To find peace in Colombia, we must understand the war

A previous column posted on this same website makes numerous strong points in very few words regarding the moral trajectory of the FARC. Three main points appear throughout the piece: the FARC are economically motivated (especially with the drug trade), have no real chance of gaining power and are ideologically falling behind the Colombian cities. Whether or not the guerrilla groups will be able to be part of the Colombian political landscape is a question that only time can answer, according to the conclusion of the article. These points, on the surface, appear valid but the details to support them are often problematic, and sometimes even presumptuous.

The previous column starts with the economic issue, focusing specifically on drug trafficking. Along those lines, we must ask the question yet again: Are the FARC just a large mafia bent on making money any way they can? The answer is a resounding, no. Are the FARC involved in drug trafficking, and other illegal industries? Yes, without a doubt. But to see the FARC as a mafia is to misunderstand the FARC. With regards to drug trafficking, in the zones where coca is grown, the FARC are most likely to be the armed group that controls the area, especially in southern Colombia.

Coca, though, does not just provide the FARC with financial resources, but also with a social and political support base. The FARC in a big way guarantee the livelihood of coca growers by providing a fixed buyer, someone who will (possibly) defend them against government actions, someone who can give them a little more power in their relationships with drug traffickers, and can act as a source of justice and order in areas with no state whatsoever.

The FARC are also involved in converting coca paste into cocaine and trafficking that cocaine, but never directly to Central America or Mexico. The FARC do not own the speed-boats and submarines, nor do they have airplanes to send cocaine abroad. Additionally, the alliances forged between the guerrillas and the BACRIM are not of the nature described by the author. The alliance between the FARC and ERPAC was a territorial division, meaning that the FARC would not carry out military actions in some areas and ERPAC would refrain as well but in other zones. This did not mean perfect harmony as some murders of community leaders by both armed groups took place in areas that were part of the agreement. A trickier alliance to analyze is the ELN and the Rastrojos in Cauca to fight against the FARC, mainly in the southeast.

As for the “infrastructure” in Nariño, Cauca and the Valle del Cauca, it has been there for at least 30 years, created not by the groups that exist today but by previous traffickers. The only exceptions to this fact could be Los Rastrojos and Los Machos because of their roots in the Norte del Valle, and thus Cali, Cartels. Elsewhere, the routes for trafficking weapons and drugs in Choco have existed for over 60 years, at least, as they were previously used to smuggle various goods into the country – the same is true in La Guajira, and even in places like Meta and Casanare.

The social and political factors that have contributed to the emergence of the armed conflict are similar in some ways to the social and political factors that fuel the conflict today. The main example is the issue of land ownership and distribution, perhaps the reason for the creation of the FARC which still contributes to the conflict today, whether it be by the usurpation of land by paramilitaries and neo-paramilitaries, or by the continuing colonization by peasants of areas outside the agricultural frontier. In fact, many analysts correctly argue that a necessary part of a solution to drug trafficking, mainly coca growth, in Colombia is a successful land reform through which all peasants will have land within the agricultural frontier.

Another sociopolitical fuel for the conflict to take into account are the motivations of those who decide to join the FARC, which are different from the motivations of the organization as a whole. Numerous studies have shown that only about 5% join armed groups for ideological reasons. About 20% of FARC fighters were forcefully recruited. Others try to escape a violent home life, want to have some sort of adventure and/or are attracted by the guns, discipline and uniforms. For some, joining the armed groups is a legitimate life choice as they have grown up under the control of the illegal armies. Given that FARC recruits are not paid, it is tough to see how the foot soldiers look to make money.

It is definitely accurate that the FARC will not be able to take over the government – at the same time, the Colombian Armed Forces will not be able to defeat the FARC military. The FARC have been able to adapt in the last three years to government military policy. Yet the analyses of people who do not belong to the FARC or are not close to them do not really matter. What matters is the perception of the FARC. They may believe they can win or they may believe that peace is the best option – that is their belief. The ability of the FARC to adapt shows that even with some historic leaders gone, the guerrilla group has been able to increase military actions and presence, which will reinforce their goals. Lastly, internal corruption within the FARC is nothing new, but is something they have tried to control and live with to a certain extent.

The FARC do have very minimal drug trade ties with Mexican cartels, but this is much more characteristic of the neo-paramilitary groups. The FARC almost always sell the cocaine to various cartels within Colombia and let those cartels worry about the trafficking outside the country. Again, the “de facto” pacts are not universal, and those that do exist are often more than just de facto. But why do the FARC make these pacts? Firstly, to be able to survive: one war is easier to manage than two or more. And secondly, it helps the FARC with their strategic objective. When their “Plan 2010” was discovered and released, the goals were political and military. They noted that they need $230 million in order for the plan to be successful. The money was necessary in order to reach their goals – making money itself, though, was not the final goal.

Right or not, allowing the FARC to a have a voice in the national political scene, without a guaranteed effect from jail, is a possible solution. The question is not if the FARC will give up money, but if they feel that they will be giving up the struggle. The struggle and any tangible successes from it are what matter to the FARC. We cannot impose certain rules in a peace process without offering something in return. The offer should be that they will fit in – minimally but somewhere – even if we do not like it. If not, any negotiation will fail, with everyone pointing the finger at the other, but the real losers will be the ongoing victims in the war. Those already victimized are being accounted for, but those currently being victimized and future victims alike are somehow still forgotten.

Kyle Johnson is a political analyst living in Bogota, intern at the Colombian think tank Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris and master’s student at the Universidad de los Andes.

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