Colombia’s War Just Ended. A New Wave of Violence Is Beginning.
As the country declares peace after five decades of war against the FARC, a scramble for territory and control over the drug trade is emboldening new, anarchic gangs.
The Invisible War
Most Bacrim groups emerged from Colombia’s last attempt to negotiate a measure of peace. In 2003, paramilitary groups agreed to demobilize in exchange for limited immunity. The leaders of the so-called United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) were jailed, and many combatants demobilized. But bits of their lower-tiered networks focused on drug trafficking and illegal mining remained intact. In the lawless pockets of this resource-wealthy country, those armed networks stripped away their political ideologies and doubled down on business.
Today, large groups with names such as the Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia (also called Clan Úsuga or Clan del Golfo), the Rastrojos, and the Popular Liberation Army (EPL) boast several thousands of members and hold territorial control over key trafficking corridors. Others, like the groups in Altos, are mere bit players in an illicit organized crime network that few can disentangle.
Bacrim groups have been present in roughly 10 percent of Colombia’s municipalities since 2009. Today, they see growth opportunities in the FARC peace talks — for one, the chance to claim pieces of the illicit economy that the guerrillas have long controlled.
Of prime interest are drug trafficking corridors. The FARC has long been one of the largest movers of cocaine through Colombia. Along the country’s nearly 1,400-mile border with Venezuela, rivalries between armed actors have escalated, said Yadira Galeano, the head of the Norwegian Refugee Council’s office in the border town of Cúcuta. “With the conversations in Havana, it has reconfigured the conflict,” she said.
Her office tries to keep tabs on who runs what territory. These days, control is so fluid it’s impossible. “The routes that were controlled by the FARC have started to be co-opted by other groups,” Galeano said. “What they say is that the FARC is selling their routes to all these [Bacrim] groups.”
That may not be all the guerrillas are selling. Weapons, too, may be slipping onto the black market, said Eduardo Álvarez Vanegas, the coordinator for the study of conflict dynamics and peace talks at the Bogotá-based Ideas for Peace Foundation (FIP). The FARC is estimated to hold some 45,000 arms, including 20,000 large munitions. At least some combatants may prefer to sell their best pieces and give up rusted guns through the official demilitarization process, meant to take place in the first 180 days of the agreement.
And drugs? Fumigation has slowed for half a decade and was formally halted last year. Cultivation of coca — the raw material of cocaine — rose 39 percent in 2015, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. The FARC controlled 70 percent of those crops in the past, and competition to replace the group is fierce. “Everything is dominion and control,” said Rev. Francesco Bortignon, a Catholic missionary priest who has lived and worked along the border with Venezuela for 37 years. “When you’re producing so much, it has to move.”
But perhaps the most urgent hustle in any post-conflict state may be for bodies. Critics of the agreement say other groups are already trying to poach the best, most knowledgeable FARC combatants for their own operations. “There are going to be members of FARC who change to ELN. Others will be recruited to other groups such as the Clan del Golfo,” said Iván Duque, an opposition senator who fears the agreement will be the “midwife of new forms of violence” for years to come.
One possible source of leakage in the demobilization process would come from the thousands of urban militiamen the FARC relies upon to provide support. Some are armed; others have innocuous tasks such as buying supplies. Although the guerrillas have promised to demobilize the militias, many are outside the organization’s disciplined military hierarchy and may not comply. Even among the rank and file, some FARC members will inevitably slip back into crime. A successful demobilization program here will be expected to have a reincidence rate of between 25 and 35 percent, said Sergio Guarín, the coordinator for post-conflict affairs and peace building at FIP. With the FARC’s estimated 7,500 members and 10,000 militia operatives, that could mean thousands of dropouts.
Then there are the FARC battalions that don’t comply. The organization’s “First Front,” which infamously held politician Ingrid Betancourt hostage for more than six years, said this summer that it would continue an armed struggle against the state. Though just 200 fighters strong, the First Front is a giant in the drug trade and has become one of the group’s largest revenue generators.
This isn’t the way the government tells it. Since peace talks began in Havana, Colombia appears quieter than ever. In 2015, homicides, kidnappings, and large-scale acts of terrorism — hallmarks of the conflict in the past — dropped to their lowest levels since 2007, according to Defense Ministry statistics. If a deal is signed, Colombia’s security forces hope they could focus all their strength on organized crime. “We would be left only with the fight against the Bacrim, which is a better situation,” said Victor Bautista, the Foreign Ministry official responsible for border issues, including the illicit economy.
Yet, by the Defense Ministry’s own analysis, many Bacrim aren’t just criminal gangs anymore. On April 22, the ministry issued Directive 15, transferring the fight from the police to the military because, in many cases, Bacrim groups “meet the standards of an organized armed group,” according to the document.
Human rights groups say Directive 15 effectively admits that the Bacrim are party to the armed conflict. Other institutions of the state are now acting on the same assumption. Victims of Bacrim groups are now eligible for government reparations just as those of the FARC are. Child recruits who leave Bacrim groups are able to participate in the same reintegration program.
All the levers of the state seem to be saying that the closer to peace Colombia has gotten, the more powerful the criminal bands have become. “We are in a transition in the armed conflict. One armed group that has always had its dominion today is reducing its actions because of the peace process,” said one human rights lawyer working with the government, speaking anonymously because he was not authorized to speak to the press. “That means that other groups are gaining force.”
Even in quiet San Carlos, there are whispers of trouble. At a recent government colloquium in the town center, citizens spoke of small-time molestations. One had received phone calls from an unknown person demanding money — an attempt at extortion. Several coffee farmers said armed individuals had stopped their trucks on the highway, stealing the crops inside.
“We are afraid,” said Edwin Lopez, a 31-year-old coffee farmer in San Carlos, whose beans were looted en route to market last November. “In order for Colombia to advance peace, it’s not just what they sign in Havana but with everyone.”