While Colombia celebrated its Independence Day, key members of the new FARC political party abandoned their seats in Congress and contemplated their military options, adding to the country’s recent dramatic political turns.
July 20 was set to be a momentous day for Colombia. Independence Day celebrations were to be coupled with the end of the old Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) and the beginning of the new Common Alternative Revolutionary Force (Fuerza Alternativa Revolucionaria del Común – FARC) political party. And as part of the peace agreement signed in 2016, after 50 years of war with the Colombian government, FARC congressional representatives were to take their seats.
Instead, July 20 came to symbolize the profound crisis for Colombia as three FARC political leaders — among them one of the architects and main negotiators of the peace accords — did not appear in Congress and dissident groups loomed on the horizon.
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The absence was expected. Luciano Marín, alías “Iván Márquez” — second in command in the former guerrilla group, principal negotiator during the peace talks and one of the movement’s most important political leaders — had already announced that he would not be taking his seat in the Senate.
His decision was in response to the arrest of another FARC party representative set to take his seat in Congress, Seuxis Paucis Hernández Solarte, alias “Jesús Santrich.” Hernández is incarcerated at La Picota prison on drug trafficking charges. If Hernández does not appear in Congress within the next week, he will automatically lose his seat.
Byron Yepes, the former commander of the powerful 27th Front, was the third party member who was absent. Yepes passed his seat on to Carlos Alberto Carreño due to health problems.
The ramifications of Yepes’ absence go beyond Congress. He was the coordinator of one of the concentration zones in Colombia’s eastern plains, and his leadership has been a crucial part of the successful demobilization of many ex guerrillas in that zone, despite attempts by dissident groups to lure the former rebels into the illicit economy again.
The ranks of the dissidents, meanwhile, continue to expand at lightning speed in other parts of the country. While not all groups are equal in size and power, and their relationships with each other are heavily dependent on illegal economies, they are undermining the peace agreement all the same.
According to a July 14 report by Semana, at least some dissident guerrilla fighters are coalescing into something resembling a rebel organization again.
“The expansion plan opened strong this year. During 2017, eastern dissidents actively engaged in combat, harassing public forces and [local] populations. But in 2018 they suspended part of their terrorist activities. They seem to have begun concentrating on military and financial consolidation, preparing for future offensive actions,” the article said.
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The absence of the FARC leaders from Congress and the increasing number of dissidents clearly illustrate how quickly confidence in the peace process is fading.
And the future looks bleak, especially on the political front. This downhill trajectory became particularly evident in the May general elections. The victory of the political forces that campaigned against the peace process and the little support the FARC political party received during those elections left the latter at a disadvantage in its efforts to support implementation of the peace agreement.
The FARC no-shows only bolstered this sentiment. And President-elect Iván Duque has already advanced proposals to change the agreement.
“First and foremost, this peace we long for needs to be corrected,” Duque said in his first speech after winning Colombia’s presidential elections. “It will be corrected so the true victims are the center of the process, and we are guaranteed truth, justice and reparation, not repetition.”
Specific points in the peace agreement, such as changes to the Special Peace Jurisdiction (Justicia Especial para la Paz – JEP), the central mechanism of transitional justice created by the accords, as well as amnesty for certain drug-related crimes, are among the more critical challenges the Duque administration will face.
What’s more, other parts of the peace agreement have not been implemented quickly or efficiently. Economic projects have stalled for political and financial reasons. And the nearly $240 a month that demobilized FARC members receive from the government during their transition is small change compared to what dissidents are earning.
As a result, more guerrillas are abandoning the peace process and swelling the ranks of the dissidents. Since the 1st Front’s July 2016 declaration rejecting the peace agreement, dissident groups have grown and reconfigured themselves, gaining control over strategic drug trafficking locations and developing into sophisticated criminal organizations.
While most of the groups are not interested in creating a new political-insurgent force, they have been forming alliances around criminal activities.
Monumental gains in these illegal economies are setting up to be a game changer for drug trafficking in Colombia. The cocaine trade is ever more prosperous, and coca crops have reached their highest levels in history with increasingly lucrative markets beckoning abroad.
Another sign that dissident alliances will likely not yield a new centralized rebel army is that the groups are so different from each other. Their current configuration would best be described as an ex-FARC mafia criminal network.
While there may be an effort by some to position themselves as revolutionary groups with a political objective, they are increasingly committing themselves to criminal activities like drug trafficking, extortion and illegal mining. Moreover, they have shown little to no interest in regulating conflicts between local residents or mediating community disputes, a trademark of the old guerrilla movement.
In the end, Independence Day was not a complete loss. Ten members of the FARC political party were present in Congress, among them Pablo Catatumbo, Marco Carlacá and Carlos Lozada, three of the FARC’s most important and time-honored leaders. The hope that remains may rest with them.