Criminals or Rebels? The Role of Definitions in Colombian Peace

Criminals or Rebels? The Role of Definitions in Colombian Peace

Reynell Badillo Sarmiento and Luis Fernando Trejos Rosero
28 Mar, 2023

In an attempt to demobilise armed groups in Colombia, President Gustavo Petro’s government implemented the policy of ‘Total Peace’ (Paz Total). Petro’s strategy looks to political negotiations and settlements to draw Colombia’s long-running civil conflicts to an end. However, the government’s selective and inconsistent definition of who constitutes a ‘political’ or ‘criminal’ actor threatens to undermine critical progress towards demobilisation.

In Colombia, recognition of the political statuses of armed groups is still anchored in Cold War logic: if an armed group has a revolutionary discourse and was born before 1991, it is assumed to be political. The armed group’s behaviour becomes secondary; it does not matter what activities or violence it engages in, so long as it maintains an ideological identity. However, this way of defining the political nature of armed groups is as outdated as it is problematic.

For instance, the government decided to recognise the political status of the National Liberation Group (ELN) armed guerrilla group. Other armed groups, however, such as the Gaitanista Self Defence Forces of Colombia [AGC] (also known as Gulf Clan) have been labelled mere criminal groups. Regardless of intent, the selective recognition of political versus criminal armed groups carries significant ramifications: whilst negotiations are afforded to the ELN, all armed groups termed ‘criminal’ must submit to justice without the prospect of political settlement. What incentives does Total Peace then provide to armed groups such as the AGC to demobilise?

The Seizure of Power

Many analysts and officials claim that a political identity of an armed group is predicated on a desire to seize power and establish a new socioeconomic and political system. This “revolutionary pretension” as an identifier of an armed group’s political status, once again, made sense in the context of the Cold War. Beginning in the 1960s, armed groups emerged in Colombia with the explicit purpose of triggering a revolution and toppling the existing state. Although the Cold War ended in 1991, several of the armed groups that adopted this narrative remained active in Colombia. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC-EP) and ELN guerrillas were some of them, and in the mid-90s, they still had plans to effectively seize power. In Colombia, there was then a “long cold war” in which the Cold War logic largely remained true.

However, two decades later the landscape looks very different: the FARC-EP and the counterrevolutionary United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) demobilised, discourses perceived as ideologically revolutionary became increasingly marginal and the ELN’s reduced capabilities have shifted ELN priorities away from confrontation and overthrow towards sabotage. Therefore, abiding by Cold War-era definitions of a decidedly ‘political group’, one could argue that there are no longer any politically oriented armed groups in Colombia. Of course, to us and the many Colombians still under threat of violence by these groups, this assumption is incorrect.

The False Political/Criminal Dichotomy

Some analysts and academics such as Francisco Gutiérrez-Sanín and Gonzalo Sánchez-Gómez have attempted to dissect and disaggregate the black-and-white perception of Colombia’s armed groups, claiming that the conflict was simultaneously more economic, more criminal and more political. However, the dominant, dichotomous narrative remains dominant. Likewise, many politicians in Colombia argue that the guerrilla groups were only drug traffickers and are, therefore, not candidates for negotiations.

Currently, it seems Petro’s government assumes that armed groups are either political or criminal and there is to be no middle ground. Such a stance allows for simple categorisation at the expense of a distorted reality, subjecting definitions – and the entire peace process – to prejudice, bias and misconceptions.

Classifying armed groups into two irreconcilable labels (criminal or political) prevents us from understanding processes of politicisation and that all groups exist on a continuum rather than as a dichotomy. An armed group may have political elements, whilst simultaneously being heavily involved in criminal economies. Likewise, an armed group that was formed by a political ideology may very well criminalise and abandon those pretensions.

The ELN and the Gulf Clan

Let us evaluate what has been said about the two biggest perpetrators of violence in Colombia: the ELN and the Gulf Clan. Judging by the statements made by members of Gustavo Petro’s government, it is understood that the ELN has a political character and the Gulf Clan does not.

As we have already observed, neither armed group is either interested or remotely capable of seizing power from the state. However, both have made efforts to build criminal or rebel governance regimes in their areas of operation. Both armed groups regulate community life, provide problem-solving services, loans, and dole out punish those who violate established rules and norms. This is, in essence, political behaviour – is there anything more political than presiding over community life and affairs?

In terms of involvement in criminal economies, both armed groups have varying degrees of criminal links. Both have relations with drug trafficking organisations in regions known for Coca planting and Cocaine processing, both participate in illegal mining, and both extort and co-opt public revenues. To deny this fact is to ignore how the ELN has been able to survive for so many years, despite its many setbacks.

In terms of political discourse, the two groups are strikingly similar. Both armed groups have statutes with clear laws and regulations for their members and the civilians under their control, a clear chain of command and spend resources on politically training their combatants. The allegedly-purely criminal Gulf Clan, again not unlike the ELN, operate “training houses” for their new members in which recruits receive political and administrative training. Yet perhaps most importantly, both groups also claim to be fighting against the Colombian state.

The two armed groups have also made pacts with other armed actors – including each other – to fight the Colombian military. The Gulf Clan, for example, have for several days dedicated their entire paramilitary apparatus to assassinating police and military officers. Perhaps the only identifiable difference – which is of little import to a political or criminal classification – is that while ELN members do not receive a salary, the AGC do have a considerably well-established payroll.

What, then, justifies the ELN being privy to negotiations whilst the larger, more powerful and more dangerous Gulf Clan is excluded from the process of Total Peace?

Challenging Dichotomy

Total Peace is based on a compelling premise in which peace is predicated on the demobilisation of all armed groups; nevertheless, the government’s application of Total Peace clearly does not encompass all groups. In assessing the dichotomy, there are two ideas that we would like to highlight and see changed.

First, there seem to be moralistic positions contributing to the government’s positioning of political and criminal elements as if they were exclusive and irreconcilable aspects. At it’s core, this position views negotiation with money-driven, greedy criminals as immoral relative to groups with objectives deemed perhaps more palatable or reconcilable. However, the moralistic position, itself, is a direct contradiction of past engagements by the Colombian state. On many occasions, the government has negotiated with criminal groups. The Colombian Government negotiated with Rodríguez Gacha’s self-defence groups in 1991, with the Medellín Cartel in 1991 and with the ERPAC in 2011. To adopt a moralistic position that excludes Colombia’s largest, most dangerous groups is, therefore, as inconsistent with history as it is fraught with danger.

Second, it is high time to modernise our conceptions of what constitutes ‘political’ orientation away from the lingering Cold War imagery. After all, in Colombia, many armed groups regulate community life, assassinate social leaders on the orders of public figures, and determine what kinds of things can be done and said in certain spaces. This is, in every sense of the word, political. How can these armed governance structures be countered if they are not recognised at all?

Reynell Badillo Sarmiento is a Research Fellow at the UNCaribe Think Tank (Universidad del Norte, Barranquilla-Colombia). He holds a MSc in International Studies from the Universidad de los Andes (Bogotá, Colombia). His academic research is focused on transnational organised crime in Latin America, Colombian armed conflict and drug trafficking.

Luis Fernando Trejos Rosero is Assistant Professor at the Universidad del Norte (Barranquilla-Colombia). He holds a Ph.D. from the Universidad de Santiago de Chile. He is the current Director of the Centro de Pensamiento UNCaribe (Universidad del Norte). His academic research is focused on civil wars in Latin America, Colombian armed conflict and drug trafficking.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of RUSI or any other institution.

Main Image Credit: Jorge Lascar via Wikicommons.