The Santos Quagmire in ColumbiaOctober 1, 2016
President Santos Could Make Columbia Risky For Executive Travelers
For those who have fought in a war, peace is the ultimate sought out end state. However, Colombia’s President Santos failed to put his idealistic theorems aside and negotiate peace with the FARC from a position of strength, not as equals. This led to a referendum where the Colombian voters voted against the FARC, not against peace.
The results of this poll reflect a deeply divided political approach to the process and a polarized appreciation of the conflict between the rural outer lying areas and the urban centers. Former President Alvaro Uribe of the right wing party “Centro Democratico” (CD) led the opposition to Santos’ YES campaign. Former President Uribe believes in peace with the FARC, however from a position of negotiated strength with a substantive difference of the meaning of peace. Santos believed in a peer approach to the negotiated peace, affording concessions, which would allow the FARC not to be punished for war crimes and unify as a political party and option.
Only 55,737 votes divided the NO victory over the YES. Rural areas which bear the brunt of the conflict voted overwhelmingly to support the YES option, however, the urban centers, who have served as safe havens for internal displaced Colombians fleeing the conflict, overpoweringly voted NO. Conversely, only 38% of the Colombian electorate turned out to vote amid speculation of President Santos paying off high-level politicians of all parties to seek a YES victory, voters not enthused with the terms of the peace accord, Colombians not approving of Santos as President, and a lack of transparency in the process.
Former President Uribe currently enjoys a 59% approval rating, 22% points greater than President Santos, thus now placing himself and his CD party as key players in the next round of negotiations with the FARC. Uribe is seeking a complete revision of the peace accord. He wishes for transparency in the process and inclusion of the 62% of the electorate who did not vote. He is also seeking for critical revisions including no FARC member found of committing crimes can run for office, FARC leadership to serve in prison for crimes committed, FARC to pay compensation to their victims, and no changes be made to the Colombian constitution as a means to accommodate the FARC.
The Politics and Security Concerns of Travel to Columbia
President Santos is caught in a quagmire whereby his 4-year attempt at a non-inclusive peace accord with the FARC, which saw purges in the Colombian military and national police ranks, opposing politicians’ careers ended, and censured reports have left his Presidency in a battered position from a position of weakness. Post-referendum, questions are surrounding Colombia’s economic, financial, and political future.
As of recent, both the FARC and the Colombian forces are honoring the bi-lateral ceasefire. Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri, better known as Timochenko (the FARC’s Commander in Chief) has stated that the FARC will seek its changes through ideas not weapons and respects the decision of the people. However, he stated that the current peace accord is the best option that could be reached. In the meantime, President Santos has been elected to receive the 2016 Noble Peace Prize for his efforts to end a 52-year conflict.
While this is a step in the right direction, Colombia’s history is not on their side with demobilizing paramilitary and guerilla groups. In 2003-2006, the “Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia” (AUC) was demobilized under the promise of limited immunity, vocational schooling, and incorporation into the workforce. However, none of these promises materialized and thus new organizations have spun from this. They are known as BACRIMs or “Bandas Criminales” (criminal bands), which include, but are not limited to the “Aguilas Negras”, “Los Urabenos”, “Los Paisas”, “Los Machos”, “Renacer”, “Los Gaitanistas”, “Nueva Generación”, “Bloque Meta”, “Libertadores del Vichada”, and the “ERPAC”. These organizations are Colombia’s third generation of Colombian drug trafficking syndicates, heavily influenced by Mexican cartels. Their revenue is just a fraction of what the first and second-generation takes in. With the current partial demobilization of the FARC fronts, the BACRIMs have shown signs of wanting to claim parts of the FARC’s illicit activities and absorb critical lines of communication. Currently, the FARC’s old mobility corridors between Venezuela and Colombia have been drafted into BACRIM’s operations.
In addition to a potential ‘tete-a-tete’ between the FARC and BACRIMs, FARC weaponry is being traded on the black market. Guerillas under the specter of ‘unemployment’, have taken to selling the weaponry to make some much-needed cash. Furthermore, there are indications that the FARC’s best are being recruited by the BACRIMs and also the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN), another Marxist promoting guerilla faction, even though they have also announced planned peace talks with the Santos administration.
An insurgency, which the FARC has organized as but has failed at implementing the final phases, is composed of three elements: the auxiliary, underground, and guerrillas. All three entities have distinct tasks and purposes, and each is currently finding their way into criminal activity; estimates range between 25%-35%. Some of this activity has been captured in extortion phone calls to business owners and farmers having their harvest stolen on the roads while heading to market. This is also coupled by FARC front battalions that are currently not complying with the peace process or the post-referendum vote, continuing to operate with impunity in the Colombian jungle.
Caution and Care For Travel to Columbia
All this post-referendum activity clearly indicates that Colombia will continue to have a security situation that will affect its citizens’ pattern of life and multi-national corporations’ efforts in the country. This is being translated to the economic and financial sector in a negative way. Foreign businesses that were postponing investment because of the referendum will delay this investment even further due to the political ambiguity. There is speculation that international rating agencies may reduce Colombia’s BBB investment grade rating if the long-awaited tax reform is not passed before the end of the year. The Santos administration was forecasted to send a tax reform proposal to the National Congress upon completion of the referendum; however, they may not have sufficient footing with the vote results, and Santos’ extremely low popularity rating. Currently, S&P rates Colombia’s outlook as negative.
In conclusion, President Santos has a series of decisions he needs to move on quickly in order to salvage any momentum the peace process may have lingering. In addition, the administration needs to consolidate a united and transparent approach to re-engaging the process while affording mechanisms to limit the gaps in security described above. The Colombian military is already re-focusing their efforts to combat BACRIMs, initially “Clan Úsuga,” “Los Puntillos,” and “Los Pelusos”, who have been categorized as Organized Armed Groups by the Minister of Defense. However, while these steps may meet Colombia’s security objectives, it will still place personal and corporate security requirements on the MNCs and travelers to Colombia. Both have a very real exposure to potential enhanced criminal activity as a result of political, economic, and financial uncertainties.
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