Expert Commentary

Colombia Struggles to Fill Power Vacuum

Sergio Guzmán
Colombia Analyst, Control Risks

The stability of Colombia has improved significantly over the past year, according to the Fund for Peace’s 2017 Fragile States Index, which measures 12 social, political, and economic indicators to determine a country’s vulnerability. Colombia’s progress is due largely to the peace agreement the government reached with the armed FARC insurgency group and comes on the heels of a trend of improved governance. But is this improvement all it seems? And where are the remaining pressure points in the coastal South American country? The Cipher Brief’s Kaitlin Lavinder asked these questions to Sergio Guzmán, Colombia analyst at Control Risks based in the Colombian capital Bogotá, who says the main sources of violence in Colombia remain.

The Cipher Brief: Do you think that the assessment from the Fragile States Index, that Colombia is on an improving trend of stability, is accurate?

Sergio Guzmán: The trend is accurate. The issue is whether or not this is a perception gain or a real gain on the security conditions on the ground. You must keep in mind that the FARC declared a ceasefire in 2015. Since then, there’s been marked reductions in the level of politically motivated violence in the country. Why wasn’t the index updated to reflect this in 2015? Maybe because they were expecting or believing that the situation was quite fragile and prone to change.

What we see now, and the reason why the index might have changed so drastically this year, is after the FARC gave their weapons over to the United Nations, a return to status bellum, a return to conflict, is highly improbable. Many analysts are looking at the same thing and saying, this is an improvement in the situation.

However, the issue is not so much FARC violence – because the truth is the FARC is not responsible for the majority of the security incidents in the country. Colombia still has the underlying causes of the conflicts: rural violence, poverty, lack of state presence, lack of infrastructure, illicit economies like illegal mining and drug trafficking. With those elements remaining present, a transformation of the sources of violence is likely. Whether the new sources of violence will be politically motivated is yet to be seen. But the elements for instability remain.

TCB: Is the Colombian government taking measures in each of those areas that you just mentioned to address those underlying instability issues? Also, you said a transformation of violence is likely if those issues persist. Can you expand upon that? Do you mean a transformation to another armed group like the ELN? Do you mean a formation of a new armed group? Or do you mean not an armed insurgency but some other kind of violence?

Guzmán: We’ve been seeing since 2006 that after the demobilization of the paramilitaries, there was a transformation of many of those groups who dropped their ideological component and became de-facto drug trafficking organizations – such as the Urabeños, the Rastrojos, the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, and other groups that profit from the sale of narcotics, the sale of illegal gold, extortion, and other forms of organized crime. So we’ve seen those emerge, and there’s nothing to suggest that after the FARC demobilized and effectively transferred from 100 and something municipalities that they operated in to the 27 where they are currently concentrated, that the state is going to be able to fill those power vacuums with efficient speed to deter any other organization from taking hold. That’s the critical issue.

To address your first question, yes, the state has quite an ambitious program to address the infrastructure needs, poverty needs, developmental needs that should be a natural follow up to conflict. However, the question is if the state can enter those vacuums of power with all the institutions it needs in sufficient time, so as to be a deterrent for young men to enter armed groups.

If you look at, for instance, Joshua Mitrotti Ventura, who is the director of the Colombian agency for reintegration, he said that 80 percent of the people who demobilized from these illegal organizations were new recruits. What that means is that we’re now looking at a scenario where there’s going to be a transfer of forces of disgruntled FARC members or disgruntled ELN members into new groups. These groups are going to take advantage of the statelessness, poverty, needs of local citizens, to recruit from those ranks. That’s what makes a state development program so absolutely imperative.

TCB: How is the situation in Venezuela playing into Colombia’s stability, with the wave of migrants now crossing over into Colombia?

Guzmán: You need to look at Venezuela not as something that happened between the last two or three months, but something that’s been happening for awhile now. What we see is that migration from Venezuela into Colombia and into other countries started 10 or 15 years ago. There’s an uptick, especially in border areas, where they’re going to overwhelm the state capacity to respond to the needs of these economic migrants and political migrants who have not been officially labeled as refugees at this point. –Once they are labeled refugees, it forces the state to create an institutional architecture to deal with it, so they’re not being called refugees.

The fact that Venezuela might experience significant difficulties in the interim does mean that Colombia needs to pay special attention to our border areas; but the situation in Venezuela doesn’t risk Colombia’s stability as a whole.

TCB: I want to turn now to another neighbor, Brazil. In the Fragile States Index, Brazil is one of the most-worsened countries from 2016 to 2017. It is still ranked above Colombia in terms of overall stability, but it seems like there’s this convergent trend in which Brazil is worsening on this index, and Colombia is improving. Will the countries at some point even out so that they’ll both reach the same level of relative stability or instability?

Guzmán: The issues behind the two countries are not entirely related, but they’re not entirely unrelated. The issues of corruption with the investigations that have come to light in Brazil in the past year and a half are highly indicative of a regional trend affecting stability in many countries, particularly with regards to institutional corruption. We see that those problems are related in that sense, and we see the effects in Colombia, Peru, the Dominican Republic, Panama, and Ecuador, where even the vice president was recently removed of his official functions by decree.

So we do see there’s a regional component to stability, but we could never put Colombia and Brazil next to one another and make the determination that they’re going to even out at some point. Having said that, Brazil’s problems have their own internal dynamics and their own internal politics. Both countries have elections next year, so it’s going to be very interesting to see those results.

TCB: How much is this issue of corruption fueling the instability in Colombia? We talked a lot about armed groups, poverty, etc., but not a lot about governmental level corruption.

Guzmán: Last week they arrested a senator from the Colombian coast. He had been, perhaps, the most influential senator in obtaining the reelection of President Juan Manuel Santos. He is probably going to start revealing some very uncomfortable facts about the current administration, the coalition to which he belongs, which is going to erode Santos’s popularity going forward.

So Santos is finishing his mandate in an extremely weak position in part because of the dissatisfaction of the public with the implementation of the peace agreement, in part with the dissatisfaction of the public with the negotiation of the peace agreement, in part because of the virulent opposition that the government experienced, enhanced by the fact that these corruption scandals hit very close to home and are now entering an even more worrisome investigation phase. Definitely the fact that these investigations are ongoing is going to erode stability.

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The Author is Sergio Guzmán

Sergio Guzmán is Control Risks’ principal Colombia, Bolivia, and Suriname analyst. He provides business, security, and political risk analysis for the Andean Region and has particular experience in the Colombian Conflict, International Conflict Resolution, and Development. Before joining Control Risks, Guzmán was the Lead Specialist for Latin America and the Caribbean and Eastern Europe and Central Asia for Accion International, a global microfinance organization. He also worked at... Read More

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