Colombia: FARC military members regroup in the face of state duplicity

Mothers of Soacha (MAFAPO) demonstration demanding justice for victims of 'false positive' killings

Thousands of FARC fighters who demobilised after the 2016 peace agreement have been forced to take up arms again. The aggressive and vindictive assaults on the FARC during the long and difficult negotiations, the constant attempts to demoralise and corner the revolutionary organisation, the subsequent bad faith shown by the government in the implementation of the peace agreement, and the continuous assassination campaign against ex-FARC members, created this situation. ALVARO MICHAELS reports.

The government itself has identified more than eight million victims of the 52 year civil war in the country of 48 million people. The vast majority are those forcibly displaced from their homes, but officially also includes 983,000 murders, 166,000 disappeared persons, 35,000 kidnappings, and 10,000 cases of torture. This massive and violent land clearance was directed and provoked by the ruling class and their US allies, who want, and have partially achieved, a huge seizure of the country’s natural resources, and corralled the rural population into the towns.

Soon after the peace deal was signed in 2016, the first ‘dissidents’ from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, appeared in southern Colombia.  Many took up arms again after their demobilised comrades were gunned down, or did so after threats were made by right wing death squads. 72 former guerrillas have been assassinated from November 2016 to September 2018. Paramilitaries continue to kill Afro-descendant, indigenous (e.g. 50% of Cauca province’s population) and other small plot owners and community leaders. The overall number of victims from November 2016 until May 2018 stood at over 400. At least 123 of those killings took place in the first six months of this year.

New FARC groups have spread rapidly across the country as ex-combatants, betrayed by the government’s failure to live up to its promises, return to the fight. Some in the new 36th Front gave up on the peace process when they arrived at their demobilisation zone to discover that the government hadn’t even started building the camp where they were supposed to live (see FRFI March 2017: In May 2018, there were 3,500 demobilised FARC members still left in these camps.  After the FARC entered United Nations-monitored camps to demobilise, the private army of the Gulf Clan, a cocaine cartel, occupied the northern region of the Colombian Andes. The government took no serious action.

In the northern Colombian Andes the FARC’s 18th Front is active. They have been involved in fierce combat with the Gulf Clan and other paramilitary groups fighting for control of producer areas. Before the peace deal, FARC kept them out. The reappearance of guerrillas has triggered a vicious reaction from the cocaine-traffickers who murder anyone suspected of helping FARC. The cocaine gangs objectively act as counter-revolutionary assassins.

Miguel Botache Santillana (known as Gentil Duarte) was one of the first commanders to travel to Cuba in 2012, actively participating in the round table discussions, but at the end of 2016 he dissented and withdrew from the peace process. He currently controls parts of southeast Colombia. Since 2010 he has been a ‘most wanted criminal’, now with a reward of $1.7m for information leading to his arrest. He was last seen in the capital of the department of Guaviare, meeting with farmers to explain how the guerrillas’ struggle would continue. About a third of the FARC’s members were women and this is reflected in the new recruits. An estimated 2,800 members of dissident FARC groups are now active across the country. 

FARC’s leadership has for many years sought a peaceful solution to the civil war which was originally prompted by the US in the early 1960’s, as an attack by the state upon the small peasantry and landless rural workers. FARC’s readiness to pursue a peace deal assumed continued full support from the UN and European governments, which had urged the Colombian government to come to an agreement. The Colombian government was boosted on its side by US President Clinton’s massive military support, purporting to be a war against drugs. Fidel Castro supported this negotiation and Havana became the seat of negotiations, although Fidel firmly warned that FARC should not give up its arms in the process. In the event, FARC members were not integrated into the Colombian armed forces or police. The years of intense media campaigns against the FARC and the short period of legality before the last elections, saw the legal FARC political representation (Revolutionary Alternative Common Force) sidelined by voters.

The new extrajudicial court

Essential to the peace agreement is the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), which began work in March 2018. It is part of the Comprehensive System for Truth, Justice, Reparation, and Non-Repetition, which also includes a truth commission, a disappeared persons search unit and a verification body. In fact the JEP’s capacity will limit investigations to 1,000 of the many killings committed over 50 years.

Anyone who pleads guilty and confesses to crimes committed up to 1 December 2016 receives only light sentences. By July 2018 about 965 military had been released from prison and granted freedom in return for telling ‘the truth’. Another 134 were also released, but were ordered to stay within military or police barracks while their cases are heard. The new President, Ivan Duque, seeks stronger punishments by forging alliances in Congress and by making propaganda, so breaking the agreement. His party holds just 51 of 280 seats and will be obstructed by the social democrat Gustavo Petro’s alliance.

Some 7,000 FARC fighters demobilised last year. More than 4,600 have submitted statements to the JEP. On 13 July 2018, the FARC leaders Rodrigo Londono (alias Timochenko), Pablo Catatumbo, and Carlos Lozada appeared before it.  The other 31 FARC commanders summoned to the hearing did not attend and were represented by their lawyers. A fourth FARC leader, Jesus Santrich, joined via video conference from prison. His recent arrest provoked more middle ranks of the old FARC to abandon immediate hopes of real peace. On 16 July Ivan Marquez (Luciano Marin) who had abandoned Bogota, refused to take his seat in the Senate in protest against the arrest of Santrich on 9 April and changes to the peace accord that betrayed it. Marquez’s whereabouts is unknown. Henry Castellanos, another old FARC leader, sent his bodyguards home in August. His location is unknown. Both helped negotiate the peace deal with the government in 2016, and neither attended the legal political party FARC’s annual conference this August.  FARC member Israel Zuniga (Benkos Bioho) took Marquez’s senate seat instead.

The Mothers of Soacha (MAFAPO), formed in 2008 by the families in Bogota of victims of the army’s thousands of ‘false-positive’ killings – killing young workers and dressing them as FARC guerrillas - want the JEP to uncover the ‘greater truth’ behind the killings. Who ordered these crimes? The worst state abuses took place under ex-president Uribe. Retired general Mario Montoya is under investigation for his alleged role in 44 extrajudicial killings as commander of the 4th Brigade troops. He served as top commander at the height of this terror from 2006 to 2008. Last year, the International Criminal Court identified 23 generals and six active and retired colonels, including the current top commander of the Army, whose cases it could take up if the ordinary justice system and the JEP are incapable of serving justice. After Duque’s inauguration, his Senate allies, led by Uribe, voted to form a separate tribunal for security force crimes - where some argue they could receive even more lenient sentences than under the JEP terms - and delay investigations into the military by 18 months. The Revolutionary Alternative Common Force party leaders have asked the Constitutional Court to rule this as unconstitutional and a violation of the agreement. The peace process is in jeopardy.