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7,000 FARC rebels are demobilizing in Colombia. But where do they go next?

- April 21, 2017
FARC guerrillas and civilians build barracks in the Transitional Standardization Zone in Pondores, La Guajira department, Colombia, on March 31. (Joaquin Sarmiento/ Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

It took four years of negotiations, a “no” vote on a referendum for peace and a final framework that ultimately passed Colombia’s Congress. In January, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels began to disarm and demobilize.

After 52 years of guerrilla fighting, the FARC concentrated its estimated 7,000 troops in 26 designated localities. The peace plan calls for this disarmament process to run for 180 days. Former FARC members then begin their reintegration into civilian life.

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But where will the former FARC guerrillas go? This matters.

My research on post-conflict environments reveals that most ex-combatants around the world go home. They generally return to their families to facilitate their reintegration and can then re-create civilian bonds that will rival their combatant ones.

Recruitment determines where “home” is

The geography of recruitment determines where former troops end up. Because some armed units operate close to home while others have been dispatched farther away from their recruits’ home areas, this policy of relocating home ends up keeping local units intact. Non-local fighting units end up weaker, though, as their members disperse away from the war zone.

This is an important distinction. Regions comprising locally based groups thus maintain a stable and peaceful balance of power. In contrast, regions where local groups neighbor nonlocal groups can more easily become unstable and see a return to organized violence and remilitarization. This is what happened with the demobilization of Colombia’s paramilitary groups in 2003-2006: Half of the units remilitarized.

The FARC may demobilize differently

The FARC may defy the trend of homeward-bound combatants, as many may stay in or near the disarmament areas. An estimated 20 percent of the guerrillas have no families to return to, having broken their ties to the outside and spent much of their lives within the FARC.

The vast majority of ex-combatants, however, will stay near the disarmament zones because this is the FARC’s plan. The FARC fears disappearing. It has ambitious political goals, which become impossible to achieve without its organization remaining intact. If its combatants disperse to their home towns, the FARC’s chances of competing politically at the national level would be jeopardized.

Accordingly, the FARC leadership was clever in negotiating the terms of reintegration of its combatants. Whereas some members of the government’s negotiating team sought individualized reintegration in localities of the ex-combatants’ choosing, the FARC managed also to negotiate the creation of ECOMUN, a FARC-run organization that will administer material assistance and economic projects for the ex-rebels collectively in their former strongholds. This increases the incentives for ex-combatants to stay put.

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This geographic clustering will help commanders keep tabs on their rank and file. Accordingly, the FARC’s command and control, social networks and organizational structure will be preserved, potentially along with other assets such as their financial systems.

Who gains from this reintegration plan?

The FARC stands to gain, but there are broader benefits as well. Here are three likely outcomes:

1) Preserving the FARC’s presence in these territories averts the creation of power vacuums there, which invite violence because other illegal nonstate actors (remilitarized paramilitaries, drug cartels, gangs and still-active National Liberation Army rebels) seek to lay claim to the FARC’s turf.

2) Keeping the FARC intact and in its strongholds will facilitate its reincarnation as a political party. The disarmament zones coincide not only with the places in which the FARC exercised wartime influence over the population, but also with the localities slated for a large influx of reconstruction investment — and the FARC may be able to claim political credit.

3) Ex-FARC combatants may benefit from the intact social networks to facilitate their reintegration into civilian life in these territories. The FARC may serve as a source of psychological support and employment for former combatants in these territories, for instance.

But there are also risks

A key risk is that preserving the FARC’s organizational structure also means it has the capacity to remilitarize. This could play out like the “independent republics” after Colombia’s La Violencia from 1946-1958. When targeted with state-building, former guerrillas in these republics remilitarized, leading to the birth of the FARC and 52 years of civil war.

Similarly, the paramilitaries’ demobilization a decade ago left local units able to remilitarize. They did so when they neighbored weakening non-local groups and faced a shift in the balance of power in their territory.

A second risk is how the FARC will relate to the civilian population. If it continues with its coercive and authoritarian style, the populations of these territories — ex-combatants and civilians alike — could end up living under persistent, militarized, nondemocratic politics. The experience of paramilitary politics in Colombia suggests that legacies of coercive politics erode only very slowly.

And there’s a third big risk: Wartime networks are also correlated with ex-combatant criminality, especially if the mid-ranking commanders, stripped by demobilization of their war incomes and status, engage in crime and pull their rank and file with them.

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It is also worth highlighting that only a few of the FARC’s wartime territories correspond with the disarmament zones. Where they do not, the FARC has left dangerous power vacuums. The state must immediately seek to fill these vacuums, deploying military force and police, but also social development programs, legal frameworks and infrastructure programs.

In the past, the state has proven incapable of filling such vacuums. Its commitment and resources this time around suggest now may be different. However, the state currently plans to equally prioritize all zones affected by the armed conflict, rather than focusing specifically on the places in which the FARC is weakening or disappearing and where vacuums are emerging. The state may find it difficult to build up governing capacity quickly enough and will thereby leave opportunities for further outbreaks of violence.

What is the outlook for the FARC’s reintegration, in light of these risks and benefits? To avert remilitarization, my past research has shown that it is necessary to either break up all armed units equally and immediately state-build in the territories or keep them intact equally to preserve the power balances among groups.

By preserving many FARC units, the current strategy has potential to avoid a return to organized violence. At the same time, Colombia’s government also faces significant new challenges, including filling power vacuums, reining in mid-ranking commanders and mitigating coercive politics.

Sarah Zukerman Daly is assistant professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, where she researches political, criminal and ethnic violence and postwar politics. Her first book, “Organized Violence After Civil War: The Geography of Recruitment in Latin America,” was recently published by Cambridge University Press.