Colombia's government is negotiating peace with the country's largest and oldest guerrilla group, the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia). If the talks succeed—a strong possibility—Colombia faces a big question: what will be different in the vast territories where the guerrillas have been in control, or operated freely, for decades?
In these areas, violence, drug trafficking, and warlordism have long been the norm, and the government’s presence has been virtually nonexistent. If the government does not establish itself in these jungles, mountains, plains, coasts, and borderlands, the FARC's negotiated end will make little difference; illegality and violence will continue to fill the vacuum. Colombia must follow a successful negotiation with getting the government into the country's ungoverned zones. And not just military occupiers: a real, civilian state whose members provide basic services, operate without impunity, and thus enjoy the population's support.
Will Colombia be able to fill the vacuum and end the cycle of violence? As WOLA’s new report Consolidating “Consolidation” describes, the record of the National Territorial Consolidation Plan—a five-year-old program with that very goal—should worry us that it might not.
Backed by at least half a billion dollars in U.S. assistance, this ambitious program seeks to bring the government into several areas of the country with histories of illegal armed groups, violence, drug trafficking, and statelessness. (It is often called the “La Macarena” program, after the southern Colombian zone where the most advanced pilot project has taken place.) Today, while “Consolidation” has brought security improvements and more soldiers and police to a few territories, the governance vacuum remains far from filled.
In the Consolidation zones, armed groups remain very active, especially outside of town centers. Soldiers are by far the most commonly seen government representatives, and the civilian parts of the government—such as health services, education, agriculture, road-builders, land-titlers, judges, and prosecutors—are lagging very far behind.
In Consolidating “Consolidation,” WOLA sought to identify the reasons why the Consolidation program's military-to-civilian transfer has stalled. Senior Associate for Regional Security Policy Adam Isacson found that while the U.S. and Colombian governments underestimated the difficulty of achieving security and the cost of “state-building,” much of the blame lies with civilian government agencies themselves, most of which have been very reluctant to set up a presence in Consolidation zones.
But we found something even more serious: the entire Consolidation model is losing momentum quickly and may have begun to deteriorate. Based on dozens of interviews and a very close read of available evidence, Consolidating “Consolidation” portrays a program lacking interest and backing at high levels of government. What was once a showcase program stagnated during a year and a half-long “rethinking,” followed by several months of infighting that culminated in the sudden exit of the program's director. Meanwhile, in places like Afghanistan, the United States is edging away from similar missions, which it calls “Stability Operations,” that sought to provide basic services to citizens in ungoverned areas. Instead, U.S. forces are relying more on Special Forces operations and drone strikes.
Programs continue in Consolidation zones in Colombia, thanks in great part to US$227 million in USAID contracts awarded since 2010. But Consolidation, which once promised to bring a functioning government to areas that never had one, may be on its way to becoming a politically driven handout program attached to an open-ended military occupation.
If Consolidation fades away, the report warns, it is not clear what will replace it in Colombia's neglected territories. As Colombia faces the possibility of peace in zones of historic guerrilla control, it is crucial that a plan be in place to prevent a re-emergence of violence. If the peace talks succeed, for a brief period Colombia will have a window of opportunity to bring the government to areas that have long generated violence, bringing their citizens into national civic and economic life for the first time.
The National Territorial Consolidation Plan could offer a way to do this, but only if it returns to its initial vision of a phased, coordinated entry of civilian government. If this scheme, or something like it, is to succeed, it will require political will from the highest levels to ensure that the civilians take over as quickly as security conditions allow. And it will require a renewed—but far more civilian-centered—commitment from the United States.