By Dialogo November 15, 2012 BOGOTÁ — Colombia’s largest rebel group is set to begin face-to-face peace talks with government negotiators in Cuba on Nov. 19 — a first step in getting the 8,000-strong Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to demobilize. The government of President Juan Manuel Santos hopes other guerrilla groups can be drawn into peaceful negotiations as well. A tragic reminder came on Oct. 24, when a teenager tossed a grenade into the cafeteria of a supermarket in the northern Colombian city of Santa Marta. The explosion killed three people, including a 6-year-old girl, and injured 44. Authorities claim it was the work of the Urabeños, a drug-trafficking gang comprised of former paramilitary fighters who once battled the FARC. The Urabeños and other criminal groups also earn millions by extorting Colombian businesses. Santa Marta Mayor Carlos Caicedo said the owner of the supermarket where the Oct. 24 attack took place was likely targeted for refusing to come through with an extortion payment. “If the FARC demobilizes and the government fails to regain control over former rebel zones, the Urabeños could quickly take over their territory,” said León Valencia, a former member of the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, or ELN). The ELN, which like the FARC was founded in the early 1960s, has perhaps 3,000 fighters, according to the Colombian liaison officer at the United States Southern Command, Army Colonel Jorge H. Romero. The ELN is in preliminary talks with the government about joining the Havana negotiations, but for now its foot soldiers continue on the warpath. León Valencia, who now directs Bogotá’s Nuevo Arco Iris think tank, pointed out that he and other rebels — who had formed a dissident ELN faction — agreed to lay down their weapons in the 1980s. Soon afterwards, he said, the FARC and paramilitary groups occupied their Montes de María stronghold in the mountains of northern Colombia. Similarly, when Colombia’s paramilitary groups demobilized in the mid-2000s, areas they once dominated were taken over by the FARC and criminal gangs like the Urabeños. “The history of past negotiations is that territory abandoned by rebels or paramilitaries has been occupied by other armed actors,” Valencia said. “Rather than reducing the violence, the war expanded.” Lessons from Central America? A similar scenario has played out in Central America. Following the civil wars of the 1980s that turned rural areas into killing fields, political violence gave way to criminal mayhem as drug trafficking gangs — including some demobilized guerrillas — swept into the slums of Guatemala City, Tegucigalpa, San Salvador and other major cities. Today, the region is home to some 900 street gangs, or maras, with 70,000 members, according to a recent report by the International Narcotics Control Board. The resulting drug-related violence has given El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras some of the world’s highest homicide rates, said INCB. Valencia suggested that if peace talks with both rebel groups move forward, the government should consider allowing demobilized FARC and ELN fighters to join local police forces in areas where they once operated, in order to prevent new armed groups from moving into these zones. Colombian Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón recently estimated that the FARC earns between $2.4 billion and $3.5 billion annually in drug profits. Other estimates are much smaller — but even so, the lure of drug profits might convince some FARC fronts and mid-level commanders to remain in the jungle. The issue of drug trafficking is one of five points on the negotiating table in Havana. But the FARC is involved in many other criminal activities, including illegal gold mining. A recent investigation by Medellín’s El Colombiano newspaper found that FARC rebels in surrounding Antioquía department charge between $1,600 and $2,750 for each piece of heavy equipment that miners bring into areas under guerrilla control. The rebels also levy taxes on gasoline brought into these regions and demand a 10 percent cut of all mining profits, the newspaper reported. Authorities hope fighters will lay down their weapons “Despite their roots in Marxist rhetoric of class struggle and popular uprising, the political cohesiveness of the FARC has become eroded due to its involvement in criminal activities like drug trafficking,” said a recent analysis by Insight Crime, a Bogotá think tank that tracks crime in Latin America. “The FARC’s political integrity is also believed to have been affected by the loss of several members of its leading Secretariat, many of whom, like Alfonso Cano, were considered ideological heavyweights.” Other analysts insist that the FARC remains a hierarchical military organization and that if orders come from the top to demobilize, the vast majority of the group’s rank-and-file members will lay down their weapons. Álvaro Jiménez, who heads a Colombian organization that lobbies against the use of landmines, claims the FARC leadership has a strong interest in making sure all its units disarm — both for historic reasons and for gaining credibility among the public as the organization attempts to transform itself into a legal political party. Yet if few programs are in place to help demobilized fighters transition to civilian life, many of them could end up being recruited into the Urabeños and other criminal gangs. Bogotá political analyst Ariel Ávila estimated that between the FARC and the ELN, some 30,000 rebels could end up demobilizing under a peace treaty. As a result, he said, “the successful reinsertion of former combatants into civilian life is a huge issue.” Some say there are 30,000, others say 10,000, whatever the number, they are more numerous than any political party. Do not tell me that it is measured by the number of votes, because when they were about ti win with the UP, they were exterminated. On my part, and I have traveled throughout Colombia, I know that they are all around the country. I think they should take them seriously and stop playing with fire. they keep talking about peace negotiations with the farc TERRORISTS, the farc TERRORISTS claim that they are simply victims of the government… “VICTIMS”, how far will the CYNICISM of these individuals go? CEASE THE UNILATERAL FIRE, SAY THE TERRORISTS, BUT WHERE IS THAT CEASE FIRE? DON’T THINK WE ARE STUPID, ENOUGH OF THIS SHAM!