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 BogotÃ¡ 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.