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Jan 8, 2013 | 15:50 GMT

Colombia: Rebels Struggle to Uphold a Unilateral Cease-Fire

Colombia: Rebels Struggle to Uphold a Unilateral Cease-Fire
YAMIL LAGE/AFP/Getty Images
Summary

A negotiated settlement between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the rebel group better known as FARC, is certainly possible, and it is perhaps even likely that one will be reached before the government-imposed November 2013 deadline. However, violence and instability in Colombia will be difficult — if not impossible — to eradicate.

A unilateral cease-fire announced by the FARC on Nov. 19, 2012, is set to expire Jan. 20. The cease-fire, which was enacted during peace negotiations with the Colombian government, has been relatively effective and violent incidents have dwindled. However, a number of attacks have been carried out in recent weeks, suggesting a lack of adherence to the cease-fire and indicating that FARC leadership may not exercise complete control over the group. The attacks have occurred mostly in southwestern and western Colombia, regions that contain elements of the country's energy infrastructure and reserves and that have long been marked by poverty, drugs and rebel insurgency.

If the FARC's secretariat cuts a deal that is favorable to its leadership but does not satisfy its rank-and-file soldiers, the rebel group may fracture, leading offshoot entities to continue pursuing violent and illicit activities. The continuation of these activities will ultimately constrain further growth in Colombia's energy sector.

Declaring a unilateral cease-fire ostensibly serves three purposes for the FARC. First, it is meant to demonstrate that the secretariat has complete control over the FARC's various blocs and fronts and thus is capable of making and enforcing decisions on behalf of the entity as a whole. Second, the cease-fire improves the FARC's public relations image and will ease the group's eventual entry into politics. Finally, by avoiding conflict with the military, the FARC conserves its resources.

The attacks carried out in violation of the cease-fire might demonstrate the leadership's lack of control, or they may serve as a way for the FARC to continue demonstrating its capability while maintaining plausible deniability.

Colombia: Rebels Struggle to Uphold a Unilateral Cease-Fire

Rebel Attacks Since Cease-Fire in Colombia

On Nov. 21, the FARC attacked the military in Caloto, Cauca department, by luring soldiers into a minefield. On Dec. 9, the FARC attacked civilians near the same town using a makeshift mortar. On Dec. 15 and Jan. 1, the FARC attacked police stations in the Antioquia and Cauca departments, respectively. These attacks left three people dead and 13 wounded.

In addition to these attacks, on Jan. 3 an Ecuadorian military detachment was robbed of its weapons in Sucumbios province, Ecuador, and on the following day the Cano Limon-Covenas crude oil pipeline was attacked. It is not known whether these attacks were carried out by the FARC or by another armed group, but the incidents illustrate the latent instability and propensity for violence that permeates the Colombian periphery. In addition to the FARC, the National Liberation Army, or ELN, still operates in northeast Colombia and may resort to increased attacks to draw the government into negotiations.

These attacks — with the exception of the attack on the pipeline, which is located in the Norte de Santander department — occurred in the southwest and west of the country, suggesting that the secretariat does not have as much control over the fronts in these regions as it would like to believe. Each region has its own interests and provides its own incentives, and forces operating in the west and southwest (because of the area's close connection to the drug trade) may be the hardest to rein in.

The FARC's Southern and Western Blocs are responsible for these areas. Milton de Jesus Toncel Redondo, also known as Joaquin Gomez, runs the Southern Bloc, while Jorge Torres Victoria, also known as Pablo Catatumbo, runs the Western Bloc. Both men are part of the FARC secretariat and are wanted by the U.S. Department of State for alleged drug trafficking activities. Because the FARC is a major player in Colombia's drug trade, a fierce competition for the territory and smuggling routes under FARC control will likely ensue if the group demobilizes. Rather than successful peace negotiations resulting in decreased violence, this power vacuum will probably engender a temporary surge in violence.

Much like we saw in Colombia when the major cartels were dismantled and paramilitary forces were demobilized, the competition for a place in the global drug supply chain may become more acute, more multipolar, and temporarily less predictable.

The problem for Colombia is that the peace talks may not bring a definitive end to violence and instability in the country. Efforts to extend energy infrastructure deeper into the periphery in order to exploit remote oil and natural gas reserves will continue to face security challenges. The FARC is not the cause of lawlessness in the periphery; it is its logical outcome. The remoteness and poverty of the Colombian periphery has allowed for the growth of many criminal organizations in the region, including the FARC, that engage in illicit activities such as drug production and trafficking, as well as extortion. Even if the FARC disappears and politically motivated violence is eliminated, the economic prospects of the Colombian periphery will remain deeply constrained.

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