The FARC Dissidents Are Not Who We Think: Two Years into Colombia’s Peace Agreement, What Went Wrong and What Is to Be Done?

The FARC Dissidents Are Not Who We Think: Two Years into Colombia’s Peace Agreement, What Went Wrong and What Is to Be Done?

Graffiti from the 36th Front of the FARC Dissidents in Briceño, Colombia, proclaims “We are Indestructible.”

[Alex Diamond is a doctoral student in sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. His research focuses on the community experience of Colombia’s post-peace agreement transition.]

January 28th, 2019 marks the two-year anniversary of the first arrivals of guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (the FARC) to transitory zones as part of the group’s disarmament, negotiated in a landmark peace agreement to end more than 50 years of open rebellion. At the time, the government reported that 300 of the rebels were refusing to disarm, compared to 6,900 who participated in the process. By July 2018, while the official estimate had climbed to 1,463 armed FARC dissidents, intelligence agencies estimated that including their militia supporters, their actual membership was closer to 4,000, spread out over 29 fronts nationwide. Even as their numbers grew rapidly, the official explanation for FARC dissidents didn’t change: the government and media have portrayed them as longtime combatants who valued their continued participation in illegal coca and gold mining economies that dominated isolated rural areas over an agreement that included provisions to help them reintegrate into society and to promote the development of alternative legal economies for the rural poor. This account has been used to justify dismantling parts of the peace agreement, most prominently by Colombia’s new president Ivan Duque, whose party led the initial campaign against the peace agreement. However, in three months in January and May to August 2018 in Briceño, a municipality in northern Antioquia where one of these fronts is operating, I found that locals who live amongst the dissidents offer a completely different explanation—one that suggests long-term FARC combatants are a relatively small part of the group, and in which they blame government failures to live up to the peace agreement for creating the conditions in which young men who previously worked in the coca agricultural economy are joining the dissidents in large numbers. These conditions take two forms: first, major delays in promised government aid in the coca substitution program have caused the collapse of the local economy, leaving a large number of unemployed, hungry, and desperate young men; and second, it has created a crisis of legitimacy in which locals experience the state primarily through military harassment and violence and the FARC dissidents through their performance of state-like functions that help the community.

From Coca to Collapse

Prior to the peace agreement, 90% of Briceño’s economy was based on coca. While traffickers enjoyed the great majority of profits from the crop, its cultivation meant that work was always available, particularly to young men who worked as pickers and earned between 50,000 and 130,000 pesos a day (approximately $17-$43 USD). The crop substitution program promised locals three levels of productive projects to develop new economic activity and a monthly subsidy of one million pesos ($333 USD) for a year to feed their families while they transitioned to new crops. Per the agreement, participants received their first monthly payments in June 2017 and uprooted their coca. And then they waited. Instead of the promised two months, the first (and smallest) level of projects—family subsistence farms—took a year and two months to arrive. The second level of projects, which were supposed to come shortly thereafter and be producing income by the time the yearlong subsidy ran out, are yet to arrive more than a year and a half after locals uprooted the coca. The situation is complicated by the fact that Briceño lacks the infrastructure to allow locals to sell most legal agricultural goods, and that most people don’t have their own land. Two agencies created by the agreement, the Agency for the Renovation of Territory and the National Land Agency, have arrived in the territory, but as of yet have not had a significant impact on the local economy. The disappearance of the coca with nothing to replace it has caused a complete economic collapse. The standard wage for a day’s work has dropped to 20,000 pesos ($7 USD), but even at this price work is hard to come by. While the FARC dissidents in Briceño began with only 30 combatants in November 2017, the group has grown to at least 285—mostly, locals say, young men who previously worked in the coca economy.

A Crisis of Legitimacy

In addition to economic collapse, Briceño also suffers from a crisis of legitimacy, in which the transition to formal state control has forced locals to choose between the state or the dissidents as the legitimate authority. Two phenomena may lead people to side with and even join the dissidents: repeated military abuses, particularly against young men; and the fact that the dissidents use their authority to perform functions the community is lacking.

Military abuses have become a fact of life for young men who live in Briceño, who are stopped at checkpoints, harassed, and treated as if they were guerrillas based only on where they live. The most disturbing example of this was the killing of an innocent farmer in May 2018 by soldiers who confused him with a member of the dissidents. These abuses generate anger and moral outrage in the community, and locals say joining the dissidents has become a way to combat injustice, reclaim agency, and even seek protection.

In addition to fighting the military, the dissidents have also begun to re-assume state-like functions like organizing road maintenance, settling disputes, and generally serving as the local law and order. These actions have a double power in that they both solve local problems and tap into a long community memory of the FARC as a useful group—and the state as historically absent. While state investment as part of the peace process has brought tangible improvements to Briceño—roads, schools, libraries, and clinics—locals weigh this development against the broken promises of crop substitution and the indignity of military harassment. While there isn’t a single unified community perspective on either the state or the dissidents’ legitimacy, many locals see joining the dissidents as a logical and in some cases noble choice.

Lessons for the Peace Process

What are the lessons of Briceño for those who are interested in understanding, improving, and even saving Colombia’s peace process? First, militarized mano dura approaches to armed groups are not a long-term solution to ending conflict. In contexts like Briceño, military and paramilitary groups seeking to weaken guerrillas have far too often ended up stigmatizing and even killing local civilians. Rather than weakening armed groups, military intervention may have the paradoxical effect of pushing desperate, angry, and scared young men to take up arms themselves.

Second, rather than a military approach, significant state investment in isolated, abandoned, and long-suffering rural zones is necessary to provide the basis for legal, dignified, and sustainable economic opportunities. This includes access to land and the infrastructure required to commercialize legal products. New Colombian president Ivan Duque must not be allowed to push forward with plans to disband the National Land Agency and the Agency for the Renovation of Territory, which were established as part of the peace process towards these ends.

Third, crop substitution programs must also be protected from both the new administration and American political pressure. Coca cultivation in Colombia reached an all-time high in 2017, leading to increased pressure from the US government for Colombia to return to aerial fumigation with glyphosate, banned in Colombia since 2015 for its deleterious health effects. In October 2018, rather than giving them opportunities to participate in crop substitution, the government began fumigating crops in municipalities close to Briceño. But the national growth in coca doesn’t show that substitution doesn’t work; instead it demonstrates the lack of alternatives in isolated rural zones and the fact that substitution hasn’t been properly implemented on a national level. Despite its failings, Briceño is the municipality in Colombia where coca substitution has advanced the furthest and in most of the country’s coca-producing regions, the program hasn’t arrived at all. The experience of Briceño shows that local populations would embrace substitution, particularly if it arrived as promised. Dumping a concentrated herbicide on crops may produce higher short-term results in terms of hectares eradicated, but destroying local livelihoods without providing an alternative may only push desperate and angry populations to join armed groups—or, as locals say happened in Briceño when it was fumigated off and on from 2008 to 2011, simply replant their coca or try to save it by chopping off the tops or treating the affected areas with one of several household remedies.

While it is unreasonable to expect a half-century armed conflict to be ended in two years, many have argued that phenomena like the growth of FARC dissident groups do not leave much reason for optimism. However, an understanding of the local dynamics of these armed groups argues for defending rather than dismantling the peace agreement.


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International Human Rights Law, International Humanitarian Law, Latin & South America
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