Colombia’s longest-running and deadliest insurgency took a major step toward its end this week, when thousands of guerrilla fighters ventured out of dense jungles and started heading to concentration zones around the country.
In all, roughly 6,300 members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, a left-wing group that has battled Colombia’s government for more than a half-century, will leave the battlefield for UN-organised camps where they will begin demobilizing and disarming.
Colombian government officials said earlier this week that 450 pickup trucks, 120 cargo trucks, 100 buses, 80 boats, 10 tractors, and 35 mules were required to facilitate the mass movement — journeys for some that could last 22 hours or more.
“The last march of the FARC has started,” Colombia’s office of the presidency said in a statement. “The first guerrillas set off this weekend [on] their path, rifle on shoulder, ready to exchange it for a life in legality, a life in democracy, a different life that contributes to the construction of peace.”
“This is an enormous operation,” Sergio Jaramillo, Colombia’s high commissioner for peace, told the press, according to the Miami Herald. “And the most important aspect is that … we haven’t had a single serious incident. There hasn’t been a single case of a member of the FARC not wanting to move.”
The process has been slow going. FARC rebels have been in “pre-concentration” zones for the last five months. December 1 marked D-Day for the demobilization and disarmament process, but it has taken weeks to get FARC members on the road to their new homes in 26 concentration zones, where they are expected to remain until June 1.
In the days leading up to the move, FARC leadership complained that the camps weren’t ready, and the group posted pictures online of barren clearings meant to hold demobilizing rebels. Other reports surfaced that the move to the camps was going slowly.
On Tuesday, the nonprofit Fundacion Paz y Reconciliacion, which is monitoring the conflict, said 23 of the 26 camps weren’t fully functional.
Luis Vicente Leon, the leader of the nonprofit, said the lack of preparation augured poorly for what would happen when the rebels emerged as new Colombian citizens.
Rather than finding lodging with stocked kitchens, running water, and electricity, FARC rebels arriving at a camp in the mountains of southwest Colombia found only a field filled with sacks of cement.
In other areas, FARC members arriving at unconstructed encampments set about upgrading their accommodations.
“The adversity does not weaken our commitment to peace,” tweeted Pastor Alape, a FARC leader, on Friday.
“What’s going to happen to them?” he said, according to the Miami Herald. “Where are the FARC going to live, what are they going to do, where are they going to work, where will they eat and sleep?”
Nevertheless, 80% of FARC’s combatants are reportedly at their encampments, and the ones yet to reach their sites are to arrive early next week. Rebels are also supposed to have turned in 30% of their arms by this point, which will then be melted down and turned into war monuments.
Despite all that and the setbacks, UN officials overseeing the process say final deadline will be met.
Observers have warned for months that an inadequate demobilization process could turn off the rebel fighters it meant to disarm, pushing them back out into criminal activity.
“Post-conflict societies are notoriously fragile, and there’s great concern that there will be backsliding into violence,” Peter Vincent, who served with the US Justice Department at the US embassy in Colombia from 2006 to 2009, told Business Insider at the end of December.
“The government of Colombia must make good on its promise to assist the demobilized FARC members with efforts to reintegrate them into Colombian civil society, and that is going to take a great deal of time and energy and money,” Vincent said.
“The signing of the peace accord with the FARC is only the beginning,” said Mike Vigil, a former chief of international operations for the US Drug Enforcement Administration.
“The actual work starts now, and what they’re going to have to do is make sure that these individuals are integrated into society, that there’s jobs for these individuals, because if there’s not jobs, they are definitely going to go into criminal activities,” added Vigil, author of of “Metal Coffins: The Blood Alliance Cartel.”
While it appears the majority of the FARC’s members have gone along with the peace process, there is evidence of dissent.
Delays in preparing the concentration zones has reportedly spurred some desertions, with disaffected fighters gravitating toward several rebel blocs that have refused to go along with the peace accord, mainly in the east and south of the country.
In early January, there was an armed clash between two rival FARC groups, leaving two dead in addition to violating the ceasefire the group agreed to.
There are reports that Los Urabeños, also known as the Gulf clan and which is Colombia’s largest criminal group, is offering salaries to demobilizing FARC fighters and trying to move into territory previously control by the FARC, where the Urabeños could adopt drug-trafficking roles and other criminal activities once pursued by the FARC.
Another left-wing rebel group, the National Liberation Army, or ELN, has also been active as the FARC tries to demobilize, and a spike in killings in areas where FARC rebels will gather has been attributed to the presence of the ELN, which is also know for kidnapping.
However, ELN rebels are also slated to begin peace talks with the government in March.
These criminal machinations are happening alongside what increasingly appears to be a campaign of deadly violence against a specific group of civilians.
“The last several weeks have seen the worst wave in years of murders of social leaders, indigenous leaders, land-rights activists, and human rights defenders,” the Washington Office on Latin America said in an early December report.
Many of these people are seen as ideologically aligned with the FARC, and their killings have largely happened in rural areas with weak governance — “most of them likely the work of organised crime-linked landowners and local political bosses,” WOLA states.
There are differing reports on the number of such activists and leaders have been slain.
During an attempt to demobilize and enter legitimate political life in the late 1980s, FARC members were met with a wave of killings that claimed the lives of thousands, and the recent spate of killings casts doubt on whether post-conflict Colombia will be free of political violence.
“Everyone from the guerrillas to the surrounding communities are scared about what comes next,” a rebel who goes by Marcela González told The Wall Street Journal. “We bet everything on this.”
The transition from the Obama administration to the Trump administration in Washington has also injected doubt about the role the US will play in Colombia’s peace process going forward.
Some fear the new US government could view Colombia’s peace deal like the opening with Cuba: A political victory with little import, as it was won by the previous administration.
Low commodity prices and a weak economy have challenged Colombia’s ability to finance its peace process totally on its own.
“U.S. assistance, then, has become more important than ever, and will directly influence U.S. interests,” WOLA noted in a briefing on the peace accord.
“I would hope that, because the United States deserves some credit for helping to dismantle the various narco trafficking organisations and cartels in Colombia … that the United States would, at the same time, support, through congressionally appropriated funds, Peace Colombia, which was announced early in 2016 by President Obama and President Manuel Santos, to help with that reintegration effort,” Vincent told Business Insider. “And I think that’s going to be incredibly important.”
“A cut would also lead future Colombians to remember the United States for contributing over US$700 million per year in times of war, then slashing assistance the very moment a peace accord was signed,” the WOLA briefing added.
Rex Tillerson, the newly appointed US secretary of state, voiced doubts about the US’s involvement Colombia’s peace process going forward, in part because of a recent surge in drug production in the country.
That surge, along with vocal opposition to the peace deal led by conservative former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, has helped make Republican lawmakers in the US wary of the deal, believing that future US assistance will be misused or misappropriated.
Mario Diaz-Balart, a Republican congressman from Florida, told The Washington Times in early January that the accord was “unacceptable” and had worrying elements. “We are going to be attaching more and more strings to make sure that the money does not go to handing Colombia over to FARC.”
“Across-the-aisle consensus on Plan Colombia helped Colombia dramatically reduce crime and violence, assisted the state in recovering its territorial integrity, led to the disarming of paramilitaries and beat back the guerrillas to the negotiating table,” Chris Sabatini, editor Latin America Goes Global, a website monitoring the region, told the Associated Press.
“Now, ironically, that foundation — the bipartisan consensus — is at risk of fracturing, just as the country is at the cusp of what everyone wanted for originally: peace,” Sabatini said.
Bernard Aronson, who, as US envoy, helped guide the peace process to its conclusion between 2014 and the deal’s approval late last year, hoped US legislators would see the value in the deal’s success, for both Colombia and the US.
“We’ve sustained our commitment and our support for Colombia, and we’ve helped it become the most vibrant democracy in South America,” Aronson told The Washington Post. “That’s what I hope [the Trump administration] will build on.”
As part of the Peace Colombia initiative Obama proposed $450 million in aid to Colombia for 2017 — funds that would go toward removing land mines, crop-substitution programs in coca-growing areas, and economic development for rural and isolated regions, many of which have no visible state presence.
Fostering the growth necessary to fund these post-conflict programs and economic development initiatives will take commitment and buy-in from members of Colombian society — as will the law-enforcement and legal efforts to combat crime and violence that crops in the wake of FARC’s demobilization.
“They have to have a long-term strategy. They have to monitor the progress,” Vigil told Business Insider. “They have to have milestones, and it’s going to be a lot of work by a a lot of stakeholders in the Colombian government. And if they falter and stumble, it’s going to be disastrous.”
As with the demobilization of the AUC, a right-wing paramilitary group that laid down its arms in the mid-2000s, pursuing peace will a more challenging struggle than the armed fights that brought the AUC and the FARC to the negotiating table.
“Waging war, ironically, against both groups was relatively easy,” Vincent told Business Insider. “With the AUC and now with the FARC, keeping the peace is going to be much more difficult and much more complicated, and it’s going to take a very, very long time.”