Colombia’s Police began a massive operation on Friday to move into FARC strongholds and effectively take over control from the guerrillas who are set to demobilize following a 52-year armed conflict.
In Medellin, a group of 312 specially trained policemen arrived on Friday and were sent off into the FARC’s heartland north of the province capital the same evening.
Also in other cities, policemen were sent off to the municipalities where the FARC is set to demobilize after September 26, the day of the signing of a peace agreement to end the guerrillas’ 52-year-long war with the government.
Complicated case study: Antioquia
The FARC has been active in Antioquia for decades. The conflict that has involved multiple actors has left more than 1.5 million victims in the province, almost one fifth of all registered victims in Colombia.
In the north of Antioquia, where the FARC has been the authority for decades in spite of major offensives by both the military and paramilitaries, some 1,200 members of a total of 17,000 FARC members are expected to demobilize in four camps.
FARC in Antioquia
The police officers were sent to Vigia del Fuerte, Dabeiba, Remedios and Ituango where the United Nations have been setting up camps where FARC guerrillas can demobilize and hand in their weapons.
How state authority is established
Each of the towns will receive 78 policemen that form a unit called Unipec who will be working with the military outside and the United Nations inside the camps.
Of each unit, 35 policemen will be in charge of the protection of United Nations officials and FARC leaders who are allowed to travel within the province and between the camps.
The remaining 42 policemen will be working with the villagers — some of whom have never seen police in their area before — to establish state authority.
Apart from normal policing, these officers will be helping locals who grow coca for a living to voluntarily apply for crop substitution as agreed in the peace deal between the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC.
Other groups ready to move in
According to Colonel Wilson Pardo, the chief of police of Antioquia, other police units will be arriving in the towns in the coming days “that allow us to prevent the arrival of other illegal armed groups in Antioquian territory abandoned by the FARC.”
The FARC is expected to begin its demobilization after formally signing a peace agreement on September 26, but other illegal armed groups are also active in the area and they don’t stick to the rules.
Illegal armed groups’ areas of influence in Antioquia
Both groups have expressed their support for the FARC’s demobilization, but they also have a lot to gain if they are able to take over criminal FARC enterprises as they are abandoned by demobilizing guerrillas.
Moreover, a previous attempt of the FARC to integrate into civil society in the 1980 was followed by a mass extermination campaign that all but eliminated the political party the guerrillas sought to join.
Additionally, after paramilitary organization AUC demobilized between 2003 and 2006, thousands of former members were assassinated by dissident paramilitaries who would later form or join groups like the AGC.
The north of Antioquia is a delicate region because of its numerous coca plantations and illegal gold mines that have long been fought about. Additionally, the area has long been neglected by the state, making it easy for armed groups to take control.
The National army increased its presence in the area in late June to allow the preparation of the concentration camps and prevent possible moves by either the ELN and AGC, who have been engaged in turf wars elsewhere in Colombia.
Antioquia governor Luis Perez said in late July that some FARC members were taking advantage of a ceasefire with the military and had begun leaving their territories before due time.
The governor urged the security forces to respond quickly to prevent a criminal power vacuum.
ELN reportedly most keen to move in
According to newspaper El Tiempo, the ELN has already begun extorting locals in the Bajo Cauca region, located in the northeast of Antioquia, after the FARC stopped doing so and police was yet to arrive.
However, with the arrival of the police in the area that has long been lawless, the country’s second largest guerrilla group should find this more difficult, especially because their biggest ally is about to demobilize and its two biggest enemies, the military and the AGC, have taken the offensive.