Colombia’s Coca Fields Will Fuel Conflict Post Agreement

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Proponents of enduring peace in Colombia are warning that an agreement taking shape to end over 50 years of civil conflict between the government and FARC guerrillas will not address all sources of violence and is sure to generate new ones in long-suffering rural areas of the Andean nation.

The United Nations is warning that the demobilization of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) is likely to “generate power vacuums and disputes over the control of sources of illegal income,” El Tiempo reported this week.

A recent study by the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation (La Fundación Paz y Reconciliación) concluded that prevailing social conditions and the absence of state institutions will combine with illegal activity to make 281 municipalities in 26 of the country’s 32 departments “the perfect territory for new phenomena of violence.”

The study (pdf) titled “Challenges of the Post-Conflict” (Los Retos del Posconflicto) notes that 25 percent of Colombia’s municipalities will face varying degrees of post-agreement vulnerability. “The idea is that government action should, at least during the first 18 months, be directed at those municipalities at extreme risk,” foundation Director León Valencia told El Colombiano. The study indicates that 33 municipalities fall into the “extreme” category.

“There are many illicit activities,” León Valencia said, citing illegal mining, contraband and human trafficking, in addition to the illegal drug trade. “This is a clear message that it’s not just a matter of negotiating with those 20,000 guerrillas and militia or with criminal bands…. Without good alternatives to these illegal economies the post-conflict is practically unfeasible.”

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Unrepentant forces of the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) and the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular Nacional – EPL) are a continuing concern, as well as timber trafficking and extortion.

InSight Crime Analysis

An on-going investigation by InSight Crime indicates that loosening of FARC control over coca production will take center stage in the post-agreement power struggle. The study, titled “Undermining Colombia’s Criminal Economies: The Roadmap to Lasting Peace,” estimates that FARC members earn up to $1 billion a year from the coca business, although it’s unclear how much of the money goes to the guerrilla organization.

The peace talks come as coca production is booming in Colombia, with cultivation growing by roughly 40 percent in 2014 and is believed to have made similar or greater gains in 2015.

Other peace processes in the region providing precedent for continued or worsening violence in the post-agreement era include Colombia’s paramilitary organization United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC) and El Salvador’s civil war.

Before its demobilization, the AUC used the conflict to camouflage illicit economic activities that included drug trafficking, displacement, kidnapping, and extortion. Post-demobilization, AUC commanders and their troops abandoned the politically motivated conflict but many stuck with the lucrative drug trade.

Social pressures and failed institutional reform fueled extreme rates of violence that developed in post-civil war El Salvador. Broken families and limited livelihood opportunities combined with changes in US immigration policy to fuel an explosion of originally Los Angeles-based gangs across Central America’s Northern Triangle region (El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras).

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