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Back to basics for Colombia's rebels

As on-going peace talks in Havana address narco-trafficking amidst Colombia's continued economic growth, remnants of the FARC are more likely to turn to what were once the very seeds of the rebel movements: social banditry. 

Ivan Briscoe Timo Peeters
4 March 2014

For the first time ever, Colombia last year produced over a million barrels of oil a day. To reach this grail of the global carbon club, with only Venezuela, Mexico and Brazil now producing more oil in Latin America, the country managed to double its production in the space of six years. It tapped the brain drain from Venezuela's post-2003 oil industry. It dispatched state and private explorers deep into the bush and the sierra. And as the industry grew and boomed, the armed rebellion against the state, now well into its middle age, decided it would also join the bonanza.

A recent analysis of the new tactics of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) illustrates that despite the relatively advanced stage of peace negotiations with the government, and the hope that a 50-year conflict may soon come to a negotiated end, there are rich pickings to be had throughout investment-friendly Colombia via the cunning use of arms. It now appears that 2012 was the year in which more attacks on oil pipelines were carried out than ever before; production and theft have marched in lock step. "Miners' commissions", explains the report's author Ariel Ávila, has been the novel term given to the spawning guerrilla units specialized in pipeline heists.

President Juan Manuel Santos and his team of negotiators in Havana would not necessarily be dismayed by these oil grabs. The entire approach of their peace diplomacy has been grounded in close reading of previous failed negotiations, an appreciation of the organizational dynamics and esprit de corps within the FARC, and a studiedly careful handling of Colombian political and public opinion – including the twitter rage of former President Álvaro Uribe, Colombia's main curmudgeon. Skirmishes, raids and drug production have continued ever since the sides first met in Oslo in October 2012: close to 500 security force officers were killed by the FARC last year. Yet it is Santos' hope, recently relayed in an interview with El País, that the circuitous route to a final deal will eventually bring all sides and factions on board. "The painter wants to sell his work when it is complete," he explains.

Progress has been made. Preliminary deals have already been reached on rural development and on the FARC's political participation. Although not formerly affiliated to the FARC, the Marcha Patriótica party can be expected to lead the radical cause in this year's elections – and pull a right-leaning political establishment leftwards. Crucially, a third phase of peace talks is now mulling over narco-trafficking, in which the FARC has been involved, largely at the level of protecting coca leaf production, since the 1980s. The rebel group's initial proposal envisages a daring, possibly quixotic combination: community control over crop substitution, alongside major state intervention to buy up surplus crops, maintain farmers' income and find alternative economic uses for marijuana, coca and opium poppy.

The details of these and other matters, including justice for the FARC's victims, will be thrashed over, and doubtless revisited and tweaked before a final deal is struck. Yet as FARC commanders and government delegates negotiate behind closed doors in Havana, and Colombia's political forces duel in legislative and presidential elections (set for March and May respectively), the primary determinant of genuine peace and security seems far removed. Talked over, campaigned on, derided, praised or instrumentalized in many other ways, the 10,000 or so grassroots FARC insurgents may not always respond in the desired fashion to the grand future that is being designed for them. For if war has been waged against the Colombian state for 50 years, who would now deny them a drop of free oil?

Scenarios for the post-conflict era

Colombia's security establishment and its many conflict watchers have endeavoured to unpack the shifts and trends that will determine the extent to which these forces, as well as the main other rebel group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), follow orders to demobilize. The issue is critical in any effort to wind down a conflict; never-ending war is virtually synonymous with failed DDR (Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration). But it is all the more so in Colombia, where topography and tradition have made it enormously difficult for the state to establish itself in the peripheries.

Freedom to renege on the agreements made by superiors has been common practice among non-state armed groups. Whereas the left-wing guerrillas such as the M-19 demobilized successfully – to the extent that their ex combatants are now prominent in Colombian politics and media, including ousted Bogotá Mayor Gustavo Petro - the 39 paramilitary units that gave up their arms from 2003 later fizzled out into discontent and renewed criminal activity. The bandas criminales, or bacrim, that now command the country's vast illicit economy were rooted in the mid-level paramilitary commanders who saw no benefit in demobilizing, many of them having used brutal counter-insurgency as a front for personal enrichment.

These distinct historical examples now provide the ammunition for differing opinions on where the current peace process might end up. Roughly speaking, and despite all manner of nuances, the prospects can be boiled down to two main scenarios. The first, optimistic version holds that the FARC, unlike the paramilitary, is a closely-knit, ideologically driven force that is still structured along the vertical command lines favoured by the rebel avatars in the foothills of Cuba's Sierra Madre. Whenever the guerrilla have been called upon to show unity and loyalty, they have done so: when a unilateral truce was called between November 2012 and January 2013, 90 per cent of the FARC observed it.

And whatever else is said about the temptation for the FARC to criminalize, the personal experience of foot-soldiers cannot be ignored. They have lived in arduous jungle conditions, under threat of bombardment, for many years. They have been governed by strict disciplinary codes, including death penalties in some cases for any use of cocaine according to a recent article in Razón Pública by Colombia's pre-eminent expert on the drug economy, Francisco Thoumi. When they did desert in large numbers in the face of an intense military and propaganda offensive – coordinated, it should be said, by Santos as Uribe's defence minister – they did so in a way so that greatly impressed their military minders.

Some 12,000 FARC members abandoned the cause between 2002 and 2008, but a military officer involved in the process told one of us that the differences with the recidivist paramilitary were vast: "the two groups of demobilized people have different mentalities. The guerrilla fight for political ends and lead a more stoical life. The paramilitary were criminals, mercenaries, dedicated to profit. The guerrilla are grateful for the opportunity to join society again."

Furthermore, the paramilitary saw no reason to enter the political fray – at least formally. Instead, while former mid- and low-level fighters morphed into the new bacrim, the movement's figureheads led a charge to infiltrate local and national political life. A total of 200 senators and deputies have now been indicted as part of Colombia's heroic investigations into parapolítica; however, no party ever confessed its real affiliation, even if candidates profited handsomely from their rich and violent backers.

A demobilized FARC would be very different. From the moment the rebels' chief negotiator, Iván Márquez, devoted a third of his speech in the first peace talks in Oslo to the issue of multinational mining, "a demon of social and environmental destruction," the fundamental ideological bias in the group's approach to peace has been apparent. No one doubts that the twin towering influences on their willingness to give up arms and embrace democracy after half a century were, on one side, the extreme belligerence of Uribe, and on the other, the string of electoral victories collected by the great Bolivarian ideologue, Hugo Chávez.

Of course, Colombian political reality could interfere with these intentions. The last major attempt by the FARC to form a political force, the Unión Patriótica, was thwarted in the 1980s by a vicious counter-reformation, involving 3,000 assassinations. Already, one of the Marcha's leading figures, Piedad Córdoba, has denounced the murder of 29 of her party's activists. Should this continue, or should figures like Petro be excluded from politics by a conservative Bogotá establishment, then the political end-point of demobilization could fall apart. But this would not be the fault of the FARC, nor of the avarice of its foot-soldiers, but the failure of an establishment that could not address the challenge to its hierarchy without violence.

Splintering toward crime

A far more sobering assessment of the FARC's future is the other fork in the path. Whereas some experts see a Marxist phalanx with a reluctant finger in narco-trafficking and sundry crimes, others see a force whose morale has been eaten away by the need to fund the cause – by kidnapping, drug sales, extortion, robbery, or even in more recent cases, by running a tungsten mine or an oil refinery. So pervasive have these activities been that they have blinded many FARC commanders to political logic – thus the failure to strike a deal with the state in much more favourable conditions between 1998-2002 – and driven them instead towards acts of terror against the civilians and farmers they purport to represent, with no case more perturbing than the cylinder bombs that killed 119 people in Bojayá in 2002.

Analysts from Insight Crime estimate that the FARC requires an annual income of 200 million dollars to maintain its operational force. Removing the need to fund the force leaves behind a number of tempting revenue streams. The ways in which a residual or splintered FARC might actually seize control of current rackets are varied, and for the moment speculative: creation of new gangs, warlordism, fusion with local criminal organization, and integration into transnational trafficking. Most possibilities include the continuity in one form or another of a number of the most lucrative fronts, many of which secured greater autonomy in recent years; these include fronts in the most fertile areas for cross-border trafficking, such as the Bloque Sur (above all in Putumayo, on the border with Ecuador), the 34th Front in Chocó, or the 59th Front in La Guajira.

It is precisely these considerable economic interests that now seem to cause division within the FARC. Medarno Maturana Largacha, alias "el Negro Tomás", a senior commander and ideological leader of the FARC's 18th Front, handed himself over to the army in September 2013, apparently out of dissatisfaction with the "licentious" behaviour of some of his fellow combatants and the group's increasing ties to the bacrim. Recent experience with the paramilitary demobilization in Colombia, added to the substantial revenues of the FARC, suggest there may be strong incentives among mid-level commanders and the rank and file to hold on to these illicit networks, particularly for a new generation of FARC members who have limited job prospects and have not undergone extensive political indoctrination. Recent reports that FARC fronts are selling their drug interests as "franchises" to the Urabeños and the Mexican Sinaloa cartel indicate that some units are already anticipating a future demobilization, and that their illicit markets are not about to disappear.

As a result, it might be best to shelve great expectations. According to a recent report from the Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Centre (NOREF), "the challenge for the national government is not to prevent the FARC-EP's fragmentation/criminalization, which appears to be inevitable, but to limit its scope."

Bandit redux?

Presented in this way, the two possible routes seem to possess their own impeccable logic. But neither can be entirely right. The FARC cannot both be a vertical, ideological fighting force, and a set of self-seeking individuals ready to sign up to the nearest criminal opportunity. Of course, there may be examples of each sort of person within the FARC, but it seems far-fetched to argue that dedicated criminal and political actors will emerge from the same military force as if these were the mechanical results of a demobilization process.

That is why it is well worth revisiting an alternative scenario for a post-conflict period – one that is much more rooted in the socio-economic landscape of rural Colombia. And this would start by recognizing a salient detail that is generally ignored in the other narratives: namely, that the FARC is now clustered not only in areas ripe for criminal activity but also in those where extractive industries are concentrated. It is extraordinary, given the great economic disparity between Colombia's regions, to learn that the country's most rapid growth is now occurring in its far-flung regions – Caquetá, Córdoba and La Guajira. The irony is well-noted by Ariel Ávila. Having been applauded for driving the guerrilla away from the cities and into the peripheral zones of the country, the Colombian state now faces "the permanent presence of the FARC in these areas of the agricultural frontier."

It is also wise to bear in mind what social conditions are like in these and other rural and extractive regions. Agriculture in the country, which has raced fast, and under dubious legal conditions and massive forced displacement, towards an agro-industrial model, is in fact a paragon of inefficiency and unproductivity. Per capita incomes in these areas represent a small portion of urban income, just 35 percent of the latter. Indeed, as the UNDP has revealed, inequality has risen in Colombia between 1990 and 2010 by 9.4 per cent. Land concentration, meanwhile, is reported to be worse than ever: in 2010, 77.6 per cent of landowners held 13.7 per cent of the land. Promises to remedy this were of course agreed on by both parties in the peace talks, but as in the case of the Victims' Law of 2011, implementation will prove to be enormously difficult, especially when it involves contesting rights and privileges with the extractive industry in areas where governance is deeply flawed.

Lastly, it is worth bearing in mind a vital aspect of the FARC political experience. Although its treatment of local communities has involved numerous abuses, the organization has always aspired to represent the people it controls. This ethos, even when stripped of Marxist rhetoric and interpenetrated by criminal activity, is very likely to withstand demobilization. FARC may not give rise to warlords, but it will produce its own brand of local caudillos.

Taken together, these three elements – the very rapid growth in extremely poor areas, the grievances of rural communities long ignored by the state, and the nature of FARC leadership – point in one direction. Rather than enlisting in organized crime, the remnants of the FARC are more likely to turn to what were once the very seeds of the rebel movements: they will become social bandits, downsizing their former ideological grandiloquence and aiming instead to trade on this rebel history so as to exact rewards and perks for their communities from systemic intimidation of business. In this way, they may end up not unlike the bacrim operating in the murky domain of intermediation with multinationals in Colombia's badlands. Yet whereas the Rastrojos pledged last year to eliminate union leaders for the multinational Drummond, the former FARC might foreseeably play the role of armed antagonist on behalf of those activists and their communities – at a price.

The rise of oil pipeline robberies is merely an indicator of what is now set to come: a reinvention of history for an era of hyper-growth. No finer description of the FARC's future, then, is provided than what the late historian Eric Hobsbawn, the pioneer of bandit theory who was himself inspired by Colombian history, wrote several decades ago: "Banditry itself is therefore not a programme for peasant society but a form of self-help to escape it in particular circumstances… [Bandits] are leaders, in so far as tough and self-reliant men often with strong personalities and military talents are likely to play such a role."


 

This article was originally published on 3 Quarks Daily in collaboration with the Dialogue Advisory Group on 25 February 2014 as part of the DAG-3QD Peace and Justice Symposium: What is the future for Colombia's Rebels? and is republished with that site's permission. 

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