A recent investigation by the independent think tank Fundación Ideas para la Paz (FIP) reveals that while peace negotiations between Colombia’s government and rebel group the FARC advance in Cuba, other illegal groups and their sources of financing have already begun to adjust to a post-conflict environment.
In the midst of heightening excitement and expectations regarding advances in the negotiations in Havana, which could end with the signing of a peace agreement on March 23, the FIP has published an investigation that warns authorities to adequately prepare its strategy in post-conflict regions following a demobilization of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC).
After six months of research and a look back at investigations in past years, the FIP published its report: “Criminal Economies in Light of the Post-Conflict: Current Trends and Proposals to Address Them.” In its report, FIP states that during “the development of talks between the Colombian government and the FARC, a new or renewed illegal order is being configured, with multiple illicit economies taking hold in the territories.” In the last three years, coca cultivation has increased, illegal mining has expanded, extortion has become recurrent, and other illegal economies like timber trafficking have been consolidated.
The publication warns that “the power vacuum that the peace process with the FARCcould generate is being filled before the signing of the peace agreement, especially in the municipalities in which it shares presence with other guerrilla groups and criminal factions of different sorts. Insurgent groups such as the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) and the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular Nacional – EPL) have taken advantage of the situation to strengthen themselves and solidify new alliances, while dozens of local criminal groups have organized around existing criminal economies. A new or renewed illegal order is being configured in the midst of the peace process.”
For Eduardo Álvarez, coordinator of Conflict Dynamics for FIP and one of the investigators for the report, criminal groups are more prepared for the post-conflict than the government itself.
“While organized crime is preparing for the post-conflict, the state is having a difficult time organizing and generating holistic responses. We believe that the state continues with an unbalanced approach with a strong repressive component that creates conditions that are not apt for consolidation, the construction of peace, or the implementation of the accords,” Alvarez told VerdadAbierta.com.
For this reason, the FIP advises that once the FARC disarms, the Colombian government should implement a holistic strategy to recuperate territorial control in areas with criminal economies, attacking their roots instead of the weakest links in the criminal structure.
“A repressive strategy focused on dismantling structures has proven insufficient. Sporadic offensives, with operations that enter and leave the area do not change the conditions that allow for criminal activities to be carried out or for illegal groups to control the territory,” the report emphasizes.
For María Victoria Llorente, Executive Director of the FIP, territorial control is vital for peace building, and this should not be solely predicated on sending troops to the region and coordinating better with the public prosecutor’s office. Instead, it consists in state building in the territories so that something besides criminal economies can prosper.
“The problem is that in what has been made public, we don’t see a different focus than what we have had in the past. If we’re going to do the same thing, we will have similar results: the organizations will change, maybe they will become less violent, but the conditions in the territory, which make these illegal economies prosper and that hook the populations, will not change,” she told VerdadAbierta.com.
FIP also identified around 200 municipalities in which the FARC has a presence and where the government will have to contend with illegal economies that could be transferred to other criminal groups or insurgents, and/or remain under the control of dissident factions of the FARC. The FIP analyzed five dynamics that have occurred in these contexts since the peace process began in Cuba:
1. Alliances Between Insurgent Groups and Criminal Factions
The investigation found that alliances between insurgent groups and criminal factions have been consolidated in recent years, which is reflected in the territorial division of criminal economies, with invisible borders that define who controls towns and municipalities. It also is reflected in the role that each group plays in the criminal economy.
As an example of this, the report points to how the different stages of drug production and trafficking have been divided up: “The FARC maintain the manpower and military capacity to occupy and control the territories where coca, marijuana and poppies are grown. In the meantime, criminal groups have tended to get involved in the processing and commercialization stage. This way, a division of labor is created that facilitates alliances and decreases the risk of confrontation.”
The report also notes that: “Disputes between the FARC and local factions of organized crime are less frequent, which, in some ways, reflects the process of consolidation of the criminal economies. In this context, the actors that are involved in these criminal activities increase profits while avoiding the indiscriminate use of violence and confrontation.”
2. Recycling Insurgency: Transferring Capacities from the FARC to the ELN or EPL
This is perhaps one of the most alarming points of the report, because in addition to better coordination between the FARC and ELN, and the territorial expansion of the latter, there are cases of members of the FARC transferring to the ranks of other guerrilla groups.
According to testimonies gathered during field work by FIP investigators, FARCguerrillas have supported the ELN in various confrontations with criminal groups in the region of Bajo Cauca, while in Catatumbo, FARC deserters transferred to the EPL. In other regions it is believed that the increase in ELN activities is due to a process of “changing ranks and transferring capacities” from the FARC.
The report hypothesizes that: “While the conflict with the FARC could end, the ELNcould strengthen its presence in some territories, using the process in Havana to their advantage, especially the cease fire and the recycling of insurgents. In a scenario like this, the threat of guerrillas could stay active and be revitalized in some areas of the country.”
The report adds: “It is a challenge for the FARC to maintain cohesion among their fronts and structures; however, for mid-level commanders and foot soldiers this could be a way to continue with illegal activities. It is important to note that there is not a systematic strategy for re-utilizing insurgents; this is just a cautionary statement regarding possible scenarios in various territories.”
3. Expansion of Drug Trafficking, Mining, and other Criminal Economies
Between 2013 and 2014, there was a 44 percent increase in hectares used for coca cultivation, and a 52 percent increase in cocaine production, according to the latest monitoring report from the United Nations.
One of the possible reasons for this considered by the FIP has to do with some fronts of the FARC that are “in a process of accumulation, taking advantage of this window of opportunity that could end with the signing of the peace agreement.”
The report adds that marijuana and poppy production has also become important, the former for local consumption and the latter for commercialization of heroin abroad.
In terms of illegal mining, although there are not records to verify this, the report notes that the control the FARC and organized crime has on mining activity is not uniform. In some areas they only charge extortion fees, while in others they directly manage legal and illegal activities.
“The scope of this phenomenon has surpassed the specific participation of the insurgency and organized crime; a social order has developed that revolves around the extraction of minerals,” the report indicates.
The report goes on to specify that: “The extraction of rents is favorable because of high levels of informality (in terms of labor and land ownership, principally) and the state’s low capacity to regulate the territories. In a large part of the territories that will enter the post-conflict stage, large sectors of the population receive income from these economies, not only those individuals who participate directly, but also their families.”
Another challenge for authorities in a post-conflict environment, in addition to combating illegal resource extraction and environmental damage, is to not criminalize the people who rely on informal mining for survival and have no links to criminal structures.
4. Proliferation of “Predatory” Activities, Especially Extortion
The report found that extortion provides guerrilla and criminal groups a mechanism to maintain territorial control while also serving as a source of income; in some regionsextortion fees are the equivalent of taxes in a formal economy. Extortion has two purposes: the parasitic extraction of resources from victims, and a guarantee of security against retaliations by the perpetrator and actions from the authorities.
“In areas with strong presence of illegal organizations, the majority of legal and illegal activities are taxed. This spans from the small shopkeeper, to motorcycle taxis and business people, to extractive companies with a large reach and state infrastructure projects. Extortion fees are charged differently, based on established quotas linked to the economic capacity of the person being extorted,” the report states.
5. State Interventions Strengthen Links Between Populations, Criminal Economies
On this point, the report questions the government’s strategy for confronting criminal economies, which has been based on targeting the weakest links of a criminal structure, motivated by boosting arrest rates and short term results.
For the FIP, the impact generated by the arrests of visible figures and high value targets within criminal groups is also reduced because, “The armed groups have the capacity to restructure and recycle combatants to maintain their territorial influence.”
Furthermore, the report states: “From the point of view of the communities, while criminal factions change their name and leadership, the conditions of vulnerability stay the same. The illegal economy continues to be the center of social relations and power, despite incursions by police and the army.”
The report also indicates that the repressive actions of the state can even be counterproductive and strengthen links that the communities have with illicit activities and illegal organizations. For this reason, the FIP claims that the challenge for the state is not only to disband local factions with the capacity to use violence and corruption, but rather build a new relationship between communities and formal institutions, that permit them to reestablish their legitimate authority.
The report concludes that: “In operative terms, the state is facing three main problems: lack of coordination, inappropriate interventions and lack of capacity to consolidate its presence in the territories, beyond sporadic operations by authorities. The existence of the armed conflict, the challenge of organized crime, and the situations of violence have generated a confusion in roles, priorities, and functions of the police and the military. This is exacerbated by the lack of a real crime-fighting policy that orients the use of State force, guarantees the effectiveness of punishments, and responds proportionally to the seriousness of crimes.
“The spotlight has been more on criminal organizations and less on the territories, which has resulted in repressive action with diminishing success and the consolidation of criminal economies in different areas of the country.”