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Colombia’s Uneasy Peace and Troubled Borders
Colombia’s Uneasy Peace and Troubled Borders

Colombia’s New Armed Groups

The disbanding of the paramilitary United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) between 2003 and 2006 is seen by the administration of President Alvaro Uribe as a vital step toward peace.

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Executive Summary

The disbanding of the paramilitary United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) between 2003 and 2006 is seen by the administration of President Alvaro Uribe as a vital step toward peace. While taking some 32,000 AUC members out of the conflict has certainly altered the landscape of violence, there is growing evidence that new armed groups are emerging that are more than the simple “criminal gangs” that the government describes. Some of them are increasingly acting as the next generation of paramilitaries, and they require a more urgent and more comprehensive response from the government.

Since early 2006, the Organization of American States (OAS) Peace Support Mission in Colombia (MAPP/OEA), human rights groups and civil society organisations have insistently warned about the rearming of demobilised paramilitary units, the continued existence of groups that did not disband because they did not participate in the government-AUC negotiations and the merging of former paramilitary elements with powerful criminal organisations, often deeply involved with drug trafficking. Worse, there is evidence that some of the new groups and criminal organisations have established business relations over drugs with elements of the insurgent Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and National Liberation Army (ELN). At the same time, the government’s plan for reintegrating demobilised paramilitaries has revealed itself to be deeply flawed.

These alerts have to be taken seriously since conditions now exist for the continuity or re-emergence either of old-style paramilitary groups or a federation of new groups and criminal organisations based on the drug trade. The military struggles with the FARC and the smaller ELN are ongoing, and drug trafficking continues unabated. Massive illegal funds from drug trafficking help fuel the decades-long conflict, undermine reintegration of former combatants into society and foment the formation and strengthening of new armed groups, as occurred with the AUC and the FARC more than a decade ago.

These new groups do not yet have the AUC’s organisation, reach and power. Their numbers are disputed but even the lowest count, from the police and the OAS mission, of some 3,000 is disturbing, and civil society groups estimate up to triple that figure. Some of these groups, such as the New Generation Organisation (Organización Nueva Generación, ONG) in Nariño have started to operate much like the old AUC bloc in the region, including counter-insurgency operations and efforts to control territory and population so as to dominate the drug trade. Others, such as the Black Eagles in Norte de Santander, are less visible and both compete and cooperate with established criminal networks on the Venezuelan border.

The government’s response to the threat has been insufficient, limited to treating it as a law enforcement matter, mainly the responsibility of the police, who have instituted a special plan and a special “search unit” to deal with what they generically label “criminal gangs” (bandas criminales). This has not stopped the groups from spreading across the country. In some regions the security forces do not cooperate with each other and show low commitment to fight the new groups. Justice institutions, in particular the attorney general’s office, often cannot carry out investigations because they lack resources and are not helped by the security forces but also because they are intimidated. The reintegration program for ex-combatants is being restructured to overcome serious shortcomings but time is working against it.

A new, comprehensive strategy is essential if the emerging groups and criminal organisations are to be defeated. It requires combining solid intelligence and more effective law enforcement with military measures, all with full respect for human rights and complemented by improvements in how demobilised fighters are reintegrated into society, including a major, national rural infrastructure and development program. This strategy needs to concentrate initially in the regions where paramilitary domination has ended but which are targets of both the new groups and the FARC. Sustaining security in those areas depends both on permanent, effective police and military presence as well as on providing tangible economic benefits and services for the local communities.

Bogotá/Brussels, 10 May 2007

Colombia’s Uneasy Peace and Troubled Borders

President Iván Duque Márquez entered office in August 2018 as armed groups expand and the humanitarian situation in neighbouring Venezuela drives thousands across the border every day. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2018 annual early-warning update for European policy makers, Crisis Group urges the EU to work to shore up the peace agreement and help Colombia respond to the humanitarian emergency.
 

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2018 – Third Update.

The inauguration in August 2018 of a new Colombian president, Iván Duque, from the right-leaning Democratic Centre Party, has fuelled uncertainty about the future of the 2016 peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Nor is it yet clear how the new government plans to tackle expansionist armed groups, booming coca crop production and the humanitarian disaster in neighbouring Venezuela. President Duque came to power backed by ardent opponents of the FARC deal and having vowed himself during his election campaign to “modify” parts of the agreement. Thus far, he has charted a fairly moderate course, though could still face pressure from hardliners within his government and party to undercut the accord’s provisions. To shore up the FARC agreement, the EU and European governments, who are among its most prominent supporters, should:

  • Press upon President Duque’s government the costs of backtracking on the deal, including the risk of alienating rural Colombians, strengthening the appeal in the countryside of non-state armed groups, including FARC dissidents, and potentially complicating relations with Europeans that back the deal;
     
  • Continue to offer financial and political support to local reintegration initiatives led by former guerrillas, while pushing the government and former guerrillas to design and carry out a national reintegration policy that would assist former fighters transition to civilian life;
     
  • Reiterate support for negotiations between the government and Colombia’s other guerrilla movement, the National Liberation Army (ELN);
     
  • Encourage the government to address smallholder farmers’ longstanding grievances, notably unequal land ownership and the difficulty of securing formal land titles. The EU and European governments should also offer political and financial support to programs related to coca crop substitution, such as building roads, giving coca growers technical assistance in cultivating legal crops and improving market access for agricultural exports. Crop substitution is the most effective means of convincing coca growers to abandon illicit crops.
     
  • Increase the provision of humanitarian aid to Venezuelan refugees who cross the border into Colombia in coordination with UN and other international agencies. By doing so, the EU and its member states would protect vulnerable Venezuelans and pre-empt potential claims from Bogota of being unable to finance the FARC deal and accommodate the Venezuelan influx at the same time.

The New Government and the FARC Peace Agreement

In his inaugural address, President Duque spoke of revising the FARC deal, “to cor-rect” those parts that he and his party consider faulty. But the explicit changes that he has proposed thus far are largely cosmetic. Instead of adhering to any dogma, his approach appears to be reactive to circumstances, in particular new security concerns and fiscal constraints. 

Less pragmatic elements of Duque’s party and governing coalition hold posi-tions of influence, however, and could still undermine parts of the peace deal, above all the socio-economic reform the deal promises but that has yet to come to fruition. The president is considered to occupy middle ground in the Democratic Centre party, whereas many party stalwarts are loyal primarily to the party founder and former president, Álvaro Uribe, a determined opponent of the FARC deal. At Duque’s inauguration, Ernesto Macías, head of Congress and member of the Demo-cratic Centre, lambasted the peace agreement and its architect, former president Juan Manuel Santos. He argued that Colombia had not actually suffered a veritable armed conflict with the FARC requiring a peace deal but rather a sustained attack by a criminal group that left the country “awash in coca”. María Fernanda Cabal, another party hardliner and senator, has called on Duque to replace the “useless” leadership of the armed forces, whom she sees as close to Santos. Opponents of the peace deal are likely to use their privileged positions as part of the ruling coalition to pressure President Duque toward policies and appointments that serve their cause. Duque’s nomination of Claudia Ortiz, an outspoken critic of the accord and land reform, to lead the Rural Development Agency, as well as the lack of support from government and Congress for a new land registry as promised in the peace ac-cord, suggest that rural reform may be the main victim of the new government’s harder-line factions. 

That said, the Democratic Centre does not govern alone. Duque’s vice president, Marta Lucía Ramírez, hails from the Conservative Party, as do his high commis-sioners for “legality” (formerly peace) and “stabilisation”. Ramírez would prefer to honour the peace deal in full, but the president has trimmed her authority over post-conflict planning and her influence will depend on whether Duque restores her powers. 

Substantive and Symbolic Changes to the Peace Deal
 

Notwithstanding the competing voices within his government, President Duque himself appears aware that overt opposition to the accord would cost him support at home and abroad. To both please hardliners and avoid offending the peace deal’s supporters, he may cite Colombia’s financial straits as justification for cuts that would dilute the most expensive parts of the deal. As described, one likely target for such cuts are provisions for rural development and land reform, costs of which are officially estimated at more than $30 billion over more than a decade. A similar fiscal squeeze could befall the program for voluntary coca crop substitution laid out in the peace accord. Duque has stated that he will comply with agreements already signed with 80,000 coca-growing families to provide stipends and technical assistance to enable them to shift to legal farming. But he and his ministers have made clear that, in line with U.S. demands, they wish to prioritise forced eradication and fumigation of coca crops, possibly with drones.

The policies that Duque and his party have decried most vociferously in recent years – the peace deal’s plans for transitional justice and FARC leaders’ participation in politics, both ratified by Congress and approved by the courts – are more likely to suffer symbolic rather than substantive changes. For example, the deal makes FARC participants in the illegal drug trade eligible for immunity from prosecution so long as they can show their involvement was for the insurgency’s material gain rather than their own. Duque plans to pass a law to eliminate all such judicial benefits for convicted drug traffickers. But, even if he does, he will be unable to retroactively prosecute already demobilised FARC commanders and fighters, due to constitutional provisions requiring that the lightest sentence be imposed when more than one law applies to the crime (in this case, the lightest sentence is that outlined by the peace agreement). In terms of FARC’s political participation, the movement currently has four legislators in both houses of Congress, part of an eight-year quota established in the peace deal. Any attempt to take away those seats would likely lead to a legal and political quagmire. It appears unlikely the new government will attempt to do so, however much the ruling party chafes at the presence of FARC deputies.

Despite the peace agreement, areas formerly under guerrilla control face persistent or even worsening insecurity, including displacement and high murder rates.

Other parts of the agreement President Duque resolutely backs. He repeatedly voices support for reintegrating former guerrillas into civilian life, though his gov-ernment still lacks a clear policy for doing so. The National Reincorporation Coun-cil, created by the peace agreement to design a reintegration policy for former fighters, has approved a mere handful of projects to that end, though over 100 ini-tiatives led by individual or small groups of low-level fighters are underway with-out its approval. Reintegration is also bedevilled by former combatants’ frustra-tions with the process so far. Roughly 1,500 former guerrillas remain in the can-tonments created for their reintegration, even though 13,000 people were accredit-ed as having belonged to the FARC (of whom about 23 per cent are women). Of the 11,500 who have left, some have attempted to set up small businesses or coopera-tives while awaiting government financial support; others have given up on receiv-ing more assistance but aim to survive on their monthly stipends until they run out in August 2019. A small but growing number have joined armed dissident groups.  

The Reintegration and Normalisation Agency, the Colombian body in charge of carrying out reintegration policies, is under new leadership appointed by Santos a few months before leaving office. That change may provide an opportunity to over-come the agency’s longstanding disputes with the FARC over the most suitable programs for former combatants. Both the agency and the National Reincorpora-tion Council, as well as the FARC itself, will need to make far greater efforts to en-sure that reintegration packages are tailored to account for the gender and ethnici-ty of former fighters. Vice President Ramírez, who has special responsibility for the government’s gender policies, should play a role in designing specific economic programs and protection against sexual violence for female ex-fighters.

Security Threats and the Drug Trade

Despite the peace agreement, areas formerly under guerrilla control face persistent or even worsening insecurity, including displacement and high murder rates. At least 331 community leaders have died, since the start of 2016, while 71 former FARC members have also been murdered, according to the UN, since the peace deal was signed; suspected perpetrators of only a small number of these killings have been arrested. In response to rising violence levels, the government appears to be returning to the counter-insurgency model of “clear-hold-build” followed by President Uribe. But that approach largely failed at the time to clear territories of armed factions so that state institutions could take root, and there is little reason to believe it can succeed now.
 
FARC dissidents – who reject the peace deal – pose the most visible threat, along with ELN guerrillas and drug traffickers. At least thirteen dissident groups, comprising a minimum of 1,600 fighters, are recruiting across the country. In Co-lombia’s south-eastern plains, Gentil Duarte, a prominent ex-FARC commander, seeks to unite the dissidents and create a new FARC. In the south west, along the Pacific coast and the Ecuador border, illegal economies, notably coca production and cocaine processing and trafficking, serve as the dissidents’ financial base. In the north, fighting among dissidents and other armed groups has led violence to spike. Four key FARC commanders who once accepted the accord recently joined the dissidents in the eastern plains, suggesting that these emerging factions are becoming magnets for those sceptical of the new government’s good faith in carry-ing out the deal or concerned about the prospect of criminal probes into their activ-ities. The best way to stem the flow of defections would be to honour promises to establish effective reintegration programs for former fighters.

Crisis Group estimates that ELN guerrillas are still active in about 10 per cent of Colombia’s territory, mainly along the border with Venezuela and the Pacific coast. The ELN has carried out massacres in the south west and north east, supposedly against armed rivals, while playing a greater role in drug trafficking and using vio-lence to assert territorial control. In August, its guerrillas kidnapped (and later re-leased) nine soldiers and policemen in Arauca and Chocó, in part to press for con-tinuation of peace talks held under President Santos. Duque, however, has sus-pended talks until the ELN releases all its kidnapping victims, who now number ten according to a government list. Of these, at least one is confirmed dead, while seven others are suspected to have also died. 
 

Duque has also demanded that the ELN stop all its criminal activities as another precondition for talks. He occasionally stipulates that the guerrillas assemble in cantonments, as the FARC fighters initially did, and insists that peace talks focus on disarmament and demobilisation rather than substantive reforms to the Colombian economy and state institutions. This last condition means in essence that the guerrillas would have to hand over their weapons without realising any of their core political demands. The ELN is sure to reject such preconditions. The new government’s recent decision to remove Venezuela as a guarantor country further diminishes prospects for talks. With safe havens and growing operations in Venezuela, the ELN sees Caracas as a crucial ally. The ELN peace process so far has been frustrating, with mistrust between the sides and the guerrilla’s continuing armed activity causing talks to stall earlier this year. But Duque and Colombia’s international partners should persist, particularly given that the group’s military defeat remains a remote prospect while it enjoys havens across the border.

Drug traffickers, including the Gaitán Self-Defence Forces, operate in north-western Colombia and along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, though military operations and internal fractures have weakened them. Colombia’s Congress passed a law in July that foresaw reduced prison sentences for the Gaitán in exchange for its demobilisation and information on its activities and allies, but the group has yet to accept the law’s terms of surrender. In the meantime, Colombian authorities have killed or captured some of the group’s leaders. Drug trafficking and production have suffered only limited damage from the military and police offensive against the Gaitán as other groups fill gaps in trafficking routes while farmers continue to grow coca for profit.

All armed groups exploit drugs to finance activities, gain local power and recruit. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime announced in September that coca cultivation areas reached record levels in 2017 of 171,000 hectares, with estimated cocaine production also at a high of over 1,300 metric tonnes. Under U.S. pressure, the Duque government has announced that it will rely on forced eradication to reduce illicit crop cultivation. But it has also stated that it will respect commitments to the peace agreement’s crop substitution program, which has already eliminated at least 20,000 hectares of coca with local farmers’ consent. Coordination between the military-led eradication and civilian-led substitution programs has been troubled since early 2017, prompting resentment from coca-growers who say they are willing to switch crops but have still watched their plants being forcibly destroyed.

Previous episodes of intensified forced eradication have shown that coercive counter-narcotic strategies, including fumigation, erode trust between coca growers and the government, while strengthening illegal armed groups purporting to defend the former. The EU should advise the Duque government that repeating this approach is likely to yield the same result. It could also fill gaps in funding for the crop substitution programs. The EU could, for example, support related initiatives, such as building infrastructure, offering technical assistance for coca growers to cultivate legal crops, or helping secure better access to European markets for Colombian products grown by former coca farmers.

Neighbour Troubles

At least one million Venezuelans have entered Colombia fleeing economic misery, dire shortages of medical and other essential supplies and, in some cases, political repression since the start of 2017. Around half remain clustered in border areas marked by high rates of poverty and unemployment. President Duque has acknowledged the need to accept these migrants and work with Latin American partners and UN bodies to protect their well-being. He has sounded a firm line on Venezuela, telling the UN General Assembly that a stronger regional “diplomatic siege” is needed to “sanction … those who have laid the way for this atrocious trag-edy”.

Growing tensions between Bogotá and Caracas, as well as the absence of stable channels of communication between the countries’ armed forces, could lead to worsening violence. The risk is most acute along borders that armed groups, above all the ELN, regularly cross. In these areas, illegal economies flourish, including trafficking in cocaine, fuel, cattle, and illegally mined gold and coltan. Venezuela’s president, Nicolás Maduro, accused Duque’s predecessor Santos of sponsoring a re-cent assassination attempt against him, offering no evidence to back up that claim. At the same time, senior Latin American and U.S. officials have floated the idea of military intervention against Maduro’s government. President Duque has – sensi-bly – ruled out Colombian support for such an initiative, which would almost cer-tainly make things much worse (even if the Venezuelan military abandoned Madu-ro and his government were quickly toppled – neither of which is certain – any newly installed transitional government in Caracas would be weak and, beset by pockets of armed resistance and the spread of organised crime, would almost cer-tainly be unable to impose order across the country). 

As it bears the brunt of the humanitarian emergency, Colombia undoubtedly needs more support from the EU to cope with the exodus of desperate Venezuelans and contain instability along the border. European backing on an issue that is at the core of Duque’s security concerns could help persuade the government that it should attend to EU concerns and keep the budget for the peace process intact.