Key FARC Faction Challenges Colombia Peace Process

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A major faction of Colombian guerrilla group the FARC has said it will ignore ongoing peace talks between rebel leaders and the government in Cuba, a potential sign of internal dissent over the two-year peace process.

The FARC’s Eastern Bloc, which historically has been the guerrillas’ most militarily powerful, announced via Twitter that it would no longer “study” the components of the peace agreement forged thus far in Cuba. The message attributed to the Eastern Bloc was published on the FARC peace delegation’s Twitter account late on May 10. 

An attached statement said that the Bloc engaged in a confrontation with Colombia’s military early on morning of May 5 in Meta department, which has long been a stronghold of the Eastern Bloc, also known as the “Jorge Briceño” Bloc, after a slain guerrilla commander. The Bloc said it would not pay attention to the Cuba peace agreements until “this situation changed,” an apparent reference to the guerrillas’ desire for the military to withdraw from the region they called their “rear guard.”

The FARC declared a unilateral ceasefire in July 2015. However, Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas accused the FARC of violating that ceasefire three times in recent weeks. The violations involved FARC snipers shooting at soldiers, resulting in at least two dead and two wounded since April, reported El Tiempo

Government forces have not committed to ceasing hostilities against the rebel group — although negotiators attempted to forge such an agreement earlier this year. Villegas said government forces would continue to operate wherever illegal activity occurred.

In another important development for Colombia’s peace process, President Juan Manuel Santos said on May 9 that the government would not initiate negotiations with guerrilla group the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) until they agreed to stop kidnappings. This criminal activity is a major source of funds for the ELN, which is smaller and controls less territory than the FARC.  

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Together, the Eastern Bloc’s statement — as well as the overall lack of evidence that the ELN is prepared to stop kidnapping — represent a major hiccup for Colombia’s ongoing peace process. 

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One implication of the Eastern Bloc’s statement is that the FARC does not have control over individual guerrilla fronts operating in the field. It appears that rather than responding to government provocation, some rebel factions, like the Eastern Bloc’s Third Front, are deliberately violating their unilateral ceasefire. Recent developments raise the possibility that rebel units of the Eastern Bloc are opposed to the peace process and unwilling to following the lead of top commanders negotiating in Cuba. 

The ELN may be facing a similar situation, as it is unlikely that their top leadership retains control over many combatants in the field. Even if the ELN did formally renounce kidnapping in order to initiate a peace process, there is no guarantee field units would comply. 

The Santos government’s peace efforts also face challenges from the right. Former president and current Senator Álvaro Uribe Vélez, recently called for greater “civil resistance” to the peace process. With Uribe marshaling his forces, it may be that time is running out for the Santos government to prove it can seal a peace deal. Santos, who served as Uribe’s defense minister, was elected to a second 4-year term in mid-2014.

Colombian organized crime, meanwhile, is waiting in the wings, waiting to see how it can take advantage of the peace process to expand its territorial influence.

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