Senior U.S. officials fear that the Colombian government is losing control of the landmark peace process initiated last year with leftist FARC rebels, with questions of whether the rebels are honoring promises to disarm while their illicit drug trade grows.
According to the agreement negotiated between Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC leader Ivan Marquez in November, the guerrillas were supposed to disarm in six months and work jointly with the Colombian government to eradicate coca crops that are the base product for cocaine, their main source of revenue.
Three months into the agreement’s implementation, the guerrillas have surrendered what critics say is a token number of weapons while the production of coca has skyrocketed from 63,000 hectares in 2013 to 188,000 last year. Analysts attribute the rise to concessions that the FARC has obtained through the peace process.
“FARC continues to be one of the world’s largest drug-trafficking organizations and an organ of international terrorism,” U.S. Ambassador to Colombia Kevin Whittaker said after high-level discussions in Bogota last month between Colombian and U.S. anti-drug officials, who said that cutting off assistance is being considered as part of an overall 37 percent reduction in foreign aid.
President Obama backed the peace process by trying to delist the FARC as a terrorist group to facilitate an agreement. He earmarked $450 million for fiscal 2017 to underwrite the deal, and his secretary of state, John F. Kerry, publicly met with FARC leaders.
But Trump administration Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson jolted observers in both countries when he expressed ambivalence about the peace deal, which helped earn Mr. Santos a Nobel Peace Prize in December. In his Senate confirmation hearing, Mr. Tillerson said he wanted to review the details of the peace agreement and “determine the extent to which the United States should continue to support it.”
The State Department’s Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, in a March report, attributed Colombia’s “dramatic” increase in cocaine production to “reduced eradication operations in areas controlled by the FARC to lower the risk of armed conflict as the parties negotiated a final peace accord.”
The report also said that the FARC had urged growers to plant more coca “in the belief that the Colombian government’s post-peace accord investments and subsidies will focus on regions with the greatest quantity of coca.”
Colombian officials have told The Washington Times that they are confident that the FARC will collaborate with the government’s stated plans to eradicate 100,000 hectares of new coca next year because”they will understand that it’s in their best interest. They are not stupid.”
Analysts say that rival guerrilla groups and criminal gangs are filling the vacuum left in some coca growing regions by FARC units that are demobilizing to comply with the peace agreement.
Cutbacks in military spending have reduced the Colombian army’s ability to secure those areas, defense analysts say.
The skepticism in the U.S. is mirrored by still-powerful conservative parties inside Colombia. Alvaro Uribe, Mr. Santos’ predecessor as president, has emerged as a fierce critic of the peace agreement, leading the campaign that helped defeat the popular referendum on the deal in December. Less than two months later, however, Congress ratified a slightly revised version of the agreement.
Mr. Uribe and his supporters point to the surging coca production and the political immunity being offered to top FARC leaders as reasons to oppose the deal. With critical national elections set for next year, Mr. Uribe helped organize a huge “anti-corruption” rally in Bogota last week that many said was actually targeted at the peace deal.
Seeking the guns
The Colombian government says 7,000 FARC fighters are supposed to lay down their arms. Sixty percent of them have congregated at 23 “concentration zones” under the supervision of U.N. peacekeepers, according to official spokesmen. But there are serious doubts that the FARC intends to dismantle its arsenal.
Colombian defense officials say that fewer than 200 rifles have been surrendered so far and the FARC’s estimate of the number of weapons it plans to give up keeps changing. When demobilization began at the start of the year, the group announced that it would be handing in 14,000 rifles. Guerrilla leaders are now talking about relinquishing half that number.
Mr. Marquez, the FARC leader, said the size of group’s arsenal is a secret between his group and the United Nations.
Juan Carlos Pinzon, a former Colombian defense minister under Mr. Santos and now Bogota’s ambassador to Washington, told The Washington Times in an interview last week that he was not aware of any official estimate of the FARC’s firepower. Military intelligence sources calculate that the number of weapons is between 30,000 and 40,000, acquired during decades of arms deals financed with drug money that involved purchases of as many as 60,000 rifles at a time.
In 2013, the FARC bought over 15,000 rifles and machine guns from Russian arms dealers, according to the U.S. Southern Command, as well as 200 portable anti-aircraft missiles, 500 anti-tank rockets and 2 million rounds of ammunition.
The peace agreement allows the FARC to keep some of its weapons to arm a security force to protect its leaders. Some FARC leaders would be running for office, while others would be under provisional house arrest in rural areas that the group controls.
The rebel group is already refusing to allow government officials to enter areas designated as guerrilla “concentrations zones” in the peace accords.
The FARC’s protection network could also extend to rank-and-file guerrillas returning civilian life in urban areas, said Roman Ortiz, a Colombian security analyst. He raises the possibility that the FARC could turn into an armed political party.
“It’s a pretty dangerous when you legitimize a terror group with a lot of funding from crime and narcotrafficking and a lot of guns to join the political process,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart. The Florida Republican has called for an investigation to trace what could be billions of dollars in hidden FARC assets.
Roger Noriega, who served as assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs in the George W. Bush administration, also expresses doubts about the good faith of the guerrillas as the peace deal is implemented.
“FARC has a strategy to take power by combining violence with political participation and has significant resources from drug trafficking and other illegal activity to mount a serious far-left challenge,” said Mr. Noriega, now a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “The only way to salvage Colombia’s peace process is by repatriating their money to finance a government-backed integral development program.”
“We welcome them into democracy, but without resources from narcotrafficking, kidnapping and extortion,” Mr. Martinez said. The government has seized about $500 million in illicit assets, the attorney general said.
Investigators believe that a lot of the FARC’s money is being held outside of Colombia. A former CIA operative who specializes in asset recovery says the FARC laundered most of its drug money through Cuba, which hosted the peace negotiations and is a guarantor of the accord.
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