Colombia’s Armed Groups Battle for the Spoils of Peace

Executive Summary

The peace process with Colombia’s largest and longest standing guerrilla group has defied its detractors and brought 11,200 ex-combatants to the cusp of civilian life, but the aftermath of war has not been safe for all. Since the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) withdrew from their rural heartlands to gather in cantonments in early 2017, rival armed actors have taken their place, waging a battle for spoils: control of isolated communities and territories, many rich in illicit business. In the Pacific cocaine hub of Tumaco, in hamlets of Chocó, or in contraband zones on the Venezuelan border, established armed groups and new insurgent breakaway factions have attacked state forces, intimidated communities and vied to become undisputed local overlords. Grassroots security is crucial to assure the success of the peace process with the FARC as it shifts from a UN-monitored weapons handover to deeper structural reforms of politics and society. Efforts to combat remaining armed outfits are essential, but in so doing the government must not alienate the population and exacerbate poverty in ways that would aggravate the conditions that propel these groups’ growth.

Most of these armed factions now cluster in coastal and border areas. Around 1,000 FARC dissidents, who disown the peace deal for various reasons, are de facto rulers of disparate territories, several of them dependent on the drug trade. Colombia’s second main guerrilla force, the National Liberation Army (ELN), has brokered a temporary ceasefire with the government despite looking to conquer new territories, especially along the Pacific coast. The Gaitanista Self-defence Force, currently the largest neo-paramilitary group in the country, combines a vertical military hierarchy centred in the country’s north west with a web of subcontracted local gangs. It is now the country’s leading drug trafficking organisation.

Thriving illicit businesses – booming coca plantations, illegal gold mines, extortion rackets and contraband – account for the survival and expansion of many of these groups. But economic interests alone do not explain their support within some communities. By resolving disputes and defending illicit livelihoods from law enforcement, these groups have crafted a rudimentary, authoritarian form of local political leadership. The Colombian state has responded through a nationwide “Victory Plan”, deploying 80,000 soldiers and police officers to occupy vacated FARC territory. Yet even if security forces could seize all disputed territory, coercion alone cannot establish bonds of trust between the state and local citizens; instead, they need to be persuaded that there is a better alternative to the summary justice and social discipline meted out by illegal groups.

The next phase of reforms under the peace accord aims precisely at building such trust between state and citizenry. It includes a more plural democratic system, reintegration of ex-FARC fighters, justice for conflict victims and a coca substitution program. But its implementation faces myriad difficulties. Comprehensive reintegration plans are on hold. Voluntary coca substitution, one of the accord’s flagship programs, will require a long-term commitment from the state and far more international political and financial backing. Corruption debilitates the government’s campaign against armed groups, and must be countered by stronger and more independent agencies operating within and outside the military and police. Urgent consideration also should be given to the design of new judicial approaches that might encourage other armed groups to lay down their weapons and follow the FARC’s path to peace.

The initial accord’s defeat in a 2016 plebiscite demonstrated the public’s mistrust of the peace process, raising the risk that the 2018 elections could bring a government to power that is intent on rewriting or gutting the agreement. Implementation of the accord is threatened both by an opposition that believes it pandered to FARC guerrillas, and by armed factions that regard the deal either as a fraud or an opportunity to expand. The combination of local armed activity and divisive national politics could decisively weaken public support for the accord unless the results of the peace process defy expectations once again. For that to happen, the government must aim its sights at both local insecurity and the broader weaknesses of local governance that underpin it.


To improve the security situation in Colombia and wrest territorial control from other armed groups:

To the government of Colombia:

  1. Increase permanent presence of police and army in prioritised isolated hamlets, using the army as a stop-gap force in clearly identified areas that police cannot reach until later, but with specific timelines for handover to police.

  2. Increase navy control along key rivers and oceanic deltas, especially along the Pacific coast, creating a new “river force” in the region with members from the Infantry Marine shifted away from land forces.

  3. Strengthen local justice by both providing economic incentives to and improving training for conciliators, evaluating police mediation for possible future use in conflict-affected areas, and expanding systems of local justice.

  4. Continue crop substitution efforts, prioritising prompt payments and coordination with larger development efforts, especially the Territorial Development Plans (PDETs) for post-conflict rural areas.

  5. Allow members of organised armed groups and FARC dissidents to demobilise and take part in individual reintegration programs.

  6. Pass a law on judicial negotiations with organised armed groups that includes lowering sentences in exchange for the fulfilment of truth and reparations commitments, provision of information on illegal economies and handover of illegally obtained assets.

To the FARC:

  1. Continue efforts to bring dissident fronts back into the peace process, offering access to protection measures and inclusion in the reincorporation process while also providing information to the authorities regarding dissidents who reject these offers.

To the government and the FARC:

  1. Accelerate design and implementation of reincorporation projects for FARC fighters in cantonments, with differentiated gender, rank and ethnic approaches.

To the government and the ELN:

  1. Extend ceasefire agreement to last until after Congressional elections in March 2018.

To the international community:

  1. Continue funding key monitoring organisations such as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Organization of American States’ Mission to Support the Peace Process and humanitarian bodies; and explore avenues to fund coca substitution efforts.

To the UN mission:

  1. Improve coordination and information sharing among various state agencies charged with implementing security measures.

Bogotá/Brussels, 19 October 2017


The Colombian government is suffering the backlash of successfully ending decades of war with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). With the signing of the peace agreement in November 2016, FARC fighters moved to 26 cantonments and in June 2017 handed over their weapons. While this has improved security in some conflict-affected regions, it has allowed armed groups in others to fill the void created by the FARC’s withdrawal, seizing the opportunity to reap illicit revenues and assert local political authority. This makes implementing the peace accords even more challenging since their success depends on tangible improvements in security.

Colombia as a whole is experiencing its lowest homicide rates since the 1970s; in the areas most deeply affected by conflict, security conditions also improved during 2016. However, murder rates and forced displacement in these areas have risen again in 2017 (see Appendix D). Also, about 51 local social leaders were killed in the first half of the year, up from 26 during the same period in 2016. Dissident FARC groups have established territorial control in some areas and are seeking to do so in others. Despite ongoing peace talks, the country’s remaining guerrilla force, the National Liberation Army (ELN), has increased violent attacks in its historic th