Briefing: Colombia’s new challenge to peace

Former senior commanders of FARC, including Iván Márquez (centre), taken from video released 4 September 2019.
Former senior commanders of FARC, including Iván Márquez (centre), taken from video released 4 September 2019. (Youtube/AFP)

Since the signing of the landmark 2016 deal, Colombia’s peace process has been beset by challenges, not least a proliferation of armed groups that has seen renewed conflict and soaring displacement. But last week, alarm ratcheted up a level as a group of ex-FARC guerrillas took to YouTube and called for a return to the armed struggle.

The latest threat to the fledgling peace process comes as the deepening crisis in neighbouring Venezuela has Colombia’s government expecting three million Venezuelans to be living in the Andean nation by 2020 – a nation that already has more internally displaced people than any other country in the world.

Colombia’s right-wing government, in office since 2018 and led by President Iván Duque, has opposed various aspects of the 2016 agreement – set up by former president Juan Manuel Santos and the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Duque has riled demobilised former FARC combatants with unsuccessful attempts to change the accord in Congress and enforce tougher punishments for them under the newly installed transitional justice system.

A lag in government funds for promised incentives is also a contentious issue. Money agreed upon within the peace deal for ex-combatants to create opportunities for themselves has been slow to appear, leaving many ex-FARC worried about their social and economic futures in their new civilian lives.

Conflict between illegal armed groups – much of it in former FARC-controlled territory – saw forced displacement rise considerably last year. And the most recent data from the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, shows 13,447 fresh displacements in the first half of this year. The Colombian Victims Unit says approximately 8.5 million Colombians are now displaced.

Mercy Corps Colombia Director Hugh Aprile told The New Humanitarian that the Venezuelan migration crisis had placed a new and serious strain on the Colombian state, one that didn't exist prior to the signing of the peace accords.

“Now is not the time to turn away or divest from Colombia,” he said. “Bilateral and multilateral donors must help address the situation of Venezuelan migrants while not losing sight of the implementation of the peace accords – significant investments are needed on both fronts in order to avoid destabilisation of the Colombian state.”

This briefing explores the likely impact of the latest developments on the peace process and the possible humanitarian fallout.

What just happened?

Last Thursday, a former guerrilla leader appeared in a 32-minute YouTube video, surrounded by rifle-bearing men and women in military fatigues, to announce the rearming of the FARC and a ‘'new phase of the armed struggle”.

His name is Luciano Marín Arango – more commonly known by his wartime FARC alias, Iván Márquez. Wanted by the United States on drug charges, Márquez is now seemingly leading a new FARC dissident movement for those who believe Duque’s government is not adhering to the peace process.

Other leading ex-FARC combatants appeared alongside Márquez, including Seuxis Pausias Hernández Solarte, aka Jesús Santrich, and Hernán Darío Velásquez Saldarriaga, aka El Paisa. All had been included in the reintegration process.

Reading from a script, Márquez said: "This is the continuation of the rebel fight in response to the state's betrayal of the Havana peace accords.

"We announce to the world that the second Marquetalia (the birthplace of FARC's guerrilla movement was in an enclave in rural Colombia unofficially known as Marquetalia) has begun under the protection of the universal right that assists all peoples to rise in arms against oppression," he said.

It is widely believed that the dissidents are being sheltered in neighbouring Venezuela, and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has previously welcomed any guerrilla groups from Colombia, including left-wing ELN rebels, who say they would be willing to create an alliance with the FARC dissidents.

The Duque administration refrains from referring to the new FARC group as “dissidents”, prefers to use the phrase “drug traffickers”, and says they “are being sheltered by dictator Nicolás Maduro”.

Several FARC figures who appeared in the video have had drug-trafficking charges brought against them since the 2016 peace deal. Duque announced a three-billion-peso ($882,000) reward for the capture of anyone who appeared in the video.

What’s the state of the peace process?

Many observers, including former president Santos, have looked to highlight the fact that 90 percent of the demobilised FARC members are still in the reintegration process and to stress that the dissidents represent only a small minority. But others are urging the government to step up the implementation of the accord quickly, to avoid encouraging more disenchanted FARC ex-combatants to join the new movement.

The Colombian military believes there are now around 2,300 FARC dissidents, including some who never signed up to the peace deal in the first place.

The ELN rebel group, meanwhile, has an estimated 2,400 combatants and is still targeting government and foreign owned oil infrastructure around Colombia, partaking in kidnappings and extortion, and engaging in illegal mining and drug trafficking operations. President Duque’s administration called off peace talks with the ELN that had been occurring under Santos’ presidency until they release hostages, which they say they will refuse to do until the government ceases military offensives against them.

Some recent reports have suggested efforts to recruit Venezuelan migrants and refugees into the ELN and the FARC dissident groups, but data is scarce.

“This situation is a reminder that peace is in fact a process that has and will continue to face challenges and setbacks,” Aprile said. “In some of the communities where we work, particularly rural areas, conflict is far from over and many people are still facing daily threats of violence.”

“Post-conflict experiences in other countries from around the world have taught us that peace never comes easily; we should expect obstacles along the way.”

Many humanitarians believe it is time to double down on the implementation of the peace deal, particularly in regions most affected by conflict, to show that peace is the best option.

What is driving the uptick in violence?

In parallel to the emergence of the FARC dissident groups, some parts of rural Colombia abandoned by the FARC when they disarmed have been taken over by criminal groups who now vie for control over illegal mining and coca cultivation.

The Gulf Clan, which engages in drug and people smuggling, illegal gold mining, and extortion, killed four police officers this week in an ambush in Caucasia, in northern Colombia. The area, a key transit route for drugs trafficking out of Colombia, has other competing gangs and violence is rife.

The lack of security to protect ex-FARC combatants is also stirring fear. The UN Verification Mission, monitoring the reintegration process in Colombia, says more than 137 ex-combatants have been murdered since the signing of the peace deal, and threats from paramilitary-style organisations are becoming increasingly common.

Add to this, extremely high murder rates for human rights and environmental activists, coupled with little government action and apparent legal impunity. Numbers diverge markedly. The government says 289 have been killed since the peace deal, while local think tank Indepaz puts that figure at 738. The government says it has boosted security measures, but killings persist.

“After the signing of the peace accords, Colombia is still facing different types of conflict, generated by weak state presence in areas previously controlled by FARC,” said Marianne Menjivar, Colombia director for the International Rescue Committee (IRC).

“Now, those territories are in dispute for their control between dissidents, other guerrilla groups, criminal armed groups, and traffickers.”

What is the humanitarian outlook?

Three million Venezuelan migrants could be living in Colombia by next year, putting even more pressure on the country’s already crippled public infrastructure and economy, according to Colombian Foreign Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo. More than four million people have already fled Venezuela and Colombia hosts more Venezuelans than any other country: 1.4 million.

The UNHCR’s representative in Colombia, Jozef Merkx, said the areas of most concern for humanitarian operations are Catatumbo, the Pacific Coast (Nariño and Chocó), Bajo Cauca (Antioquia), and Southern Cordoba.

IRC’s Menjivar said some large displacements have occurred since the peace accords, especially in the Norte de Santander region and others like Arauca and La Guajira, where Venezuelan migrants and refugees are crossing the border to try to make a living.

“They are highly vulnerable to being recruited by illegal armed groups, being employed as coca harvesters and being extorted generally by armed groups given their vulnerabilities and desperate needs,” she said.

For women, the situation is even more precarious. “Prostitution, sexual violence, forms of extreme economic exploitation, and dangers of human trafficking are rife,” Menjivar added.

(TOP PHOTO: Former senior commanders of FARC, including Iván Márquez (centre), taken from video released 4 September 2019.)

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