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FARC guerilla members feed their daughter at their camp just days before their demobilisation, in Antioquia department, Colombia. December 2016. RAUL ARBOLEDA / STR / AFP
Report 92 / Latin America & Caribbean

A Fight by Other Means: Keeping the Peace with Colombia’s FARC

Colombia’s 2016 peace deal was a landmark achievement, convincing the FARC guerrillas to disarm and enter civilian life. Yet much remains to be done to show insurgents that they can redress their grievances through ordinary politics. The country’s leaders should recommit to finishing the job.

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Principal Findings

What’s new? Five years after the FARC laid down its arms, economic challenges and security threats cast a shadow over ex-combatants’ lives. Rural reforms have stalled, the ex-guerrillas’ political party has struggled to find its footing, and dissident fighters are taking control of criminal rackets and rural locales throughout Colombia.

Why does it matter? Setbacks to reforms, former guerrillas’ stigmatisation and the murders of hundreds of ex-FARC discredit the 2016 peace deal in the countryside. New armed actors are exploiting economic despair. The accord’s travails could fuel dissident recruiting and make it harder for the state to make peace with emerging armed groups.

What should be done? Colombia’s government should do more to bolster rural development and economic opportunities for ex-guerrillas, while ensuring they can safely participate in politics. Colombian forces should focus on protecting civilians rather than merely confronting dissident groups. The U.S. should carry through plans to lift its terrorist designation of the demobilised FARC.

Executive Summary

Colombia’s largest guerrilla force has turned its back on war but is struggling to find its place in peaceful public life. Close to 14,000 members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) laid down their weapons after their leaders signed an accord with the state in 2016, ending a 52-year insurgency that preached justice for the rural poor yet committed atrocities against civilians and got embroiled in crime. For the government, the agreement would end conflict and recoup swathes of territory; for the FARC, it would ensure personal safety, economic and other reforms and a political platform. Five years on, the war is over and much of the peace deal is enacted. But Bogotá has been sluggish in making rural and other reforms, while ex-guerrillas contend with economic hardship amid the rise of violent “dissident” factions. Meanwhile, the former FARC leadership have kept a tight hold on their newly created party and failed to build public support. The government should carry out stalled reforms, ensure that ex-FARC members can safely participate in politics and recalibrate its military strategy against armed dissidents.

The 2016 accord was a huge feat. Over four years, negotiators in Havana thrashed out a peace accord notable for its 300-page length and daunting complexity, but most of all for the deal that it recorded. For Bogotá it represented an opportunity to move on from decades of draining conflict. For FARC leaders, it heralded a dignified end to a war born from principled ideals but that had descended into brutality and become entangled with narco-trafficking. A ferocious state counter-offensive had put the FARC on the back foot, while the group’s widely reported abuses as well as deepening involvement in transnational crime had tainted the rebel cause and rendered it deeply unpopular.

Signing the deal, the insurgent commanders had high hopes. They expected that a host of planned reforms would at last ease hardships in neglected rural areas and bring essential state services to the countryside. They wished to see the FARC remain a potent unarmed social and political force across Colombia. They thought their sizeable fighting population, once demobilised, would stay loyal to the former central command and remain influential in communities where they lived. They hoped new cooperative businesses in the agricultural sector, backed by seed money from the state, would flourish. Some spoke of their aspirations for inspiring a new model for equitable, environmentally sustainable alternatives to agro-industry. Above all, they wished to see their new political party mature into a major progressive movement competing for a share of national power. They viewed politics as a way to continue their fight by other means.

Five years later, the peace accord has enabled Colombia to put the trauma of nationwide conflict and wartime atrocities behind it, and led as planned to the demobilisation of the vast majority of FARC fighters. But little else of the guerrillas’ imagined evolution has taken place. The plan to reintegrate thousands of fighters through cooperatives hit numerous snags, from the remoteness of the sites chosen for the handover of weapons to the barely veiled resistance (at least initially) of government officials. Faced with brute economic necessity, ex-combatants have now dispersed all over the country. Some have established new businesses with modest success; others, in places such as the Pacific coast and Catatumbo, along the border with Venezuela, face unremitting hostility from armed groups and in some cases wary communities. Close to 300 demobilised FARC have been killed, while authorities struggle to pin down the guilty parties.

As for the former rebels’ political ambitions, dismal electoral showings in 2018 and 2019 demonstrate how deeply the Colombian public resents the FARC. The political party that emerged from the insurgency, Comunes, is riven with infighting and managed by a cadre of the group’s former leaders with a dogmatic, centralised hand. Its main channel for political influence remains the ten congressional seats the 2016 accord gave it through 2026, which it wishes – but is unlikely – to see guaranteed for many more years. At the local level, delays in implementing rural reforms guaranteed under the peace accord have undermined the credibility of the FARC, which had assured sceptical farming communities that the government would meet its pledges. Some ex-combatants have thrown themselves into community mobilisation and protest organisation to press for these and other reforms; others keep to the shadows, fearful of the consequences of any sort of limelight.

Nor has the peace agreement spelled a definitive end to conflict, even if today’s violence is a far cry from Colombia’s darkest days. A small number of former FARC field officers reneged entirely on the accord, often out of economic self-interest. More business-oriented and less ideologically driven than the former guerrillas, these “FARC dissidents” have grown into a major armed menace. They have terrorised communities, seized control of illicit rackets and clashed with other armed outfits. In Cauca and Nariño on the Pacific coast, and in stretches of the Venezuelan border, some residents say violence and coercion are as bad as ever. Many killings of ex-combatants are believed to be the work of these factions.

Even so, the 2016 deal continues to offer a critically important framework for building a more peaceful and equitable Colombia. It should be fully implemented. Reforms like coca substitution will be vital in steering the countryside toward licit activities and ending reliance on eradication efforts that have misfired in the past. It is also important for the deal’s health, and the prospect of future agreements with other armed groups, that small-hold farmers and ex-combatants see concrete evidence that ending the war was in their interests. Redoubling efforts to protect ex-guerrillas from harm and ensuring they can engage in peaceful political activity is also crucial. Whether Comunes succeeds will be up to its leaders and the Colombian voters. But with or without the party, ex-combatants and parts of society such as small-hold farmers whom the FARC once claimed to fight for must be able to participate in politics without fear. Congress should revive a series of legislative projects mandated in the accord that have languished, including a new law to ensure that authorities respect the constitutionally protected right to peaceful protest.

The government should also re-examine its strategy for dealing with dissident groups, often led by former combatants but staffed with new recruits. Managing this threat will inevitably continue to involve some use of force. But tactics drawn from the playbook that Colombian forces used against the more hierarchical and monolithic FARC are not well suited to this fight. Striking leaders can simply fragment dissident groups and spark new, violent competition, leaving civilians caught in the crossfire. Rather than judging its success by the number of militants captured or hectares of coca destroyed, the government should measure progress by the amount of territory it has freed from the grip of armed groups. It should reconsider its emphasis on coca eradication and on surgical operations where troops enter areas for short periods and then leave, sometimes exposing locals to the risk of violent blowback from armed groups. At the same time, the government should stress its willingness to offer tailored demobilisation packages to individuals or groups.

As Colombia works toward fuller implementation of the 2016 accord, outside actors should look for ways to help. The U.S. could help former fighters prosper by following through with its long-overdue decision to remove the demobilised FARC from its list of foreign terrorist organisations. The sanctions that flow from that designation have prevented the successful economic and social reinsertion of many ex-combatants, who cannot do things as mundane as opening bank accounts, hindering their return to normal employment while limiting U.S. support for rural development. Donors can also help bolster the state’s capacity to hold accountable those responsible for killing demobilised FARC fighters.

The fifth anniversary of the 2016 peace agreement is a moment to reflect on the progress that has been made, take stock of the crucial work that remains to be done and recommit to finishing the job. The fate of the FARC’s men and women matters greatly for Colombia’s future. If Colombia’s leaders can show – as they still have the chance to do – that a guerrilla movement can shift to peaceful opposition, find livelihoods and see its core grievances addressed via democratic means, then the lure of arms may at last begin to subside.

Bogotá/New York/Brussels, 30 November 2021

Ex-combatants work in greenhouses and fish farms, powered by solar panels at the Miravalle FARC demobilisation camp. Caquetá, Colombia, August 2021. CRISIS GROUP / Tom Laffay

I. Introduction

At the time it signed its peace accord with the government, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) reported some 7,000 fighters and 2,800 militia members in its ranks, spread across roughly 22 per cent of the country’s municipalities.[fn]Comunicado de la Oficina del Alto Comisionado para la Paz”, press release, Colombian Presidency, 4 April 2017; “Zonas Postfarc”, Fundación Paz y Reconciliación, 28 June 2018; “Organizan el traslado de 2.800 milicianos de las FARC a zonas de desmovilización”, EFE, 9 June 2017.Hide Footnote  Although they had suffered major military setbacks in the years leading up to negotiations, the guerrillas had been a constant presence in many rural areas. In many of these areas, the FARC was the de facto public authority, arbitrating community disputes, administering a form of rough justice and setting the parameters of daily life.[fn]Daniel Pécaut, Las Farc: Una Guerrilla sin fin o sin fines? (Bogotá, 2008).Hide Footnote  At times, it obliged communities to contribute recruits; in some areas, it encouraged farmers to grow coca and punished those who resisted. Residents dealt with life under the rebels’ sway as best they could, contriving ways to maintain a degree of autonomy, though it was not easy. “In our area there was always a visible commander”, remembered one Indigenous authority.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Indigenous authority, Santander de Quilichao, July 2021.Hide Footnote

The FARC’s chief political goal was to overthrow Colombia’s rulers and remake the state.[fn]Officially founded in 1964, the FARC traces its origins as a guerrilla movement to campesino (small-hold farmer) self-defence groups. Politically, the FARC grew out of and remained close to Colombia’s Communist Party while admiring Soviet doctrine. The FARC proclaimed that it would combine “all forms of fighting” to achieve a classic Marxist revolution in which the proletariat would rise up against the wealthy classes. See Pécaut, Las FARC, op. cit., p. 25.Hide Footnote  Over five decades of fighting, the FARC sought to impose its program of Marxist revolution and agrarian transformation on Bogotá. Prior to the talks that led to the 2016 accord, three earlier rounds of negotiation – in 1984, 1991 and 1998-2002 – had failed to deliver what the guerrillas avowed to be the minimum they would accept to end their armed struggle, including a safe platform from which to continue their ideological campaign within formal democratic politics. With some justification, Colombian authorities suspected the rebels were simply using these peace processes to regroup.[fn]See Mauricio García Durán, De la Uribe a Tlaxcala procesos de paz (Bogotá, 1992); and Steven Dudley, Walking Ghosts (New York, 2004), p. 172.Hide Footnote

The experience of past failures shaped the FARC’s approach to secret talks with President Juan Manuel Santos’ government when they began in 2012.[fn]Juan Manuel Santos is now a member of the International Crisis Group’s Board of Trustees.Hide Footnote  The rebels were wary of laying down their arms in large part due to what happened to the Patriotic Union, a party founded by FARC ex-combatants in league with the Communist Party following a 1984 agreement with Bogotá. In the years that followed that accord, as many as 3,000 Union officials and supporters, including two presidential candidates, were assassinated in a relentless campaign of violent extermination.[fn]Roberto Romero Ospina, Unión Patriótica: Expedientes contra el olvido (Bogotá, 2012). Two subsequent rounds of negotiation between the FARC and government, in 1991 and beginning in 1998, collapsed as well. The 1991 talks sought to forge a shared agenda among the FARC and its fellow guerrilla movements, the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the Popular Liberation Army, but the three failed to reach consensus. During talks between 1998 and 2002 in San Vicente de Caguán, the government accused the FARC of using a demilitarised zone to regroup. In the end, the two parties could not agree on what to talk about. Renata Segura and Delphine Mechoulan, “Made in Havana: How Colombia and the FARC Decided to End the War”, International Peace Institute, February 2017.Hide Footnote  As a result, the 2016 agreement obliges the state to guarantee the political participation of opposition movements and to dismantle right-wing post-paramilitary groups that emerged from a previous demobilisation process and which could target the FARC as assassins did the Union.

Weakened by military offensives under the Santos administration and that of his predecessor, President Álvaro Uribe, but far from defeated, the FARC saw talks in Havana as an exit from a deadlocked war and a way to approximate its aspirations. In the rebels’ eyes, the peace accord represented the state’s solemn commitment to help them achieve their historical goals, first by creating a political party out of the movement and guaranteeing it seats in the legislature through 2026, and secondly by underwriting an ambitious reform package addressing rural inequality, supporting coca crop substitution and creating a transitional justice system for wartime crimes that included amnesty for most of the rank and file. Despite offering these incentives, however, the Santos government remained clear that its main objectives were to demobilise the guerrillas and end the conflict. As such, it established certain red lines.[fn]Juan Manuel Santos, La Batalla para la Paz (Bogotá, 2019), p. 320.Hide Footnote  Neither the free-market economy nor reform of the armed forces was on the table, although both were issues the FARC had previously insisted on debating.

After the parties announced their hard-won agreement in August 2016, a slim majority of Colombians voted against it in an October 2016 referendum. Stung by the backlash, the government scrambled to renegotiate parts of the text. The Colombian Congress ratified the revised version that December, bringing a formal end to a half-century of hostilities.[fn]Crisis Group Latin America Reports N°60, In the Shadow of “No”: Peace after Colombia’s Plebiscite, 31 January 2017; and N°67, Risky Business: The Duque Government’s Approach to Peace in Colombia, 21 June 2018.Hide Footnote  But the plebiscite’s failure unsettled the deal. In subsequent years, differing expectations between the sides, the difficulties of reform in Colombia’s rural areas and opposition to key aspects of the agreement relating to perceived judicial leniency for ex-FARC members (including by the current government of President Iván Duque) have alarmed the deal’s proponents.[fn]Camilo González Posso, “Cinco años de acuerdos de paz, transición a la paz o recomposición de violencias”, Indepaz, 18 September 2021; Jairo Estrada et al., “Reavivar el Acuerdo de Paz con las FARC-EP: Propuestas de planeación y política pública”, Centro de Pensamiento y Diálogo Político, August 2021.Hide Footnote

On the fifth anniversary of the 2016 accord, this report considers the extent to which that agreement has delivered on its promises to the FARC.[fn]In addition to the reports cited above, see Crisis Group Latin America Reports N°68, The Missing Peace: Colombia’s New Government and Last Guerrillas, 12 July 2018; and N°82, Leaders under Fire: Defending Colombia’s Front Line of Peace, 6 October 2020.Hide Footnote  It explores how former fighters have fared as they have striven to make peaceful civilian lives and participate in formal politics. It also suggests steps the state should take to implement unfulfilled aspects of the agreement in the interest of forging a more durable peace. It is based on some 200 interviews with ex-combatants, politicians, social and religious leaders, local and national government officials, military officers and international monitors during field research conducted in Antioquia, Cauca, Córdoba, Guaviare, Huila, Nariño, Putumayo, Valle de Cauca and Norte de Santander.

II. The FARC’s Farewell to Arms

Disarmament and demobilisation of the FARC have proven to be the outstanding successes of Colombia’s 2016 peace accord. Yet efforts to guide the guerrillas’ moves toward civilian life have spawned complications and undermined the former rebels’ ambitions and quest for political influence.

A. Demobilisation and Disarmament

The terms for the FARC’s demobilisation emerged from a subcommittee created as part of the Havana talks in February 2015 with the goal of formally ending hostilities.[fn]The FARC broadly rejects the term demobilisation, arguing that its forces have not demobilised but rather chosen to fight by peaceful means. Similarly, it rejects the terms reintegration and disarmament, preferring to use “reincorporation”. For ease of comparative discussion, this report relies on conventional disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration terminology.Hide Footnote  The subcommittee discussions produced an agreement to proceed with a bilateral ceasefire (the FARC had already declared a unilateral one) and an immediate handover of weapons. FARC fighters were to congregate in seven transition zones and then disperse among these sites and a further nineteen rural demobilisation zones, where they were to stay for six months as their comrades disarmed.[fn]Zonas Veredales, Dejación de Armas y Tránsito a la Legalidad de las FARC-EP Y la Construcción de Paz”, Office of the High Commissioner for Peace, Colombian Presidency, 2018, p. 83.Hide Footnote

The number and location of these sites were fiercely debated. Military delegates to the peace talks advocated that there be just ten zones in total, while the FARC requested 80.[fn]Crisis Group interview, member of Santos government negotiating team, Bogotá, October 2021.Hide Footnote  The government preferred areas far from key towns and infrastructure, outside protected ethnic territories and free of illicit trafficking routes.[fn]Not all these conditions were met, and a number of demobilisation zones are inside national parks and Indigenous reserves. Renata Segura and Sabrina Stein, “The FARC’s Collective Reintegration Project: Its Impact on Colombia’s DDR”, Social Science Research Council, July 2019.Hide Footnote  FARC delegates recall that their preference was for areas where the state’s writ was weak so that they would be able to take credit for the expansion of public services while maintaining a level of authority within communities.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, ex-combatant local leader, Caño Indio, June 2021; local Comunes representative, Mocoa, April 2021.Hide Footnote

The government had a strong preference for and extensive experience in ‘individual demobilisation’.

The guerrillas and government also differed as to the model of demobilisation. The government had a strong preference for and extensive experience in “individual demobilisation”, meaning the transition of former combatants to new paid employment or small business ownership, generally in cities. Some 33,000 of the right-wing paramilitaries who had assembled to fight the country’s left-wing insurgents had been absorbed in this fashion since the early 2000s, along with approximately 22,000 guerrillas.[fn]Segura and Stein, “The FARC’s Collective Reintegration Project: Its Impact on Colombia’s DDR”, op. cit. Paramilitaries first emerged in Colombia in the late 1960s, when legislation allowed the formation of private civic-military groups. The first groups were counter-insurgents with an anti-communist doctrine, but by the early 1980s prominent landowning families were forming bands of their own simply to protect their property. These outfits, which were outlawed in 1989, quickly developed links with drug cartels, working independently but often in close coordination with local elites and the armed forces. The paramilitaries eventually organised under an umbrella group, the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia, which terrorised campesinos. For more on the demobilisation of paramilitary groups, see “Inter-American Commission on Human Rights Follow-up on the Demobilization Process of the AUC in Colombia: 2004-2007”, Organization of American States, 2008.Hide Footnote

The FARC believed the individual demobilisation model was built for their enemies, the paramilitaries, and argued instead for collective reintegration in which large groups of former fighters would live together as they branched out into new livelihoods, mostly based on farming.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior Comunes official, Bogotá, September 2021.Hide Footnote  This approach, the guerrillas reasoned, would safeguard the chain of command, which the FARC believed was crucial to ensuring its political future in remote areas.[fn]Segura and Stein, “The FARC’s Collective Reintegration Project: Its Impact on Colombia’s DDR”, op. cit.Hide Footnote  They also imagined working in cooperative rural ventures that would serve as examples of how best to manage communal lands and shared profits in the Colombian countryside. At the same time, they expected that they would shift seamlessly from being an armed vanguard to being community organisers. “When we moved from the areas where we had influence to the concentration zones, we thought we would [still] be able to go back to [our previous territories] and do politics”, said one former mid-level commander.[fn]Crisis Group interview, local Comunes official, Mocoa, April 2021.Hide Footnote

In the end, the 2016 agreement was inconclusive as to which model would govern. The Agency for Reincorporation and Normalisation (which is responsible for supporting fighters’ return to civilian life) offered individual demobilisation opportunities to all ex-combatants, while leaving open the option for collective initiatives.

After several months of what the FARC called “peace instruction”, in which leaders explained the agreement to the rank and file, the membership overwhelmingly supported the accord and began to comply with its terms. Beginning on 1 December 2016, nearly 7,000 fighters gathered (as contemplated in Havana) in seven concentration zones and turned in their weapons to a UN Verification Mission before dispersing into a further nineteen rural areas, all over the span of 150 days. By 27 June 2017, the UN mission certified that it had collected all personal firearms – a total of 7,132.[fn]“Cronología Misión de la ONU en Colombia”, UN Verification Mission for Colombia, September 2017; “La misión recibe el conjunto de las armas individuales de las farc-ep de acuerdo a la hoja de ruta del 29 de mayo”, press release, UN Verification Mission for Colombia, 26 June 2017.Hide Footnote  The Agency for Reincorporation and Normalisation has accredited 13,998 former FARC members, including prisoners and civilian FARC militias, who also agreed to stand down.[fn]“Avances y Georreferenciación en Reincorporación”, Agency for Reincorporation and Normalisation, 30 April 2021. In addition to rank-and-file members as well as militia, the FARC demobilised 3,365 prisoners, “El proceso de paz de la Habana, la Ley de Amnistía e Indulto y los/as prisioneros/as politicos”, press release, Comunes, 21 February 2021.Hide Footnote

A combatant prepares for the laying down of arms in Buenos Aires, Cauca, in early 2017. Early on in the process, demobilisation sites lacked basic infrastructure and many stayed in temporary camps, as pictured here. CRISIS GROUP / Kyle Johnson

B. The Rocky Road to Reintegration

If laying down arms would prove to be among the more straightforward steps in demobilising the guerrillas, the same cannot be said of the transition to civilian life.[fn]Colombia: se aplaza la entrega de armas de las FARC en el marco del proceso de paz”, BBC Mundo, 30 May 2017.Hide Footnote  Beyond the broad strokes, negotiators devoted little attention to planning the guerrillas’ reintegration. The FARC also failed to anticipate the challenges its preferred collective approach would face, including the group’s own technical and political limitations.

Many challenges stemmed from a lack of clarity surrounding the demobilisation sites.

Many challenges stemmed from a lack of clarity surrounding the demobilisation sites. Although the parties had broadly defined the locations during talks, they had agreed upon little else by the time the FARC began relocating to these areas. As they arrived, guerrilla commanders were often the ones to say exactly where to set up housing and other infrastructure, none of which was in place.[fn]Crisis Group interview, member of Santos government negotiating team, Bogotá, October 2021.Hide Footnote

The government had expected ex-combatants to help build basic shelters and other facilities, as they thought the encampments would be in service only during the six-month process of handing over arms, and not act as long-term settlements for the newly civilian FARC.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote  Yet many fighters had been under the impression that they would have permanent housing, clean water and other services when they arrived. Indeed, this promise of a better life had convinced some to lay down their arms. “There was great uncertainty when we arrived”, recalled one female ex-combatant in Putumayo, a southern border department. “They told us they would deliver sites with facilities, but there was nothing – no housing. And there were women coming with their babies. The water was not safe to drink and we started to get sick”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, female ex-combatant, Mocoa, April 2021. “Pese a no estar listas las zonas, Farc pueden concentrarse”, Verdad Abierta, 26 January 2017.Hide Footnote

Gruelling negotiations ensued between the government and FARC about what to build at the demobilisation sites and who would build it. At first the government proposed tents, while some commanders requested brick houses. The government eventually agreed to construct permanent housing and communal spaces. By the end of May 2017 – with just a portion of the shelters finished – the government realised it would need to extend the demobilisation sites’ lifespans well beyond the planned six months.[fn]Crisis Group interview, member of Santos government negotiating team, Bogotá, October 2021. See also “Report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations Mission in Colombia”, UN Verification Mission for Colombia, 9 June 2017, p. 9.Hide Footnote  Most ex-combatants had no home to return to and no savings to draw upon to relocate.

The demobilisation sites were renamed Territorial Spaces for Capacitation and Reintegration (ETCRs) in August 2017, and they began to take on a new role as the FARC tried to realise its aspirations for collective reintegration. Most ETCRs have standardised rows of housing, shared bathrooms and communal areas; some have a health centre and a school. Many, though not all, are near other rural settlements. The military has maintained a security perimeter around the areas and patrols regularly in many.

Originally intended only for disarmament, the ETCRs were not chosen for their economic potential. While more than half the ex-combatants had farming experience before moving there, the remote sites, often hours by car or boat from the nearest town, proved ill-suited for agriculture given the difficulties of getting freshly harvested crops to market and the lack of cold storage.[fn]Caracterización comunidad FARC-EP: Resultados generales”, National University of Colombia, 6 July 2017.Hide Footnote  Moreover, while the government used presidential decrees to temporarily occupy the land for ETCRs, most plots were either not titled, in protected forests or parks, or in areas claimed by Indigenous or ethnic communities, placing limitations on building, cultivation and any other type of use.[fn]See, for example, “Decreto 2019 del 07 diciembre 2016”, Colombian Presidency, 7 December 2016; “Informe sobre el estado efectivo de implementación del acuerdo de paz en Colombia”, Kroc Institute, November 2017, p. 21. The government correctly points out that the peace agreement does not provide for the transfer of land ownership to ex-combatants. Nevertheless, it has committed to some such land grants and has since made some progress toward buying plots in ETCR areas. As of April 2021, the state had purchased nine plots of land for housing in ETCRs, with the goal of buying nineteen sites in total. “Gobierno entrega más de 1.000 hectáreas de tierra para la reincorporación”, press release, Agency for Reincorporation and Normalisation, 15 April 2021.Hide Footnote  Former combatants in the Putumayo ETCR of La Carmelita, near the Ecuador border, were told that the government could not buy the land because it was not all titled, meaning they would eventually have to leave.[fn]“Excombatientes en Putumayo, dispuestos a ser reubicados”, El Universal, 31 May 2019.Hide Footnote  The resulting uncertainty has depressed economic activity. “Many people had to leave the ETCR for economic reasons”, said one female ex-combatant. “There is nothing to do [in the zones]. No want wants to invest there because they know we’re not going to stay”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, female ex-combatant, Mocoa, April 2021.Hide Footnote

Within a year of the peace accord, most of the demobilised fighters had left the concentration zones in search of better opportunities elsewhere.

Within a year of the peace accord, most of the demobilised fighters had left the concentration zones in search of better opportunities elsewhere.[fn]“La reincorporación de las FARC tres años después: Desafíos y propuestas”, Fundación Ideas para la Paz, December 2019.Hide Footnote  As of September 2021, 10,500 former combatants, making up 77 per cent of all those registered, live outside ETCRs.[fn]“Report of the Secretary-General”, UN Verification Mission for Colombia, September 2021. Local authorities put the percentage even higher, at 80 per cent of demobilised combatants living outside ETCRs. See “Avances y Georreferenciación en Reincorporación”, Agency for Reincorporation and Normalisation, 30 April 2021.Hide Footnote  Most of the ex-combatants moved to cities or elsewhere in the countryside; today, there are nearly 100 New Areas of Reincorporation, de facto collective demobilisation zones that arose as groups of ex-combatants migrated from ETCRs to other locales where they could live and work close to one another. The Agency for Reincorporation and Normalisation, as well as the UN Verification Mission, the state Ombudsman and other entities, unofficially acknowledge these areas as part of the reintegration process, although they lack formal legal status and security guarantees.[fn]“La realidad de las nuevas áreas de reincorporación de excombatientes de las Farc”, El Espectador, 16 June 2020.Hide Footnote

 

C. Collective Challenges

At the same time that former fighters were coping with challenges in their concentration zones, the dispute over whether the guerrillas should integrate collectively or individually roiled the National Reintegration Council, a body created by the agreement and comprising two government and two FARC representatives, which has a mandate to approve seed financing for collective livelihood projects and resolve disagreements around the parameters for reintegration policy.[fn]The accord set up various similar joint bodies to monitor progress, such as the Commission for Follow-up, Promotion and Verification of the Peace Accord. Each body included members from the Colombian government and the former FARC.Hide Footnote  During the Santos administration, collective projects faced strong resistance from the Agency for Reincorporation and Normalisation, for both political and practical reasons. Critics of the agreement warned that the guerrillas would exercise undue influence in the countryside if they remained grouped together.[fn]Zonas veredales: ¿las Farc llegaron para quedarse?”, Semana, 18 March 2017.Hide Footnote  Meanwhile, the Agency had no internal expertise or rules to govern the handling of collective initiatives, both of which had to be developed from scratch.

The centrepiece of the FARC’s plans for collective reintegration was meant to be a national business cooperative, Economías Sociales del Común (Ecomún).[fn]Nace Ecomún, la primera empresa cooperativa de las Farc”, press release, Colombian Labour Ministry, 3 July 2017.Hide Footnote  Legally registered in July 2017, Ecomún is intended to pilot an alternative economic model in rural areas, focused on redistribution, sustainable development and grassroots small business projects. More specifically, it is to act as a legal umbrella that could enable the establishment of local ex-FARC associations; these in turn could share administrative costs, provide technical assistance to projects and redistribute profits among all members, with the aim of strengthening unity among the former FARC fighters and creating a business model rooted in values of solidarity. One proponent of collective projects explained:

The government wants us all to do the individual route, but we believe that if we do collective reintegration, we will reinforce our identity, our cohesion and our beliefs. If I have an individual project, the benefits will be only for me. We are part of a process, a revolution, just by being here [in a collective project].[fn]Crisis Group interview, El Estrecho, November 2021.Hide Footnote

Ecomún has also sought to give ex-combatants greater independence in setting the terms for their own reintegration, providing legal infrastructure for the economic projects local ex-combatants sought to pursue. Yet financing for business ventures depended first on the state and second on the FARC’s successor political party, since these were the two members of the council that approved seed financing for all ex-combatants’ collective proposals.[fn]Álvaro Eduardo Restrepo Ramírez, “Entre la incertidumbre y la esperanza: ECOMUN una apuesta colectiva de transformación”, Universidad de Rosario, July 2019.Hide Footnote  The government’s support for collective initiatives was lukewarm to begin with, however, and the reincorporation agency also imposed requirements, including for legal registrations, environmental assessments and even bank accounts, that the former guerrillas could not always meet.[fn]The formal reintegration policy for the FARC was only finalised in June 2018, a year after demobilisation had ended. “Documento CONPES 3931”, National Planning Department, 22 June 2018. The reincorporation agency evaluates and determines whether or not to fund individual projects. Collective projects involving more than one ex-combatant move through the National Reintegration Commission (CNR), which vets them based on evidence of proper technical, environmental, commercial, social and financial planning. “La reincorporación económica de los excombatientes de las FARC. Retos y riesgos a futuro”, Fundación Ideas para la Paz, July 2019, pp. 28-29.Hide Footnote

Access to the financial system was a particular challenge as banks sought to avoid running afoul of the U.S. Treasury Department, which had long designated the FARC as a terrorist organisation, thereby creating broad-gauged sanctions against those supporting or doing business with it. Some demobilised individuals remained designated as well. Among those listed was Ecomún’s original legal representative, who had to be replaced in order to register the cooperative.[fn]Local cooperatives or associations that used the term FARC or related words in their name, or that had listed members, reported numerous banks turning them down. Crisis Group interviews, senior Comunes official, Bogotá, September 2021; adviser to economic cooperative project, Tumaco, October 2021.Hide Footnote

Ecomún has not become the force that the FARC imagined.[fn]Germán Darío Valencia Agudelo and Fredy Alexander Chaverra Colorado, “Cooperativismo y reincorporación socioeconómica de exintegrantes de las Farc-EP en Colombia”, Revista de Paz y Conflictos, vol. 12, no. 2 (2019).Hide Footnote  Almost immediately after its creation, Ecomún found itself in an economic crisis, since the National Reintegration Council had approved relatively few projects, in effect preventing the broader cooperative from receiving the seed financing it required. As of April 2021, the reintegration council had approved 90 collective projects, not all under Ecomún’s auspices, benefiting roughly 3,400 ex-combatants – far fewer than the majority the FARC had imagined. A similar number of ex-combatants are working in individual projects. Splits within the FARC’s successor political party have also set back Ecomún, as rival factions have sought control of the association’s operations and governance.[fn]“Exguerrilleros de las Farc denuncian ‘sabotaje’ de Comunes a asamblea que buscó modificar cooperativa pionera en reincorporación”, Infobae, 27 September 2021.Hide Footnote

D. Family Life

For many women, the pressures generated by the sudden, sweeping change that followed the 2016 deal were particularly acute. While under arms, women were not permitted to have children and, if they became pregnant, they had to leave new-borns in the care of family members. When they demobilised, many women began to start families and reclaim custody of their older children. Government officials involved in reintegration celebrated the change, trusting that family responsibilities would provide a sense of stability and commitment and keep male fighters from returning to war.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior reincorporation agency official, Bogotá, January 2020.Hide Footnote  Yet the shift to nuclear family life came at a cost. Female ex-combatants reported that domestic abuse rose among demobilised couples as the two partners settled into more traditional gender roles. “In the war, there were rules about domestic violence, because you were mistreating your fellow combatant”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, female ex-combatant leader, Caño Indio, June 2021.Hide Footnote  Unlike in the guerrilla movement, there are few mechanisms for reporting abuse, protecting victims or arbitrating between parties.[fn]Although the government stations police and soldiers in the ETCRs, many women in these areas report feeling unable to report domestic violence due to stigma, fear of reprisal and lack of safe spaces to flee to. Crisis Group interviews, female ex-combatants in ETCRs, Charras and Caño Indio, May and June 2021.Hide Footnote

Women often cannot turn to their extended family for support because of the stigma attached to having participated in the war.

Life in the reintegration zones has often proven unaffordable as well, particularly for women with children. Becoming just like “any other Colombian” left many scrambling to put food on the table.[fn]Crisis Group interview, ex-combatant, Tibú, June 2021.Hide Footnote  As part of the 2016 agreement, the state pays each ex-combatant 90 per cent of the national minimum salary each month, but this wage is hardly generous.[fn]In 2017, 90 per cent of the minimum salary was roughly 664,000 Colombian pesos, equivalent to about $225 based on the annual average exchange rate. At first, the allowance for ex-combatants was set to expire after two years, but it has been extended several times and is now set to continue until January 2022.Hide Footnote  Because the ETCRs lack provisions for child care, many women cannot work to supplement this pay unless they bring their children with them or leave them with other caregivers.[fn]“Informe sobre el estado efectivo de implementación del acuerdo de paz en Colombia”, op. cit., p. 15.Hide Footnote  This problem has grown more acute during the COVID-19 pandemic as schools and day care facilities closed. The minimum salary has had to cover not only a mother’s costs but also those of her children. Furthermore, women often cannot turn to their extended family for support because of the stigma attached to having participated in the war.[fn]At the time of demobilisation, 77 per cent of former FARC fighters reported having no home to return to. “Caracterización comunidad FARC-EP: Resultados generales”, National University of Colombia, 6 July 2017. Crisis Group interview, female former senior FARC commander, Bogotá, September 2021.Hide Footnote

Finally, aside from the logistical and financial challenges, the transition to civilian life came as a shock to some former FARC members, pushing them away from the collective living model that guerrilla leaders favoured and hoped to retain post-demobilisation. According to one female ex-fighter:

In the ranks, all of our time was scheduled. We just had to follow through with our duties. Here, we have to decide everything about our lives – what to put in the soup, what colour clothes to wear. We knew nothing about the Colombian state or how reality works. We transitioned from being a group to being individuals.[fn]Crisis Group interview, female ex-combatant, Caño Indio, June 2021.Hide Footnote

Female ex-combatants in Charras, Guaviare, work in a sewing project inside the reintegration area. Colombia, May 2021. CRISIS GROUP / Elizabeth Dickinson

E. Mid-ranking Officers

FARC’s former mid-ranking officers are central to understanding the challenges affecting the former insurgency’s ability to find its social, economic and political footing. These mid-ranking officers were arguably in the strongest position to become cooperative business leaders and local political figures after the war. Today, however, very few of these individuals occupy those roles. A small number abandoned the process early on to form FARC “dissident” factions – a phenomenon discussed at greater length below. These defectors have placed enormous pressure on field commanders who remain committed to demobilisation, killing dozens who decline to take up arms again and forcibly displacing many more.

The FARC’s mid-ranking officers in 2016 were part of a younger generation of guerrillas. In the insurgency’s final years, the FARC devolved its leadership functions from a central command to regionally focused officers with specialised knowledge of the particular areas where they were operating.[fn]In 2010, after suffering strategic defeats and losing key commanders, the FARC began to operate in smaller groups scattered across larger areas. It placed more emphasis on collecting intelligence to mount attacks on state infrastructure and personnel. See Camilo Echandía Castilla, “Situación actual de las FARC: Un análisis de los cambios en las estrategias y la territorialidad (1990-2011)”, Fundación Ideas para la Paz, 2011; León Valencia and Ariel Ávila, “La nueva realidad de las FARC”, Observatorio del Conflicto Armado, July 2011.Hide Footnote  The mid-ranking officers who emerged had deep knowledge of the terrain, including criminal rackets, but less grounding in the guerrillas’ ideological foundations. “After the accord, we had a problem: we had lots of ex-combatants but very few mid-level officers who had been politically trained”, said one ex-regional commander. “They were excellent in operations and questions of war, but not politically. … This is the problem we are seeing today”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former regional commander, Bogotá, September 2021.Hide Footnote

Military officers and high-level former combatants report that many of those who abandoned the demobilisation process to rejoin armed groups came from precisely this cohort of business-minded veterans.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior military officer, Mocoa, April 2021; senior military officer, Santander de Quilichao and Bogotá, February and October 2020; former FARC commander, Cali, February 2020.Hide Footnote  For this first wave of so-called dissidents, other mid-ranking officers were prime recruits given their economic and military know-how.

The dissident groups have not made it easy for prospective recruits to refuse them. “If we are not with them, they consider us traitors”, said one mid-level commander who has been threatened by dissident groups and now lives in a medium-sized city.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former mid-level commander, Cúcuta, May 2021.Hide Footnote  Mid-level leaders who resisted recruitment by dissidents often had to leave concentration zones for their own safety, as well as that of fellow combatants.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, ex-combatants, Santander de Quilichao and Cali, July 2021.Hide Footnote

For these and other reasons, within a matter of months after demobilisation began, former field commanders had left many regions. This leadership vacuum dented the guerrillas’ ability to establish peacetime relations with people living nearby. Today, there is a stark difference between zones where former commanders have stayed or new leaders have emerged, on one hand, and zones from which the mid-ranking officers have fled.[fn]As of April 2021, 24 of the 26 original ETCRs are operational. Santa Lucía in Ituango, Antioquia closed due to security concerns, as did Gallo in Córdoba. But only eleven ETCRs are home to more than 100 ex-combatants. “Registro Nacional de Reincorporación”, Agencia para la Reincorporación y la Normalización, 30 April 2021.Hide Footnote

An example of successful local leadership can be found in Charras, Guaviare. The ETCR runs on a clear set of 22 rules ranging from communal cleaning responsibilities to the time canteens must close their doors at night. Residents resolve disputes through regular assemblies with an elected leadership. Former combatants work on communal agricultural projects, producing basic sustenance that has attracted ex-combatants from other zones.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, female ex-combatants, Charras, May 2021.Hide Footnote  Nearby residents describe the demobilised fighters as good neighbours with whom they share a school and an ambulance. They often ask leaders from the ETCR to mediate problems between them and the ex-combatant population.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, former combatants and community members, Charras, May 2021.Hide Footnote

Former fighters live in similar harmony with locals in informal settlements around Neiva, Huila, in the western part of the country, where former mid-level officers have organised 240 ex-combatants and other residents with aspirations to start egg and dairy cooperatives.[fn]This project includes efforts at reconciliation with the local population, which includes many victims of the former FARC. Crisis Group interviews, victims of FARC and former combatants working in cooperative, Neiva, September 2021.Hide Footnote

By contrast, a markedly different dynamic has been on view in northern Cauca, not far from the Pacific coast. Former guerrillas in the Elvira demobilisation zone, south of the city of Cali, were the first in the country to register a cooperative after the peace accord, with the goal of combining sustainable farming, cash crops such as coffee and small stores.[fn]“Trabajando por quedarse: la reincorporación de las Farc en el Cauca”, El Espectador, 28 April 2018.Hide Footnote  As dissident groups in the area gained strength in 2018 and 2019, however, former FARC commanders fled to avoid recruitment and death threats, followed by most of the rank and file.[fn]Cauca reports the highest number of homicides of former combatants, with 49 as of August. On 24 August, Colombia’s transitional justice court, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), ordered authorities to take new measures to protect ex-combatants. AUTO SAR AI-044-2021, JEP Tribunal Para la Paz, 24 August 2021.Hide Footnote  Today, the ETCR is awaiting urgent relocation due to security threats.[fn]“Report of the Secretary-General”, op. cit.Hide Footnote  Many former guerrillas are fending for themselves, trying to blend in with the locals, often with the help of individual businesses backed by the state. Former combatants complain of persistent mistrust between themselves and other civilians.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, former combatants, Santander de Quilichao, July 2021.Hide Footnote  They say they try not to make friends, who might tell would-be assailants where they live.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote  As one senior figure who has moved away from the area put it: “You can only reintegrate if you are invisible. But how can you reconstruct your life if you cannot tell anyone who you are?”[fn]Crisis Group interview, former senior FARC member, Cali, July 2021.Hide Footnote

F. Threats, Violence and Ostracism

Violence has deeply scarred the former FARC’s membership as it demobilises and tries to find a peacetime role. As of September, the UN has counted 292 former combatants assassinated since 2016. Many hundreds more have faced threats, been displaced from their reintegration zones or homes, or experienced stigmatisation and discrimination. A growing number of reintegrated fighters compare the situation to that of the Patriotic Union after 1984, saying they would rather avoid any public role or visible communal leadership than risk being killed or forced to move. This fear has devastated a number of efforts at economic and social reintegration. In regions such as Cauca and Meta, economic projects have come under direct threat, forcing ex-combatants to abandon them entirely.

‘In school, they call our children names and bully them because I am a former guerrilla.’

Even when not threatened with violence, former combatants say they are ostracised socially and denied job opportunities. Such stigmatisation has harmed not only reintegrated fighters but also their families. “In school, they call our children names and bully them because I am a former guerrilla”, one mother explained. “What does my daughter have to do with this?”[fn]Crisis Group interview, female ex-combatant, Neiva, September 2021.Hide Footnote

Facing criticism at home and abroad, the Colombian government has created a set of mechanisms aimed at improving security for ex-combatants. The military continues to patrol the vicinity of ETCRs, rendering them far safer for ex-combatants than nearby cities or towns. Still, living in proximity to the armed forces also puts former fighters at risk of being labelled as informants.[fn]“The ex-combatants in the western region of Norte de Santander have been identified by the armed groups in the area as possible informants for the military”. Crisis Group interview, international monitoring official, Cúcuta, June 2021. In Guaviare, some ex-combatants have asked the military to keep its distance, holding conversations with officers only in private so as not to be seen as too closely allied. Crisis Group interview, ETCR leadership figure, San José del Guaviare, May 2021.Hide Footnote  The National Protection Unit, a federal office responsible for safeguarding endangered political and civil society leaders, has approved just under 600 security schemes – which can include armoured cars, bodyguards or simply improved communication equipment – for former guerrillas.[fn]“Report of the Secretary-General”, op. cit. A Special committee within the Unit that includes FARC representation takes decisions about whether to grant protection. “3.4.7.4.1 Subdirección especializada de seguridad y protección en la UNP”, Final Agreement for Ending the Conflict and Building a Stable and Lasting Peace, 24 November 2016.Hide Footnote  As of July, roughly 700 more requests for protection were awaiting a decision.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, official, Office of the Commission for Stabilisation, September 2021. In July, the JEP ordered the Commission to determine the status of these pending requests within twenty days.Hide Footnote

Although the overall number of assassinations dropped in 2020, other types of violence rose, such as forced displacement.[fn]Crisis Group interview, international monitoring official, Bogota, September 2021.Hide Footnote  Ex-combatants in ETCRs in El Diamante, Meta in Colombia’s east and Santa Lucía, Antioquia in its centre were relocated entirely because of security concerns; those at four other sites are awaiting similar relocation.[fn]“Report of the Secretary-General”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Impunity for crimes against ex-combatants remains the rule rather than the exception, contributing to a general sense of terror. “They have killed many of us”, one former fighter said. “No one is arrested, and this generates a lot of fear among the population”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, ex-combatant, San José del Guaviare, May 2021.Hide Footnote  The Attorney General’s Office operates a Special Investigation Unit intended to speed up enquiries into these cases. Government officials point out that the unit solves up to 50 per cent more homicides than police nationwide, but it has nevertheless struggled to find culprits, particularly the people or groups ordering the hits, many of which are carried out by contract killers.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, senior official, Colombian Presidency, October 2021. The Budget Inspector’s Office (Controlaría) reports that the investigative unit has made progress in “clarifying” responsibility in 55 per cent of 415 cases, including both ex-combatants and their family members. In just 45 cases, however, have the culprits received sentences. “Quinto informe sobre la ejecución de los recursos y cumplimiento de las metas del componente para la paz del Plan Plurianual de Inversiones”, Budget Inspector’s Office, September 2021, p. 156.Hide Footnote  In Norte de Santander department, for example, the unit says it has identified the guilty parties in half its 40 cases of homicide and serious threats, but officials acknowledge that they know who ordered the crime in just five of those cases.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Special Investigation Unit official, June 2021.Hide Footnote

The rate of success in bringing cases to trial is even lower. There are just two convictions for crimes against former FARC members in Cauca, one of the most affected departments with 49 killings as of September.[fn]“Report of the Secretary-General”, op. cit. The JEP recognises 49 homicides in Cauca, while local authorities recognise 47.Hide Footnote

III. Wading into Democratic Politics

With the 2016 agreement providing for the FARC to create a political party – Comunes – and receive ten designated seats split equally between Colombia’s Lower House and Senate, the group’s leadership anticipated (as it turned out unrealistically) that it would shape implementation of the peace accord and play a prominent part in Colombian politics. According to one senior ex-guerrilla, the party was in the leadership’s view “the most important institution” to emerge from the accord.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior Comunes official, Bogotá, September 2021.Hide Footnote  The former FARC has struggled, however, to find a political voice at the local and national levels. Four years into its existence, Comunes faces divisions within its ranks over its handling of reintegration and its relationship to rural areas.

A. The Loss of Rural Influence

Throughout the negotiations leading to the final accord, rebel commanders overestimated their support in rural areas – as well as their ability to regain it after demobilising. Although some residents where the FARC was active sympathised with and even shared the movement’s grievances and demands, the political sway of the guerrillas had depended to a large extent on their armed power. As one Comunes official put it: “One thing is leadership with a gun in hand. Another is leadership as a person reincorporated in society”.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, senior Comunes official, September 2021.Hide Footnote

Once the FARC was no longer in charge … relationships between ex-combatants and communities had to be rebuilt completely.

Once the FARC was no longer in charge, and particularly in areas where new armed outfits took the guerrillas’ place, relationships between ex-combatants and communities had to be rebuilt completely. Former fighters in some cases struggled to maintain their ties with civil society organisations they had tolerated or in some cases helped mould during the insurgency. In southern Córdoba, for instance, farmers’ and coca growers’ organisations that had lived alongside the FARC faced reprisals and accusations of alleged collaboration with the guerrillas from the Gulf Clan post-paramilitary group, which swept across former FARC territory starting in 2018.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, leaders of campesino organisation, Montería, October 2019 and August 2021.Hide Footnote

Elsewhere, residents were distrustful of demobilised fighters and wary of association with them, citing the risks to their own security, amid rising violence against former FARC fighters. Some had been victims of the guerrillas; others complained that ex-combatants monopolised aid flows. “There were a lot of difficulties” with the demobilised FARC, said one Indigenous authority. “In many places, they were not welcome. There was a lack of trust and few connections with the community”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Santander de Quilichao, July 2021.Hide Footnote

Much of this blowback came as a surprise to former FARC leaders, who had anticipated that the presence of ex-guerrillas in rural areas during reincorporation would oblige the state to set up local branches of development agencies and establish health and education services that would benefit both former fighters and the communities nearby. They hoped locals would see their presence as beneficial.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, ex-combatant leaders in Caño Indio, Caquetá and Nariño, June, September and October 2021.Hide Footnote  In fact, aid often reached only ex-combatants. Conscious that tensions were rising as a result, a number of former fighters argued for sharing aid with nearby residents.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, UN official, March 2020.Hide Footnote  Many others among the demobilised, however, were preoccupied with their own daily survival. “We were just focused on resolving our futures, not thinking about organising in local communities”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former senior FARC member, Cali, February 2020.Hide Footnote

Government delays and failures to undertake reforms … undermined the FARC’s local influence.

Government delays and failures to undertake reforms enshrined in the peace process further undermined the FARC’s local influence. The guerrillas had reassured communities reluctant to trust the government’s pledges of rural reform and crop substitution that Bogotá would keep its promises. In Catatumbo, north-eastern Colombia, the group helped organise some of the first meetings between the state and small-hold farmers to discuss rural development plans. “The FARC helped bring people on board and convinced them that they could trust the process”, explained one state official. “Entering the territory was not hard with their support”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, official, National Land Agency, Cúcuta, April 2021.Hide Footnote  Ex-combatants across the country also helped enrol participants in the National Program for Integral Substitution, devised to help farmers who voluntarily uprooted their coca to start growing other crops.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, senior Comunes official, Bogotá, September 2021; former mid-level commander, Cúcuta, May 2021.Hide Footnote

When these programs fell short of expectations, both the government and the FARC paid a political price. One local analyst in Guaviare recalled frustration about coca substitution. “Farmers said to the ex-combatants, ‘This is your fault, for convincing us to join’”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, local security analyst, San José del Guaviare, May 2021.Hide Footnote  Former fighters on the ground, meanwhile, had few means of ensuring that the state would honour its pledges.

Rural development programs have bred a similar cycle of expectation and disappointment that has damaged the FARC’s reputation. Beginning in 2017, residents in sixteen conflict-affected regions worked up a list of priorities for rural development. In addition to helping organise the community meetings, ex-combatants in some regions were part of the civilian advisory groups convened by the government as a means to support consultation with communities over the programs’ rollout. “The community saw us as an ally to fight for implementation”, said a local ex-combatant leader involved in rural development.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, September 2021.Hide Footnote  Today, however, many rural dwellers involved in the initial discussions say the government has chosen its own priorities over theirs, for example by favouring roads over reconciliation projects. “When we started to have difficulties, the communities came to us [the FARC] and said, ‘What are we going to do? The government is not complying. They are ignoring what was agreed to’”.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

The difficulties of rebuilding the FARC’s influence in the countryside became conspicuous during Colombia’s nationwide strike in mid-2021. Protesters who took to the streets from April to June demanded police reform and greater economic equality, among other things. Demonstrators in rural areas called for greater equity and development in the countryside, including through implementation of the peace accord.[fn]Crisis Group Latin America Report N°90, The Pandemic Strikes: Responding to Colombia’s Mass Protests, 2 July 2021.Hide Footnote  Many demobilised guerrillas saw the strike as a continuation of their own fight.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, ex-combatant in Huila, June 2021.Hide Footnote  In some cases, ex-FARC members joined and helped organise demonstrations – in Guaviare, Meta, Caquetá, Huila and parts of Norte de Santander.[fn]Two of the five spokespersons of departmental strike committees in Caquetá were ex-combatants, while former FARC leaders supported social organisations in sustaining a road blockade in Norte de Santander. Crisis Group telephone interview, former combatant in leadership role in local strike committee in Caquetá, September 2021.Hide Footnote  Yet in other rural areas, particularly those still affected by conflict, and in larger cities, stigma and fear of reprisal caused many former fighters to retreat from public view.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior former FARC figure, Cali, July 2021.Hide Footnote  In Tibú, which is particularly dangerous for former fighters, one explained: “All of us have recently disarmed, so we do not feel we can even have an opinion about this strike. We are afraid to participate”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, ex-combatant, Tibú, June 2021.Hide Footnote

A number of ex-combatants cite delays in implementing the peace accord’s chapter on political reform as one reason for their reluctance to participate in civic activity of any kind.[fn]For example, ex-combatants who demobilised while in prison say they fear arrest for peaceful protest, which could send them back to jail to finish unserved time for past convictions. Crisis Group interviews, ex-combatants, Tibú and Tumaco, June and October 2021.Hide Footnote  New legal measures to bolster the right to peaceful protest, for example, have not passed Congress, while a legal reform to ensure the safety of the political opposition has been spottily enforced in the countryside.[fn]“Informe Trimestral: Estado Efectivo de la Implementación del Acuerdo Final, julio-septiembre 2021”, KROC Institute, November 2021, pp. 14-19.Hide Footnote

B. Leadership and Legislation

The FARC’s successor political party was born on 1 September 2017, after disarmament was complete. The first party congress voted to adopt the name Alternative Communal Revolutionary Forces (regrettably maintaining the acronym FARC), which it retained until 2021, when members approved the change to Comunes.

From its earliest days, the party has struggled to unite the disparate interests that had been camouflaged inside a military hierarchy but began to emerge during peace talks. At the heart of disputes are rival opinions about whether and to what extent the organisation’s leadership should be decentralised. The fractures derive from tensions over whether former fighters or allied urban intellectuals should take leadership positions; disagreement over how to fill congressional seats and allocate resources; and frustration among local ex-FARC leaders at their limited access to central party decision-making.[fn]Segura and Stein, “The FARC’s Collective Reintegration Project: Its Impact on Colombia’s DDR”, op. cit. Crisis Group interviews, senior former FARC commanders, September 2021.Hide Footnote

One of the new party’s first decisions was to maintain a centralised leadership cohort. Members of the central command retained their leadership positions with only one civilian joining the fifteen-member Political Council.[fn]At the moment of the party’s creation, its leadership included: Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri (alias Timochenko), Luciano Marín Arango (alias Iván Márquez), Jorge Torres Victoria (alias Pablo Catatumbo), Milton de Jesús Toncel (alias Joaquin Gómez), Julián Gallo Cubillos (alias Carlos Antonio Lozada), Ricardo Téllez (alias Rodrigo Granda), Félix Antonio Muñoz (alias Pastor Alape), Juan Ermilo Cabrera (alias Bertulfo Álvarez), Jaime Alberto Parra (alias Mauricio Jaramillo), Griselda Lobo Silva (alias Sandra Ramírez), Francy María Orrego (alias Erika Montero), Judith Simanca Herrera (alias Victoria Sandino), Eloisa Rivera Rojas (alias Liliana Castellano), Israel Zuñiga (alias Benkos Biohó) and Jairo Estrada. “Así inicia el partido de las Farc,” Generación Paz, 7 September 2017.Hide Footnote  Many of these same individuals filled the party’s Senate and Lower House seats and claimed representation in the peace accord’s joint monitoring bodies. According to some Comunes officials, the control of leadership positions by this narrow circle was a mistake that later handicapped the party’s authority with the demobilised rank and file. Said one: “What they have done is to have one group impose its hegemony over the other, rather than build consensus”.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, former FARC political council member, September 2021.Hide Footnote

For many Colombians, FARC leaders’ roles in past atrocities make them unpalatable candidates [in elections].

These missteps have made it harder for the former guerrillas to build a decent base of electoral support. For many Colombians, FARC leaders’ roles in past atrocities make them unpalatable candidates, while no new charismatic figures have been allowed to rise to prominence. While the party did not field a presidential candidate in 2018, it did present a list of 23 candidates for Senate and thirteen for the Lower House in the preceding congressional elections. Garnering just 55,587 votes – under 0.5 per cent – the party retained only the ten seats it had been guaranteed through 2026 in the peace accord. In local elections in 2019, party candidates – only one third of whom were ex-combatants, with the rest composed of new civilian members of the party – fared little better. FARC candidates won just two mayoral elections in coalition with other left-leaning parties.

Party members and candidates argue that they face structural disadvantages in campaigns, including a severe lack of funding compared to other contenders. They also say their supporters may not be registered or inclined to vote.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former FARC commander, Bogotá, September 2021.Hide Footnote  Yet the results also demonstrated the extent of Colombians’ resentment of the FARC’s prolonged insurgency, as well as the gap between the former guerrillas’ Marxist rhetoric and the public mood. In rural areas, the results showed that the demobilised FARC had lost its influence and failed to form political coalitions to recover it.

For those party members who did become part of the legislature, the difficulty of forming alliances soon became clear. While some welcomed the ex-FARC figures as members of a broad front supporting the peace accord in opposition to President Duque’s government, one FARC senator described the environment as overwhelmingly hostile. “There was a vulgar discourse against us and many elements that wanted to destroy our ability to build relationships”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Comunes senator, Bogotá, September 2021.Hide Footnote

The newly named representatives lacked experience in legislative politics and spent much of their time in the early months learning the ropes of procedure. According to one opposition member of Congress, FARC colleagues sought to make up for their inexperience by preparing for debates far more thoroughly than other legislators.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, October 2021.Hide Footnote  Other sources reported that the FARC representatives also contributed to their own isolation with rigid dogma that failed to connect with the reality of the urban middle class, whose concerns dominate political debate. Another centrist congressional deputy described the ex-FARC representatives as uninterested in constructing innovative proposals or in forming coalitions outside their comfort zone on the left.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, October 2021.Hide Footnote

Comunes officials acknowledge that the party will not be competitive in elections when its designated congressional seats expire in 2026, and they are advocating for an extension to 2042, which they are unlikely to get.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior Comunes official, Bogotá, September 2021.Hide Footnote  As in 2018, Comunes has failed to convince left-leaning parties to enter a formal coalition with it heading into the 2022 polls. Leading progressive candidate Gustavo Petro has declined to have Comunes join his coalition, and today there is a deep rupture between his Colombia Humana party and Comunes’ leadership. Still, many individual ex-combatants are likely to support Petro’s campaign, and the candidate has reportedly told supporters from the former FARC that he is open to accepting their help so long as they work outside the umbrella of Comunes.

Indeed, by shifting to competitive democratic politics, the demobilised FARC has enabled the broader political left in Colombia to shed its own stigma of association with rural insurgency and gain popularity and votes. Although he lost in the second round of elections in 2018 to Duque, Petro scored the highest percentage by a left-wing candidate in a presidential poll in Colombian history. Ahead of 2022 elections, Petro again appears well positioned to challenge for the top office, while Comunes is unlikely to field a candidate.

A communal building at the Caño Indio reintegration site in Tibu, Norte de Santander, documents memories of the FARC before fighters laid down arms. Colombia, June 2021. CRISIS GROUP / Elizabeth Dickinson

C. Internal Fractures

Today, a sizeable number of former guerrillas argue that Comunes no longer represents their interests. A breakaway group of senior and local party officials has sought to create a new movement focused on decentralising leadership and addressing what they say is a “grave crisis” in the reintegration process.[fn]“Open Letter to Colombian President Iván Duque”, Neiva, 19 September 2021.Hide Footnote Arguing that Comunes is too devoted to national politics and overly conciliatory toward the government, these leaders in the countryside say they have confronted the challenges of reintegration alone. The party has failed to provide political support to allay their daily frustrations or push the government to implement the peace accord, they argue. According to one local leader, Comunes is “irrelevant” to their reintegration efforts.[fn]Crisis Group interview, ex-combatant leader, Santander de Quilichao, July 2020.Hide Footnote

A group of breakaway officials wrote to the party on 10 August requesting a legal split in Comunes, thereby creating two political parties with a claim to represent the ex-combatant population in peace process coordination and control of reserved congressional seats.[fn]“Solicitud de Escisión del Partido de la transición política del acuerdo final para la terminación del conflicto y la construcción de una paz estable y duradera”, Letter to the National Political Council of Comunes, 10 August 2021.Hide Footnote  Although the party is unlikely to approve this request, in September, the same group formed the Autonomous Forum for Reintegration and Peace, and officially asked the Colombian government to liaise with it as the representative of part of the ex-combatant population.[fn]“Open Letter to Colombian President Iván Duque”, op. cit.Hide Footnote  The reintegration agency, as well as the UN mission, have since held several meetings with representatives from the new forum. Comunes, for its part, expelled a number of high-profile critics in 2020 and 2021.[fn]In 2020, party leaders expelled Jesús Emilio Carvajalino (alias Andrés París), José Benito Cabrera Cuevas (alias Fabián Ramírez), Benedicto de Jesús González and Ubaldo Enrique Zúñiga (alias Pablo Atrato). González had been chosen as the replacement to fill Jesús Santrich’s congressional seat while Zúñiga is a senator. In March 2021, the party said neither Zúñiga nor Senator Victoria Sandino would be allowed to keep a seat after the current term ends.Hide Footnote

Internal political schisms are not new for the FARC but they have rarely been so visible. Former FARC leaders on both sides of this political divide agree that fissures began opening in the party even before the 2016 accord was signed. During the insurgency, military discipline papered over differences of opinion to safeguard the unity of decision-making with the central command.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, senior Avanzar official, September 2021.Hide Footnote  Negotiations over delicate issues such as disarmament and gender brought these frustrations to the surface, with some favouring gradual disarmament, for example, rather than the immediate handover of weapons that in fact occurred. According to some of those who have broken with party leadership, resentment also stems from desultory communication with the rank and file during the Havana negotiations. One leader of the Comunes breakaway movement said: “We all trusted the negotiators, but this was exactly the problem. They didn’t share the details of the accord with us, and worse, they told us lies”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior official in Comunes breakaway movement, Neiva, September 2021.Hide Footnote

The ex-guerrillas’ rapid loss of influence in the countryside intensified discord. As former mid-level and senior commanders left rural areas, the majority out of fear for their own safety, former fighters began to voice a sense of abandonment. “The commanders left us”, one female ex-combatant said. “There are very few leaders who remained for us. … They are living like kings in Bogotá”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, female ex-combatant, Santander de Quilichao, July 2021.Hide Footnote

At the same time, senior figures in the party have disagreed about how to liaise with communities, how much autonomy and political power to give local leaders, and how to relate to protests and social movements.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, mid-ranking Comunes members, San José del Guaviare, Santander de Quilichao, Cúcuta, April, May and July 2021.Hide Footnote  Some local leaders in reintegration sites complained that Comunes’ decision-making was too centralised, with economic projects and requests for security approved or denied based on favouritism.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, former mid-level commanders, April-July 2021.Hide Footnote  Ex-combatants expressed frustration at their limited interaction with party leadership. “The national directors of the party are distant from our reality. They should be in the trenches”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former FARC commander, Cúcuta, April 2021.Hide Footnote

Some in Comunes downplay the disagreements as a positive and natural development. “Contradictions are the material of creativity”, said one party figure.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, Comunes official, September 2021.Hide Footnote  Security conditions have meant that senior and mid-level officials cannot remain in the countryside in the way they would wish, one party official argued.[fn]“Insecurity immediately paralysed our local leadership. … The rural areas were part of our fabric, but now we are forced to support them remotely”. Crisis Group interview, senior Comunes official, Bogotá, September 2021.Hide Footnote  Others feel that the dissenters have no valid grievance. Since early 2021, the party has made a visible effort to expand its territorial footprint by designating senior officials responsible for regional affairs and giving more visibility to rising leaders. One senior Comunes figure expressed annoyance with the breakaway movement and its propensity to debate through the media. “We have established local and regional directorates. If there are disputes, we should deal with them internally, not on social networks”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior Comunes official, Bogotá, September 2021.Hide Footnote

Even so, the splits in the party are real and deep. Comunes is likely to be stymied in its aspiration to represent all demobilised fighters without a major effort to appease the breakaway members. Some party militants admit their disappointment with the leadership’s apparent lack of interest in resolving internal divisions. One mid-level former commander said: “There has been an internal purge because of the lack of humility in the national leadership”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, May 2021.Hide Footnote

Divisions [cast] doubt upon the former FARC’s authority to act as the government’s counterpart in overseeing the agreement.

Divisions in Comunes are not just an internal affair; they may entail risks for the peace accord, particularly by casting doubt upon the former FARC’s authority to act as the government’s counterpart in overseeing the agreement. Officials in the Duque government and the ruling party are resistant to making difficult reforms and to including the former FARC in political life. Fractures in the party now threaten to corroborate the detractors’ argument that the leadership is not rooted in a genuine constituency of all demobilised fighters and that as such, their role in decision-making should be curbed. “The FARC’s representation in the institutions created in the peace accord is for the ex-combatants and not the party”, a senior government official said, adding that sorting out exact membership by groups representing ex-combatants would be a “matter for lawyers”.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, senior official, Colombian Presidency, October 2021.Hide Footnote

D. Peace Accord Frictions and Transitional Justice

Following Duque’s rise to power in 2018, ex-FARC representatives have denounced the government’s efforts on various fronts to whittle away their influence upon implementation of the peace accord. The government, they argue, has reduced the number of meetings of the Commission for Follow-up, Promotion and Verification of the Peace Accord, the mandated oversight body, and cut short debate when its members do gather.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, Commission members, March 2021. The FARC’s complaints about the Commission echo civil society concerns about other entities created by the accord, for example the National Committee for Security Guarantees, which is charged with crafting a plan to dismantle the country’s remaining armed groups. In April, members wrote to President Duque arguing that the Committee had met just six times during the 38 months of his term, with no meeting addressing the Committee’s core mandate. “Letter to President Iván Duque and Miguel Ceballos”, 26 April 2021.Hide Footnote  Senior government officials agree that the Commission has changed the modus operandi it had under the Santos administration, when the government made some decisions jointly with the FARC. It would be “illegal and unconstitutional” to give the FARC decision-making power that other political parties do not have, one official said. “It isn’t that the [Commission] is not working as it should, but rather, that it is not functioning as they would like it to”.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, senior official, Colombian Presidency, October 2021.Hide Footnote

As well as dismissing the FARC’s role in this institution, Colombia’s ruling party – the Democratic Centre – has consistently argued that the transitional justice system created by the peace accord, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), is too lenient. The agreement granted amnesty to the guerrilla rank and file, while stipulating that commanders would face investigation for alleged wartime crimes. Duque has repeatedly criticised the transitional justice system for its power to hand out sentences without jail time in cases where the defendant truthfully confesses his or her crimes. One of his first moves in office was an unsuccessful attempt to modify the JEP’s rules.[fn]Los tres aspectos que el presidente Duque quiere reformar de la JEP”, El Tiempo, 11 March 2019.Hide Footnote  The government has also threatened to petition the transitional courts regarding the FARC’s alleged failure to hand over all its assets, regularly setting fresh deadlines for them to do so.[fn]Se agota el tiempo para la recibir los bienes Farc destinados a las víctimas”, press release, Office of the High Commissioner for Stabilisation, 24 November 2020. The peace accord required the FARC to declare its assets and hand them over to the state to be used in paying reparations to victims of its wartime crimes. The FARC delivered an inventory of assets to the government in 2017, including farms and cars to gold and cash. The FARC maintains that the list was intended to remain private, in order to safeguard the transfer of properties into government hands. The inventory was published by the Attorney General’s Office, however, which the FARC says allowed third parties including other armed groups to seize numerous properties.Hide Footnote  It has not yet enforced an ultimatum. Nonetheless, the government’s threat has deepened mistrust of the state among former guerrilla commanders.

Broadly speaking, however, former FARC personnel have willingly appeared before the transitional justice system and complied with its rules. Seven major cases are under way, including those related to kidnapping, child recruitment, assassinations and disappearances. The only indictment to date has come in the kidnapping case, in which the court has accused senior former commanders of war crimes and crimes against humanity, for which they have assumed responsibility.[fn]“Respuesta y observaciones al Auto 019 del 26 de enero de 2021 por parte de exintegrantes del secretariado de las FARC-EP, comparecientes dentro del Caso 001 ‘Toma de Rehenes y otras graves privaciones a la libertad’”, Letter to the JEP, 30 April 2021. The indicted FARC commanders rejected a further charge of enslavement laid on 5 November 2021, after the JEP agreed to a request from the state Inspector General’s Office to add the charge. “Ex-Farc en desacuerdo por imputación de esclavitud en caso de secuestro”, El Tiempo, 8 November 2021.Hide Footnote

By some accounts, the severity of these initial indictments has encouraged former senior FARC commanders who are facing trial to bolster their participation in other parts of the transitional justice system in order to safeguard a future role in public life.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, transitional justice official, September 2021.Hide Footnote  In its sentences, the first of which relates to kidnapping and is likely to be announced as soon as the turn of the year, the court will also take into account the former FARC members’ openness with the investigation by the Truth Commission. If it feels members were not forthcoming, the Special Jurisdiction could restrict individuals’ participation in Congress and in other political roles, or more likely, demand acts of restitution in the countryside that would take these individuals away from their party roles in Bogotá. Moreover, these sentences are likely to arrive during the run-up to the 2022 elections and receive intense public scrutiny, possibly dimming perceptions of FARC officials’ fitness for public office.

IV. The Rise of the Dissidents

Just as the peace accord sought to reintegrate FARC members into civilian life, it aimed to deliver territory from guerrilla control back into the state’s hands. While the state did manage to expand its grip on areas closer to cities with stronger road and market networks, it did not recover all the former FARC strongholds, some of which have fallen under the sway of other armed groups. Among these groups are the so-called FARC dissidents, a collection of factions that work in differing shades of alignment and competition with one another and bear only limited resemblance to the former insurgency. The vast majority of people who live in dissident-controlled areas across Colombia describe these groups as motivated by profit, largely from illicit business, as well as ideologically rudimentary and extremely violent.

A. Emergence

The dissidents emerged from – and have preyed upon – the failures of the guerrillas’ transition to formal politics, as well as the difficulties of combatant reintegration. They argue that FARC negotiators “totally abandoned” the FARC’s political values, as 33rd Front dissident commander John Catatumbo told local media in September 2021: “The commanders negotiated their personal status and left ex-combatants at the mercy of whatever might happen to them”.[fn]Primicia: Hablan Disidencias de las FARC en el Catatumbo”, Tercer Canal, 23 September 2021.Hide Footnote  Deploying such rhetoric and strong-arm tactics, dissidents have recruited new fighters from marginalised communities and moved into illicit business, taking advantage of the economic desperation and rural grievances that long motivated the FARC’s insurgency and that the peace accord promised to resolve.

The splits that gave rise to the dissidents began to emerge before the peace deal was signed. In June 2016, a part of the FARC’s 1st Front, active in the country’s south east under the command of alias Iván Mordisco, told guerrilla leaders in Havana that it did not plan to join the process. Attempting to restore discipline, the FARC handed command of the 1st Front to alias Gentil Duarte, leader of the 7th Front and representative of the movement’s eastern bloc.[fn]“Comunicado sobre el Frente Primero Armando Ríos”, Estado Mayor del Bloque Comandante Jorge Briceño de las FARC-EP, 8 July 2016.Hide Footnote

But despite the shuffle, the FARC’s national leadership was unable to control either Duarte or the fronts under his command. The depth of the split emerged months later, at the 10th National Guerrilla Conference. According to attendees, tensions arose among different factions over the speed of disarmament, the allocation of congressional seats and the apportionment of promised state funding as well as the FARC’s own resources.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, former FARC commanders and combatants, Bogotá, Santander de Quilichao, Caño Indio, Cúcuta, May-July 2021.Hide Footnote  Duarte reportedly favoured gradual disarmament, argued for filling congressional seats with civilians rather than combatants and expressed dismay at how the state would acquire the guerrillas’ wealth under the accord.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, senior former FARC commander, September 2021; 10th Conference attendee, Montería, August 2021.Hide Footnote  After the conference, he announced that he would not join the peace agreement. Neither his 7th Front nor most of the 1st Front disarmed, and both today claim to be the only true remaining expressions of the FARC.

Most other dissidents broke away during the early phases of demobilisation. By late 2017, it was clear that the demobilised FARC would struggle to regain influence in territories the movement had previously held. Around the same time, as discussed above, a number of mid-ranking officers exited the reintegration process in order to reclaim the land and illicit trade that the rebels had left behind. Most dissident branches popped up in isolation from one another, often adopting the name of the FARC front that had previously held the area – such as the 33rd Front in Catatumbo or the New 6th Front in Cauca.

The leaders of these new factions were often well-versed in criminal activity but were also, in the words of one former combatant, “nobodies”: mid-level officers who finally saw a chance to carve out influence and make their fortune.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former senior FARC commander, Cali, February 2020.Hide Footnote  They are overwhelmingly young, often in their twenties, and – as noted above – lack the ideological training of the former FARC’s older leadership. One senior military officer said: “The FARC before had an ideology, but today the dissidents are narco-traffickers. They have the tastes of narcos, for vehicles, for music, properties in Cartagena”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior military officer, September 2021.Hide Footnote  Several senior dissident leaders have been caught after security forces got wind of extravagant parties or trailed their many girlfriends.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior military officer, October 2020.Hide Footnote

Dozens of [dissident] groups have retaken territory and profit-making rackets once controlled by the FARC.

While being markedly different from past guerrilla bands, dozens of these groups have retaken territory and profit-making rackets once controlled by the FARC. In doing so, they have newly assumed territorial and social control, and they show no signs of stopping. Dissident fronts have felt “an imperative to grow”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, intelligence source, September 2021.Hide Footnote  Acquiring recruits has proven the best mechanism for cementing their influence. In some areas with a heavy dissident presence, residents report that nearly every family has a member with some connection to the groups.[fn]Crisis Group interview, community member, Patía, November 2021.Hide Footnote  They have recruited extensively among young people, and many members of the rank and file had no role or experience with the former FARC.[fn]Estimates of the number of dissident fighters vary. Colombia’s military chief said in September that the dissident groups include 2,400 members, 700 of whom are based in Venezuela. “Exclusive: Some 1,900 Colombian guerrillas operating from Venezuela, says Colombia military chief”, Reuters, 30 September 2021. In October, Colombia’s defence minister said dissident groups had a goal of reaching 8,000 fighters in just four departments: Guainía, Caquetá, Guaviare and Putumayo. “Mindefensa advierte que disidencias quieren tener 8 mil hombres”, El Heraldo, 5 October 2021. The civil society group Indepaz estimates that dissident groups have just over 5,200 fighters, including support networks. “Los Focos del Conflicto en Colombia”, Indepaz, 4 October 2021.Hide Footnote  Many come from places that are in economic distress in part due to the unmet promises of coca crop substitution and rural development programs.[fn]See for example, “XXX Informe Semestral”, MAPP-OEA, September 2021, pp. 8-9.Hide Footnote

During Colombia’s conflict, Briceño passed from FARC control to brutal paramilitary rule and back again. In a bid to shield Briceño, self-proclaimed FARC dissidents now patrol rural areas here. Colombia, December 2020. CRISIS GROUP / Elizabeth Dickinson

B. Growth and Fusion

A new phase in the dissidents’ growth began in 2019, when former Senator alias Iván Márquez and Congressional Deputy alias Jesús Santrich announced via video the creation of the Segunda Marquetalia, a new dissident group.[fn]The name Segunda Marquetalia refers to the FARC’s birthplace, an enclave known colloquially as Marquetalia, where campesino self-defence groups emerged in the early 1960s. The military retook the territory in 1964.Hide Footnote  Santrich had become a lightning rod for controversy both within Comunes and in broader Colombian politics. The congressman was arrested on 9 April 2018 after a New York City court issued a warrant alleging his involvement in coordinating cocaine shipments. Although he was released in June 2019 and took back his seat in Congress, he fled the country just weeks later and resurfaced in August, having taken up arms once again.[fn]“Detenido Jesús Santrich, exlíder de las FARC, por narcotráfico a petición de Estados Unidos,” El País, 9 April 2018.Hide Footnote  Márquez was also under investigation in the U.S. for similar crimes and declined to assume his Senate seat, citing a lack of legal guarantees.[fn]Colombia cocaine-trafficking probe poses risk to peace accord”, The Wall Street Journal, 28 April 2018; “Renuncia de Márquez, ¿protesta al Gobierno?”, El Colombiano, 17 July 2018.Hide Footnote

Complaining that the government had “betrayed” peace, the Segunda Marquetalia issued a video manifesto announcing its creation and citing the state’s failure “to guarantee the life of its citizens, and particularly to prevent political assassinations”.[fn]Manifesto”, FARC-EP Segunda Marquetalia, 29 August 2019.Hide Footnote  The video, filmed in Venezuela according to the Colombian government, complained that the government and traditional political elite had worked to stymie reforms promised to the FARC. It said: “Santos did nothing to impede the Congress from voting down political reform, knowing as all Colombians do that no guerrilla movement disarms without clear guarantees of political participation by all”.[fn]“Manifiesto: Mientras haya voluntad de lucha habrá esperanza de vencer”, press release, FARC-EP Segunda Marquetalia, 28 August 2019.Hide Footnote  Since then, the Segunda Marquetalia has sought to rekindle its confrontation with the Colombian state, at the same time as it has continued to highlight the government’s alleged failure to meet its commitments under the agreement and the political ineptitude of Comunes.[fn]“Las caras de las disidencias: cinco años de incertidumbre y evolución”, Fundación Conflict Responses, July 2021.Hide Footnote

The Segunda Marquetalia soon pushed to forge alliances among the many independent dissidents across the country, in fierce competition with a similar bid by Gentil Duarte’s movement. Both groups sent “commissions” to regions with active dissident factions such as Cauca, Catatumbo, Nariño, Putumayo and elsewhere to negotiate with these existing fronts.

In one instance, Duarte dispatched an envoy known as Johnnier in 2019 to Cauca, where four dissident factions were competing with one another. The envoy “managed to convince [all the factions] that [they] are all working for the same end, which is to recoup what the ex-FARC held”.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote  At Duarte’s instigation, the Cauca factions joined the Coordinated Western Command, a network formed to manage all dissident forces along the Pacific coast. There are limits to the Command’s cooperation, however. For example, allied fronts do not share drug trafficking routes, as fronts within the former FARC did, but rather pay one another to independently move their supply of coca or marijuana to a port of exit.[fn]Crisis Group interview, intelligence source, September 2021.Hide Footnote

Duarte also appears to have expanded his umbrella coalition by sending manpower and resources to priority areas elsewhere in Colombia, for example along the border with Venezuela where the dissident groups 10th and 33rd Fronts operate, as well as the Caquetá river basin in the south.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, senior military officer, Mocoa, April 2021; senior military officer, San José del Guaviare, November 2020; international monitoring official, Popayán, February 2020.Hide Footnote  The 10th Front has penetrated well into Venezuelan territory, as became clear in March 2021 when that country’s military launched an air and land assault against it in Venezuela’s Apure state on the Colombian border, to mixed effect. (Sources in the area told Crisis Group at the time that the guerrillas, who have a hand in illicit markets in Venezuela and along the border, had apparently failed to pay off contacts in the security forces.[fn]Bram Ebus, “A Rebel Playing Field: Colombian Guerrillas on the Venezuelan Border”, Crisis Group Commentary, 28 April 2021.Hide Footnote ) According to some military accounts, Duarte was able to send reinforcements while the 10th Front fended off the Venezuelan armed forces.[fn]Audio and text messages circulated among retired and current Colombian military officers seen by Crisis Group, April 2021.Hide Footnote

Another aggressive expansion of Duarte-allied forces is under way in Nariño, a region on the Pacific coast bordering Ecuador. Factions linked to the Coordinated Western Command, notably under the aegis of the 30th Front, began pushing southward from Cauca beginning in late 2020.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, senior military officers, Tumaco, October 2021.Hide Footnote  They clashed with armed groups already present in rural areas, sparking mass displacement in 2021, with at least 5,000 people forced to flee their homes between April and August.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, local government officials and displaced persons, Roberto Payán, September 2021.Hide Footnote  In the space of a year, the 30th Front consolidated its influence across a large strip of Nariño, the department with Colombia’s second-highest concentration of coca crops and several fluvial routes to export drugs by sea.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, senior military officers, Tumaco, October 2021; international monitoring officials, Barbacoas, September 2021.Hide Footnote

Envoys from the Segunda Marquetalia were less successful in recruiting allies until late 2020 and 2021, when their efforts finally bore fruit.[fn]“Las caras de las disidencias: cinco años de incertidumbre y evolución”, op. cit.Hide Footnote  Military sources and residents report that the Segunda Marquetalia appears to have reached an understanding with the Comandos de la Frontera, an armed group composed of a mix of the former 48th Front and paramilitaries that operates in Putumayo in southern Colombia.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, military officers and residents, Mocoa and Puerto Asís, April 2021.Hide Footnote  Sources also say the Segunda Marquetalia purchased the support of existing rival armed bands in the Pacific coastal city of Tumaco, Nariño, bringing some calm to this troubled city.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, military sources and residents, Tumaco, October 2021.Hide Footnote  Fighters aligned with the Segunda Marquetalia have also reportedly started working with the National Liberation Army (ELN), the country’s largest remaining insurgency, in Argelia, Cauca.[fn]Throughout 2020, military operations against the ELN in Argelia, together with a push into the area from FARC dissident fronts Carlos Patiño and Jaime Martínez, significantly weakened the ELN. In 2021, however, apparently with support from the Segunda Marquetalia, the ELN has regained strength and in the middle of 2021 started retaking territory. Crisis Group interviews, senior military officers, intelligence sources, international monitoring officials, September 2021.Hide Footnote  Security sources in the area say that the Segunda Marquetalia is clashing with the Duarte-allied Carlos Patiño Front in southern Cauca and along the Pacific coastline.[fn]Crisis Group interview, international security monitor, Patía, November 2021.Hide Footnote

The Segunda Marquetalia’s leadership, meanwhile, appears to be located in Venezuela. In May, the group reported that Santrich had been killed there, though doubts persist as to who might have been responsible and whether he is truly dead.[fn]“Muere Jesús Santrich: las disidencias de las FARC confirman el fallecimiento del comandante guerrillero colombiano en territorio venezolano”, BBC Mundo, 18 May 2021; “Jesús Santrich estaría vivo, aseguró el periodista Luis Carlos Vélez”, Infobae, 22 November 2021.Hide Footnote  The Colombian government continues to accuse its Venezuelan counterpart of sheltering terrorists.[fn]See, for example, “Duque acusa a Maduro de resguardar a los disidentes de las FARC que retoman las armas”, El País, 29 August 2019. See also tweet by Iván Duque, @IvanDuque, Colombian president, 11:00am, 26 July 2021.Hide Footnote

At the same time, a number of dissident fronts continue to operate independently in pursuit of their own interests, including in Nariño, where several fronts have been nominally allied – at one moment or another – with both Duarte and the Segunda Marquetalia.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, military sources and residents, Tumaco, October 2021.Hide Footnote  A smaller number of relapsed former FARC members have also been recruited into other armed groups. According to locals, the Gulf Clan post-paramilitary group contracted elite forces from what was the FARC 25th Front to form a special operations unit in Bajo Cauca.[fn]Crisis Group interview, community leader, Montería, August, 2021.Hide Footnote

C. Crimes and Abuses

Dissident factions have now taken over the role that the FARC once played across swathes of Colombia. While diverse in character and still deeply fractured, dissidents generally have coercive, exploitative relationships with civilian residents. Many demobilised FARC fighters express shock at their behaviour, which they claim to be more violent and arbitrary than what they used to do.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, community leader who was a FARC fighter, San José del Guaviare, May 2021; senior former FARC member, Cali, February 2020.Hide Footnote  Locals often refer colloquially to dissident groups as paramilitaries, in recognition of their cruelty and fixation on illicit profit.[fn]One example is the Carlos Patiño dissidents in Cauca. Crisis Group interviews, residents and military officials, Santander de Quilichao, July 2021.Hide Footnote

Most dissident factions are geared toward criminal rackets and control of turf. Whereas the FARC, at least theoretically, viewed illicit business as a way to support its political crusade, and regulated these rackets accordingly, for at least some dissidents profit appears to be an end in itself. One sign of this shift is visible in coca production. Whereas the former FARC had regularly imposed limits on how many hectares of coca campesinos could grow, encouraging them to also plant food crops, a number of dissident factions today are imposing coca monoculture on small-hold farmers.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, campesino leader, Santander de Quilichao, July 2021; community leaders, La Hormiga, April 2021.Hide Footnote  Rising rates of deforestation also indicate that land clearance, previously restricted in many FARC-run areas (in part out of a desire to maintain operational cover), is now being encouraged by some dissidents.[fn]Crisis Group Latin America Report N°91, A Broken Canopy: Preventing Conflict and Deforestation in Colombia, 1 November 2021. Crisis Group interview, park official, San José del Guaviare, May 2021. On the issue of FARC ideology around conservation, see Alfredo Molano, Trochas y Fusiles (Bogotá, 2017).Hide Footnote

Communities have reported numerous incidents of coercion by dissident outfits seeking to neutralise resistance. The Dagoberto Ramos Front, which operates in northern Cauca, has sought to establish control of the marijuana trade in Toribio municipality, including not just buying and trafficking the plant but also increasing their power over farmers who grow it.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, campesinos’ association members, Toribio and Santander de Quilichao, February and July 2021.Hide Footnote  Local leaders who disagree or speak out against dissident rule can be exposed to grave danger.

Armed factions focus their attention on the leaders of neighbourhood Community Action Councils, whom they try to harness to work on their behalf. Some Council leaders are prepared to accept certain dissident demands in order to secure concessions in other domains. A Council president in Tibú explained:

I made it clear to the commander that we are one of the most vulnerable communities, and I would appreciate if they do not recruit [our young people]. I can neither support nor oppose the groups. There are rules here. I can’t change that.[fn]Crisis Group interview, June 2021.Hide Footnote

Other Council members who have tried to defend their autonomy from the dissidents have been threatened or killed, adding to the death toll among Colombian social leaders since the peace accord.[fn]Council members are among the most targeted social leaders. In 2019, the Attorney General’s Office reported that FARC dissidents were responsible for roughly 25 per cent of the murders of social leaders that it had solved. The attorney general no longer publishes these statistics, but civil society groups report that dissidents are believed to be responsible for at least 11 per cent of the attacks on social leaders in the first half of 2021. “Resiste Informe Semestral enero-junio 2021,” Programa Somos Defensores, 2021. See also Crisis Group Report, Leaders under Fire: Defending Colombia’s Front Line of Peace, op. cit.Hide Footnote  In areas where more than one armed group is present, community leaders find themselves in an even worse predicament, as negotiating humanitarian requirements with one group could provoke the wrath of another. “Even if we wanted to, we could not talk to them because of the quantity of groups. If you talk to one, that is seen as bad by the others”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Indigenous guard, Santander de Quilichao, July 2021.Hide Footnote

Hostilities between Indigenous authorities and dissident factions have grown particularly intense in northern Cauca, one of Colombia’s most conflict-affected areas. Whereas the FARC guerrillas respected a certain level of autonomous Indigenous governance, dissident factions have sought to impose their own political and social leadership.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Indigenous authorities, Santander de Quilichao and Popayán, July 2021.Hide Footnote  Preying upon poverty among the Indigenous, dissidents have recruited “en masse” in northern Cauca while also setting up football and recreation clubs.[fn]Crisis Group interview, female Indigenous authority, Bogotá, November 2021.Hide Footnote  Traditional leaders who have tried to reassert their authority, particularly with young people, face reprisals. They point to the assassinations in 2021 of three prominent, outspoken Indigenous women who had resisted the dissidents’ influence.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Indigenous authority, Popayán, July 2021. According to one female Indigenous leader: “If you oppose the group, they will paint your house [with graffiti], and tell you how many hours you have to leave before being killed. So not just the leaders but everyone in the community who is against these groups has to stay quiet”. Crisis Group interview, Indigenous authority, Santander de Quilichao, July 2021.Hide Footnote

Additionally, FARC dissidents increasingly deploy forced confinement as a way to establish control over communities, particularly in disputed areas. Suspicious that any new faces in a given area could belong to rival groups, dissidents place strict limits on who can enter and leave. In Nariño’s Telembí Triangle, a region with lucrative fluvial trafficking routes, several dissident groups have planted landmines at entrances and exits to villages, told residents they cannot tend their crops, or warned them that moving home would result in permanent expulsion from their land.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, displaced community leaders, Magüí Payán and Roberto Payán, September 2021.Hide Footnote  The Carlos Patiño Front in Cauca reportedly issued identity cards to residents of some villages and now requires they be shown at checkpoints.[fn]Crisis Group interview, international security monitor, Patía, November 2021.Hide Footnote

Violence against civilians … has become commonplace in areas under dissident dominion.

Violence against civilians, meanwhile, has become commonplace in areas under dissident dominion. Residents of Catatumbo, Cauca and Nariño report incidents of dissidents opening fire without regard to civilian casualties. During its push into Nariño, the 30th Front clashed with rivals in rural neighbourhoods, using houses as sniper nests.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, displaced persons, September 2021.Hide Footnote  Dissidents in Catatumbo have placed explosives on street corners, intending to hit police on patrol but often killing or wounding civilians.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, international monitoring officials and residents, Tibú, June 2021.Hide Footnote  Factions in all three areas have used landmines to cordon off territory they control to prevent coca eradication or to stop civilians from fleeing.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, displaced persons, Magüí Payán and Roberto Payán, September 2021; security officials, Popayán and Tumaco, September 2021. See also, “XXX Informe Semestral”, op. cit., pp. 9-10.Hide Footnote

Women and youth have suffered disproportionately from the dissident expansion. Child recruitment is common and has expanded significantly during the pandemic.[fn]“Defensoría alerta por reclutamiento forzado de menores durante pandemia”, press release, State Ombudsman’s Office, 1 December 2020. Between 2018 and 2020, about one third of the children in a state reintegration program had been recruited by FARC dissident groups before they were freed. “Reclutamiento de menores de edad no se acabó tras el acuerdo con las Farc: Consejera de DDHH”, press release, Commission for Human Rights, Colombian Presidency, 11 February 2021.Hide Footnote  For young people who cannot attend school online, or whose families need them to work, dissidents in northern Cauca offer tantalising sweeteners: mobile phones, rumours of monthly salaries up to three times the national minimum wage, motorcycles and social clout.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Afro-Colombian and Indigenous leaders, Santander de Quilichao, July 2021.Hide Footnote  Girls are also increasingly being drawn into these factions as informants, girlfriends or recruiters to help lure young men.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, female Indigenous leaders, Santander de Quilichao and Popayán, July 2021.Hide Footnote  “Children who decline to join are threatened. … The mothers cannot even denounce or protest. It weakens the entire family, which is the dissidents’ strategy”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, female Indigenous authority, Santander de Quilichao, July 2021.Hide Footnote

The reintegration site in Miravalle, Caquetá, records the memory of former FARC-EP commander Manuel Marulanda, known as “Tirofijo”, who died in 2008. Caquetá, Colombia, August 2021. CRISIS GROUP / Bram Ebus

D. Security Responses

Colombia’s security forces have deployed heavily to areas where dissidents operate with the stated goal of stabilisation, which they seek to achieve by combating illicit businesses, dismantling the command structures of armed groups and asserting their authority at key trafficking points.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, senior military officers, Mocoa, Montería, Popayán and Tumaco, April and August-September 2021.Hide Footnote  In practice, this strategy means that a significant number of troops are tied up in coca crop eradication and in manning checkpoints along major roads and rivers. Operations against dissidents tend to be raids in which soldiers capture a wanted person and then leave an area in the span of a few hours. Permanent military presence is rare outside town centres.

Far from reassuring the public, military offensives can add to the stress of daily life. Dissidents have compelled farmers to protest coca eradication, demanded that civilians help expel the military and even forced them to congregate asking for release of dissident suspects in military custody.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior military officer, Mocoa, April 2021.Hide Footnote  A senior military officer in Cauca said:

These new structures try not to confront the military. Instead, they organise the population to oblige us to leave, to kick out the military. … We have had cases in which they [local residents] encircle our soldiers and tell us we are not allowed to operate – to protect their crops and the people we try to capture.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Popayán, September 2021.Hide Footnote

Overall, residents of violence-wracked areas distrust the army. In some instances, military commanders themselves express frustration that they cannot help civilians more. Troops at times yield to protests by releasing captured suspects or abandoning the area rather than clashing with unarmed civilians.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, senior military officers, Popayán and Tumaco, September 2021.Hide Footnote  But many residents report that they fear the military as much as armed groups. They say – and some in uniform corroborate – that the military tends to consider all residents of dissident-controlled areas to be militants or collaborators, leading to harassment and arbitrary arrest.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, community leaders in Cauca, Nariño, Putumayo, Córdoba, April-July and September 2021.Hide Footnote  “No one believes in any government institution, much less the military”, said a community leader. “According to them, we are all criminals”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, La Hormiga, April 2021.Hide Footnote

V. Consolidating the FARC’s Path to Peace

The landmark achievements of the 2016 peace accord remain the successful disarmament of one of the region’s longest-running insurgencies and the ex-combatants’ firm commitment to the demobilisation process. But five years after the peace accord, the FARC’s full reintegration into civic life is incomplete and faces various perils. Rising insecurity and lack of economic opportunity has made the transition to peaceful daily life hard for many and borderline impossible for some. Estrangement from demobilised combatants, as well as the Colombian public as a whole, has discredited the FARC’s new political party and sparked upheaval within its ranks. Dissident factions and other armed groups, meanwhile, are taking advantage of the disillusionment to recruit among the civilian population and reactivate a conflict in areas where it has only recently abated.

A. The Importance of Political, Economic and Rural Reform

Political and electoral gains for Comunes, or any other party deriving from the FARC, are not essential to the success of Colombia’s peace process. But the eclipse of the former guerrillas’ party would likely compound the growing discontent among ex-combatants and rural communities if they are not otherwise assured that reforms promised in the 2016 accord will proceed.

Particularly important are measures regarding the political and civil rights of former fighters and programs to bring development to the countryside. Political reforms envisaged in the peace agreement include support for traditionally marginalised sectors to take part openly and without fear in politics through reforms to the electoral code, safety guarantees for the opposition, legal protections for peaceful protest and anti-stigmatisation programs. Less than half the thirteen legal norms that this part of the accord mandates have passed through Congress.[fn]“¿En Qué va la Paz? Las cifras de la implementación”, Multiparty Congressional Report, 6 January 2021.Hide Footnote  The creation of sixteen seats in the House of Representatives reserved for representatives of the communities most affected by conflict was finally approved in August 2021, having failed to pass through Congress in time for the 2018 elections.[fn]Lo que debe saber de las 16 curules de la paz”, Infobae, 26 August 2021.Hide Footnote

Rural development, a centrepiece of the peace agreement, lags even further behind. It has largely been circumscribed to regionally focused development projects known as PDETs, with none of the legal or structural reforms the accord imagined. These projects aim to redress historical underdevelopment in conflict-affected areas, foreseeing new infrastructure that will take a decade or more to build. The government has also made tentative progress expanding land registration and setting aside land that might eventually be redistributed to landless farmers, yet very few titles and plots have been redistributed thus far.[fn]La agencia de tierras infla las cifras de predios que ha entregado a campesinos sin tierras”, La Silla Vacía, 29 August 2021.Hide Footnote  At the same time, Congress has declined to pass basic reforms to facilitate access to credit for landless farmers and create an agricultural jurisdiction to speed up dispute resolution. Voluntary crop substitution for coca farmers, a separate point of the peace accord, has failed amid lacklustre, delayed and incomplete implementation. Farmers, after waiting four years for support meant to arrive in twelve months, are returning to coca out of economic desperation and at armed groups’ behest.[fn]“Informe Trimestral: Estado Efectivo de la Implementación del Acuerdo Final, julio-septiembre 2021”, op. cit.; Elizabeth Dickinson, “Putumayo en Medio del Fuego Cruzado”, La Silla Vacia, 26 April 2021.Hide Footnote

Far from addressing these challenges, the Duque government has on occasion exacerbated them. Officials proclaim the success of the FARC’s democratic transition by pointing to former fighters who stood as candidates in elections.[fn]“They have the guarantee that they can participate in politics. They have their seats in the Congress. … There were no candidates who had to withdraw or who were killed in previous elections. … Now they are preparing to participate in a third round of elections”. Crisis Group telephone interview, senior official, Colombian Presidency, October 2021.Hide Footnote  Yet running candidates is only one component of political rights.[fn]Palabras del presidente de la República, Iván Duque en la socialización del Tercer Informe de Seguimiento a la Implementación del Acuerdo de Paz”, Colombian Presidency, 14 September 2021.Hide Footnote  While some former fighters have joined or organised protest movements, ex-combatants in many areas cannot participate in civic activity, attend protests, support social organisations or even express political views for fear of violent reprisal from hostile armed groups or fear of arrest for presumed complicity with dissidents. Government officials including the president have on occasion used language that contributes to former combatants’ stigmatisation, although they deny doing so.[fn]For example, in explaining the demobilisation process, the president often refers to the former FARC as a narco-terrorist movement. See, for example, “Iván Duque: Speech before the UN General Assembly”, Colombian Presidency, 21 September 2021.Hide Footnote  Meanwhile, Bogotá’s animosity toward coca crop substitution and its limited implementation of rural reforms have undermined the accord’s entire purpose for some former FARC members and small-hold farmers, who saw it as a route to remedying their historical marginalisation in rural areas through peaceful, democratic means.[fn]Crisis Group Latin America Report N°87, Deeply Rooted: Coca Eradication and Violence in Colombia, 26 February 2021. The government insists that it is making rural reforms, but that it must begin with a land-titling program that it says will deliver 50,000 legal plots by the end of 2021. “Palabras del presidente de la República, Iván Duque en la socialización del Tercer Informe de Seguimiento a la Implementación del Acuerdo De paz”, Colombian Presidency, 14 September 2021.Hide Footnote

These difficulties have played into the hands of dissident factions, whose propaganda centres on allegations of government bad faith in failing to implement the accord and the powerlessness of former comrades to force the state to comply. Young people without access to jobs or land “are returning to [restart] the fight, because what else is there?”, one mother said.[fn]Crisis Group interview, victim and mother of twenty-year-old, Neiva, September 2021.Hide Footnote  Another ex-combatant explained: “The ranks of the guerrillas are growing again. If the state wants the previous war with the former FARC to end and not continue today with a new generation – our children taking up arms – it has to meet its obligations”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, ex-combatant, Neiva, September 2021.Hide Footnote

Misgivings about whether the government is committed to the peace accord [may] undermine future efforts to demobilise other armed outfits.

Misgivings about whether the government is committed to the peace accord also stand to undermine future efforts to demobilise other armed outfits. The lesson that the above-referenced 33rd Front commander said he had taken was: “We are never turning over our arms. … Arms are the guarantee for any negotiation”.[fn]Primicia: Hablan Disidencias de las FARC en el Catatumbo”, Tercer Canal, 23 September 2021.Hide Footnote  Other violent groups have also made clear their belief that the state will never allow demobilised insurgencies to participate democratically.[fn]See, for example, “ELN insiste en que no dejará las armas y que esperará a otro gobierno para dialogar”, Semana, 19 October 2021; “Cuatro Años Después”, Revista Insurrección, 28 September 2020; and José Vásquez Posada, “Incumplimiento de los acuerdos y escalada paramilitar”, Insurgencia Urbana ELN, 15 September 2020.Hide Footnote

FARC ex-combatants cultivate food crops at the Miravalle FARC demobilisation camp. Caquetá, Colombia, August 2021. CRISIS GROUP / Tom Laffay

B. Widening Representation Among Former FARC

The former FARC has faced numerous obstacles in its shift to peaceful democratic politics, yet Comunes and its leadership have also fallen short. If the party cannot bridge its own internal differences over leadership and reintegration strategy, the peace accord may suffer. Worsening internal disputes strengthen the hand of the accord’s critics, whether on Colombia’s right wing or among dissident factions.

Comunes should make it a priority to ensure that the entire demobilised population has a voice in how fighters are reintegrated into civilian social, economic and political life. It could, for instance, expand access to leadership and decision-making to reflect the reality that demobilisation is decentralised. Allowing a new generation of leaders to rise through the ranks could enable the party to become better attuned to the Colombian public’s mood and form stronger alliances with other left-leaning parties, which may be more inclined to deal with new faces than the old cadre of FARC leaders.

The ex-FARC’s political transition could still be successful without Comunes at the helm, so long as some of its priorities are absorbed into the progressive mainstream. Indeed, the peace agreement has contributed to the vast expansion of the political space available to the left. The accord managed to lift the longstanding and debilitating stigma characterising left-leaning political groups as equivalent to and aligned with the insurgency. Progressive causes such as tackling Colombia’s extreme economic inequality have seen a boost in support, with candidates drawing on popular frustration with social stratification, including former Bogotá Mayor Gustavo Petro, poised to perform strongly in the forthcoming presidential election.

At the same time, ex-combatants will struggle to take part in any political movement, above all in rural areas, so long as the protagonists of these causes – including social leaders, campesino movements and protest organisers – are subject to violence at such high rates.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Leaders under Fire: Defending Colombia’s Front Line of Peace, op. cit.Hide Footnote

C. A New Approach to Insecurity

Dissidents are distinct from the previous insurgency in their goals, behaviour and composition. Yet since their emergence, the government has largely relied on the same tactics used to combat the FARC: capturing or killing leaders, eradicating coca crops, and clearing areas without hanging on to the territory thereafter. While these tactics proved effective against the more numerous FARC guerrillas, who also had a defined hierarchy, they have had the effect of fracturing the dissidents, in many cases sparking new waves of violence against civilians.[fn]Capture-and-kill operations have often had the effect of splintering dissident factions, sparking power struggles within these groups’ ranks. See Crisis Group Report, Deeply Rooted: Coca Eradication and Violence in Colombia, op. cit.Hide Footnote

The dissidents do require a military response – but not only that. Their emergence is rooted in the state’s abandonment of the countryside and the failure of peaceful alternatives. The pandemic made the neglect painfully evident. Dissidents dramatically increased recruitment among students whom quarantine policies had, in effect, cut off from the school system.[fn]Defensoría alerta por reclutamiento forzado de menores durante pandemia”, press release, State Ombudsman’s Office, December 2020.Hide Footnote  These groups and others will continue to find a pool of eager recruits so long as the state fails to establish itself as a credible alternative in rural areas.

Efforts to combat dissidents need to shift ... toward securing the civilian population.

Efforts to combat dissidents need to shift away from exclusively hitting these groups and toward securing the civilian population. In practice, serving the latter goal means that the military should redefine metrics of success around genuine territorial control. For example, rather than counting hectares of coca eradicated, the armed forces could measure progress through the number of neighbourhoods and municipalities that are free from armed group presence or benefit from serious reductions in violence. In particular, the military should reconsider the merits of coca eradication and certain types of surgical offensives, in which they enter and leave an area soon after, often sparking violent blowback against locals. Military commanders should be mindful of how their own presence affects the community’s safety. One practice that the armed forces should curtail is publicly thanking residents who have provided intelligence. Entire populations are often exposed to retaliation as a result. FARC dissidents, meanwhile, should be offered clear routes to demobilise either individually or in small groups.

At the same time, the justice system needs a far stronger presence throughout Colombia to ensure that threats and violence are reported, suspects fairly tried and civilians able to seek redress.[fn]Since assuming his position in early 2020, Attorney General Francisco Barbosa Delgado has made it a priority to expand the office’s territorial presence. “Fiscal General de la Nación, Francisco Barbosa Delgado, presenta el direccionamiento estratégico que seguirá la entidad para garantizar presencia en los territorios y elevar los niveles de esclarecimiento”, Attorney General’s Office, 5 November 2020.Hide Footnote

D. International Support

Foreign donors and international bodies have been vital to ensuring that the peace accord survives the twists and turns of Colombian politics, and they will be critical in shaping the next five years of implementation. They should keep emphasising that rural reform is the core of a strategy for preventing future conflict. Donor countries can also keep supporting economic reintegration. Several countries, including the U.S. and EU member states, already endorse mechanisms within the Attorney General’s Office and justice ministry to accelerate comprehensive investigations of crimes against ex-combatants. This work is vital to ending the impunity that helps perpetuate attacks on former fighters.

The U.S. should follow through with the long-overdue step of removing the FARC from its list of terrorist organisations, a move that is now reportedly imminent, as well as delist demobilised individuals who are sanctioned by the Treasury Department.[fn]U.S. to drop Colombian rebel group FARC from terrorist list to bolster five-year-old pact”, The Wall Street Journal, 23 November 2021.Hide Footnote U.S. sanctions on demobilised FARC have prevented many former combatants from managing bank accounts, getting U.S. humanitarian and development assistance, and even attending international meetings that could provide training in transparent and responsible politics. Five years after the organisation agreed to disarm, it has demonstrated its overwhelming commitment to the peace accord. Perpetuating the FARC’s status as a designated organisation would be counterproductive for both its former members’ ability to compete democratically and U.S. interests in Colombia’s stability.

Moreover, possible new U.S. designations of persons who have reneged on the accord or new dissident factions must be written and implemented with great care to avoid unintentionally roping in thousands of former FARC members who have committed to returning to civilian life. Working with the U.S. Treasury, U.S. embassy officials in Bogotá could provide guidance to Colombian banks to help prevent the private sector from overzealous enforcement of any new sanctions, which could inhibit the access that demobilised guerrillas enjoy to the banking and commercial system.

VI. Conclusion

The 2016 peace deal is rightly hailed as a painstaking achievement and a comprehensive attempt to better the lives of millions of Colombians. Its successes are indisputable. Disarming South America’s longest-running insurgency lifted the shadow of conflict from numerous communities and opened up parts of the countryside to peaceful rural development. Enabling the former guerrillas to take part in electoral competition has helped redraw the political map in Colombia.

Yet this progress cannot hide the uncertainty that surrounds the peace accord or the sense of doom that a number of ex-combatants harbour. Alongside the fulfilment of commitments to rural dwellers, it is critical that the Colombian state redouble its efforts to ensure that former fighters are safe and able to establish new livelihoods and enjoy political and civil rights. If rural communities and former fighters perceive the accord to have failed in delivering on its promises, violent threats will be harder to manage.

In part because peace remains incomplete, attention among many in government and the public has shifted toward precisely those new waves of conflict. Yet as FARC dissidents, the ELN and post-paramilitary groups, among others, proliferate, and state officials, the military and foreign partners endeavour to fight back, the risk is that the latter will lose sight of efforts to consolidate the peace deal.

Negotiations are still the best means of ending Colombia’s myriad and recurring local conflicts, but each perceived failure of the 2016 accord dents the prospects of concluding another. Finishing one peace deal to the satisfaction of both sides is the best way both to put a past conflict to rest and to help ensure that future accords can be forged and honoured.

Bogotá/New York/Brussels, 30 November 2021