Crime-Conflict Nexus: Criminal Agendas and Peace Negotiations – The Case of Colombia

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    UNU-CPR RESEARCHERS: John de Boer, Louise Bosetti
    EXTERNAL RESEARCHERS: Juan Carlos Garzón-Vergara

    A historical agreement putting an end to the longest armed-conflict in Latin America was signed between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government in November 2016. The agreement was remarkable in many respects, but perhaps most striking was how it dealt with an existential threat to peace posed by criminal agendas.

    In a new report published by the United Nations University Centre for Policy Research, the authors analyse how the FARC and the Government of Colombia have charted a way forward with respect to criminal agendas in the context of peace negotiations.

    Why criminal agendas cannot be ignored

    In Colombia, illicit and criminal economies, ranging from drug trafficking, illegal mining, kidnapping and extortion have shaped the nature, dynamics and duration of the 52-year long conflict. While the exact extent of FARC’s involvement in the drug trade and other illicit and criminal economies remains contested, what is clear is that these activities have not only provided funds and resources to the insurgency but they have also facilitated access to social and political power. The involvement of the FARC in coca production – adopted as official policy in the early 1980s – allowed it to finance its armed resistance and provide communities under its control with a means to subsist, albeit in difficult and often violent circumstances.

    Many approaches have been attempted over the years in Colombia to deal with criminal agendas in the context of conflict. Initiatives have ranged from heavy-handed military approaches aimed at defeating the FARC, to failed attempts at brokering peace with the guerrilla group. When Colombia emerged as the largest coca producer in the world in the 1990’s, exorbitant resources were spent to eradicate coca production in the country. Many of these programs were met with mixed reviews and ultimately did little to alter the structural drivers behind illicit economies or to change the political realities of a socially, economically and politically divided country.

    Thus, when a peace agreement was finally approved by Congress in November 2016, after a tumultuous process that included a failed referendum and revisions to the initial agreement, it represented a significant breakthrough. The accord was remarkable in many respects and particularly in how it sought to deal with criminal agendas. The 310-page agreement categorizes organized crime as “a central threat to the viability of the agreement”, dedicates an entire chapter to the question of “illicit drugs”, and contains significant references to criminal agendas, with over 90 mentions.

    Key innovations highlighted in the paper

    1. The ability of the FARC leadership to maintain support among the majority of its rank and file for the peace process despite on-going violence and the constant lure of criminal opportunities was remarkable. Although desertions did take place, they were minimal. Furthermore, the FARC reduced violent acts against State forces by some ninety percent between 2012-2016.
    2. The Government’s agreement to provide security guarantees to FARC members, their families and communities from criminal groups was key to convincing the FARC and its membership to lay down their arms.
    3. A paradigm shift in the strategy to combat illicit economies. The negotiators agreed to adopt a public health-based approach to dealing with the problem of illicit drugs and agreed to work together to combat organized crime. The FARC agreed to leverage its criminal insight to combat illicit economies and the government agreed to create viable alternatives to illicit economies for FARC members and local communities.
    4. A shift away from criminal to restorative justice creating alternative sentencing models that privileged reconciliation over-incarceration. The process also found practical ways to distinguish between politically motivated crimes and those committed for profit-driven motives. This helped persuade the FARC to open up about its hidden criminal agendas.

    Key challenges and policy recommendations

    Notwithstanding these key innovations, success remains far from guaranteed. In fact, the threats posed by criminal organizations and criminal elements within the FARC remain real and in some cases are growing. In particular, the ability of the FARC and the State to prevent recidivism remains in question due to the strong presence of criminal groups and illicit economies in transition zones where FARC combatants are currently being disarmed.  Furthermore, there are significant questions about the capacity of the state to deliver on its promise of guaranteeing security to FARC members, their families and communities involved from the threat posed by criminal groups.

    Despite an official end to hostilities, the UN reports that more than 900 families have been displaced by violence from “new armed groups” since January 2017 and human rights and social leaders continue to be assassinated. Criminal agendas are at the core of the challenge. In addition, the mobility of criminal economies and enterprises has been impressive with a multiplicity of actors emerging in the context of negotiations to take advantage of FARC demobilization by filling governance vacuums and taking over illicit business. Considering Colombia’s history of recycled criminal and armed groups, the emergence of new insurgencies and violent criminal competition cannot be ruled out.

    To contain these risks, the authors identify a series of policy recommendations for both national and international actors supporting the peace process and its implementation.

    • Cultivate a robust knowledge of criminal agendas today and assess how they will evolve tomorrow: it is essential that public authorities understand the types of new opportunities and governance vacuums that will be created by removing key actors from the criminal market.
    • Devise new and inclusive strategies to deal with pervasive illicit economies: including providing credible economic opportunities and alternative sources of livelihood, recovering criminal assets and developing options for criminal organizations to transition into the lawful order.
    • Place emphasis on the social dimensions of re-integration by developing longer-term strategies that go beyond economic incentives and include psycho-social support, the development of non-violent networks, and tailored incentives that speak to each profile and category of the population that is being re-inserted.
    • Target capacity building to enable State authorities to bring the most pernicious criminal actors to justice: In Colombia, this means strengthening the capacity of the Attorney’s General Office, identifying and supporting rule of law reformers (especially in the security sector) and localizing anti-corruption efforts.


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    This material has been funded by UK aid from the UK government; however the views expressed do not necessarily reflect the UK government’s official policies.