May 10, 2021
by José Darío Rodríguez Cuadros, Jesuit, Ph.D in Political Science (EHESS), researcher and Director of the Journal Cien Días and Professor at Javeriana University (Cali).
One of the problems with understanding current Colombian events with respect to the armed conflict is that, since the demobilization of the FARC-EP that started in 2016, it is now a phenomena that is more and more ambiguous. The convoluted clashes between various armed protagonists taking place in rural settings, as well as the difficulty in understanding their strategies, objectives and how they operate, complicate the analysis of this new reality, further marred by a year of lockdowns because of the pandemic. With this, this article, which is a shortened version of the text published in the Journal Cien Dias, will examine the changes in the armed conflict in La Macarena, one of the historical strongholds of the old FARC-EP guerrilla group, today controlled by one of their strongest dissidents. Since similar situations are happening today in other regions of Colombia, the approach proposed here, which attempts to study specific structural dynamics, will help shed light on what is going on in other regions.
In Macarena, the FARC-EP have never completely disappeared. Toward the end of 2016, Miguel Botacha Santillana, better known under the alias "Gentil Duarte", decided to quit the peace talks that were taking place in Havana because of disagreements with the leaders who were negotiating with the Colombian government. After leaving Cuba and returning to Colombia, Duarte hid in the Guaviare department's forest and continued the armed conflict. He was still commanding the Front N°1 there and had a strong influence on Front N°7 and N°40 who were in Macarena, the neighboring department of Meta. Since then, the Guaviare has become the base of operations of the dissidence led by Gentil Duarte, that also operates in the neighboring departments of Meta and Caquetá. Because of their retreat from the peace process, the 1st Front guerrillas never disbanded. Those in Front N°7 and N°40, who were not directly commanded by Duarte, on the other hand, decided to welcome the Peace Agreement by handing over their guns. Toward the end of 2017, there seemed to be hope for peace in La Macarena with an agreement signed on September 26, 2016 and the demobilization of the two Fronts.
However, in the next department of Guaviare, the guerrilla was still active and today's reality shows that it is growing at the cost of the will to make peace. There are two reasons. First, the reintegration of ex-fighters in civilian life did not have good results. Secondly, the FARC-EP dissidence profited from the Covid-19 related public health crisis to gradually get stronger.
As a matter of fact, the pandemic provided the perfect occasion to increase the financial and military resources of this illegal armed group. By taking advantage of the lockdown and the government's lack of control, the dissidences operating in La Macarena were able to extend their "tax" collection imposed on farmers and increase the size of the coca plantations in total freedom, especially in areas where the army was not present. The earnings obtained in fact are intended for the purchase of weapons and recruiting young fighters.
Two things are essential in understanding the situation in La Macarena: the fact that the current guerrilla is a continuation, in its make-up, with the past armed conflict, and the increase in an "intermittent" control (Aguilera, 2020, p. 228) of the territory.
CONTINUATION OF THE OLD ARMED CONFLICT
The armed violence, which is rife in La Macarena today, is not a new conflict, but indeed the continuation, in its make-up, with the one that was experienced in the past. Though the intensity of the conflicts diminished during the peace negotiations (2014-2016) and after the signature of the Agreement (2017-2019), the illegal armed protagonists' strategies and current dynamics of armed violence demonstrate more continuity than discontinuity with the period prior to the FARC-EP demobilization. And so, the illegal protagonists are not new. It is rather a reorganization of fighters and their hierarchy in order to reinforce their capacity to control the region's inhabitants. New elements however have come up, especially the differing views between the old FARC-EP and their dissidences on the ideological and doctrinal content of the armed struggle. Today, it is almost impossible to decipher the ideological and political objectives of the dissident movements.
AN "INTERMITTENT" CONTROL OF THE TERRITORY
One element specific to the dissidents present in La Macarena region is how they operate, wanting to be similar to the former FARC, especially by gradually reorganizing Fronts N°1, N°7 and N°40 that previously controlled La Macarena and the Guaviare. However, today's reality is better described through the lens of an "intermittent territorial control" which, according to Mr. Aguilera, makes a reference "to a partial military control, geographically discontinued, that can disappear when the Army is present and reappear when it is absent" (2020, p. 228). This variation in military control of the dissidence is more evident in the villages where the Army only goes sporadically. For that matter, there is a paradox between the fact that one of Colombia's biggest military bases has its headquarters in La Macarena, with over 4000 well-equipped soldiers (Fuerza de Tarea Conjunta Omega y Fuerza de Despliegue Rápido – FUDRA), but the Army is incapable of maintaining a solid and permanent control of this territory.
So, the current situation is marred by three factors: the pandemic, the mediocrity of the municipal government and ineffective military control. In this context, the dissidence has been able to reorganize and strengthen itself. Its actions seek to impose a new social order with "characteristics that were imposed earlier by the previous armed organization" (Aguilera, 2020, p. 229). Residents of La Macarena clearly noticed the continuity between this new way of operating and the one of past FARC-EP, including for example, the tax imposition, proposals for "protection" (for a fee), control of movement, influence on social organizations, community activities put in place - forcibly - (road construction, collaboration for house repair, etc.) and intervention as mediators to resolve various tensions between neighbors (2020, p.229).
But, though the operation seems similar to the previous guerrilla's, and though these new fighters are still keeping the name of the old FARC-EP, we cannot say that today's dissidence is the same as the one that has been demobilized. First of all, the old guerrilla's political characteristics are almost non-existent in the dissident groups. Also, though the rural population could have felt some sympathy and identified with the guerrilla movement, today it is feeling very distant from the dissident movement and is painfully enduring the order imposed by force. In most cases however, discontent and powerlessness are expressed privately, for fear of retribution that can go as far as assassination. Finally, and because of the two previous points, the dissidence is no different from a common criminal group whose only goal is illicit accumulation of wealth.
In short, the armed conflict experienced today in La Macarena is similar to the old conflict in how it operates, but its ideological content and political objectives are very different from those upheld by the old FARC-EP.
A FRAGILE PEACE BEFORE CONFLICT RESUMES?
From a structural point of view, the current situation is not very different from the one from 4 years ago. Though the dissidence's ideological premise is still vague, its intermittent control of the territory is quite similar to the one exerted by the pre-2017 FARC-EP, and the conditions created by the pandemic gave them the opportunity to strenghten itself. Because the government institutions are fragile and the Army's lack of effective control, the dissident movement continues to rob the population in broad daylight, to move about without issue, to forcibly recruit young fighters, to recover old fighters and reinforce its control on the residents. All this under the indifferent eye of the police and the army who consider the situation stable as long as there are no armed confrontations.
Security and the government's effective presence are at stake and we can already see that the armed forces are likely to reach their limit. If their numbers are not enough to stabilize a region such as La Macarena, how will they deal with similar situations that are happening in all four corners of Colombia? Despite the peace agreement, La Macarena and other regions in the country are finding themselves today in a situation where all the conditions are met for a rekindling of large scale conflicts between the Army and dissident groups that were strengthened during the pandemic. There is still a sort of fragile peace, but it can break at any moment.
José Darío Rodríguez Cuadros is a Jesuit and holds a Ph.D in Political Science (EHESS). He is also a researcher, Director of the journal Cien Días at CINEP – Bogotá and Professor at Javeriana University (Cali).