Ivan Marquez’s recent announcement that some senior FARC members were returning to arms is a heavy setback to Colombia’s peace process. As dissidents capitalise on the crisis in Venezuela and establish themselves in the Colombia–Venezuela border area, the insurgency is moving away from the jungle and into cities, writes Antônio Sampaio.
Nearly three years ago, the Colombian government and the leftist FARC guerrilla group signed a peace treaty, bringing an end to what had been the longest-running insurgency in the Western hemisphere. The Havana peace agreement had initially been greeted as a remarkably wide-ranging disarmament and reintegration process, but it suffered a huge blow last week with the announcement that several senior FARC leaders were returning to arms.
Even though Colombia must still face down the challenge of the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN), the FARC peace agreement has led to significant progress towards disarmament, with over 7,000 weapons handed in to the UN Mission in Colombia, as well as nearly 7,000 fighters entering a demobilisation programme. However, it has become clear that formal peace agreements and disarmament processes, which the Colombian government and international organisations have become so expert in conducting, are just initial steps in the construction of peace.
Citing the government’s failures in following through with pledges to develop rural areas, as well as a wave of murders of former FARC members, thedecision was announced in a video by the group’s lead negotiator in the Havana peace talks, Iván Márquez. Even though seven experienced guerrilla commanders appear alongside him in the video, they are surrounded by a small number of fighters and are unlikely to have a large contingent at their disposal, for now at least. Márquez expresses a desire to move away from guerrilla tactics and to get closer to ‘common people’. Despite his vague language, this implies a geographical shift of armed activity, to some extent, from rural to urban areas.
The new group’s activities are likely to consolidate the role of the Colombia–Venezuela border area as a hub for illicit economies, and as the nexus for criminal networks and non-state armed actors. Despite being clearly based in a dense jungle area in the video, Márquez hints at a strategy closer to that of the ELN, which is also based in jungles but conducts terrorist attacks in cities. At least one senior commander in the video has experience in carrying out high-impact terrorist attacks.
Weak governance allows guerrillas and criminals to thrive
It is in the Colombia–Venezuela border area that the failings of the peace plan are most blatantly evident. The area has long been a focal point for guerrilla activity, alongside a thriving and complex network of organised and small-scale criminal gangs operating a wide range of smuggling activities – from petrol to cocaine.
In his announcement, Márquez makes a direct link between the group’s armed struggle and these failings, stating that the agricultural programme that was supposed to help peasants and former guerrillas to become small farmers (known as ‘Fondo de Tierras’) and the incentives for voluntary crop replacement away from coca leaves ‘have been forgotten’.
This is not just a problem of political will or delayed implementation. It is directly related to the historical absence of state-led governance and socio-economic development in vast rural areas. It was also one of the most ambitious promises made by the government in the Havana peace agreement, involving large-scale redistribution of land and infrastructure investment.
Dissident FARC factions and the ELN continue to exploit the thriving coca-growing, cocaine-smuggling economies in rural areas – the area under coca cultivation reached a record size in 2017, rising 17% from the previous year.
Dissidents and criminals exploit Venezuela’s turmoil
Venezuela’s economic collapse and the subsequent migrant crisis have placed further strain on regional authorities and enabled Colombian armed groups to use Venezuelan territory as a staging post for their activities to a greater extent. The ELN has had a significant presence in the country since the early 2000s, but Venezuela’s current crisis has seen a host of armed groups of different stripes establish themselves there, including other FARC dissident groups (which collectively number around 1,000 members), organised criminal groups tracing their origins to the right-wing paramilitary groups that demobilised in the 2000s, and small-scale gangs and smuggling networks.
Colombian government intelligence documents reportedly indicate that FARC dissidents, alongside their ELN counterparts, are seeking to establish Venezuela as a ‘strategic backyard’ for their activities. This was reflected in the strong message sent by Colombian President Iván Duque, in the wake of Marquez’s announcement: ‘We do not stand before the birth of a new guerrilla [movement]’. He suggested that instead the FARC dissidents’ announcement amounted to ‘criminal threats from a band of narco-terrorists that have safe haven and support from the dictatorship of Nicolás Maduro’.
Whether or not the armed groups enjoy direct support from the Venezuelan government or its security apparatus, the biggest facilitator of armed activity in the border region is the nexus between weak institutional governance and illicit economies. It provides the financial and territorial backbone to a diverse range of armed groups.
Out of the jungle and into the city?
For more activist and revolutionary groups, such as the ELN and the FARC dissidents, the Colombia–Venezuela border area serves as a useful base from which to conduct attacks on the Colombian government and elites. In his announcement, Márquez mentioned his group’s aim to move away from a protracted, Maoist-style insurrection in rural areas, to strike directly at cities.
Márquez pledged that the FARC would ‘not rise from the ashes like the phoenix in order to continue operating in the depths of the remote jungles’. Nor would it initiate attacks on soldiers or police officers. Instead, he threatened the Colombian state with a ‘new operational modality’, which many local journalists and experts interpreted as meaning that they will seek to deploy terrorist tactics. The ELN has been actively pursuing an urban terrorism campaign since 2014, under which it has recruited militants in urban centres to form units capable of launching bomb attacks, and included a car bombing that killed 20 people at a police academy in January. It is significant that a FARC militant known as ‘El Paisa’, appears next to Márques in the video. His expertise in both guerrilla and terrorist tactics, as well as his contacts and networks in Bogotá, will now likely be used to serve the new rebel structure.
What now for Colombia’s peace process?
The dissidents’ ‘new operational modality’ might not be as new as they suggest, but the new group possesses the territorial base and the expertise to make an impact by means of its hybrid guerrilla–criminal strategy: funding itself through illicit economies and striking directly in cities to hurt the government.
The return to arms of such senior FARC commanders is a huge blow to the peace process, but it is not necessarily a lethal one. While the implementation of the peace agreement has indeed been slow and occasionally marred by attempts to revise key points, some progress has been achieved. An international team monitoring the implementation phase reported in February 2019 that 69% of the agreements made in the final peace accord were in the process of being implemented, while 23% had been completely implemented. But the critical – and longstanding – linkage between armed conflict and underdeveloped areas has not been broken in Colombia.