not be as important as the nation’s political will to see the process through. In March 2016 remarks to the American-Colombian Chamber of Commerce, he noted that the government’s ongoing program for the reintegration of former FARC combatants has already demobilized 59,000 people over the past 13 years.