Overshadowed by a slew of global crises is the remarkable news of an imminent peace accord between the Colombian government and the Marxist guerrillas known as the FARC. The negotiations in Havana promise to formally end a half-century-long internal war that has displaced more than six million Colombians and killed a quarter of a million. The negotiations, however, have missed their much-anticipated March 23 deadline. Negotiators have reached partial agreements on four of the five pillars of the accord: agrarian reform, reparations for the war’s victims, illicit drugs, and guerrilla participation in politics. In dozens of round of negotiations, the two sides are now addressing the final steps of a formal ceasefire and the demobilization of the FARC (short for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia).The smart money says that Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and his FARCista counterpart, Rodrigo Londoño (aka Timochenko), are in line for the Nobel Peace Prize—something not many would have said only a few years ago, given that the two men had marked each other for death. In fact, when he was Defense Minister to his hawkish rightist predecessor Álvaro Uribe, Santos unleashed a ferocious (and U.S.-backed) “bombs on foreheads” campaign that wiped out almost of all of Timochenko’s “Secretariat” comrades cloistered in their once impenetrable jungle lairs.During our research visit to Colombia in early January, we met with various government ministries in Bogotá working frenetically, even during Christmas and New Year’s, to iron out the details for implementing whatever final accords are agreed to in Cuba. But if you want to get a better sense of the many problems that will confront Colombia in its “post conflict” era, you have to leave the 21st-century capital behind and pay a visit the mid-sized yet vitally important city of Cúcuta, which sits on the Táchira River delineating the border with Venezuela.Almost a Venezuelan city due to its cross-border commercial and social ties, the sweltering Cúcuta is to smuggling what Detroit once was to automobiles—an especially dubious distinction given the country’s well-earned reputation for contraband. For years now, residents near the border have smuggled subsidized goods like baby food, diapers, gasoline, and rice out of Venezuela. All of this illicit traffic, from beef to gasoline, fuels a vicious cycle of corruption and organized crime. As the chief of the city’s tax and customs police told InSight Crime’s James Bargent, “In Cúcuta, people don’t see contraband as a crime, they see it as a way of life, a way of getting by, of doing business and generating employment.”In Venezuela, the depressed price of oil and the world’s highest inflation rate in 2015 (over 100 percent, with an estimated 720 percent this year) are driving the economic chaos. The politically popular subsidies, intended to relieve these conditions, have instead resulted in bare store shelves, long lines, and exorbitant prices for basic goods on the black market. These Venezuelan subsidies have also provided a windfall profit for the border smugglers, who put the age-old skill of arbitrage to work, buying low in Venezuela and selling high in Colombia after either officially crossing the border bridge or following mule trails and wading across the thirty-foot-wide river. Smugglers will even pay Venezuelan contacts several times the dirt cheap “retail” price for the products, sell them in Colombia for five times their original price, and still undercut legal businesses in Colombia. The Economist explains how it works:
Suppose you are driving a tanker of subsidized petrol. You can sell the cargo legally in Venezuela for $100, or drive across the border to Colombia and sell it for $20,000. The pitifully paid border police will be easy to square.
While lower-level smugglers participate in what local authorizes call the “smurfing” of small amounts of goods into Colombia up to twenty times in a day, a score of larger smuggling networks operates throughout the region. Police reckon that near Cúcuta alone there are at least 35 trails run by the smugglers’ men on motorbikes, called “moscas” (flies). Many of the smuggled goods are sold in Cúcuta but others end up in cities across the country.Unfortunately, FARC demobilization will exacerbate conditions along the border. Perhaps a quarter of the men and women who demobilize (30,000 paramilitary fighters did so in 2005 through a government program) will eventually return to illicit behavior, joining nascent criminal bands Colombians refer to as BACRIM (the Spanish acronym for “criminal bands”). Pablo Escobar’s days may be over, but the lucrative drug trade has not stopped, only splintered. Cocaine production and the crime that accompanies illicit crop production will be one of Colombia’s largest challenges after the signing of the peace accord. And combating the BACRIM in many ways is a more challenging proposition than fighting the FARC. Unlike the paramilitaries, the BACRIM do not usually wear military fatigues or espouse a political ideology; they cannot be convincingly pegged as a “terrorist group” to attract foreign aid. These shadowy groups often specialize in one element of trafficking and offer their services to the highest bidder—even to their erstwhile sworn enemies, the FARC. At the beginning of the paramilitary demobilization, there were roughly thirty BACRIM active across the country. Today perhaps a handful of BACRIM remain and represent formidable security threats.Making matters worse, local police suspect that Cúcuta’s largest cocaine kingpin, Victor Ramón Navarro Serrano, aka “Megateo,” chief of a group descended from the demobilized FARC, is also deeply enmeshed in the exploding contraband trade. Megateo might be importing contraband gasoline into Colombia for use in cocaine processing. He is also paid for his cocaine shipments in Venezuelan contraband, allowing him to speedily launder the (usually U.S. dollar-denominated) drug profits by turning them into untraceable Colombian pesos.This link between Venezuelan subsidies, smuggling, and the arrival of the violent BACRIM is the context behind the dramatic events that unfolded last August when Venezuela’s President Maduro precipitated an international crisis by declaring a state of emergency, cracking down on Colombians living near the border in Venezuela, and closing the border. Maduro justified the crackdown as a necessary response to an incident involving Colombian paramilitaries allegedly shooting at Venezuelan police officers. News of the attack resonated especially in Venezuela, given that Caracas was increasingly blaming the rampant crime and shortages on the five million Colombians believed to be living in Venezuela, many of whom were refugees from the violence that once racked their homeland.Over the ensuing days and weeks, 2,000 Colombians were forcibly repatriated, and more than 18,000 Colombians fled “voluntarily.” For many, this deportation marked the second or third time they have been forced to leave their homes. During our trip to Cúcuta, we met with individuals who described how Venezuelan national guard troops scoured neighborhoods and marked their houses with a “D” for “destroy.” (Colombia’s President Santos called this a “Nazi ghetto tactic.”) Former President Uribe, still a popular figure in Colombia, traveled to Cúcuta in the midst of the crisis to express “solidarity with those mistreated by the [Venezuelan] dictator.”In the scramble to return to Colombia, scores of minors wound up separated from their families across the border. As the UN’s humanitarian coordinator in Bogotá, Fabrizio Hochschild, said of the deported Colombians, “They’re not officially deported. But according to many of them, soldiers showed up at their door saying, ‘You have to leave.’” With the official crossings closed and the makeshift pedestrian bridges destroyed in the security campaign, migrants into Colombian forded the Táchira river carrying mattresses, televisions, and kitchen appliances on their backs. A weeping sixty-year-old Virgelida Serrano lamented, “People are carrying everything they can…. We’re going to Colombia to see what help the government gives us.” Local Colombian agencies struggled to deal with the sudden influx of refugees.The Colombian government provided the refugees rent assistance for three months, but for many this was not enough to rebuild their lives. Corruption has also taken a toll on the efforts to help the refugees. On the ground a few days after this rent assistance ended, our team visited a local NGO to meet with a few refugee women. When we were alone with them, the women told us that the NGO had never supported them as the NGO had claimed. And many top government officials in Cúcuta are rumored to have ties with BACRIM. Complicating matters further, the Venezuelan National Guard has been accused of giving BARCRIM logistical and security aid in cross-border drug operations.Some observers didn’t buy Maduro’s explanation that an insidious Colombian paramilitary smuggling threat forced his actions. Venezuelan economist Luis Viloria told the Wall Street Journal that the heavily regulated and depressed economy, which contracted by 7 percent that year, was the real reason for his actions. “Here there is a problem of shortages, but it’s not because of smuggling, it’s because Venezuela no longer produces anything.” Not to be outdone, Maduro’s government took out a defensive full-page ad in the New York Times “The Truth About the Venezuela-Colombia Border Situation.” Yet even the New York Times editorial page wasn’t buying Maduro’s line:
There was, in fact, no crisis requiring these extraordinary measures along the border, where Colombians and Venezuelans have coexisted amicably through good times and bad. The whole thing was phony, a crisis manufactured by an increasingly unpopular president who is desperate to shore up support for his party ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for December.
Caracas immediately retorted that the Times’ assessment was a “grotesque” defense of “the Colombian oligarchy, a historic enemy of Venezuela.”Strolling by a once busy marketplace that has become a virtual ghost town since the August 2015 closing, we stood in the middle of bridge traversing the river into Venezuela. Despite the closure, we witnessed a steady of trickle of foot traffic to and fro; President Maduro’s proclamations notwithstanding, closed evidently does not mean closed. In a surreal moment, an ambulance pulled up to the checkpoint and unloaded a wheelchair bound woman who was waved through by Venezuelan authorities before being picked up by an ambulance on the other side of the border. When we asked another young Venezuelan why he attempting to pass through the dilatory border check instead of simply wading across the river, he pointed both above and below the bridge and uttered one word: BACRIM. As a Colombian customs officials explained, “The business is so lucrative that the bands are fighting over both smuggling and drug trafficking routes.” Indeed, both the principal BACRIM groups in the region, the colorfully named Urabeños and Rastrojos, operate on both sides of the border.While the BACRIM are an increasing threat to peace, the accord still must focus on closing a deal with the FARC. Critics of the peace deal contend that wide-ranging amnesty and pardons under international law for “political and connected crimes” will allow FARC to get off scot-free. FARC’s victims could even be forced to stand by and watch Timochenko, say, run for a seat in the national assembly. President Santos urged the FARC to “exchange bullets for votes,” yet polls suggest that eighty percent of Colombians do not want to see the FARC active in the political system they have spent the past fifty years trying to destroy. Clearly there is a disconnect: The Santos Administration is negotiating in Havana with what is purportedly a legitimate party, while millions of Colombians see the FARC as nothing more than a nefarious narco-terrorist outfit devoid of any of its original revolutionary ideology.The FARC’s deft public relations over the course of the talks have sought to portray the group as a noble band of misunderstood Robin Hoods sitting down to make peace with a Colombian oligarchy. Most Colombians see the FARC as having pulled a victory from the jaws of defeat. Recent images of FARC leaders frolicking at a Rolling Stones concert in Havana, as if they were on a Caribbean Spring Break, have added to the Colombian public’s anger. But the FARC has played its cards right, earning at least indirect endorsement from international figures ranging from the Pope to the President of the United States, who have eagerly backed the peace accord. One genial forty-something police officer who escorted us through a vulnerable slum on the outskirts of Cúcuta, where the families of reintegrated FARC guerrilla were living, expressed to us his firm belief that Timochenko was pulling the wool over Santos’s eyes. “I’ve seen these guys [the FARC] terrorize people for decades. And now they are going to be a political party? I’m going to have to salute them?”From the rough streets of Cúcuta to northern Bogota’s Milan-like chic districts, many critics fault President Santos for wanting peace more than the nation does, as well as for handing the country over to the FARC. It seems fair to say that the thousands of FARCistas who are not suspected of human rights abuses and will not be tried or punished will more than likely simply pick up their rifles and return to the revolutionary struggle. And thousands more guerrillas currently in prisons could regain their freedom once the accord is signed. While FARC’s numbers will be a far cry from their height of 20,000 a decade ago, they will still be large enough to allow it to play spoiler. That is, it won’t be able to threaten to topple Bogotá, but its sizeable illicit revenues (illegal gold now brings in more cash than coke) could allow it to continue to harass a nation already exhausted from a half century of internal conflict at war. Deepening pessimism is the collective bitter memory of the 1999 peace drive, when Bogotá granted the FARC an El Salvador-sized zone of control in southeastern Colombia that the guerrilla group then used to traffic drugs and grow its forces before unleashing a massive military campaign.One thing Santos’ ambitious peace plan has going for it is that the Colombian government already has years of experience in successfully demobilizing more than 40,000 former guerrilla and paramilitary fighters. There are only 8,000 actual FARC fighters left, but senior Colombian officials in Bogotá told us that each FARC solider has effectively five other “civilian” supporters (for example, logistics experts, urban militias, and family members) who will also need to be reintegrated. At the Cucúta reintegration center, we spoke with one demobilized fighter who had spent more than a decade as a FARC intelligence officer deployed across the entire country. His sense was that the FARC most involved in trafficking drugs would continue in the illicit trade even if they no longer looked like guerrillas. There are already rumors that certain FARC commanders have stockpiled weapons despite Londoño’s agreement with Santos on disarmament and recent unauthorized FARC political rallies with armed men may demonstrate that the FARC may not be ready to lay down their guns just yet.In designing the accord, the Colombians have wisely used as a model the El Salvador peace process, which ended that country’s civil war and transformed the main guerrilla group, the FMLM into a political party. (Ironically, even in the otherwise successful Salvadoran case, the FMLN stockpiled massive amounts of weapons.) Santos’ vision, as in El Salvador, is for the FARC to assemble its fighters into a number of temporary concentrated zones (explicitly not inside any of Colombia’s 1,100 municipalities) supervised by the UN and hemispheric bodies once the final deal is inked; from here the fighters would be gradually transitioned into civilian life.Colombia is a country of paradoxes. It boasts an impressive array of public intellectuals, politicians, and entrepreneurs, but it also seems preternaturally predisposed to resolving social and political differences through violence. The peace accord expected to come out of Havana soon represents a monumental development in the country’s tumultuous history. Even if Santos has a case of Oslo fever, that doesn’t discount the significance of having the FARC put aside their revolution. Colombians, especially the young, desperately want peace; their concern is about the price for peace. There is a growing sense that the Constitutional Court will strike down the national plebiscite accord that Santos had long cast as a way to ensure Colombian people to have the final say on the accord. It might also be that the court’s rejection is exactly what Santos privately wants given the possibility that a majority of frustrated citizens just might vote no.The accord will be a bitter pill to swallow, and it’s impossible for us gringo observers to conclude that it is in Colombians’ best interests to support it. Yet the legalistic Colombians take their agreements very seriously, and there are numerous procedures in place to help ensure that the worst of the worst FARC command will face more punitive measures. It is, however, unlikely that the scourges plaguing far-flung places like Cúcuta will be considerably better in a post-peace Colombia. In fact, most keen observers believe Colombia will likely become more violent in the immediate aftermath of an accord; for this very reason the Obama Administration’s request to Congress for $450 million to support the peace process is especially prudent and welcome. The Foundation for Peace and Reconciliation (PARES) has recently named 88 municipalities that will be at “extreme risk” for violence after FARC demobilization. Many fear the creation of power vacuums that the drug cartels will rush to fill. With insatiable U.S. and European demand for cocaine, Venezuela’s unfolding social and political tragedy, and the BACRIM’s formidable drug and smuggling networks all set to survive well into the future, Colombia’s gritty corners will likely remain gritty no matter what the two sides agree to in Havana. Just don’t expect Santos or Timochenko to mention this in their joint remarks in Oslo.