The FARC peace process - Global Initiative against Transnational
The FARC peace process – ushering in a new chapter in Colombia’s
history of crime and violence?
Geneva, 1st September, 2016
Since its inception over two hundred years ago, political violence has never been too distant from the Colombian state. Although
at the onset of war in 1964, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia People’s Army (the FARC) was a small group of
peasants, the group grew, particularly in the 1980s as the leftist rebels began using the drug trade to finance their activities. This
increase in the FARC’s power led to many of their opponents to form militias in order to protect their interests and their property
from the rebels, exacerbating the conflict. As the FARC’s military strength grew, so did their political ambitions, leading to links
with the Colombian Communist Party, and then later the formation of their own political wing, the Patriotic Union.
To explore the implications of reconfiguring Colombia’s criminal economy on Colombia and her neighbours, which are already
grappling with their own issues, the Global Initiative partnered with InSight Crime and the Geneva Peacebuilding Platform to hold
an expert seminar, hosting expert speakers for a fascinating panel discussion in its Genevan headquarters on the first of September.
Panel speakers included Jeremy McDermott, Executive Director of InSight Crime, a Colombian think-tank dedicated to providing
analysis on organised crime in South America and the Caribbean, who discussed the history of the FARC conflict, the possible
scenarios resulting from the peace agreement with the FARC, and the challenges facing the Colombian government. Nicolas von
Arx, former Deputy Head of the Delegation for the ICRC in Colombia and currently Strategic Advisor to the Director of Operations
in Geneva gave an insight into the peace process and proffered advice to the Colombian government. Finally, Achim Wennmann,
Executive Coordinator of the Geneva Peacebuilding Platform and Senior Researcher at the Centre on Conflict, Development and
Peacebuilding at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies added crucial points to the question how global
lessons of peacebuilding can be used to support Colombia in the years to come. The meeting was chaired by Tuesday Reitano,
Head of the Secretariat of the Global Initiative.
With over 40 participants coming from governments, non-governmental organisations as well as academic institutions, the
speakers considered not only the current situation, but also the unique history of the conflict, and the factors likely to pervade
across Colombian governance in the future.
Why did the FARC survive so long?
The FARC originally formed in 1964, and in the fifty years since, has outlasted every comparable insurgency in the region. The
last of these other insurgencies, in Guatemala, ended in 1996, and the Guatemalan rebels followed the established path of far-left
guerrillas in South America and becoming a part of mainstream politics. The staggering amounts of money that the coca production
and the cocaine trade have fed into the conflict is one compelling justification for why the FARC have survived so long past their
While the FARC have a variety of money-making schemes, including not only cocaine sales but also taxes on coca production
(gramaje), on drug traffickers, illegal mining, and corruption. But of these, drug-related incomes make up the highest proportion
of earnings. With the recent explosion in coca production, estimates of total revenues from coca and cocaine have jumped from
180 million to 400 million US dollars a year. These figures make the FARC one of the richest rebel groups in the world. InSight
Crime estimates that a group controlling all of the trade in cocaine, rather than just taxing it, could make more than a billion US
dollars a year, creating an incentive for others to take over the FARC’s criminal economies.
Figure 1: Maps showing the overlap between FARC controlled territories and coca production
The peace talks, the peace agreement, and their implications
The peace agreement reached by the Colombian government and the FARC means the end of a war that over fifty years, has left
70,000 missing, 220,000 dead, and up to 7 million displaced.
The agreement is therefore historic, but was by no means inevitable. At many points during the negotiations, the discussion could
have easily broken down – the military killed a FARC leader during negotiations in 2011 which might not only have ended peace
talks, but worsened fighting. The solution reached is all the more remarkable when one accounts for the amount of money involved
in the conflict and that the ongoing strength of the FARC that remains unbroken.
Peace talks first began in 1985, but soon broke down as the FARC made more territorial and financial gains, leading to surging
crime and violence which continued over the next decade and a half. The increase in the scale of the FARC’s operations,
particularly in the drug trade and kidnappings, as well as the failure of the 1999 round of peace talks, justified the military action
taken by the Colombian government. By 2008, the success of the government’s military campaign was evident; the FARC’s leader
was dead and their army had disintegrated into guerrilla cells, yet this feat came at the cost of millions of Colombians being dead,
injured, or displaced. President Santos initiated secret peace talks in 2010, guaranteed by Cuba and Norway, which culminated in
the deal agreed this year.
The six-fold agenda, and key solutions found during the peace process include
1. Rural Reform
• Reduce rural poverty and land inequality, a major cause of the conflict
2. Political Participation
• Enable “fair and safe” participation in politics for the FARC and other dissident groups
3. Illicit Drugs
• Enable and assist farmers growing drugs to choose to substitute their crops, including a two-year amnesty to enable
them to do this
• Development of the communities most affected
• Setting up an International Transitional Justice Tribunal to investigate and adjudicate on complaints about the
conflict, as well as a Truth Commission, and funds for the 7 million victims and land reconstruction
• The FARC members with no suspected human rights abuses to be reintegrated
End of Conflict (ongoing)
• Abandonment of arms by the FARC and measures to help reintegrate foot soldiers of the FARC into society
• If talks succeed, the government will hold a plebiscite on whether to approve deal. IF this passes, all of the agreement
is valid, and a period of transitional justice will occur
• Government will implement programmes to demobilise, disarm, and reintegrate the 20 000 FARC soldiers
One of the key issues of the talks was justice. Justice was the hardest square to circle as the government’s international obligations
meant that war crimes could not go unpunished, and the FARC refused to serve a day in prison, leaving both sides diametrically
opposed. The eventual agreement - that those convicted of serious crimes by a special tribunal would face limitations on their
liberty for up to eight years if they complied with the tribunal, and up to twenty years if they did not - though hard to accept for its
leniency by many Colombians, is a triumph of negotiation.
In order to ratify the agreement, plebiscites both for the nation, and FARC members are being held. At the Tenth FARC conference
to be held in October, it is almost certain that the FARC will endorse the agreement, and formally change the organisations name
to become a new political party. This process is likely to present considerable challenges for the army, who, after half a century of
fighting the FARC, will now be expected to protect them, a paradigm shift that might be difficult psychologically for many in the
army to come to terms with.
Who will inherit the FARC illegal economies?
The FARC has controlled the illegal economy for so long, and have built up so much of their organisation around the production
of cocaine that if, as expected, the peace treaty is approved, the future of these economies is uncertain. InSight Crime have
considered the five most likely scenarios following the peace process:
‘Continuity’ FARC: If some elements inside the FARC do not support the peace treaty, and reject it as the First Front
already has, these elements are likely to split off from the rest of the organisation and maintain their control over the
illegal economies. There is a precedent from the Popular Liberation Front (EPL), a predecessor to the FARC, as when
the group disbanded in 1991, 20% of leaders stayed in the field, forming a splinter guerrilla group. This scenario is
worrying due to the ideological façade, the hugely generous leaders, and the strong community links of the FARC in
many areas, meaning that if, as expected, up to 20 mid-to-high level leaders do not participate in the peace process, little
change will occur for those on the ground.
Figure 2: A map of FARC and ELN Controlled Areas (source: InSightCrime)
ELN Strengthened: The National Liberation Army (ELN) is still active in many regions of Colombia, and refusing to stop
kidnappings, the quid pro co of negotiating a similar deal to that of the FARC. Given that in many areas, the ELN and
the FARC overlap, it is likely that if the FARC withdraw, an immediate transfer of criminal resources would take place.
We are expecting to see a large expansion of the ELN over the coming months as the group absorbs the FARC personal
as well as equipment and funding.
BACRIM (TOC strengthened): The Colombian BACRIM (emerging mafia-style organisations) already have close ties
with the FARC through sales of coca base, delineation of territory, and non-aggression training, though in many cases
the relationship is much deeper, and can extend even to joint military training, making the FARC’s BACRIM allies likely
successors to the FARC’s criminal economies. As Venezuela implodes, many former FARC members are expected to be
drawn into the conflict, creating tension when the fighters eventually return to Colombia.
Transnational Organised Crime: Transnational organised crime groups like the Mexican, Italian, and Russian Mafias
have an interest in preserving the flow of cocaine out of Colombia so they may sell it on abroad, such as the Mexican
Mafia who move up to five hundred tonnes of the drug to the United states each year. As such, these mafias are concerned
about the future of the (currently FARC-controlled) drug-producing areas and the supplies coming out of them. Some of
these groups have already moved in to Colombia to secure a peaceful transition, currently co-operating with the FARC
on seven fronts concentrated in the Coca regions.
FACRIM: If the treaty is signed, the FARC as we know it is likely to disappear, with the organisation’s internal structures
breaking down, and senior leaders leaving the field to enter politics. This would leave the mid-ranking criminal elements
of the FARC in place, continuing criminal activities, but collecting the proceeds for personal enrichment not the
organisation. This possibility has already been seen when, as an act of good-will to assist the peace talks, the FARC
leaders promised an end to extortion, yet extortion continued without the money flowing up the chain of command.
The likelihood is that a mixture of these scenarios will play out in different areas of the country, it is probable that the future
conflicts over the illegal economies lead to more death and more displacement within Colombia. Jeremy himself is working with
various governments and international agencies to determine the best place for investment designed to undermine illegal
economies, and strengthen legal ones, but the Colombian government must bear the brunt of the reconstruction. The key challenges
to limit harm to civilians in these scenarios are achieving emblematic victories to consolidate the agreement in key regions,
containment of illegal activity to prevent “recycling” of illegal economies, recreating the state in the third of the nation which has
seen no state actors aside from the military for up to fifty years, and most importantly, creating good post-conflict policy, requiring
money and investment that the Colombian government does not yet have.
What are the most pressing issues for the Colombian government in a post-peace environment?
In many areas of Colombia, even where the state has some control, there is little presence of the central Colombian state, law
enforcement or legitimate authority. This has lead to people able to claim others are former FARC members and extract revenge
by killing them, leaving their land, possessions and positions open to the killers, and little threat of punishment. In many areas,
where the government cannot expect to regain full control, there is likely to be ongoing fighting for control of former FARC
territory and resources. Any subsequent government response to this will require large numbers of military personnel the
government can ill afford, and may have serious humanitarian consequences.
Colombia has not transitioned from a time of war to a time of peace – the army continues to fight a war against the ELN, which in
many areas, particularly the south and the east, means little change for civilians. Making peace with the ELN is a much more
complex task than with the FARC, as the ELN leaders are arguably more ideological than the FARC leaders who negotiated the
peace, meaning they have much less to gain from a peace agreement.
The Colombian state is heading towards financial difficulty, even with the more than $500 million that international actors like
the UN and the United States have pledged to Colombia for the peace process. It is thus very hard for the government to invest in
licit economies across the country to develop them as alternative livelihoods both for former combatants as well as those in coca
producing regions. For the latter, the combination of high output and great value means that no other crop produces similar profit
levels, making it hard to make a convincing case to end coca production, a vital part of the peace agreement. This is compounded
by the failure to find an acceptable compromise on the transfer of land, a key issue in the country, and will be especially challenging
in areas far from government power centres, where the state has largely already sold off rights to raw materials and public goods
to private corporations and foreign investment.
How can global lessons of peace building be used to support Colombia?
Looking more broadly at war economies, it is imperative to understand the structural economic agendas of all actors within the
conflicts, as so often, money is at the heart. In some areas like southern Africa, a tool of peace builders has been to offer rebel
leaders positions in government such as minister for mines in order to align the economic incentives of rebels and government,
and allow for a more even distribution of resources, reducing the likelihood of continuing conflict, a lesson Colombia could take
to ensure the success of the peace process.
For similar reasons, it is vital to open formal or semi-formal dialogue between the government and those in the black market. In
many countries, this happens informally, with those involved in the black market sitting in parliament or in government positions,
but in order to limit human consequences of the black market, such as trafficking, abduction, or death, a government must engage
with those in the black market to recognise fully the reality, and find solutions to the problems it causes.
To allow international non-governmental organisations or governments to help resolve conflicts, it is necessary for governments
not to label groups as either terrorist or criminal organisations. This is because many countries have laws against co-operation with
these terrorist or criminal groups, so NGOs from these countries then cannot communicate and look for peaceful resolutions which
include these, often integral, actors, for fear of the legal implications where the organisation is based.
Finally, governments must act pragmatically to bring about peace by not making immediate sweeping changes or aligning
economic interests against the government. The government must both experiment with new and inventive ideas such as
transforming extortion into a local tax paid to government and applicable by all as part of the architecture of peace, but also
consider how many lost lives and how much lost money it is willing to accept for peace, governing in the best interests of the
country, rather than fighting an impossible ideological fight.
The Global Initiative and InSight Crime will be launching a full report,
“The FARC leave the criminal stage: a new chapter for Colombia’s cocaine industry” in October 2016.
For more information on the Global Initiative and our work, please contact: [email protected]