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Mar 252008

Are the FARC guerrillas are about to “implode?”

That question, raised in a Washington Post front-page story on Saturday, may seem fanciful but is actually worth asking. But it is even more worth asking, “What would happen next?”

What would happen if the FARC as we know it ceased to exist – no more Marulanda, no more Secretariat, no more hierarchical arrangement of blocs, fronts and columns?

This possibility can’t be dismissed. It could be that, within the next few years, Colombia’s largest guerrilla group might lose coherence, taking on a new form or splintering into a messy series of successor groups. If so, this would owe to:

  • Military pressure: a 50 percent increase in the Colombian armed forces since 2000 has meant more frequent anti-guerrilla offensives, and more frequent desertion of mostly rank-and-file guerrillas as the war of attrition drags on.
  • Increased results against top guerrilla leaders: the last year or so has seen far more mid-level and top-level FARC leaders captured or killed. This has not been the result of massive, costly, scorched-earth military offensives, but instead the product of better intelligence work. Colombian military intelligence – long synonymous with spying on labor leaders and human rights defenders – has finally taken on the more difficult task of actually trying to locate top guerrilla leaders.
  • The FARC’s own unpopularity: years of abusing poor rural citizens have yielded a bitter harvest for many guerrilla fronts. An insurgency cannot survive for very long if the local population fears and loathes it.
  • Narco-money: the drug trade fueled the FARC’s spectacular growth during the 1990s. For a time, the drug money maintained the struggle. Today, for many FARC units, it is the other way around.
  • Leadership problems: few organizations succeed after decades under the same hidebound leadership. Now that the guerrillas’ founding generation is being claimed by the Grim Reaper, it is not clear who is next to succeed them. After Manuel Marulanda leaves the scene, a scenario of fragmentation is plausible.

If FARC implodes or fragments, champagne corks will pop in Bogotá and Washington. But will violence and narcotrafficking in Colombia be much different than the status quo? Perhaps, but probably not.

The FARC, or successor groups, will be on the scene for some time to come. Many FARC units (the powerful Eastern Bloc commanded by “Mono Jojoy” comes to mind) remain quite wealthy and militarily strong. Even if the FARC should splinter someday, some of its remnants could be bigger, and better armed, than most insurgencies Latin America has witnessed.

“Implosion” is not synonymous with peace. Even if the FARC shrinks or fragments, military victory remains far off, and negotiations seem unlikely in the near term. If even the ELN guerrillas, who are a small fraction of the FARC’s size, continue to be active while peace talks have made no progress, how many years would it take to force the FARC or its successors to surrender on the battlefield?

No FARC wouldn’t mean no violence in rural Colombia. If the FARC disappeared, would Colombia’s government be able to fill the vacuum and govern its territory? What would happen to the country’s vast “ungoverned spaces” – the zones where armed groups rule, coca is grown, cocaine is trafficked, and military force alone has proved insufficient as a nation-building strategy?

    In the absence of a politically supported, strategically coherent, well-financed program of state presence without impunity in ungoverned territories, how long would it be until new drug-money-fueled armed groups – whether new guerrilla insurgencies or the rapidly growing “emerging” paramilitary organizations – take the FARC’s place?

    A defeat of the FARC is highly unlikely anytime soon, and a guerrilla “implosion” – if it happens – could make the security situation even more complicated than it is now.

    15 Responses to “If the FARC “implodes,” does anything change?”

    1. jcg Says:

      On a related note, the SEMANA article referenced (as an image, at least) is actually relatively good, you know…it provides a couple of different scenarios and acknowledges that even a military end to FARC (as we know them today, at least…I personally agree that we’d have to deal with successor groups, even in the better outcomes) would still be quite difficult, long and bloody for all involved and would require a non-military effort as well, which is a far cry from the immediate triumphalism seen elsewhere.

    2. rainer cale Says:

      The fetishistic idea that the FARC will “end,” while certainly tantalizing, is based on a huge suspension of disbelief.

      After a few years of talking with ex-combatants from the various groups and from various parts of the country, I have come to the conclusion that the rank and file do not see the illegal armed organizations that happen to be controlling their area, whether FARC or paramilitary, as a struggle for/against the establishment, or anything like that. Rather, they see these groups as the main source of employment and upward mobility, just as those fortunate enough to be raised in “civilian life” look to universities and careers with big companies.

      In other words, the phenomena called “FARC,” “Aguilas Negras,” etc., are not so much insurgencies, armies, what have you—they are an informal economy. An informal economy which easily outstrips the formal economy by a wide margin, at that.

      Viewed in this light, the notion that these groups can “implode” is really quite sophomoric.

      I agree to some extent that the Semana article and Adam’s blog are decent appraisals, but I think it’s a shame they don’t go beyond the idea of the FARC, and illegal groups in general, as a conventional military phenomenon. It seems to me that they avoid or don’t quite grasp the conclusion their analysis is pointing to.

    3. Jaime Bustos Says:

      I must admit that Rainier has a point. The monolithic concept of FARC as just a military phenomenon is quite reductionistic in its approach, but is the only one that can be undertaken without causing itching in certain strata of the social scaffolding.

      That’s where alternative media comes in handy.

    4. lfm Says:

      My two quick dimes: when looking at any militia (be it a “revolutionary organization,” “counter-insurgency,” etc.) it may be very useful to look at its foot soldiers, what they think, how they see the world, and so on. But it is a mistake to believe that that is the whole story. To make sense of the group as a whole, one has to keep in mind the hierarchy that gives it its cohesion. From that point of view, I have no question that both the paramilitary and the FARC owe their cohesion to a broader political struggle. I know, I know, many of you disagree with me and believe that the FARC or the paramilitary are no longer political organizations. Let me just say two things in that regard:

      1. The phenomenon of the de-ideologized foot soldiers is not unique to Colombia. It is rather ubiquitous even in highly disciplined guerrillas in other parts of the world, not to mention the regular armies. (Funny how we never express curiosity at the political training of low-ranking soldiers in official armies.)

      2. You don’t maintain a sizable network of political underground groups (as the FARC does) or a sizable network of Congresspeople (as the paramilitary do) unless you see the war as, in Clausewitz words, “politics by other means.”

    5. Kyle Says:

      Rainer: What you are discussing is the idea of parallel economies that are created through civil war, including the continuation of licit economic activity for different ends, the growth of already existing illicit economies through civil war or the creation of whole new economies because of civil war (good examples are Chechnya, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, DRC, the list goes on). For Colombia, we are obviously talking about all three.

      The armed groups in Colombia are not informal economies, but they do control numerous “ventures” within the illicit parallel economy, and because of that, they employ. They are not, though, the economy in and of itself. If that were the case, their destruction would mean the end of the economies, and you yourself pointed out that this will not happen with the FARC or other groups. Therefore, the question of one groups’ implosion is not sophmoric. The question, should be, as you alluded to, what will happen to these parallel economies (narco-trafficking, gasoline trafficking, etc) if one major group involved is removed from the economy(ies).

      We already have the answer to an extent, I believe, though it does prevent some problems. The new “emerging groups” have shown to us that given the removal of a large player in the parallel economy of narcotrafficking, new groups can quickly form to replace them and focus purely on the parallel “venture” at hand. Also, when Pablo Escobar died and the Ochoas went to jail, new groups emerged and took their place. This is where the problems lay.

      All of those groups were replaced by people who already had vast experience in the parallel economies, many through the same groups that had disappeared (in the case of the cartels, to an extent the AUC). What matters here on how the FARC’s space will be filled in the various economies depends highly on how the DDR/peace process, regarding transitional justice, is carried out. If mid-level commanders are not jailed, we will wee the “new generation” of the FARC. These “new generation” FARC, obviously, would be to the FARC what the “emerging groups” are to the AUC in this scenario.

      If only foot soldiers are allowed some freedom, it is unclear what they will do. They may join other armed groups, they may choose for civilian life. It will highly depend on the specific situation of each foot soldier.

      The point is there are many possibilities, but I do agree that the FARC’s space within the parallel economies of the civil war will be filled by someone else at some point. To what extent that power vacuum is filled, and how bloody it may be will depend on just how the FARC “implodes,” if they do; more precisely, how they are removed from the parallel economies, either slowly or rapidly is the main question.

      My point is, with or without the FARC, the informal, parallel economies would exist. Someone else would have their place. Thus, the groups are not an informal economy within themselves but an organization, a business, that operates in the parallel economies of Colombia’s civil war.

    6. Will Says:

      In response to Rainer’s statement that:

      “I agree to some extent that the Semana article and Adam’s blog are decent appraisals, but I think it’s a shame they don’t go beyond the idea of the FARC, and illegal groups in general, as a conventional military phenomenon.”

      Can we really go beyond the idea of the FARC or the Aguila as military phenomenon when they continue to ambush military patrols, over-run police stations (in the case of the FARC) or assassinate organizers of anti-paramilitary marches (in the case of Aguilas)? I concede the reality that the factors motivating people to join these organizations is often not tied to a specific military or ideological objective, but I don’t believe that the behavior of these organizations would allow us to exclude or ignore their role as military actors or as groups seeking to limit political debate/competition within Colombia. They may be part of an “informal economy” but its an “economy” that kills trade unionists and blows up police stations.

    7. C Says:

      Will, I think you misinterpreted Rainer´s post. She was not in any way trying to indicate that these groups are not military oriented groups. Rather, she was speaking to the conception of these groups by those who join them: they see the groups as an economic opportunity in areas where there is an economic void. Her point being that under such circumstances it is unlikely that such groups will not persist because they are the only opportunities in the areas they occupy. I assume she is fully aware of the actions of these groups given that she apparently has spent years directly studying them.

    8. Chris Says:

      I know exactly what it will look like….Mexico!

    9. Jaime Bustos Says:

      A related alternative media article by James J. Brittain and R. James Sacouman:

      Uribe’s Colombia is destabilizing a New Latin America

      The funny part … “Careful analysts of the Colombian situation continue to debate whether the Colombian state is pre-fascist or actually fascist.

    10. Chris Says:

      Article is just a tab-bit to the left there Jaime… :-)

    11. Jaime Bustos Says:

      Well Chris, I Try to balance the load after reading right wingers as El Tiempo, Semana (latter of which I call tepid news media) and Caracol. ;-)

    12. Adam Isacson Says:

      I agree with the longer comments above, all of whom expressed this point better than I did. As long as Colombia’s geography remains mostly stateless and impoverished (the two are related), there will be a “war of all against all.” The FARC, in its present form, may not be a party to that war a decade from now. But others will fill the vacuum.

      The message, then, is that the Colombian government can’t measure success by the number of guerrillas killed or demobilized, or even the number of guerrilla leaders killed or captured. The true measure – though it’s harder to measure – is the number of square miles of territory where a real state exists; the number of Colombians who feel protected and represented by that state; and the percentage of cases in which state actors’ violations of citizens’ rights (abuse, corruption etc.) are effectively punished.

    13. Kyle Says:

      Adam, very well put. I would also add how well, effectively, honestly and “Colombian-ly” the government carries out measures of transitional justice with the paramilitaries now. This way, the hope is, victims will get a satisfied justice and measures to prevent, though slightly, groups from choosing to take the step into the illegal economies and/or maintain parallel economies. It’ll be another measure that will take away the incentive (or create more disincentive) to try to fill the vacuum’s in the illegal economy. Improving and finely tuning the peace process with the AUC may not be likely, but still is possible.

      I wonder what we all think about how Uribe is doing measured by those standards as well…

    14. Kyle Says:

      I should also, timingly, add that another main factor in to what extent that FARC’s power (and economic) vacuum would be filled after “implosion,” would be how well the state fills that vacuum…

    15. Tambopaxi Says:


      Just came across this post and note that you mention again the notion of what I call nation building – with which I agree, I should say. The GOC still isn’t able to effectively project its presence and authority throughout its vast territory and hence the lack of infrastructure, social services, and security, as well as the sustainable economic development that might come behind those things.

      That same problem – or problems – bedevil Ecuador as well, and that’s why the FARC can come in set up camps for years on Ecuadorian territory without any problems. It’s quite probable that in some cases FARC presence is known and tacitly condoned. Still, even though Ecuador is much smaller than Colombia, their common border is almost 800 km long, and a lot of that jungle and mountain hinterland is simply not patrolled at all because Ecuador lacks the resources to project its presence and force in those areas.

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