FARC peace talks: why now?Posted: 08/10/2012
By Antonio Sampaio, Research Assistant, Survival and the Armed Conflict Database
Bogota has never been closer to a successful peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The signs are positive: the group, weakened by devastating military operations and the resulting loss of many veteran leaders, has agreed to engage in talks even without a ceasefire, and the participation of foreign governments with whom FARC shares ideological affinities – Cuba and Venezuela – is likely to defuse some of the tension. The talks begin on 15 October, and a joint press conference will be held on 17 October.
But there is more to FARC’s motives than meets the eye. In addition to its strategic defeats, FARC’s political struggle seems to be on the wane. There has been an erosion of FARC’s ideological integrity and an increasing disconnect between its central leadership and mid-level commanders. These developments may have helped bring FARC to the negotiating table, but could also make the peace process more complicated.
Political and military defeats
The fact that FARC’s military and strategic defeats have prompted the group to accept peace talks has been given much attention, but the effect of political defeat – that is, the loss of even tacit popular support – should not be underestimated. The Marxist justification for armed struggle is meant to be what distinguishes FARC, Latin America’s oldest guerrilla group, from other, smaller criminal groups that operate without an ideology. FARC insists that it represents the interests of Colombia’s peasant class against the state. But the decision to engage in peace talks follows a series of signs that the Colombian population no longer understands nor sympathises with FARC’s struggle. Indigenous communities have strongly reacted against FARC’s methods of planting mines and recruiting local youths. Last December, hundreds of thousands of Colombians protested against the guerrillas for their alleged murder of four hostages that had been held by FARC for over a decade. In response to growing popular pressure, its top leader, Timoleon Jimenez (‘Timochenko’), announced in February that FARC would abandon kidnappings for ransom.
The deterioration of FARC’s political message has also strained the bonds holding the group together. The central leadership that will sit at the negotiating table in Oslo, Norway, has seen its political message weakened among semi-autonomous local commanders, whose goals and priorites may be at odds with those of the top leaders.
FARC’s structure has become less centralised, partly for pragmatic reasons. The heavy military offensive of the past ten years, which began in 2002 under then-President Alvaro Uribe and continued under current leader Juan Manuel Santos) has resulted in increasingly autonomous behaviour by some local FARC groupings. Successive strategic plans issued by FARC since 2003 have emphasised autonomy at the local level, in response to a decade of military pressure and improved intelligence that has seriously impeded the guerrillas’ communications and logistics infrastructure. Several messages written by Alfonso Cano between 2005 and 2007, when he was the group’s second-in-command (he became leader in 2008 and was killed in November 2011), were intercepted by the Colombian authorites, and show that FARC was preoccupied with the weakness of its communications. In 2008, a demobilised middle-level commander, known as ‘Karina’, reported that her unit had not been in contact with the central secretariat, the seven-member leadership, for two years.
FARC’s numbers have nearly halved since 2001 to around 8,000 members as a result of constant military pressure. FARC’s strategic losses have also left it with a young and inexperienced (militarily and ideologically) cadre of mid-level commanders, which now manages revenues from the group’s dealings with smaller, criminal organisations. Both high- and mid-level leaders are either defecting or being eliminated at such a fast rate that younger and less experienced members often assume leadership of autonomous fronts.
Two attacks by the Colombian military last March resulted in the deaths of 13 mid-level commanders, and 20 members who were taking part in a ‘leadership course’. According to government intelligence cited by Semana, a Colombian weekly, the commander of FARC’s eastern bloc had decided to take the risk of gathering an unusually high number of local commanders in order to discuss the difficulties of command and control following the death of the guerrillas’ military strategist, Mono Jojoy, in an air strike by Colombian forces in 2010.
Despite the increasing decentralisation of the group, the secretariat has not lost all control. It is still able to send out directives and punish disobedient local commanders, sometimes going as far as executing them. But the trend towards autonomy and decentralisation continues to increase.
FARC has for many years funded its activities through kidnappings for ransom, drug trafficking, illegal mining and, more recently, the extortion of oil companies. However,the group seems to be abandoning its ‘traditional’ fund-raising activities in favour of drug-trafficking: a police report cited on Caracol radio in 2010 stated that at least eight local FARC fronts had ceased to conduct guerrilla or terrorist attacks, and had instead been dedicating their resources exclusively to drug trafficking. And although the group’s revenue from drug trafficking is thought to have diminished recently, revenue from illegal mining (especially gold) has increased.
What is crucial for the peace process is that close attention be paid to the demobilisation and re-integration process that must follow a peace deal, which will involve finding a place in Colombian society for thousands of rebels. President Santos’s administration seems to be aware of this challenge. In a document released ahead of the Oslo talks, the government mentions points such as political participation for ‘new movements’ and the reincorporation of guerrillas into civilian life. Santos has also said that demobilised FARC members could prove useful in fighting drug-trafficking groups.
Still, thanks to the decentralisation of FARC’s message and activities and the behaviour of its autonomous units, there is a risk that a peace agreement will be unevenly adhered to. Mid-level commanders currently involved in drug trafficking or illegal mining might find that those revenue sources are a powerful incentive not to re-enter civilian life.
Read the IISS Strategic Dossier, The FARC Files: Venezuela, Ecuador, and the Secret Archive of Raul Reyes.