“Concentration Zones”: the Perplexing key to a Bilateral Ceasefire in Colombia

There's a good possibility that by March 23, Colombia's government and the FARC guerrilla group will sign an accord putting in place a bilateral ceasefire and the cessation of hostilities. This would mean not only that neither side will attack the other, but that the FARC will halt actions that affect the civilian population, like extortion, laying landmines, recruiting minors, and drug trafficking. Members of an unarmed United Nations mission will verify allegations that either side is violating the terms of the ceasefire, or that such a violation appears imminent.

A major part of the ceasefire arrangement will be a concentration of guerrilla forces in specific zones around the country. Colombia's armed forces will not be allowed to enter these zones, and for some time the guerrillas assembled there will be allowed to keep their weapons, as they begin what may be a long process of “leaving aside arms.”


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These areas will eventually become the sites where guerrillas undergo demobilization and disarmament, after the signing of a final accord, which is likely to occur in mid-2016. 
 
On March 9, Colombia’s Senate approved, in a final debate round, its version of a reform to Colombia’s Public Order Law, which would legalize what would be termed “Concentration Zones.” Surprisingly, the party of former President (now Senator) Álvaro Uribe threw its support behind the bill. The legislation suggests that these zones must:
  • Be free of illicit crops and illegal mining.
  • Be “prudent and reduced” in number in order to ease monitoring and verification.
  • Not touch Colombia’s borders.
  • Host inventories of the FARC’s weapons supply​.
  • Require full identification, including fingerprints, of all who enter.
  • Eventually host the destruction of surrendered FARC weapons.
  • Allow international monitoring and verification of the ceasefire.
The legislation offers some clarity about what these Concentration Zones might look like, though whether the guerrillas will agree to all of these conditions is uncertain. Even if they do agree, much else remains to be determined. For instance, the legislation does not clarify how these zones will be harmonized with the collective territorial rights of Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities living in areas where they would be established.

How many zones will be created? Where might they be?

The FARC membership's transfer to these zones poses a great risk of triggering a post-conflict spike in violence. This initial transfer phase will be very difficult, and much depends on the number and locations of the zones that negotiators are currently discussing.


According to WOLA interviews with individuals close to the process, the FARC’s initial negotiating position called for as many as 60 zones comprising a significant fraction of Colombia’s national territory, while the government’s initial offer was perhaps 10 zones, each the size of a large farming estate.

The real number and extent will be somewhere in between: perhaps a number of zones that is much smaller than what the FARC wants, but that are larger in size than what the government wants. A smaller number of zones would facilitate efforts to verify a ceasefire. However, too few of these zones would risk drawing the FARC too quickly out of other areas where the group has long been dominant. This could leave security vacuums in those areas, which the government may be incapable of filling quickly enough to prevent violent competition among armed and criminal groups—paramilitary successor groups, the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerrillas, organized crime—for control of drug-trafficking corridors, unlicensed precious-metals mining, and other illicit income streams. If Colombia’s government has a well-financed, multi-agency plan to surge into these “vacuum” zones in a matter of months, thus preventing a free-for-all among illegal groups, it is unknown to WOLA.

Post-accord violence could also flare up if other violent actors are present in the FARC concentration zones. The ELN, criminal bands, and traffickers are unlikely to withdraw from towns or sites they view as strategic for their illegal income, simply because of a decree from the peace table in Havana. Many such contested areas are along Colombia’s coasts and borders, or along rivers used heavily for drug trafficking. Because of the likelihood of violent competition, and the likelihood of some FARC members using Concentration Zones to continue participating in illicit trafficking, the government is resisting FARC demands that some of these zones lie along coasts or borders.


How will security be guaranteed?

The Colombian military, which has fought the rebels for 52 years, will be tasked with guarding the perimeters of these zones. Regardless of all military commanders’ will and capacity (which will vary), the zones’ boundaries will inevitably be porous, just like Colombia’s international borders. It is not clear what options exist to protect demobilizing guerrillas from spoilers seeking to enter these zones and target leaders or otherwise cause mayhem, especially once the FARC’s process of “leaving aside arms” reaches such an advanced state that the group’s violent deterrent capacity is diminished.


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A violent incident could derail the post-conflict recovery process, perhaps permanently. Plans for preventing one are currently being negotiated by a “sub-commission” of guerrilla and Colombian military negotiators in Havana. The general details of this plan are unclear, but the experience of the Patriotic Union—an unarmed political party that the FARC established during a 1980s peace process, which saw thousands of its members killed—makes clear that implementing it will require heretofore unseen levels of resources, manpower, political will, and creativity.

What about communities that currently exist in the zones?

The Concentration Zones are unlikely to be empty, but supplying them would be very difficult with no population centers or infrastructure nearby. In fact, many or most are likely to incorporate existing communities.

In some regions of Colombia, especially its conflictive Pacific coast, the zones may overlap with territories that, under Colombian law, are reserved for Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities. It seems likely that FARC members may concentrate in Afro-Colombian Community Councils and indigenous resguardos (reserves). In late February, Colombia’s Senate defeated an amendment to the Public Order bill that would have prohibited Concentration Zones on these lands.

Incredibly, these communities are not being consulted about this. “Nobody tells us anything,” Luis Alberto Yace of ONIC, an umbrella organization of Colombian indigenous groups, told El Espectador. “What they have notified us about is that guerrilla concentration sites will be located on our territories… We don’t necessarily disagree with these zones being created, but they could at least take us into account.”

Meanwhile, a coalition of Afro-Colombian groups from the Pacific coast, CONPA, has sought an audience with both sides’ Havana peace negotiators to discuss this. Their requests have so far been refused; the government appears to think that a prior consultation process would delay the post-conflict effort.

Another concern is the security of any communities within these zones, regardless of ethnicity, whose members would find themselves living without government protection alongside armed FARC members who will carry weapons until they disarm. Any action that endangers their security would be a ceasefire violation subject to the UN mission’s verification. Still, these communities may find themselves facing less severe forms of coercion, such as pressure to join FARC-sponsored social organizations as the guerrillas try to solidify a political base among these communities.

How long will the zones exist?

The duration of Concentration Zones has yet to be established. WOLA has received multiple estimates regarding the length of time until government security forces are permitted to re-enter the zones, ranging from three months to a year. However, the experience of Northern Ireland makes clear that the process of armed groups leaving aside their weapons is slow. It can take years for international verifiers to confirm that arms are beyond use, and the FARC will likely cite the above-mentioned security concerns to justify a slow handover. If so, there is a real risk that Colombia’s Concentration Zones could become semi-permanent “FARC-lands,” with the ex-guerrillas dominating political and perhaps economic life even after they disarm.

Avoiding that outcome will require independent, credible, and well-resourced international verification of the ceasefire. It will also require Colombia’s government to establish a functioning presence in these historically ungoverned areas, providing security as well as basic services.

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