Colombia Beyond the FARC: Emerging Threats and Structural Problems

The death of guerilla leader Alfonso Cano marks another setback to FARC, but Colombia still faces a complicated security environment that demands an integrated approach.

By David Schoeller-Diaz
November 14, 2011

The killing of FARC leader Alfonso Cano is the most definitive blow dealt to the last remaining major guerrilla group in the Western Hemisphere. With the depletion of its leadership and its 9,000 remaining fighters retreating, the FARC has been critically weakened from its peak strength in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Nonetheless, diffuse emerging threats and profound structural problems threaten Colombian stability. The complex security landscape beyond the FARC tempers the game-changing impact of this military accomplishment for Colombia’s national security.

Contrary to what some observers argue, the killing of Cano constitutes neither the final nail in the coffin of a negotiated solution nor proof that a purely military approach will be used to exterminate the guerrillas. The two most likely contenders for the FARC’s top job (“Iván Márquez” and “Timochenko”) have negotiation experience and have previously demonstrated a willingness to talk. In fact, “military intelligence suggests that Ivan Marquez was the leader more likely to take the rebels to the negotiating table than Alfonso Cano”. Ultimately, sustained military pressure, lack of safe havens and depleted manpower may incentivize any leader to negotiate to stop the bleeding and secure more favorable terms. Beneath the leadership, the dismantling of the FARC will most likely lead to the surfacing of numerous splinter illegal enterprises that may be as complex to combat as the paramilitary successors and emerging criminal bands.

A purely military approach is strategically unviable for the Colombian government given the decentralized presence of the FARC throughout a vast and often-inaccessible terrain. Significantly, President Santos’ proposal to reform the Law of Justice and Peace to more efficiently manage a large-scale demobilization of guerrilla fighters points to an enduring focus on negotiations to conclude the conflict.

As the challenge posed by this 50-year insurgency is mitigated, Colombia still faces a complex security and humanitarian landscape. Four critical and interconnected structural problems demand a serious, integrated, and sustained approach.

First, the historical weakness of the Colombian state has left gaps for a sundry of illegal actors. These have performed functions normally reserved to the state and used violent means to capture private markets and public resources. Although narcotics have prevailed as the illicit industry of choice, it constitutes just one option, to be complemented or replaced by illegal mining, contraband, kidnapping, weapons smuggling, human trafficking, etc. Consequently, targeting a single actor or industry has a limited long-term impact, as new ones vie for control of the illegal bounty available.

Second, the government has chronically turned its back to the rural sector while focusing on urban industrialization as the key to modernization. Lack of security, rule of law, social services, infrastructure, and imbalanced land distribution are not only hindering rural development, but also the economic progress and stability of Colombia.

Third, the weakness of local governments, relative to tasks and resources endowed to them, incentivizes political violence and corruption. As declared by Juan Carlos Martinez, a former Senator now imprisoned for paramilitary involvement, “Politics is better business than drug trafficking… The money left by a drug shipment doesn’t measure up to that of a mayor’s office”. Defying most predictions, the pounding of the FARC and demobilization of the paramilitaries has not significantly mitigated these threats. This is evidenced by the 2011 local elections in late-October, which had some of the highest rates of political violence in the last fifty years, with the assassination of 41 political candidates, 21 assassination attempts, 5 abductions, and 85 death threats.

These statistics are merely the tip of the iceberg for the violent contest over public resources by non-state armed groups, criminal enterprises, and corrupt politicians. The growth of the pie at stake—fueled by a mining boom, the post-2010 winter flood reconstruction, the restitution of 2 million hectares to displaced victims, and the enduring drug industry—appears to have exacerbated political violence despite the respite in the armed conflict. After the last votes were cast, President Santos declared, “The only ones defeated in this democratic journey were the violent ones. Colombia voted in peace and won democracy.” If so, it was a bloody battle that tests the legitimacy of elected government representatives and will threaten the impartial distribution of the fruits of progress.

Finally, there has been insufficient protection and reparation to victims, despite the occasional scandal over misrepresentation. This is especially critical for over four million internally displaced persons, many in complex urban landscapes. Unless mitigated, this sharp urban marginalization will generate ever-greater humanitarian vulnerabilities and security threats.

The Santos administration has expanded the security agenda to address some of Colombia’s structural problems. Nevertheless, it remains to be seen to what extent the capture of local power by illegal actors will restrict the implementation of a reform agenda. Structural problems that have festered for decades will demand a response that exceeds an electoral cycle. Ultimately, success against any single illegal actor or industry will be short lived and of limited impact, without significant institutional development, reduction of socioeconomic inequality, and respect for the rule of law.

David Alejandro Schoeller-Diaz is a Research Fellow for the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and an MA candidate of Law and Diplomacy from The Fletcher School, Tufts University. He is based in Bogotá, Colombia.

Photo courtesy of pattoncito via Flickr.

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