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.
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.
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.
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.