By Manfred Grautoff
Colombia’s longstanding guerrilla group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) participated in a symbolic disarmament in the Mesetas region of the country’s Meta department, southeast of Bogota. This region is one of the epicenters of the group’s criminal activity, where ferocious armed attacks have been carried out against local residents and military and police forces.
A disarmament is, by definition, beneficial for a country that has already endured decades of political violence, instability, and drug trafficking. Nevertheless, there are at least three reasons why such an anticipated moment — one that will see an armed group that has been active in Colombia for over 50 years finally laying down its arms — is producing a laconic reaction in the population.
First of all, Colombia has had at least 10 previous peace processes, all of which have only resulted in the perpetuation of increasingly efficient and powerful criminal groups. Because the public is aware of this, they’re currently unwilling to trust an armed organization that has already deceived the nation on past occasions, including during negotiations that took place during ex-president Andrés Pastrana’s administration.
Secondly, officials are not allowing the public access to the FARC’s disarmament process. Additionally, the disarmament isn’t using serial numbers or accounting for ammunition, making verification a difficult process.
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Because of this, the founder of El Malpensante magazine has gone on an angry tirade, claiming that erasing all traces of identifying information seems more like the behavior of a criminal organization than of a government.
According to ballistic studies, there are five methods for recovering the serial numbers of weapons. Obviously, it would be very costly to apply these methods to every weapon received, but the problem could be addressed statistically. Ten percent of the arms surrendered could have been selected at random, and sent to different international forensic laboratories.
This would have lent transparency to the process, something that clearly would not be acceptable to the FARC, because it requires tracing where the guns are coming from, how they were paid for and what crimes were committed with them.
Thirdly, Colombians must address the issue of who is to receive the weapons: United Nations officials will be taking charge of them, and little is known about what they plan to do with them. In the few pictures taken by FARC members themselves, workers wearing UN jackets can be seen handling M4 and AR-15 assault rifles, which are not commonly used by the FARC.
The UN Security Council has a long history of botched operations. Just look at the civil war in Syria, the disasters in Darfur as well as Venezuela, an autocratic country that has rapidly turned into a dictatorship. The UN wanted to sanction Israel in December of 2016, despite it being the only stable democracy in the Middle East. This is the organization that the Colombian people are being asked to trust with disarming the most dangerous criminal organization in the country’s history.
In other words, the government and its courts are asking the FARC to act in good faith. This is a difficult proposition, unless we are talking about theology rather than the social rule of law in a liberal democracy. Under these circumstances, it becomes necessary to look to the information that the Colombian government possesses in order to extrapolate a conclusion.
During Álvaro Uribe’s administration, a public security policy was put in place that went straight to the heart of that government’s framework. As can be seen in figure 1, the number of weapons confiscated has grown exponentially between 2003 and 2008.
Figure 1. Weapons confiscated annually
It is clear that trends changed in 2003. The number of confiscated weapons grew to a historic 74,581. Later on, that figure fell and remained in the vicinity of thirty thousand. This means that authorities remove an average of 48,000 weapons from the illegal market per year. Therefore, 668,970 weapons have been confiscated between 2002 and 2015. In terms of saving lives, this is a substantial figure. It may account for the fall in homicide numbers nationwide since these security policies have gained steam and popularity over time.
With respect to the armed conflict, we can assume that assault rifles are the FARC’s weapon of choice for crime and terrorism against the public.
Figure 2: History of confiscated weapons
Unpacking the statistics from figure 2, it can be seen that in 2007, there is an increase in the confiscation of war-related materials, which peaks in 2012 at 1,955. From 2002 until 2015, armed groups have lost 10,069 guns. But the information is inadequate, as it shows an abrupt fall in the confiscation of arms owing to the negotiations happening in Havana, Cuba. This leads to two possible hypotheses: that the government has relaxed its efforts against criminal organizations or that these organizations have stopped arming themselves, which would conflict with CERAC calculations.
The other determining factor is the confiscation of ammunition, which can be even more important than that of actual weapons. (figure 3).
Figure 3. History of confiscated ammunition
The results of figure 3 show that the armed forces confiscated 569,078 bullet shells annually, meaning that since 2002, 7,967,100 bullets have been confiscated. This would suggest that the behavior of the illegal arms market follows the same tendency as the rest of the country’s war materials. If that were true, then controlling the sale of arms becomes an objective of primary importance, and that leads us to the final question: How many weapons does the FARC actually have?
According to a recent report, there had been five weapons for every guerrilla members. That means an estimated 34,500 weapons — a figure that does not coincide with the 7,132 figure reported by the UN.
This information suggests that efforts by public officials have led to the reduction of violence on a national level, but that it remains unclear what the current magnitude of the FARC’s arsenal actually is.
The evidence suggests that the criminal organization exchanges weapons for cocaine and possesses the resources to acquire other war materials. They could be masking a political front while simultaneously creating alliances with other terrorist organizations that serve their strategic objectives.
Manfred Grautoff is a university professor in defense economics and national security. He is also the Director of the strategic think tank Geostrategy. Follow him on @mgrautoff.