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Moving Beyond Easy Wins: Colombia’s Borders
Moving Beyond Easy Wins: Colombia’s Borders
Table of Contents
  1. Executiv Summary
Colombia’s FARC Ends its 53-year Insurgency
Colombia’s FARC Ends its 53-year Insurgency
Report 40 / Latin America & Caribbean

Moving Beyond Easy Wins: Colombia’s Borders

Colombia needs bolder policies to cope with the violence in its border areas, because improved relations with its neighbours alone have neither effectively reduced ongoing conflict with illegal armed groups nor alleviated the plight of the local communities.

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Executiv Summary

Improved relations between Colombia and its neighbours have not alleviated the plight of border communities. For fifteen years, porous borders that offer strategic advantages to illegal armed groups and facilitate extensive illicit economies have exposed them to an intense armed conflict that is made worse by the widespread absence of public institutions. The warfare triggered a humanitarian emergency and worsened relations especially with Ecuador and Venezuela, the most affected neighbours. Spurring development in the periphery and reconstructing diplomatic ties are priorities for President Juan Manuel Santos. A little over a year into his term, his new policies have paid undoubted diplomatic and some security dividends. But the hard part is still ahead. Efforts to improve the humanitarian situation and build civilian state capacity must be scaled up, tasks that, amid what is again a partially worsening conflict, have been neglected. Otherwise, pacifying the troubled border regions will remain a chimera, and their dynamics will continue to fuel Colombia’s conflict.

Border regions were drawn into the armed conflict by the mid-1990s, when they became main theatres of operations for illegal armed groups, often financed by drug trafficking. A crackdown under Álvaro Uribe, Santos’s predecessor, brought only elusive gains there. The illegal armed groups have been pushed deeper into the periphery but not defeated. Coca cultivation and drug trafficking remain significant. Violence has come down in most regions, but remains higher along the borders than in the nation as a whole, and security has begun to deteriorate in some zones, as New Illegal Armed Groups and paramilitary successors (NIAGs) extend their operations, and guerrillas gain new strength. The Uribe approach also carried high diplomatic costs. Relations with the neighbours became toxic over a 2008 Colombian airstrike on a camp of the main rebel group, FARC, located just inside Ecuador and over allegations that Venezuela was harbouring guerrillas.

Fixing the border problems has been a priority for Santos. He has moved quickly to restore diplomatic relations with Ecuador and Venezuela, and bilateral platforms are in an early stage of either being revived or created. There is a strong political commitment on all sides to preserve the restored friendships, despite the continuing presence of illegal armed groups in both neighbouring countries. Security cooperation is improving. The Colombian Congress has passed a constitutional reform to redistribute royalties from oil and mining concessions, a measure that should increase funds for public investment in many peripheral regions that currently do not benefit from that bonanza. In an effort to produce tangible results fast, the foreign ministry is leading implementation of projects aimed at boosting social and economic development in border municipalities.

The Santos agenda represents a substantial policy shift, but as the conflict continues unabated in the border regions and has increasing repercussions on Venezuelan and Ecuadorian soil, problems remain. Three sets of issues need to be tackled. First, more must be done to increase the civilian state presence in the destitute border areas. Militarisation of the borders has failed to deliver durable security gains, and efforts by security forces to increase their standing with local communities continue to stumble over human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law. With dynamics along their borders increasingly resem­bling the situation in Colombia, similar problems are fast emerging in Ecuador and Venezuela. The security forces of all three countries must play by the book and focus more on citizen security, and their civilian authorities must take the lead in providing services.

Secondly, more effective responses to the severe humanitarian problems are needed. Colombia continues to struggle to attend to internally displaced persons (IDPs) and other victims of the conflict, a large number of whom cross the borders in search of protection. But protecting them has not been a priority in Venezuela, leaving an estimated 200,000 highly vulnerable. This contrasts with the response in Ecuador, which has recognised and provided documentation to some 54,000 Colombian refugees. But Ecuador has tightened its policy since January 2011, exposing such individuals to new risks. Governments are hesitant to give more weight to a potentially divisive issue in bilateral relations, but looking the other way will only make matters worse over the long run.

Thirdly, efficient forums to solve problems jointly and pro­mote border development are still lacking. This partly reflects the neighbours’ reluctance to acknowledge any responsibility for a conflict they consider a domestic matter of Colombia but that in fact is sustained by transnational criminal networks and is increasingly creating victims on all sides of the borders. The high diplomatic volatility has also been damaging efforts to institutionalise cooperation that needs to be grounded in buy-in and participation of local authorities, civil society and the private sector. In a region where the next diplomatic crisis is often not far away, the current improved political climate offers the governments a chance to boost civilian state presence, improve the humanitarian situation and put relations on a more sustainable footing. They should seize it.

Bogotá/Brussels, 31 October 2011


FARC guerrillas carry a white flag symbolising peace as they march toward a camp where they will disarm and reintegrate into civilian live after more than five decades of conflict. Bogotá, Colombia on 8 February 2017. NOTIMEX / Presidency of Colombia

Colombia’s FARC Ends its 53-year Insurgency

With the official disarming of its main rebel organisation, Colombia has passed a remarkable new milestone in its peace process. But major challenges remain: the destruction of remote arms dumps, reintegration of ex-combatants, and progress towards peace with other armed groups.

The International Crisis Group celebrates the most significant achievement of the Colombian peace process to date: the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has now finished handing over 7,100 weapons to the UN Mission, putting an end to its 53-year insurgency. Now the parties must focus on implementing the rest of the peace agreement, which will require overcoming several major challenges.

The first is to ensure security. Peace with the FARC has ended Colombia’s largest insurgency but other armed groups remain active. The National Liberation Army, or ELN in Spanish, continues its war against the government despite the ongoing Quito-based peace process. The government and ELN have announced a plan to reach a ceasefire in early September, and should intensify their efforts at the negotiating table to do so. Other armed groups, including criminal organisations and FARC dissidents, control important parts of Colombia’s periphery. The government should increase its military and police efforts in the short term to effectively regain control of areas under their influence. Finally, the remaining 872 FARC weapons caches registered by the UN mission must be destroyed by 1 September, as agreed.

The second challenge will be to reintegrate FARC combatants into civilian life.

The second challenge will be to reintegrate FARC combatants into civilian life by allowing them to participate in economic cooperatives, perform political work and receive educational support. The FARC hopes it can do this while maintaining its internal cohesion and collective lifestyle. But planning is behind schedule as key details are missing on the projects the FARC hopes to help carry out in order to generate income and sustenance for its fighters. The FARC’s proposal that its fighters remain in extremely remote areas of Colombia, where the group has been present for decades, may stumble because these parts of the country are characterised by poverty, lack of markets and poor infrastructure. Recently, the Colombian Agency for Reincorporation and Normalisation, or ARN – the state institute in charge of ex-combatant reintegration since 2006 – was put in charge of FARC “reincorporation”. It will need increased financial resources to guarantee a successful process.

Finally, the peace agreement still faces serious political resistance. Opposition political parties have vowed to change certain aspects of the agreement and, with congressional and presidential elections scheduled next year, they will soon have the opportunity to make their case. The successful weapons handover in theory should give proponents of the peace agreement a boost, but much will depend on developments on two important fronts. The government and FARC will need to show that their coca substitution agreement yields results – namely, a decrease in coca production and a transition to an economy based on sustainable, legal economic activity. Current trends are not promising. Colombia is likely witnessing record-high coca cultivation levels, which critics have linked to the peace process and an overly-soft drug policy.

Moreover, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (SJP) – the transitional justice mechanism designed to both render justice and shed light on what occurred during the insurgency – needs to demonstrate it is making a difference and enforcing accountability, particularly against guerrilla commanders, in order to counter the perception of FARC impunity.

[T]he FARC’s violent insurgency has come to an end and the organisation has ceased to exist as an armed group.

The weapons handover is a milestone: the FARC’s violent insurgency has come to an end and the organisation has ceased to exist as an armed group. For all the challenges that remain, and for all the uncertainties that lie ahead, this is a remarkable achievement for the Colombian people. At a time when faith in peacemaking and conflict resolution is at a low, it is also a welcome and inspiring example for the rest of us.