Several weeks ago on the outskirts of the northwestern town of Montelíbano, a police caravan was ambushed. By the time the firefight was over, seven police officers were dead and another seven were wounded, making it the second most lethal attack on the armed forces this year.
However, what worried the authorities was who they claim was behind the attack: a joint assault by the 58th front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas and their sworn enemies, the Urabeños — the country’s largest criminal gang, also known as the Úsuga.
Government negotiators and the FARC have spent the last two years in Havana trying to hammer out a peace deal that would allow the 50-year-old guerrilla force to lay down its arms and re-enter society. The negotiations are taking place without a cease-fire, and attacks are frequent.
But the Sept. 16 ambush fueled skeptics’ worst fears: What if factions within the guerrillas don’t heed the call to peace and decide to use their unique skill set to join the ranks of criminal gangs or go into business for themselves?
With an estimated 8,000 seasoned fighters, even a small breakaway group, well armed and with decades of experience, could become a major force in the hemisphere’s underworld.
“Let’s say a percentage [of the guerrillas] don’t demobilize and a leader of significance stays in the field,” said Jeremy McDermott with InSight Crime in America, a research firm that has studied the likelihood of FARC criminalization. “They could become the biggest players overnight.”
The FARC promotes itself as a Marxist guerrilla force that represents the poor and stands against criminal gangs, known as bacrim, that it still considers part of the right-wing paramilitary groups that it battled less than a decade ago. The paramilitaries, under the banner of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, often colluded with the military to take on suspected rebels.
‘LIKE OIL AND WATER’
Shortly after the September ambush, FARC Commander Rodrigo “Ricardo Téllez” Granda, who is in Havana, denied any involvement.
The bacrim and the FARC “are like oil and water; we can never mix,” he told a guerrilla webcast. “What this is, from my point of view, is a campaign by the Ministry of Defense to denigrate our revolutionary organization and not just damage the FARC … but to damage the peace process here in Havana.”
The Ministry of Defense claims there is ample proof that FARC factions are cooperating with the criminal gangs they claim to despise.
“There are intelligence reports, emails, records from meetings and declarations given by demobilized [FARC members] that confirm the criminal alliance between the terrorists, criminal bands and narco-traffickers,” Minister of Defense Juan Carlos Pinzón told the Miami Herald in an email. Fusing the name of the guerrilla group and criminal syndicates, Pinzón said the evidence shows “we’re facing a Farcrim criminal phenomenon.”
NO PERFECT PEACE
No peace process is perfect; history is littered with examples of rebel groups who have signed deals only to have members go rogue.
The Real Irish Republican Army was formed after the Provisional IRA signed a cease-fire in 1997.
Under Colombia’s 2005 “Justice and Peace” law, some 30,000 paramilitary fighters were expected to demobilize in exchange for reduced sentences. Instead, many ended up joining the ranks of more than two dozen new criminal gangs that still haunt the country.
The Úsuga criminal gang, which was involved in the September ambush, is thought to be made up of former paramilitaries and members of the Popular Liberation Army (EPL), which demobilized in 1991.
“In every peace negotiation in the world, anywhere from 10 to 15 percent of the group may not embrace it,” said Fernando Hernández, who belonged to a faction of the leftist National Liberation Army that broke away and signed a peace deal in 1994. “There will be members who will not give up their lifestyle — who’ve grown accustomed to living off of drug trafficking.”
But even a partial demobilization could be a huge benefit for the country. For starters, the armed forces and police would have a smaller target to chase. Secondly, the guerrillas who did remain fighting would have lost their ideological and political veneer, said Hernández, who studies the conflict as the head of the Bogotá-based Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris think-tank.
“We would have ended the political reasons for this war,” he explained.
While other issues would remain — like inequality and poverty — “we could start building a country in peace and post-conflict,” he said. “And that’s an entirely different thing.”
Recent events provide reason for optimism. During the latest cycle of peace talks, the FARC has incorporated new commanders into its negotiating team. Now, four out of the seven members of the guerrillas’ secretariat and many of its top lieutenants are in Havana.
“When the FARC brings its high command and representatives of all its blocs to the table, no one can say they are divided at the negotiations,” Hernández said. “They are very serious about the process.”
But cash has a way of undermining discipline in the ranks. Estimates vary on the FARC’s economic might, but a 2013 study by Salomón Kalmanovitz, a former central bank chairman, estimated that the guerrilla group controls half of the country’s coca fields, giving it an income of $3.2 billion per year. InSight estimates the group has operating expenses of about $200 million a year and pulls in much more than that through drug trafficking, extortion and other activities.
For many guerrillas — particularly the rank and file — it might be difficult to walk away from those relative riches to face an uncertain future in the Colombian workforce.
“You have to look at it on a front-by-front basis and ask ‘What does peace offer them?’” McDermott said. “It’s all very well for the guys in Havana because they will get a job post-conflict. But what about those in the trenches who don’t have an education and who are not in the higher echelons? What is there for them?”
Even so, the FARC — Latin America’s oldest and largest insurgent group — has proven to be extraordinarily disciplined, said Rafael Guarín, a former justice minister and vice minister of defense. Dissent in the ranks is often punished by death.
If guerrilla factions do stay in the field after a peace deal is signed, he speculated, it would likely be by design rather than division in the ranks. The guerrillas have historical reasons to be wary of a rapprochement, he said.
In the 1980s, the administration of Belisario Betancur signed a cease-fire and the guerrillas tiptoed into politics by forming the Patriotic Union, or UP, party. The UP won more than 200 local council positions and a handful of congressional and senate seats in 1986. But in succeeding years, more than 1,500 UP leaders were assassinated, including presidential candidate Jaime Pardo in 1987. The FARC went back underground and resumed its military push.
The current peace process also contemplates the FARC playing a political role. But with the UP precedent in mind, it’s possible the guerrillas will leave “armed factions in the field as a sort of rearguard,” in case they find themselves, once again, targeted for murder, Guarín said. “The guerrillas have a deep mistrust of the Colombian state.”
Defense Minister Pinzón said nobody in the administration is “naïve” enough to believe that every FARC member will lay down their arms as a result of the peace talks.
“What’s certain is that the Armed Forces have an obligation to confront criminals,” he said, “regardless of the scenario.”
Oct. 21: Victims struggle with forgiveness.