Colombia: who are and how much power do groups that resist peace have?

Five years after the signing of the peace agreement between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the signs that the country’s violent past is still valid seem to reappear.

During the last weeks, several incidents have exposed the limitations of the peace.

An army attack near the Amazon killed ten members of the so-called FARC dissidents, including a leader, alias “Ferney,” and an attack on the National Liberation Army (ELN) in Chocó killed a guerrilla high command , alias “Fabián”, and left at least four minors dead.

In Tibú, on the border with Venezuela, two Venezuelan teenagers were shot and killed after being accused of robbery. The police, absent for several days who were detained by civilians, accused the dissidents, but others attributed it to “paramilitary practices.”

The 72nd massacre so far this year was also reported, in which five people died in the city of Tumaco, in the south of the country.

And it was reported that 46,321 Colombians had to be displaced by violence in the first eight months of 2021.

They are signs that today it is difficult to talk about peace in Colombia. Homicides, forced displacement, clashes between armed gangs and cocaine production have increased in 2021, according to multiple counts.

Some blame this spike in violence on the government of Ivan Duque, critical of the process with the FARC. They assure that it has not been proactive in its implementation of peace.

But the president defends his plans for productive development in territories affected by war, his “peace with legality” and his strategy against armed groups and drug trafficking, with which he has killed dozens of criminals and seized tons of drugs.

In the three years of our government, more progress has been made than in the first 20 months of peace implementationDuque said in a recent interview in reference to the government of his predecessor Juan Manuel Santos.

Although it is not possible to speak of peace in Colombia, it is not that there is a war like the one that took place for 60 years between the State and insurgent movements.

“There is no return to war, but very localized conflicts that do not have the national scope of before,” says Juanita Vélez, a researcher at the Core Foundation, a think tank.

And Jorge Restrepo, director of CERAC, another body that investigates conflicts, adds: “Neither has the conflict escalated nor has a new conflict started, but rather conflicts have appeared that did not exist before the process with the FARC. But they are of much less intensity and do not pose a direct confrontation for the control of the State ”.

Violence in Colombia, then, was transformed: it fragmented and concentrated in regions where homicide figures exceed those of the most violent countries in the world. And multiple groups emerged, disjointed and heterogeneous, trying to use the symbols and languages ​​of the past to justify their only current interest: profit from illegal economies.

These, then, are the broad features of the groups that maintain the idea that there is a war in Colombia, even if the democratic state is not threatened and the numbers of homicides in the past have not returned.

Peace signing in Colombia

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September 26 marked the 5th anniversary of this photo, when peace was signed with the FARC. October 2 will be 5 years from the moment in which the peace process showed its first fissures.

PostFARC groups or dissidents

They call themselves dissidents because they did not welcome or renounce the peace process that demobilized 13,000 guerrillas in 2016 from what was the largest insurgent movement in Latin America.

They also use Guevarist symbols and speeches that recall the struggle waged in the 1960s by peasant movements. And its leaders were members of the defunct FARC.

But even there, experts warn, the similarities with the guerrillas created by Manuel Marulanda Vélez, aliases “Fixed shot”, in 1964.

“It is assumed that the dissidents are the FARC from before, but that is a very wrong analysis,” Vélez tells BBC Mundo. “Because the dissidents take up the Farian gene (of the FARC), yes, but the bulk of the dissidents are new recruits and that makes their way of acting different in many ways“.

“Presuming that they are the same,” he adds, “makes their performances and power become enlarged and overestimated, and leads us to think that the war is the same as before, when that is not true.”

Second Marquetalia

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The Second Marquetalia defected from the peace process in 2019. Since then they have sought to regain their power.

Elizabeth Dickinson, researcher at the Crisis Group, points out that dissidents are usually grouped into two different and sometimes antagonistic lines: that of the leader Gentil Duarte, which separated from the FARC before the peace was signed, and that of Ivan Marquez, who signed the peace and then deserted.

“But even this division is not firm and each dissidence has its own habitat and its own ambitions for territorial control,” explains the analyst.

Although the study centers estimate that there are between 30 and 40 fronts of post-FARC groups, none have national articulation nor do they intend – or have the opportunity to – overthrow the capitalist model.

The links between them, reports a recent report by the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation, occur more to distribute territories, agree to cease violence or trade in cocaine production, than to overthrow a president.

Duque partly blames the government of Nicolas Maduro of the subsistence of these groups, by giving them refuge in Venezuela and allowing their drug trafficking venture. Maduro denies it.

This week the general commander of the Military Forces told Reuters that at least 1,900 Colombian guerrillas are refugees in Venezuela.

Youth with guns

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With schools closed due to the pandemic, the forced recruitment of minors has increased in recent months.

The ELN and the EPL

The ELN is known as the last guerrilla in America.

“It is the last truly guerrilla group, in the sense that it has political ideals, it wants to overthrow power in Bogotá and does work not only with the communities, where it sets rules and organizes, but also among its ranks, where there is military and ideological training” explains Dickinson.

The Ideas for Peace Foundation estimates that in 2017 about 1,000 people were linked to the guerrillas and that by 2018 it had more than 4,000 members. “Today in Venezuela the ELN carries out illegal activities related to gasoline smuggling, mining and extortion,” says an NGO report.

The ELN has claimed responsibility for several attacks on police and army bases in recent years, but experts do not believe it is a direct threat to the established order.


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The ELN said this week that it has been “forced” by the government to increase violence.

Although the ELN has taken advantage of the FARC’s absence to take over some territories, it has also encountered and had to confront various armed groups fighting for control in remote regions of the country.

The ELN is not the only active of the six guerrillas that they suggested in Colombia in the 1960s: the Popular Liberation Army (EPL), also known as “Los Pelusos”, maintains a certain presence on the border with Venezuela despite its divisions. interns and the assassination of their main leader in 2015.

Neo-paramilitary groups

In the 1980s and 1990s, the strengthening of the guerrillas generated an even more violent actor: the paramilitaries, organized to end the insurgency, defend private property, and prevent communism from coming to power.

The United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia demobilized through a peace agreement signed with the then president, Alvaro Uribe, in 2003. But since then various groups emerged that took over their symbols and, above all, their territories and links with drug trafficking.

Today the main neo-paramilitary group is the Clan del Golfo, which was born in the Gulf of Urabá, near the border with Panama, but has spread to other regions of the country. In addition to drug trafficking, they live off micro-trafficking, human trafficking and the collection of extortion.

The paramilitaries

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The paramilitaries demobilized almost 20 years ago, but since then several similar groups have emerged.

Official figures estimate that some 4,000 people are part of this group.

“Their focus is territorial control and they operate under the practices of the paramilitaries, with killings, threats, curfews and social control,” says Dickinson. “They have been colonizing land after the peace process, not only around the Gulf of Urabá, but also on the border with Venezuela.”

The Gulf Clan, also known as Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia y Los Urabeños, is not the only neo-paramilitary group operating in the country: there are also Los Rastrojos, forts on the border with Venezuela, and the Oficina de Envigado, originated as the group of hitmen from Pablo Escobar and today reduced to its minimum expression and concentrated on drug trafficking.

Everything else

If it is difficult to identify articulated and homogeneous groups in the guerrilla or paramilitary spheres, in the world of organized crime the situation becomes even more complicated.

Colombia is today, as in the 80s and 90s, the country that produces the most cocaine in the world, according to UN figures. Illegal mining, smuggling and trafficking in people and animal species are also activities that thrive in this country, a breeding ground for the emergence of illegal armed groups.

What’s more, the presence of the Mexican cartels has proliferated the network of groups interested in one or another illegal activity.

Coca cultivation

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Today in Colombia less coca is being produced but more cocaine due to the expertise of the armed groups.

“The fact that armed groups in Colombia today do not have unifying elements or cohesion has made their violence more atrocious,” says Restrepo. “They make a more instrumental and restricted use of violence and seek to intimidate by building a capital of terror.”

Why is it so difficult to contain the emergence of illegal armed groups with ingenious names like Los Caparrapos, Los Puntilleros or Los Pachenca?

The Duque government often says that the fault lies with drug trafficking, a transnational activity whose main demand is in developed countries.

“It is time for the responsibility of the international community,” Duque said recently.

Others speak of the historical inability of the State to exercise control over a complex, diverse and remote territory.

Restrepo gives his hypothesis: “We cannot defeat these groups because the armed forces were not prepared for the post-conflict. The preparation was not only episodic, but interrupted by the Duque government, which continues to use elements of guerrilla warfare for criminals who have been transformed in every way ”.

The war may have happened in Colombia, but peace is still pending.

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