The Margins at the Centre of the FARC’s Future

by Annette Idler

Many analysts are optimistic that peace will be signed in Colombia still this year. Nevertheless, uncertainty prevails regarding the FARC's future. Ivan Briscoe's and Timo Peeters' reflection on various post-conflict scenarios is therefore a welcome contribution. Pointing the FARC's role as spoilers to Colombia's mining sector in the midst of the peace process, the authors present two post-conflict scenarios: a demobilised FARC as political party and the fragmentation of the rebels into greedy drug traffickers. Briscoe and Peeters are critical about these scenarios, suggesting that the FARC might become social bandits instead.

They are right in cautioning about dichotomised scenarios. Yet, while the concept of social banditry contributes towards a more nuanced understanding of the rebels' embedment in Colombia's socio-economic context, it is silent on two points critical for the FARC's future: first, the shadow citizenship that they have established, and second, the regional dimension.

First, in many Colombian borderlands characterised by weak state governance, the FARC do not flaunt authority like social bandits, they are the authority. Arguably, they have won the communities' respect by filling the state's governance void. In 2012, during one of my fieldwork trips to Putumayo, a farmer described to me his life in the 1990s when the FARC was the sole authority: “At least we had our land, our farm and they helped us feed our families”. Indeed, the FARC have helped building health centres, roads, and have provided “justice”, although in highly questionable ways. I thus agree with Briscoe and Peeters that some ex-FARC members are likely to persist as local caudillos. Nonetheless, their authority in certain areas suggests that their leadership will go beyond social banditry to facilitating “shadow citizenship”, the provision of goods and services based on undemocratic means in return for social recognition.

The FARC's continued illicit authority has consequences for the mining sector that go beyond oil pipeline robberies cited by the authors. They not only spoil the extractive industry, they also control it through levying taxes. Certainly, attacks against the extractive industry constitute an effective means of demonstrating strength during the peace talks. Yet once the deal is brokered, the FARC remnants won't need to flex muscles anymore and can concentrate on reaping economic benefits instead. Therefore, the less visible, yet more pervasive challenge for the Colombian government than curbing oil thefts is to ensure that the revenues of the extractive industry will enter the legal rather than illegal post-conflict economy. This is crucial if Colombia's mining locomotive is to pull the country further towards economic growth.

Success will depend on Bogotá's approach to the “shadow governors”. The shadow citizenship in marginalised regions is likely to persist, even if the individuals who exert it get rid of the “FARC-label”. Therefore, Bogotá will have to transform their influence on local politics and social life into inclusive local governance based on democratic principles and the respect of human rights.

From this follows the second point, the regional dimension. The authors' focus on Colombia's margins is laudable because, as they assert, previous security policies have pushed the FARC to the periphery. However, these dynamics do not end at the borderline. FARC ex-members who prefer to not form part of the post-conflict project will simply cross Colombia's borders to the neighbouring countries.

Precedence of the FARC's cross-border movement abound. When Colombia tightened cocaine interdiction measures in Arauca almost a decade ago, the landing strips were moved to Venezuela. In July 2012 the New York Times reported that 121 tracks of illicit drug flights had their starting point in Venezuelan Apure.* Coexisting with the ELN and the Venezuelan Bolivarian Liberation Front in Apure, the FARC get a considerable piece of the drug revenue cake. Similarly, the FARC (and other armed actors) have crossed the Colombian-Ecuadorian borderline to pursue their interests. They have shifted mobile cocaine laboratories from Putumayo to Sucumbíos to evade detection. Furthermore, in Ecuadorian Esmeraldas, the FARC have been charging taxes on illegal mining. A humanitarian worker in Esmeraldas told me the Ecuadorian military responded by blowing up excavators, but the business continues as usual.

A peace agreement is also likely to impact non-Colombian border economies, for example in Ecuadorian Carchi, where residents legally sell provisions to Colombians, supposedly including FARC members in plain clothes. Similarly, as I was told in Machiques in Venezuelan Zulia, there is one small Venezuelan border village which piques itself on selling more beer cans than any other Venezuelan village. Devoid of alternative economic opportunities, these people will have an interest in continuing their sales which might aid FARC remnants gain ground on neighbouring territory. Thus, bilateral cooperation between Colombia and its neighbours to foster economic development will be key to mitigate the “migration” of FARC residuals across the border.

In conclusion, instead of supporting one specific scenario, I suggest enriching them by focusing on challenges that are likely to intensify in either of these scenarios: shadow citizenship established in Colombia's margins and, related to this, the cross-border dimension of the FARC's illegal economic activities. Colombia's extractive industry epitomises these challenges. The FARC remnants will probably continue to use their authority to control important parts of this sector even without the FARC-label. They have crossed the border, and will to do so in the future, to increase control over this income source. Coltan recently discovered in Venezuela, and titanium found in Ecuador, only add fuel to this explosive mixture. Hence, the costs of peace might not be paid by the Colombians alone.

Ultimately, post-conflict policies must engage with demobilised FARC members in local governance, especially in peripheral areas. The attention that Briscoe and Peeters have brought to Colombia's borderlands, where the FARC's authority is most entrenched, is an important step towards this goal. Now we also have to look beyond Colombia's rim cup and invite its neighbours to participate in the peace building endeavour. This is imperative for durable peace, no matter which scenario will come true.


* William Neuman, “Venezuela Is Cocaine Hub Despite Its Claims,” The New York Times, July 26, 2012,

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This essay is part of the sixth DAG-3QD Peace and Justice Symposium. See other entries and details, and leave comments here.