The announcement that a group of senior commanders from the demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, are taking up arms again is a heavy blow to Colombia’s already fragile peace process. The declaration, made in a video posted on Aug. 29, represents the most significant break to date with the 2016 peace accord that was supposed to end the longest-running conflict in Latin America.
In the video posted on social media, the FARC’s former second-in-command, Luciano Marin—better known by his nom de guerre, Ivan Marquez—declared a “new chapter” in the Marxist guerrillas’ armed struggle. One of the key architects of the peace agreement, Marquez, wearing olive military garb and toting a rifle, accused the Colombian government of “betrayal.”
At his side was Seuxis Pausias Hernandez, known more widely to Colombians as Jesus Santrich. Arrested on U.S. drug charges in 2018, Santrich was never extradited to the United States. He was later released, before being rearrested and then escaping detention in Colombia earlier this year. Marquez was also flanked by Hernan Dario Velasquez, known as El Paisa, who once commanded an elite guerrilla unit of the FARC and was later part of the negotiating team that struck the peace deal in Havana, and Walter Mendoza, a former commander of the FARC forces in Cauca, on Colombia’s Pacific coast.
These men are popular and command respect among the rank-and-file of former FARC combatants. The worry is that they will be able to persuade their former comrades to abandon the troubled peace process and rearm. But perhaps more notable than who was in the video was who wasn’t. Several dissident FARC commanders who have opposed the peace deal didn’t appear: Miguel Botache Santillana, alias Gentil Duarte; Gener Garcia Molina, better known as Jhon 40; and Nestor Vera, alias Ivan Mordisco.
These three men currently lead the list of Colombia’s most wanted and control large parts of drug trafficking networks in the south of the country. For over a year now, they have coordinated efforts to bring together the disparate pockets of dissident FARC units into a single fighting force. Senior demobilized FARC sources, speaking on the condition of anonymity, believe their absence from the video is telling. They say it shows divisions over access to the dissidents’ share of Colombia’s lucrative drug trafficking routes. It also signals a more general disagreement over the role drugs might play in this new insurgency. This apparent friction between senior dissident commanders could lead to bloody infighting, these FARC sources warn. Such rivalries are unlikely to attract ex-combatants to their cause.
Despite the fears of a new insurgency, a fragmented movement of FARC dissidents poses less of a threat to Colombia than the FARC did in its heyday.
The relationship between Colombia’s leftist insurgencies and the illicit drug trade is complex. Producing and trafficking cocaine became a reliable way to fund the FARC’s rebellion in the 1980s and 1990s, which led to questions about the sincerity of the guerrillas’ ideology. Sure enough, after the video’s release last week, President Ivan Duque was quick to refer to Marquez and the other commanders as “narcoterrorists.” But it would be inaccurate to discount their political motivations entirely.
Figures from peace advocacy groups show that the vast majority of former FARC rebels are complying with the peace deal. But some of the 13,000 demobilized guerrillas, frustrated by a lack of promised vocational training and reintegration programs, have already returned to the jungle. Estimates put the current number of dissidents between 1,000 and 3,000.
According to the Colombian Organized Crime Observatory at El Rosario University in Bogota, FARC dissidents are distributed across 37 different militant and criminal groups across the country, in 18 departments and 120 municipalities. These pockets of unrest have taken several different forms, some closer to their guerrilla predecessors than others. They also vary widely in terms of numbers, armed capacity, leadership and their alliances or rivalries with other armed actors, such as the National Liberation Army, or ELN, Colombia’s largest remaining guerrilla group.
Since the demobilization of the FARC in 2017 under the terms of the peace accord, Colombia has faced a rapidly evolving landscape of new criminal alliances and feuds. This led, last year, to the first rise in homicides in Colombia in a decade.
Many analysts draw a distinction between FARC dissidents and what are often called FARC successors. The former include remnants of the leftist rebels that existed before the 2017 demobilization. The latter is made up of a new generation of criminals, from ex-combatants who have abandoned the peace process’ reintegration programs to members of youth gangs and right-wing paramilitaries.
There is also a more overlooked element of the FARC’s insurgency at play. For decades, the guerrilla movement, based in the country’s rural and largely neglected corners, was supported by urban militias that provided intelligence and logistics support. They acted as a reserve force that lived at home with their families but could be called on for help or even to carry out attacks. Just under 3,000 of these militia members demobilized in 2017, apparently less than half of the total that existed, according to FARC sources, who claim these urban networks continue to operate in the shadows today and could support Marquez’s call to arms.
Despite the fears of a new insurgency, a fragmented movement of FARC dissidents poses less of a threat to the Colombian state than the FARC did in its heyday. The senior commanders calling for a “new phase” in the armed struggle today could energize other former fighters, but they lack the military leverage that the FARC had at the height of its insurgency, when it controlled territory across the country and had a well-organized and hierarchical command structure. By contrast, FARC dissidents today maintain a loose structure based on the remnants of guerrilla factions, operating more as a federation rather than a single, coherent insurgent force.
But a potentially bitter and bloody rivalry among scattered former FARC militias over influence and control of Colombia’s illicit drug trade could still wreak more havoc on the country’s margins. It would also further destabilize a peace deal heralded as a landmark agreement just a few years ago.