Image: Caracol Radio
Image: Caracol Radio

(Today Colombia) Local officials in a FARC stronghold in northern Colombia have sounded the alarm about criminal groups moving in as rebels pull out in the run-up to a peace deal, an assertion that appears to be premature but raises valid questions about how the government will re-establish a state presence in the area.

Hernán Álvarez Uribe, mayor of the mountain town of Ituango (see photo below) in the department of Antioquia, said rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) had already pulled out of rural areas of the municipality, leaving residents at the mercy of criminals, reported Caracol. Details of the peace plan with the government are still being hammered out, but the FARC has agreed that its fighters will moved to concentration zones once a final agreement is reached.

“We are seeing a phenomenon of petty crime, theft, brawls, and for this reason we need an institutional presence in the small towns of La Granja and Santa Rita,” Álvarez Uribe said. “We understand that the [FARC’s] 36th and 18th Fronts are moving to the hamlet of Santa Lucía, a concentration zone hamlet.”

Concentration zones are areas where demobilized FARC fighters will gather to prepare for reintegration into civil society.

La Granja and Santa Rita are home to four thousand people and are located an hour and a half from the urban center of Ituango municipality, in the notorious Nudo del Paramillo region of northern Antioquia. The FARC have long been the only real authority in that remote area.

Álvarez Uribe said the rebels “have stated that they will no longer intervene in justice-related issues … this will now be the responsibility of the state.” He said the government must fill that gap with an increased police and military presence and better access to the legal system.

In response to the mayor’s concerns, Antioquia Gov. Luis Pérez Gutiérrez said the state will move urgently to secure territorial control of areas the FARC leaves in order to avoid a takeover by other criminal groups or the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN), FARC’s cousin guerrilla organization.

The FARC are “abandoning territories they have governed for 20 or 30 years,” Gutiérrez said. “These areas have paradoxically been left without anybody to implement order and justice.”

Gutierréz said his government would deploy to La Granja on July 30, accompanied by security forces and local government representatives. For three decades, not a single “police officer, soldier or governor” had set foot in the hamlet, he said.

The governor recently attended a security council with President Juan Manuel Santos and Medellín mayor Federico Gutiérrez, where a commitment was made to set up police outposts in hamlets abandoned by the FARC.

“If we do not exert control over the peace process, it will get out of hand,” Gutierréz said.

A source in the Ituango area told InSight Crime that while a group of FARC fighters left La Granja and Santa Rita area last week, they had merely gone to receive FARC peace delegate Félix Antonio Muñoz, alias “Pastor Alape,” who was visiting Santa Lucía from the peace talks in Cuba. Most of those fighters have since returned, the source said.

He told InSight Crime that the Urabeños — the most powerful criminal organization in Colombia — have a limited presence in Ituango, where they have an interest in the local drug trade and illegal mining. But it doesn’t appear as though the Urabeños or other armed actors are stepping up their control of the area. The FARC has begun to disengage from local affairs after maintaining order for many years, the source said. This loosening of controls that included a prohibition of drug use is likely to have caused the spike in petty crime alluded to by Ituango’s mayor.

The guerrilla group’s historic influence in the Nudo del Paramillo is so strong that it will be difficult for other groups to set up shop there even after the FARC demobilizes. The task of maintaining law and order will fall to state forces — something Colombia’s military has acknowledged as one of its main “post conflict” challenges. It is yet to be seen if police and other civilian authorities will be able to move in to fill the void.

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