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Colombia’s Long Road to Peace

Commentary, 15 May 2014
Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) could form a central pillar of a lasting peace in Colombia. But how can you make it attractive for those heavily involved in organised crime, which profit the most from the country’s internal conflict?

Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) could form a central pillar of a lasting peace in Colombia. But how can you make it attractive for those heavily involved in organised crime,  which profit the most from the countrys internal conflict?

Colombia armed forces

There is a lot at stake in Colombia’s upcoming presidential elections on 25 May. Should the incumbent – President Juan Manuel Santos – be re-elected, then the peace talks currently underway in Cuba between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrilla group are set to continue, despite their slow progress to-date.

If Santos loses, then the negotiations could well be postponed, perhaps even indefinitely. As well as undoing much of the existing groundwork for peace, an early termination of the peace talks may result in an escalation of current levels of violence and insecurity as both sides seek to militarily reassert themselves on the battlefield. However, while the election risks derailing attempts to seek a political solution to the conflict, they should not detract from on-going efforts to plan for a successful transition to a post-conflict situation in Colombia – a scenario that is, in many ways, now closer to being realised than at any other point in its recent history.

Colombia’s internal conflict, which began five decades ago, has left more than 220,000 dead and as many as 5.7 million internally displaced. Today, forced displacements, disappearances, homicides, sexual violence and the recruitment of minors into criminal groups continue to occur in the most heavily affected areas of the country. The five-point agenda being discussed at the negotiating table in Havana includes rural development, political participation, illegal drugs, disarmament, and victim’s rights.

To-date preliminary agreements have been reached on the first two agenda items, with negotiators still focusing on the third and arguably most complex issue – the illegal drug trade. If a peace agreement is reached, up to 40,000 demobilisations could occur in the coming months. This includes  FARC membership, of approximately 8,000 guerrilla fighters, and the group’s extensive support networks and militias – all of which would be eligible to enter the Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) programme that would likely form a central pillar of the Colombian government’s wider post-conflict recovery strategy.

Uncertain Negotiations

Despite the apparent desire for peace on both sides, the current process nevertheless continues to be riddled with uncertainties. Central among which are fears that while an agreement in Havana could see significant numbers of the FARC demobilise, particularly among FARC’s senior leadership, it could equally trigger dissidence among a large number of the group’s rank and file – many of whom may view giving up their weapons and pursuing employment within the legal economy as less appealing than a return to business as usual. 

Driving their desire to break-away from the FARC’s central leadership will be the enormous financial incentives associated with continued involvement in the illegal drug trade from which the group annually earns billions, and the criminal mining sector which is increasingly overtaking drugs as the group’s primary source of income in some areas of Colombia. FARC members involved in these industries could come under external pressure from other criminal groups who are likely to offer high incentives for the FARC to continue delivering on their end of existing business arrangements. These could include members of criminal groups operating in Colombia such as the expansionist Los Urabeños franchise, as well as other transnational criminal organisations, including Mexico’s ferocious Sinaloa Cartel, and Italian and Russian organised crime outfits – with whom the FARC reportedly has ties.

Overcoming the Challenge Ahead

The potential for FARC-splinter groups to emerge presents a major challenge for Colombian policy makers. In particular those responsible for the planning and delivery of DDR in a post-conflict scenario will be affected. The proliferation of a number of these groups would ultimately result in the perpetuation of the current conflict, albeit under a different guise, undermining efforts to create the necessary conditions for a meaningful transition to peace.

DDR planners should therefore ensure that adequate measures are adopted to incentivise buy-in to the DDR process among those FARC members who, due to their heavy involvement in illegal economies, are potentially at the highest risk of rejecting peace. While the scale of the challenge is colossal, efforts in this regard could focus on increasingly the opportunity cost of continued involvement in organised crime activities and denying FARC fronts most at risk of fragmentation their current operating space.

A greater emphasis could similarly be placed on neutralising those who could exert pressure on FARC to continue their current involvement in illegal economies. While this may involve going after high-value targets and disrupting sources of criminal funding, it should also prioritise efforts to understand and mitigate the root causes of delinquency among Colombia’s armed groups.

A clear communications strategy is equally required to convey to potential participants in a DDR programme the various components of the process. This would prevent the government’s core messages from being distorted as they travel down the FARC’s chain of command.  How success is measured will depend upon how expectations are managed throughout the remainder of the negotiating process. But to succeed, DDR will ultimately require the wider buy-in and support of Colombian society as a whole otherwise it could just fuel further social polarisation throughout the country in the period ahead.

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