The pace of recruitment by Colombia’s FARC rebels has remained constant despite the fact that the group entered into peace talks with the government two years ago, according to an analyst at a conflict-monitoring NGO.
Ariel Avila, who works with the Foundation for Peace and Reconciliation NGO, told Colombia Reports in an interview that “in general, the pace of recruitment in the armed conflict has been what it is now.”
The underlying reason for the continued recruitment, he said, is that the government and the FARC “are negotiating in the middle of a conflict. The FARC has required troops, required people.”
But, he added that there have been some changes to the recruitment process over the last years and since the start of the peace talks in 2012.
“Recruitment committees” of five to six people are responsible for seeking out new FARC members and carrying out propaganda campaigns for the group. One controversial aspect of their recruitment methods is that they target minors, something Avila says has seen an increase since 2011.
The group has received widespread criticism for this practice from the Colombian government, the United Nations and international NGOs.
Another recent change has to do with ideology. Many observers assess that over time, the FARC has lost much of its original ideological foundation. What began as a rural insurgency with political aims not unlike other Marxist-Leninist guerrillas movements in Latin America slowly grew in its use of straight criminality and drug trafficking.
Now, according to Avila, there is “greater political development inside the ranks of the guerrillas.”
“This had practically ended.” But as the FARC seek to sign a peace accord, they have been “recruiting more people closer to their ideology” as well as people to operate as political activists and intelligence gatherers rather than as armed guerrillas. This could prove important if an agreement is signed and the group turns into a purely political movement.
The FARC has also returned to recruiting people from it social bases in countryside, while urban recruitment is nearly zero, according to Avila.
During the early 2000s, he says that many migrants and “colonos” (settlers) seeking to take advantage of the coca and mining bonanza, began joining the guerrillas. This allowed the government to more easily infiltrate its ranks of the FARC, leading to the collapse of several fronts. Returning to its social bases has reduced the infiltration risk.
Many analysts and human rights groups believe that the paramilitary demobilizations from 2003-2006 included regularities like recruiting people of the street to inflate their numbers and thus the effectiveness of the process. Avila doesn’t believe this is the case with current FARC recruitment. He says recruitment “has increased but not to inflate the group, but rather for the necessity of providing guarantees to the social bases where they exist.”
Inflated statistics on “neutralized” guerrillas
Official Colombian government statistics on the number of guerrillas killed, captured, or demobilized are inflated, according to Avila. Were they accurate, the FARC would need to be replacing nearly half their members every year.
He claimed that the numbers provided by the Ministry of Defense in an August report on the institution’s “achievements” are higher than the actual figures.
For the last four years, the ministry estimated that between 4,000 and 5,000 guerrillas from the FARC, ELN, and other leftist guerrilla groups have been killed, captured, or demobilized, with the majority being captured. The figures are even higher in the years leading up to 2010.
According to Avila, many of the people the government considers to be “neutralized” guerrillas are in fact simply members of the rebels’ civilian support networks. These include people such as “merchants who sell them food and men who transport arms,” who Avila says are not guerrillas.
Additionally, like the individuals included in the list of the military’s “combat kills,” many of those captured are in fact civilians that are treated as militants by state agents in order to inflate their numbers and boost their apparent effectiveness.
Fact Sheet: False Positives
The fact that many of those captured are quickly released over a lack of evidence also distorts the real number of guerrillas who have been detained by the government.
The FARC, formed in 1964, is currently Colombia’s largest guerrilla group. The Colombian government and the FARC have been negotiating an end to the 50-year conflict since 2012.
Both sides have already reach agreement upon three of the six points which are to make up a final peace deal. Texts for the agreements reached on rural reform, political participation, and illicit drugs were released in September.
- Interview with Ariel Avila
- Logros de la Política Integral de Seguridad y Defensa para la Prosperidad (Defense Ministry)