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‘Bandas Criminales’ and a Post-accord Colombia
Colombia will likely remain on the negative side of the security spectrum unless a comprehensive series of preventative measures are put in place to restrict the proliferation of violence associated with organised crime in a ‘post-conflict’ Colombia.
Colombia is on a positive trajectory towards political peace. Despite missing the proposed March 23rd deadline for signing the peace agreement between the Government of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) there is still an unprecedented confidence in the ongoing peace process. An ambitious programme of rural reform has been outlined and there have been partial[i] agreements on issues relating to agrarian development, illegal drugs, political participation and compensation for victims. To add to this success, the Government of Colombia and the National Liberation Army (ELN), Colombia’s second largest rebel group, announced the formalisation of their peace talks which are due to commence in Ecuador in May. There is also speculation that neo-paramilitary group ‘Los Urabeños’ are seeking to ride on the peace talks bandwagon[ii]. Given that Colombia has been subject to one of the world’s longest active civil wars, this is undeniably momentous.
However, it is important to look beyond the politics and the semantics of war and peace and to assess what this means for the people. Many of the people living in Colombia’s towns and cities are arguably already living in a post-conflict situation, particularly following the success of former president Alvaro Uribe’s military strategy which forced guerrillas to retreat from cities into rural areas. For rural communities where the conflict is still very real, the situation is different. Even if peace accords are successfully signed with both the FARC and the ELN, rural Colombia will likely remain on the negative side of the security spectrum, and the people of Colombia could remain exposed to devastating levels of violence.
Organised crime networks, or ‘BACRIM’ as they are known in Colombia (an acronym of the Spanish term Bandas Criminales), are the biggest spoiler for Colombia’s sustainable peace and development. BACRIM and related illicit flows have funded Colombia’s conflict for years and given that they thrive in conditions of instability, it is likely that they will continue to perpetuate violence despite ongoing peace negotiations. It has been suggested that the scale and frequency of violence could even increase following a successful conclusion of the current peace talks. A March 2016 report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights raised concerns that FARC demobilisation could create power vacuums that lead to clashes between different criminal groups vying for control of lucrative illegal industries such as drug trafficking, illegal mining, human trafficking and prostitution. This has been echoed by the Foundation for Peace and Reconciliation (PARES) who claim that 87 of Colombia’s 1100 municipalities will be at extreme risk of violence if the FARC demobilise and that another 85 will be at high risk of violence.
One of the stumbling blocks which prevented the peace agreement from being signed on the proposed deadline of March 23rd is the number of cantonment zones to protect FARC rebels as they begin the process of demobilisation, disarmament and reintegration back into society without fear of retribution. These zones will necessitate separation between the demobilising FARC from criminal enterprises to prevent their engagement in illegal mining and illicit crops. Whilst this is welcomed, if effectively implemented, it is important for those involved to be aware that action taken to disrupt organised crime networks in certain areas of Colombia could merely serve to divert these activities to more vulnerable areas.
This is a very real threat for some marginalised communities, many of which are exposed to limited state presence due to Colombia’s beautiful but difficult terrain. The three cordilleras of the Andes, the jungle and mangrove swamps all mean that some rural areas are relatively inaccessible. It is in these areas where it is most difficult to build capacity for local governance structures, and consequently in some of these areas guerrilla groups have been known to adopt some of the roles traditionally assigned to the a welfare state, such as providing healthcare where the state has failed to reach. It is these impoverished and marginalised areas which will likely be most susceptible to organised crime networks and which may be exposed to the aforementioned power vacuums after the FARC demobilisation.
In order to better protect these communities and prevent an escalation in violence, it is important to undermine the political, social and economic leverage that organised crime groups have. One way of doing this is by providing the local communities and disadvantaged groups who are drawn to organised crime, or who are supported by criminal networks, with realistic, feasible and sustainable alternatives. The Colombian Government are aware of this and recognise the unprecedented window of opportunity that the peace processes present to crack down on organised crime. They have, for example, now adopted the ‘Integral Strategy for Substitution of Illicit Crops’, to provide investment into coca-producing regions.
However, overcoming Colombia’s organised crime networks should not be a responsibility for the state alone. Broader efforts need to be made to combat Colombia’s BACRIM. The battle against organised crime should be fought in tandem with international and local efforts to sustain peace in Colombia. In particular, civil society should be mobilised. This could involve increasing representation of civil society actors in local, national, regional and international initiatives: strengthening the capacity of civil society and community groups to engage political and government actors on security and organised crime-related issues; strengthening public participation in the design and implementation of effective livelihood opportunities; and strengthening the knowledge base explaining the interaction between organised crime and local social dynamics. Civil society groups from the most disadvantaged areas could lobby more for better accountability, policies and legislation to minimise the incentives for engaging in organised crime, and raise community awareness around how to overcome BACRIM, and the benefits of doing so. Locally-led groups are well suited to providing early warning to arrest the emergence of new criminal groups seeking to fill the ‘void’[iii] left by demobilised guerrilla groups. Similarly, they could be more involved in oversight processes, monitoring performance of new initiatives and working to counter corruption and the complicity of officials in organised crime activities. In some circumstances they could provide greater support effective decentralised service delivery mechanisms and could help to mitigate the effects of organised crime by supporting reintegration and rehabilitation of those involved in organised crime – such as former BACRIM, coca farmers and victims. This would, however, require the provision of greater security measures to protect those involved in public activities and initiatives which function to undermine organised crime groups.
At the same time, efforts to better engage the private sector to invest in peacebuilding should be welcomed. Ahead of peace talks with the ELN, the head of the government delegation, Frank Pearl, has called for private sector participation in the talks. These groups possess the capacity, both financially and technically, to intervene in novel ways, and can provide indispensable opportunities to address some of the economic root causes of conflict and incentives for participation in organised crime. However, relationships between businesses and peacebuilding are not always positive. It is critical to ensure that these actors are mobilised effectively to guarantee that they do not (consciously or unconsciously) become a spoiler to wider peace efforts. The capacity to support peace and provide a barrier for organised crime will vary for each individual business actor, as will the most appropriate role that they can play. However, the meaningful involvement of businesses in Colombia’s peace building efforts should not be limited to large corporations alone. Local grassroots businesses and informal traders can be just as instrumental in supporting the development of a sustainable peace – whether this is through promoting reintegration, offering employment, or providing infrastructure development. Larger corporations may adopt a role supporting policy dialogue, maximising on their business’ capacity to influence others; or they could provide social investment. For these businesses, a joined-up approach and the clear articulation of shared objectives can help to ensure that the private sector contributes positively to peace efforts. It is also important for businesses to look beyond their role in the peace talks and strive to incorporate peacebuilding into economic development policies and practices.
Given the often transnational nature of organised crime, a multi-pronged approach should be emphasised whereby local initiatives such as those led by civil society and the private sector are supported by coordinated national, regional and international initiatives to prevent transnational crimes, and stem the demands which put pressure on Colombia. The current peace processes offer a window of opportunity during which concerted and unified action should be taken to promote Colombia’s social and economic resilience to organised crime and serve to effectively disrupt criminal networks and flows, reaping global rewards.
[i] The agreements have only been partial because as Humberto de la Calle, the Colombian Government’s chief negotiator, famously said, “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”.