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Colombia and the FARC – Full Circle?

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By Daniel Jackman, LAB

 

altFollowing the death of ‘Mono’ Jojoy, the guerrilla’s military chief (pictured left), many analysts, including the president himself, predicted that it was the beginning of the end for the FARC. However, just over three months later, FARC head Alfonso Cano gave a New Year address posted on Anncol which claimed that the FARC would ‘multiply their actions in every sense’ in 2011. Although Cano left the door open for a negotiated settlement, provided that the government’s efforts to introduce the ‘ley de restitución de tierras’ and the ‘ley de victimas’ were ‘taken seriously by congress’, it is clear that the real motive of the address was to state emphatically that the FARC are anything but finished. Since the New Year there have been numerous FARC attacks, the most serious of which were the three in Neiva (Huila) at the beginning of January, which caused extensive damage to property but miraculously neither killed nor seriously injured anyone, and another in San Vicente del Caguan where nine people were killed.

That the FARC are weakened is beyond doubt, as is demonstrated by the poor planning and lack of resources for the Neiva attacks, as well as continued desertions. However, to say that they are finished would certainly be premature. The FARC have suffered continuous setbacks over the course of the past ten years but somehow they don’t seem enough to break them. The complexity of the Colombian conflict is such that the old adage of the straw that broke the camel’s back is simply not appropriate here.

The conflict in Colombian long ceased to be a relatively straightforward case of war between a state and left wing rebels. The involvement of the FARC in drug trafficking has complicated the conflict to such an extent that today it seems unlikely that one problem will be solved without the other. Throw into the mix a variety of continued paramilitary activity in illegal land grabs, displacements, drug trafficking and other organised criminal acts, and you have a seriously complicated conflict. In this scenario, where competition for control of lucrative drug routes has become more competitive, and where the guerrillas are facing a sustained onslaught from the state security services, FARC numbers have dropped to an estimated 8,000-10,000 combatants – half of what they were a decade ago.

But the FARC is nothing if not adaptable and, as income from kidnapping and drug trafficking has dwindled, evidence obtained from memory sticks and hard drives seized during the raid that killed Mono Jojoy, apparently revealed extensive reliance by some FARC fronts on revenues coming from illegal gold mining. The FARC either mines the gold itself or extracts a ‘tax’ from small-scale local miners, who are almost always operating illegally. However the illicit gold trade is not the exclusive preserve of the guerrillas, as new criminal gangs have emerged from the remnants of demobilised paramilitaries who are also involved in this trade. Group such as Los Rastrojos, and the Aguilas Negras, are reported to have formed tentative alliances with the FARC in resource-rich areas. As the price of gold nears record levels, the main problem now for the Colombian government is this emerging ‘alianza diabólica’ between the FARC and the newly-labelled BACRIM (bandas criminales) such as the Rastrojos and Aguilas Negras.

Peace?

altIn an interview for BBC’s Hardtalk, Santos (pictured) claimed that as a precondition for any peace talks with the FARC they had to make a ‘serious gesture’ towards peace such as releasing all their hostages. It is not clear, however, what effect a peace agreement would have on the conflict, nor to what extent a deal with the FARC would help or hinder the wider fight against paramilitaries and drug trafficking. The FARC announced at the end of December that they would free five of their longest-held hostages and, although the details of the release are still being hammered out, it is expected to take place soon.

With several progressive laws already passed (health reform, labour formalisation), and others pending (ley de victimas and ley de tierras), the government appears, at least on the surface, to be serious in its attempt to tackle the conflict from all angles. As well as acknowledging the new challenge of BACRIM as the most pressing challenge for his administration, Congress gave President Santos decree powers in order to cope with the two million flood victims and the extensive rebuilding of infrastructure that has become necessary after months of heavy rains. Santos has also named a new Attorney-General, Vivianne Morales, who in a joint statement with the President, announced tackling impunity as her main goal.

Critics however, argue that President Santos is a canny politician, and much more PR-savvy than his brash and brazen predecessor. He may be just making the right noises to boost Colombia’s world image and to maintain levels of foreign investment, which are only benefitting upper middle class and elite Colombians. They argue that human rights violations, displacement, and land-grabs have not diminished during his first six months in office. It is difficult, however, not to feel that the chance of Colombia leaving behind decades of conflict hinges on the success (or failure) of the ley de tierras. Here prospects are not good. In a talk at Canning House a few weeks ago, Colombian Finance Minister Juan Carlos Echeverry claimed that agriculture was going to be one of the drivers of the Colombian economy over the next ten years and that his government didn’t like talk of ‘land reform’, preferring instead ‘agricultural reform’. This suggests that, while the government may allow some limited reallocation of land in order to increase production, it has no intention of tackling the profound social inequalities inherent in the system of land tenure.

In any case, redistributing more than two million hectares of land would be a complicated process, not least in terms of how the process would be funded – something critics say the government has been vague about. But, given that the unequal distribution of land in Colombia – something that dates back to the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors – was the original reason revolutionary groups such as the FARC took up arms, it would be good a place to start. Unless real progress is made on the ley de tierras, prospects for peace seem remote.