Colombia and FARC: Will the Internal Conflict Reach an End?

By Robert Valencia*

Demonstration against FARC Guerrilla and criminal narco-terrorist organisation, held in Madrid's main square and more than 130 cities around the globe simultaneously. (Photo and caption by Kozumel)

Introduction:

On January 9, 2012, in a letter addressed to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, the brand-new Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) leader Rodrigo Londoño Echeverry--better known as “Timochenko”—called on the current administration to restart the peace accord agenda that started in the demilitarized area of San Vicente del Caguán more than 10 years ago.[1] This is the first time Timochenko expressed his intention of sitting down with the government to establish a peaceful dialogue.  Nevertheless, Timochenko’s letter went on to say that a way out of the 40-year-long conflict could not be reached if his wish to restart the Caguán peace accord is not granted. Soon after, President Santos mentioned via Twitter that the possibility of a new Caguán approach is not feasible, and he suggested peace talks with FARC could not be reached unless its members show concrete steps to achieve peace, such as releasing all hostages, halting illicit drug trade, and ending child recruitment. In spite of their overtures towards compromise, both sides are still deadlocked and the conflict continues.

The FARC, besides the death of legendary leader Manuel Marulanda Velez “Tirofijo” of natural causes in 2008, have suffered the most significant setbacks in the last four years, thanks to effective operations by the Colombian military. The use of “infiltrados” or “moles” within the FARC forces have largely contributed to the steep decline of the armed group. See, for example, the death of FARC spokesperson Raul Reyes in 2008, and the demise of commanders Mono Jojoy, Iván Márquez, and Alfonso Cano over the course of 2010-2011.  Key abductees like Colombian candidate Ingrid Betancourt have also been released. Likewise, the number of municipalities with an active presence of FARC has reduced drastically from 377 armed groups or cells in 2002 to just 142 in 2010 due to military pressure.[2]

However, these defeats do not necessarily represent an immediate end to the conflict. In fact, they haven’t deterred the group from fostering terror: The massive number of displaced persons (second only to Sudan), the killings of law enforcement officers in November 2011, the October 2011 abduction of Nhora Valentina Muñoz,[3] daughter of the Arauca Department’s Mayor Fortul Jorge Enrique Muñoz, and the deadly motorcycle bombing in a local police station in the city of Tumaco on February 14, all struck a chord with civil society, leading the population to protest nationwide in a call to end the armed conflict.

Though FARC still poses some degree of threat to the Colombian population, the revolutionary force no longer has the clout it possessed decades ago. The deaths of its rank and file members, its dwindling military power, and mounting rejection from Colombians leave little option for FARC but to reach a peaceful yet uneasy end to the conflict. Otherwise, the Santos administration—and perhaps ensuing administrations—will continue using cutting-edge weaponry that has so damaged FARC while utilizing civilian means to encourage guerrilleros to leave the organization’s ranks and reintegrate into Colombian society.

FARC’s Rise and Steep Decline

The assassination of political leader Jorge Eliecer Gaitán in 1948 that sparked a 10-year conflict called La Violencia,[4] and an allegedly-rigged election in the 1970s by the so-called Liberal-Conservative coalition Frente Nacional, fueled the inception of left-leaning armed groups, chief among them FARC. Its military and logistics power peaked in the early 1990s. During the Cesar Gaviria administration (1990-1994), after failed peace talks, FARC intensified its activities against the military forces which continued throughout the ensuing administration of Ernesto Samper (1994-1998). As of 1996, the FARC held at least 700 hostages.

This rising prowess of FARC throughout the Nineties reached its most important military success in November 1998, when it seized the capital city of the Vaupés Department, Mitú, by killing at least 16 law enforcement members and kidnapping 61 policemen.[5] The same year, the Pastrana administration under Resolution 85 granted FARC nearly 42,000 square kilometers of land—almost as large as Switzerland--called “San Vicente del Caguán.” provided FARC leaders sit with top legislators to negotiate an end to the conflict. Amid the big media hype and the population’s expectation that both parties would seek peace, the FARC rank and file with Tirofijo at the helm never showed up to sign a treaty, leaving President Pastrana and his cabinet alone on the negotiating table—an iconic image that made Colombians believe that the government was not strong enough to fight against FARC. This arrogant move from Tirofijo and his subordinates also heralded a stronger counterattack from the Colombian authorities against FARC. Almost immediately after, President Pastrana abolished the Resolution and deployed 7,000 soldiers to the demilitarized zone.[6]

This is not the first time a peace negotiation failed. Colombian governments- such as Belisario Betancourt’s administration (1982-1986) - began to explore several models of negotiation with FARC and other groups like Quintin Lame, the Popular Liberation Army (EPL), and M-19, which later on joined forces under one group called Coordinadora Guerrillera Simón Bolivar in 1987. Signed in 1984, The Uribe Accord included agreements to condemn practices of kidnapping and extortion, a bilateral ceasefire, a democratization program, and the government’s pledge to enable agrarian reform and strengthen public works.[7] Nevertheless, the Uribe Accord did not gain any acceptance from the population and other political actors. Other leftist forces like the M-19 stormed the Justice Palace in 1985, and FARC grew skeptical of the possibility of gaining some leverage in Colombian politics, resulting in a continuous armed struggle. The advent of the Constituent Assembly in 1991, however, led to the M-19,Quintín Lame, and a great number of EPL members demobilizing and disarming to become active political figures. But FARC refused to lay down arms despite four rounds of talks in Caracas from June to November 1991, and a second discussion in the La Trinidad Resort in Tlaxcala, Mexico, in March 1992, due to the disappearance and deaths of a diplomatic emissary and a minister. Instead, FARC began to reorganize itself under Tirofijo, aiming to attack the Colombian government and its law enforcement institutions.

The current FARC predicament is the result of a coherent and aggressive military strategy that began during the Andrés Pastrana administration (1998-2002), and has been continued throughout the Uribe (2002-2010) and Santos administrations. FARC’s most recent setbacks are largely due to Plan Colombia[8]- U.S. legislation that provides multimillion-dollar military and financial aid to the Colombian military to counter guerrillas by using state of the art technology. President Alvaro Uribe’s “Democratic Security”- a plan to restore territory control and reestablish rule of law in hostile regions while implementing military strategies to confront insurgency attacks- has also inhibited FARC operations. Between 2007 and 2010, the military forces managed to hunt down both rank and file as well as key FARC members, thanks to the use of “infiltrados”, or moles, who follow in the steps of FARC commanders for years and become their most loyal subordinates. Thanks to this group of snitches, who have been well rewarded by the Uribe and Santos administrations, the armed forces have learned key details about FARC leaders, from military tactics to preferences in food and drink, and even sexual orientation. The same plan is being carried out by the Santos administration, which has intensified military attacks against FARC right from the onset of its tenure in 2010.

Certainly, the lack of compromise by FARC after the failed Caguán talks signaled the decline of its military leverage as we know it due to rising attacks by the Colombian armed forces and international support. When Álvaro Uribe took office in 2002 and 2006, his Seguridad Democrática came on the heels of Plan Colombia and relied on military support from the United Kingdom and Israel. The Uribe administration deployed the so-called Plan Patriota,[9] which resulted in a large number of FARC casualties, and the crackdown on its logistics began to decimate FARC forces as the military closed in on the several guerrilla fronts in the western and central part of the country. Despite such an unfavorable outlook, why hasn’t FARC given up on its activities in the last decade? Militarily speaking, FARC still relies on landmines and snipers to ward off public enforcement in the jungle-- though it also causes some collateral damage among the civil population[10]--and it keeps law enforcement members in captivity in order to wield leverage in so called “canje humanitario”, or humanitarian exchange, which is an agreement between FARC and the Colombian government to exchange hostages for imprisoned guerrilleros.[11] The increasing fragmentation of FARC lines has led them to perpetrate small ambushes on local law enforcement facilities in order to distract the military operations trying to hunt down members of the FARC rank and file.

Even though the Bush administration designated FARC as a “significant foreign narcotics trafficker”[12] in 2008 to undermine its finances, FARC is able to raise the cash thanks to the profitable illicit drug trade: it is believed that the guerrilla outfit controls 70 percent of the drug produced in Colombia.[13]  Other sources of income include abductions of upper-middle class individuals, as well as vacunas, or monthly payments imposed on entrepreneurs who want to protect their lives or businesses from FARC’s belligerent activities.[14]

Another factor that has successfully kept FARC alive is the organization’s skillful foreign policy strategy, which employs de facto diplomatic missions in several Latin American and European countries, particularly in Sweden where the New Colombia News Agency (ANNCOL) operates and whose news content includes exclusive press releases and letters from the outlawed group. Though it vehemently rejects any sort of connection with FARC, it is believed that ANNCOL was founded by political expatriates of the Patriotic Union (UP), a political party created from the peace talks with FARC in the 1980s. FARC’s diplomatic prowess has proved to be very effective, as documented in a report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies.[15] This report alleges, based on archives of the late Raul Reyes found in his makeshift camp in Ecuador, that FARC’s international strategy involved a nexus with the Venezuelan and Ecuadorian governments. Reyes, according to the documents, sought financial support and shelter from these two countries. This alleged relationship pushed Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador to the brink of conflict Nevertheless, FARC’s international support has lately suffered a decline, in part because its peers quit their operations: Spain’s ETA called for a truce, and arms salesman Victor “Merchant of Death” Bout remains behind bars.  

A Silver Lining

But FARC need not be defeated using brute force. Demobilization and disarmament has proved possible in Colombia. Quintin Lame, M-19, and EPL lay down their arms and some of their members were integrated into the population. As of 2003, the process called “reinsertion program” by the government-run Higher Board of Reintegration (ACR)[16]  has reintegrated about 53,000 former guerilla and militia group members who at the same time receive job training, employment, psychological support, health care, education, and a reinsertion package that amounts to US$218 a month.[17] ACR travels to towns and villages prone to guerilla activities where they set up fairs to attract the young population and explain to them the dangers of joining the Marxist ranks.

ACR’s demobilization process is proceeding under the framework of the Peace and Justice Law enacted in 2006. The law grants former outlaws the opportunity to rejoin civil society provided that they confess their crimes, lay down their arms, and work with the government to provide information that would help dismantle criminal gangs. One example of former guerrilla members cooperating with the government is Nelly Avila Moreno (also known as Karina), who once was one of the most feared insurgents. After intense military pressure, Karina and her male companion surrendered in 2008, and a day after her arrest Karina said “the solution is not through war. There must be dialogue.”[18] Ever since, she has championed a process of disarmament and demobilization.

However, the Peace and Justice Law and the rehabilitation programs are not without controversy. Human Rights organizations such as Amnesty International regard this project as exoneration for those who committed serious crimes against humanity, and fear it would encourage others to pass themselves off as members of outlawed groups so as to get generous packages. Despite these claims, tens of thousands of guerrilleros and right-wing paramilitaries—staunch FARC enemies-- are leaving the jungles of Colombia in order to embrace this program, thus increasing the number of assisted participants to 32,175 between June 2010 and May 2011.[19]

Historically, some reinserted militia members have actively participated in democratic processes. For instance, former members of M-19 like Antonio Navarro Wolff, Vera Grabe Loewenherz, Carlos Alonso Lucio, Gustavo Petro, and the late Carlos Pizarro Leongómez are widely recognized politicians. After the M-19 signed a peace treaty with the Virgilio Barco administration (1986-1990), it nominated Pizarro Leongómez to run for president during the 1990 electoral cycle, but he was one of the fatalities in an array of killings against presidential candidates. In 1991, Navarro Wolff was one of the three presidents of a national assembly that created the 1991 Constitution, became senator from 2002 to 2006, and in 1995-97 served as mayor of Pasto, the city capital of the Nariño Department where he also served as governor from 2008 to 2011. He is currently Chief of Staff for the Bogotá mayoralty. Lucio and Grabe Lowenhertz have served as senators, and the latter is currently a professor in peace studies. Finally, Petro is currently the Mayor of Bogotá— the second most important executive office in Colombia.

The Road to Peace

The Colombian population has historically rejected FARC’s criminal activities and widely supported law enforcement operations against outlawed forces, but very few Colombians understand the importance of reintegrating surrendered guerrilla members as a means to achieve a successful peace process. In other words, civil society’s participation and awareness of the reinsertion process and eventual peace accord is paramount. According to Colombian think tank Fundación Ideas Para La Paz, the population’s input in the reinsertion program is “more important than the land [granted to the demobilized] and money.”[20] To shore up the already provided socioeconomic aid package to the reinsertados, ACR should work with private enterprise and other regional organizations that work closely with local communities in order to foster trust in this process.[21]

As former guerilla members enter society as regular citizens, the Colombian government must implement a two-pronged process to mitigate violence and unemployment. Indeed, violence in Colombia is intrinsically linked to socioeconomic inequalities, and lack of opportunities and restricted access to free education led to the recruitment of a dispirited young population that found refuge in gangs, FARC, and other criminal groups in Colombian conurbations. Equal opportunity and poverty reduction that would curb violence in Colombia can be achieved with the full and fair implementation of the U.S. Colombia Free Trade Agreement--approved by both U.S. and Colombian legislators in October 2011--to generate employment, provide socioeconomic opportunities for disadvantaged sectors, and improve already established security measures. A peace accord and final demobilization will also cause, in the long term, a reduction in the large budget allocation for the military, which could in turn be used for other causes that would assuage any rising social unrest.

Equally important is reconciliation between guerrilla members and the overall population, but achieving this remains challenging because a majority of Colombians still hold rehabilitated outlaws responsible for their past criminal activities during the longstanding internal conflict. Alongside the enactment of the Peace and Justice Law, the Colombian Congress also created the National Commission for Reparation and Reconciliation (CNRR),[22] which handles the daunting task of mending the fences between victims and former guerrilla members, as well as monetary compensations to guerrilla victims. Healing the scars of violence and forced captivity, however, will take years, and it is therefore required that CNRR carry on an effective discourse that will foster trust and mutual cooperation between the involved parties while debunking the myth that the government is appeasing FARC by letting crimes go unpunished in exchange for their willingness to reintegrate themselves into society.

At the onset of his leadership, Timochenko professed a stronger military approach than that of Raúl Reyes or Mono Jojoy, as was clearly demonstrated in a letter sent to President Santos, which read, “We are all going to have to die” [23]. And for many, this was a sign that the civil war will continue indefinitely. However, months after Alfonso Cano’s death, Timochenko’s initially belligerent rhetoric turned conciliatory in a call to retake the agenda left pending from Caguán. A repeat of the Caguán peace talks is untenable for FARC and the government alike for two reasons: President Santos should not demilitarize any portion of the Colombian territory if he wants to avoid a reorganization of FARC, and the insurgents cannot leave their seats empty like they did in 1999 if they want the peace dialogue to be taken seriously by the government and Colombians alike. Rather, a political solution to the conflict would consist of FARC’s unconditional pledge to release all hostages, stop child recruitment, curb illicit drug trade, discontinue extortion and abductions, and submit to a verifiable ceasefire, whereas the government would guarantee FARC’s participation in socioeconomic, political, and agrarian issues.

Conclusion

Despite Timochenko’s call to reestablish a dialogue, the stalemate between the Santos administration and FARC is very likely to continue: President Santos called FARC’s pledge on February 26, 2012 to halt abductions a lie[24] in light of FARC’s March 18 ambush in the department of Arauca and the armed group’s alleged lack of commitment to release all hostages.  These sorts of belligerent actions could jeopardize any possibility of peace talks in the near future, yet a peace accord is the only way for a win-win result. In the end, a peace agreement will be beneficial to FARC because its organization and internal communication are beginning to fall apart, and it faces mounting public rejection.  If they do not seek a peaceful exit from the conflict, most of FARC’s members are very likely to face the fate of Alfonso Cano and the rest of their deceased comrades, while Colombians at large would have to continue to wait for a long overdue compromise to end the war.

***

*Robert Valencia is a Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs and is a contributing writer for Global Voices Online and the World Policy Institute. He has written extensively about U.S-Latin American relations, the War on Drugs, U.S. Hispanic issues, the internal conflict in Colombia, and the Left-leaning trend in Latin America. His work has been cited in The Atlantic, Al Jazeera English, truthout.org, Real Clear World, and the Coalition for the International Criminal Court, to name a few. Prior to this, he worked at the Washington DC-based Center for American Progress, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ International Budget Partnership, and was a writer for the United Nations quarterly publication, UN Chronicle, and The Miami Herald. He is currently based in New York City.

 

Notes


[1] El Tiempo “Hechos claros de paz y no mas retórica le pidió Santos a Timochenko” (Santos asked of Timochenko clear deeds of peace and no more rhetoric), Internet, http://www.eltiempo.com/justicia/timochenko-dice-que-quiere-retomar-agenda-del-caguan_10941079-4 (date accessed: 9 January 2012).

[2] Camilo Echandía Castilla, “Situación actual de las FARC: Un análisis de los cambios en las estrategias y la territorialidad (1990-2011)” (Actual situation of FARC: An analysis of changes in the strategies and territoriality), Fundación Ideas Para La Paz (September 2011): p. 9

[3] Sibylla Brodzinsky, “Colombia sighs relief at release of kidnapped girl.” Internet, http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Americas/Latin-America-Monitor/2011/1018/Colombia-sighs-relief-at-release-of-kidnapped-girl (date accessed: 10 January 2012).

[4] “La Violencia,” Internet http://www.macalester.edu/courses/geog61/jbruland/violencia.html (date accessed: 12 January 2012).

[5] Echandía Castilla, “Situación actual de las FARC: Un análisis de los cambios en las estrategias y la territorialidad (1990-2011)”: p. 8.

[6] Ibid, p.18.

[7] Camilo González Posso, “Negotiations with the FARC, 1982-2002,” Internet, http://www.c-r.org/our-work/accord/colombia/negotiations-farc.php (date accessed: 12 January 2012).

[8] Robert Valencia, “Colombia: It’s Not Over Till It’s Over,” Internet, http://www.worldpolicy.org/blog/2011/11/08/colombia-it%E2%80%99s-not-over-till-it%E2%80%99s-over (date accessed: 10 January 2012)

[9] Roberto Mansilla Blanco, “El Plan Patriota de Uribe” (Uribe’s Patriot Plan), Internet: http://www.igadi.org/index.html (date accessed: 15 January 2012).

[10] “Dealing with the threat of landimines in Colombia,” Internet: http://www.soschildrensvillages.org.uk/charity-news/archive/2011/11/dealing-with-the-threat-of-landmines-in-colombia (date accessed: 13 January 2012).

[11] “Government-FARC humanitarian exchange accord,” Internet http://www.c-r.org/our-work/accord/colombia/humanitarian-exchange-accord.php (date accessed: 15 January 2012).

[12] “Treasury Targets FARC Financial Network in Colombia,” Internet: http://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/hp762.aspx (date accessed: 12 January 2012).

[13] “FARC strengthens as drug cartel, a police report informs (Spanish),” Internet: http://www.caracol.com.co/noticias/judicial/las-farc-se-fortalecen-como-cartel-del-narcotrafico-revela-informe-de-la-policia/20100218/nota/955495.aspx (date accessed: 13 January 2012).

[14] “FARC’s businesses (Spanish),” Internet: http://www.colombia.com/especiales/2002/farc/negocios.asp (date accessed: 13 January 2012).

[15] “The Farc Files: Venezuela, Ecuador and the Secret Archive of ‘Raúl Reyes,’” Internet: http://www.iiss.org/publications/strategic-dossiers/the-farc-files-venezuela-ecuador-and-the-secret-archive-of-ral-reyes/, 10 May 2011 (date accessed: 15 January 2012).

[16] “Agencia Colombiana para la Reintegración” Internet: http://www.reintegracion.gov.co/Es/Paginas/index.aspx (date accessed: 14 January 2012).

[17] “After the revolution: Why are Farc’s young soldiers laying down their guns?” Internet: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/after-the-revolution-why-are-farcs-young-soldiers-laying-down-their-guns-1922847.html (date accessed: 14 January 2012).

[18] “FARC commander gives up, calls for dialogue,” Internet: http://articles.cnn.com/2008-05-19/world/farc.rebel.surrender_1_farc-guerrilla-group-nelly-avila-moreno?_s=PM:WORLD (date accessed: 14 January 2012).

[19] “Reintegration in Colombia: Facts and Statistics,” Internet: http://www.reintegracion.gov.co/Es/prensa/noticias/Documents/febrero11/factINGagosto11.pdf (date accessed: 14 January 2012).

[20] María Piedad Velasco, “Participation of the enterprise sector in reinsertion: perceptions and opportunities (Spanish)” Fundación Ideas para la Paz (June 2006): p. 14.

[21] Ibid, p. 14.

[22] “Structure of CNRR,” Internet: http://www.cnrr.org.co/contenido/09i/spip.php?rubrique2 (date accessed: 14 January 2012).

[23] Sarah Childress, “New FARC commander: ‘We all have to die, Santos,” Internet: http://www.globalpost.com/dispatches/globalpost-blogs/que-pasa/new-farc-commander-speaks (date accessed: 14 January 2012).

[24] “Farc renounces kidnapping civilians,” Internet: http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/world/2012/0228/1224312481401.html?via=rel (date accessed: 20 March 2012).

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