With the FARC weakened, Colombia's next president will face a more factionalized internal insurgency, requiring a different strategic approach.
As candidates for the presidency of Colombia enter the final campaign stretch prior to the first round of elections on 30 May, the looming question of the future of President Alvaro Uribe's Democratic Security program remains a controversial topic.
The program, which involved an aggressive military campaign against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country’s oldest and largest insurgency, has been largely successful at weakening the group's ability to operate in many parts of Colombia.
However, in spite of the FARC's decreased influence and numbers - down to roughly 8,000 troops from 26,000 in 2002, according to Colombia's top general - the group is still operational, and is adopting a number of tactics to maintain its role as one of Colombia's most powerful drug trafficking organizations.
This can be seen in the group's willingness to form alliances with one-time enemies, former members of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). The AUC was formed largely to protect wealthy landowners from attacks from left-wing FARC guerrillas. Many AUC members reportedly demobilized during a peace process between 2003 and 2006.
However, a February report from Human Rights Watch shows that the demobilization process had some serious flaws, including imposters claiming to demobilize, the failure to hand in all arms as per the terms of the agreement with the Colombian government, and a lax process for confirming whether a demobilized paramilitaries stayed inactive.
The result has been the emergence of splinter groups (also called successor groups and emerging criminal groups) consisting of former AUC paramilitaries whose networks remain intact, but who now call themselves a number of different names, such as Los Rastrojos, Aguilas Negras, Nueva Generacion, Los Urabeños, Los Paisas, as well as a host of smaller cells with their own names and organization charts.
On 4 May, the head of the Organization of American States' (OAS) Mission in Colombia told local media that the FARC had formed alliances with some of these groups, confirming long-standing suspicions from intelligence and security experts in Colombia suggesting that the two groups have put aside what remains of their ideological differences to take part in the lucrative drug trade.
These alliances and non-aggression agreements are financially motivated, with each group attempting to stake its own claim in a large market formally filled by major drug cartels. The combined successes of the Democratic Security program and shortcomings of the demobilization process have helped facilitate these unexpected alliances. As long as there is a financial incentive for the groups to work together, they will continue to do so, leaving civilians in the regions most vulnerable to drug trafficking at the greatest risk of continued violence.
Yet the alliances are far from permanent. Although the FARC and former paramilitaries may differ from their ideological predecessors, the former rivals may harbor some of the same mistrust, further adding to the tenuous and temporary nature of these non-aggression pacts between the two groups, another potential threat to citizens in these areas.
Although Colombia has had success in diminishing the ranks of the FARC, many in Colombia face the same risks - extortion, money laundering, forced displacement and kidnapping - that existed even when the FARC was at its strongest. As long as there is a financial incentive to produce and transport narcotics, these risks will remain.
By Eliot Brockner