Want to learn something about guerrillas and insurgency?

Keep an eye on the peace process between the FARC and the government in Colombia. A good starting point would be the recent interview that the FARC’s top negotiator, Pablo Catatumbo, gave María Jimena Duzán of Colombia’s Semana magazine (http://www.semana.com/nacion/articulo/habla-pablo-catatumbo/344345-3).

Catatumbo is one of the FARC’s old timers. It is the first time he comes “out of the bush” in, wait for this, 25 years… So he is an ok source. What do we learn from him?

First, we learn that version #1 of Paul Collier’s thesis (“greed explains insurgencies”) doesn’t quite work. Everybody knows that the FARC live in part off the taxes they collect on the cultivation of coca. Now, they could have “moved up the value chain” and captured a much larger share of the much more profitable “cristallization” business (which turns rough coca paste into the coke you get from your dealer), which they did not do on any significant scale. They clearly wanted something else, and the fact that they are now ready to say goodbye to it all, i.e. to both insurgency AND drug profits, shows that cocaine money was not the goal. Moreover, to go back to Catatumbo’s 40 years in the bush and 25 consecutive ones without getting out of it: if it is money you are after, once you get a good pile of it, you focus on comfort and life expectancy and stop the rough camping and running around with one of the world’s best counter-insurgency military force on your tail.

Second, we learn that “the guerrillas are tired.” [This expression, by the way, comes from the marvelous title that cynical French translators gave to the most widely read memoir from a Brazilian guerilla, Fernando Gabeira’s “O que é isso companheiro,” or “What’s is this comrade?” Gabeira has quite a cv: he was a journalist who joined the armed struggle, participated in the kidnapping of the US ambassador to Brazil, was caught, spent time in prison, was liberated thanks to another hostage-taking, spent time in exile in Germany, came back to Brazil, provoked a huge fuss by wearing a crochet string on Ipanema beach, was one of the founder and became the head of Brazil’s Green Party, ran for vice-president on Lula’s ticket in 1994 and lost, became a senator, and then left his seat with a brilliant speech in which he said that he had “dreamt the wrong dream.” His book about the kidnapping was made into a very neat movie, “Five Days in September,” that  you can get with English subtitles in North America. Both the book and the movie, by the way, are also great for learning about guerrillas and insurgencies…But let’s go back to “the guerrillas are tired.”]

Jimena Duzán asks Catatumbo if he wants to be elected to Congress if the whole thing works out. First, he says, if I had wanted to do that, I would be there already. Second, and more importantly, he states that: “… it would be unjust to the country if a war [it has been going on for 50 years in the case of the FARC] that has cost so much were to end without MINIMAL CHANGE TO THE SOCIAL CONDITIONS OF THE PEOPLE” [the emphasis is mine, jd]. The man, in other words, is not looking for much.

Along the same lines, she asks if, among the demands they are making, there is not the one to be spared prison time “after all the crimes that you have committed”? To which he answers that other demobilized guerrillas were offered more than what is on the table now, and that FARC members “were also victims.” Now, if you don’t read lassitude in all this, let me know.

Third, we learn that insurgencies are messy and costly personal affairs, not just romantic adventures or cynical schemes. Catatumbo’s sister was “disappeared” by the paramilitaries and he is clearly embarrassed by some of the “operations” of his own organization, particularly the famous massacres of the 11 Valle department parliamentarians and of the Turbay Cote family.

Fourth and last, we learn that even the best guerrilla negotiators can be more candid than they perhaps should. When speaking of his sister, he says that she “wasn’t even a leftist: she was just a normal young woman” (una muchacha normal) and then, speaking of himself and his colleagues, he evokes Che Guevara and says that “we revolutionaries… are a strange species” (unas especies raras).

So much for “the people in arms.”

Jean Daudelin


2 thoughts on “Want to learn something about guerrillas and insurgency?

  1. It’s inspiring to read an analysis of the conflict that doesn’t over-rely on the “narcoguerrilla” narrative when explaining the motivation of FARC high-level commanders.

    What concerns me is what happens after the peace negotiations are concluded. M-19 members were able to successfully shift gears and become political players. In the case of the FARC, there is deeply entrenched resentment in Colombian society that may manifest itself in retributive violence (against the disarmed FARC commanders). How committed is the Santos government to upholding the safety of demobilized guerillas?

    Lastly, given the possible links between mid-level FARC commanders and drug trafficking networks, how can the Colombian government prevent the formation of criminal drug trafficking/common delinquent groups (similar to the ex-paramilitary BACRIMs)?

    • All good points. Let me try to address them in order:

      – Resentment against the FARC: Yes, and with reason. But the degree to which Colombian society has been able to, litterally, forgive, is remarkable. Now, you don’t need many people to remain bitter for FARC commanders to be in danger. I think they will be, especially in regions where state guarantees mean little, and however committed Santos can be. Effective state control of the Colombian territory remains a work in progress.

      – The possibility that mid-level guerrillas would form criminal gangs or join existing ones is very real. It happened before and the money involved in the drug business continues to represent a massive incentive to engage in criminal activities. There are differences, however, between a large and integrated military organization with a social base in some parts of the country, like the FARC, and criminal gangs like the BACRIMS. One is political: gangs have little legitimacy and the state doesn’t have to talk to them. This matter when designing enforcement strategies, which can be blunter. The second one is symbolic but also practical: “peace” doesn’t mean no crime (think of Brazil, where 50,000 homicides –twice as many as Colombia’s– take place every year without anybody’s thinking that the country is at war…), but it means that the basic rules of the political process are accepted by all actors. For Colombia–notwithstanding the continuing activities of little ELN–this would be a first in at least 50 years.

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