Colombian Rebels Are More Racketeers Than Robin Hoods. But Voters Must Ratify Peace

Sep 28, 2016

COMMENTARY

I won’t deny it – the leftist guerrillas who signed peace with the Colombian government this week are more Mafia than Marx.

In 1998 I spent almost a week in Colombia’s southern Caquetá province with those rebels, the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces, or FARC. Back then the FARC was Caquetá’s de facto government, controlling territory the size of Switzerland. Photographer Keith Dannemiller and I boated up and down the sweltering Caguán River talking with guerrillas and hearing why they’d joined up.

Most had convincing and compelling reasons. Fat cat ranchers had driven their families off small farms. Or right-wing paramilitary armies had killed those families if they dared stand up for their rights. Such chronic abuses helped the FARC’s membership swell to 20,000 – and kept Colombia’s civil war raging for 52 years, with more than 200,000 people killed and more than 6 million displaced.

RELATED: Miami Colombians Divided Over Peace With a Guerrilla 'Mafia'

But as we listened to the pathos, we also saw the pathological. For example: guerrillas running mule caravans laden with coca leaves, cement mix and gasoline for making cocaine – from which the FARC has reaped hundreds of millions of dollars trafficking. That’s not Robin Hood; that’s Pablo Escobar.

And we knew that if we hadn’t spent months negotiating permission to enter Caquetá, the FARC would have kidnapped us for ransom – its other ultra-lucrative racket, one that’s devastated thousands of Colombian families.

Ratifying the peace accord is the only way to dry up the recruitment well that guerrilla armies in Colombia and across Latin America have drawn from ever since Christopher Columbus landed on the Spanish Main.

That’s the impossibly mixed picture Colombians will be staring at on Sunday when they vote on whether to ratify a peace accord that took four years to hammer out. The country – and large Colombian expat communities like Miami’s – are divided, largely because many believe the agreement deals too leniently with the FARC’s crimes.

Even if that’s true, this is still a peace process Colombians have to authorize. It’s the only way to dry up the recruitment well that guerrilla armies in Colombia and across Latin America have drawn from ever since Christopher Columbus landed on the Spanish Main. And that, in turn, is the only way to bring an end to the felonies of the FARC, a force that has been greatly diminished but can’t likely be entirely defeated.

Peace, in other words, is that project’s precondition. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and his successors can’t build a more socially equitable nation – right now it’s still South America’s most inequitable, a place where just 1 percent of the population holds most of the arable land – amidst a perpetual guerrilla conflict.

They can’t carry out epic land reform, modernize Colombia’s laughable infrastructure, build decent schools or deliver government services to rural areas that have never known them while this “mule in the middle of the road” (Santos’ term for the war) continues to sit there.

FROM FEUDAL TO FUTURE

Even without a civil war, getting Colombia’s elites to pivot from feudal to future could prove a monumental task. Consider the case of Andrés Felipe Arias, who was agriculture minister under Santos’ more conservative predecessor, Alvaro Uribe.

Andres Felipe Arias during his trial in Bogota, Colombia.
Credit Anonymous / AP via Miami Herald

Two years ago, Arias was convicted of overseeing an embezzlement scheme that diverted $25 million from a government subsidy program for poor farmers to, well, fat cat ranchers. Among them: a politically connected land baron who cleverly divided his holdings among family members – including a former Miss Colombia, his son’s girlfriend – so he could quintuple the subsidy payout he got.

Once Arias was found guilty, he fled to the U.S., but he’s now being extradited back to Colombia. We can debate whether the 17-year sentence he faces is harsh. But the case against him was not “political persecution,” as Uribe insisted to me last year. It was a signal that Colombia, as part of the peace then being negotiated, could finally make its most powerful players subject to institutions.

And that’s one of the surest ways to keep poor and powerless Colombians from signing up with revolutions. Especially revolutionary armed forces that lose their moral compasses. The kind – as Colombian author and Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez put it in his epic “One Hundred Years of Solitude” – that no longer fight “out of idealism” but merely for “sinful pride.”

The FARC is a Frankenstein. But genuinely destroying it means genuinely confronting the social injustice that created it. And that requires genuine peace.