October 7, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: FARC and the Implications of the Peace Deal

• On October 2, a national referendum in Colombia rejected a bilateral peace-agreement between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

• While there were widely shared incentives for peace, the cost of legitimizing the decision via referendum required more punitive conditions for the FARC in order to bring about a national consensus.

• Due to its centrality to a variety of security concerns—including control of over 60% of the cocaine trafficking to the U.S.—the FARC is a matter of concern beyond Colombia.

• The prospect of disarmament will not dispel the grievances of 50 years of insurgency, just as removing the FARC will not eliminate the long-term threat of narco-trafficking in Colombia.


On October 2, Colombian citizens voted by referendum not to pursue a bilateral peace deal between the Colombian Government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The failure of the peace deal is unlikely to result in a return to violence in the short-term, as both sides have extended the current ceasefire until at least the end of October. The divisiveness of the issue in Colombia is matched by its international importance. A 2009 U.S. Government report claimed that the FARC controls at least 60% of illicit cocaine trafficking to the U.S. The FARC’s designation as an international terrorist organization—and the fact that it has waged the longest-running insurgency in the Western Hemisphere—suggest several global security implications hinge on an eventual resolution accepted by the Colombian public. 

The narrow decision to block the peace deal points to the enormous costs paid by Colombians in the five-decade conflict that has killed around 220,000 people. Integrating the FARC into the political system without exacting harsh punishments for past violence is a deeply divisive issue. While there may be no military incentive for either side to continue fighting, the Colombian public has proven unwilling to accept the FARC’s conditions for disarmament. 

However, negotiations with the FARC are a positive step towards peace. After decades of violence and failed peace talks, the most recent deal brought the FARC closer to disarmament than ever before. The success of a future referendum will come at the cost of more concessions from the FARC, in order for those most affected by the conflict to buy into its resolution. Nonetheless, as the current ceasefire holds and negotiations continue, the domestic security situation has improved dramatically over the last four years. 

For the U.S., the FARC exists at a dangerous nexus of a variety of different security objectives. First, the U.S. has long sought to counter anti-American sentiments in Latin America dating back to the Cold War, of which the FARC is one of the largest remaining movements. Second, interrupting the flow of illegal narcotics into the U.S. from Colombia remains a high priority. Finally, with alleged links to foreign terror groups including al-Qaeda and Hizballah, there is the risk posed by FARC’s place in the international web of terrorism. While the FARC’s relationships abroad have centered on narco-trafficking rather than directing attacks against the U.S., there remains some threat from their position as a conduit for other terror groups into Latin America.

One further implication of the FARC’s disarmament is the potential security vacuum it would open in large parts of the country, including control of the trafficking networks. U.S.-trained Colombian forces have increased operations against trafficking networks and criminal gangs in order to prevent them from filling the security void which the FARC would leave behind in rural areas. Revenue from narcotics trafficking remains a major source of income for terror groups. Though the U.S.-supported military campaign against the FARC has succeeded in driving the group to the negotiating table, unless the local factors that facilitated the group’s rise are addressed, there remains a risk that control of the drug-trade would simply shift to another actor.

The outcome of the October 2 referendum demonstrates the challenge inherent to resolving a conflict with a myriad of domestic and international dimensions. Nonetheless, the peace process in Colombia remains a hopeful example that a solution is attainable in the long-run; the incentives for peace are in place, even if the public remains wary or unsatisfied with the current deal. The grievances wrought by civil conflict endure beyond the issuance of a ceasefire or even the laying down of arms; the scars of war will remain in Colombia for years to come, as will the international security implications stemming from over five decades of civil war.


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