Colombia: Recycled Gangsters

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March 9, 2017: FARC and the government now have a final count on how many FARC members are available for the disarmament process; 7,000. About seven percent of those belonged to FARC factions that refused to comply and as per the peace deal FARC declared these factions not eligible for amnesty and still outlaws. The government then went in and seized the known assets of these faction members and it came to nearly $100 million (about $200,000 per outlaw FARC fighter) in cash and property. It was known that FARC had done well as a business, at least in terms of acquiring real estate and property. That plus the profits from providing muscle for drug cartels created a temptation for many FARC members and it was never clear until now how many FARC would refuse to surrender. Now it is known and it is less than ten percent. But a lot more FARC members will demobilize and go back to the outlaw life. Some FARC members were expected to go back to working with the cartels or other gangster operations. That is a violation of the amnesty terms but for many FARC members their true vocation has become getting rich, not fighting for the leftist revolution many FARC members had ceased to believe in. It was expected that some demobilized FARC would join other criminal gangs because those gangs engage in some of the same outlaw behavior (theft, extortion, smuggling) that many FARC members are familiar with and not willing to give up. That’s been the pattern in past amnesties (for anti-leftist militias). Already some of the drug cartels are openly recruiting demobilized FARC men, offering high monthly pay (compared to what most FARC veterans can make right away) and the usual bonuses and benefits of the thug life. The first order of business for these recycled gangsters is intimidating (threatening, kidnapping murdering) the rural folk (and their leaders) who seek to get their property back. While the country is now more at peace than it has been in over half a century the government has to cripple the drug gangs otherwise the violence will return.

The leftist revolution FARC has supported since the 1960s degenerated into a constant hustle for money. Aafter two or three decades the revolution became more about money for the FARC members, not “the people” they theoretically fought for. The FARC peace deal is supposed to deal with the many rural victims of FARC. These people are not all that concerned about the cash the leftist rebels made from drug operations. That was largely foreign money. But in many parts of the countryside FARC members were unwilling to give up billions of dollars in property stolen over decades of controlling vast rural areas. A lot of the stolen property was subsequently sold by FARC. The original owners want their assets back, as well as cash for damage done to structures and improvements. The FARC leaders (of all levels) who got rich on these deals don’t want to become poor again. The final peace deal provides more restitution to victims of these FARC confiscations but only if the government can ensure transfer of property back to the original owners.. FARC leaders, especially those planning on forming political parties, have an interest in preventing FARC members from getting amnesty and then joining other criminal organizations. That will cost you votes. So there was a lot of arguing, shouting and even some shooting among FARC factions in late 2016 and early 2017. The demobilization process is to be completed by the end of 2017 but lawyers, government officials and rural victims of the FARC revolution will be still trying to untangle the mess (who owns what) into the next decade.

The End For ELN

Peace talks with ELN, a smaller (fewer than 2,000 gunmen) and more diehard leftist rebel group are finally underway in neighboring Ecuador. ELN is trying to get a ceasefire but the government knows from past experience with FARC that ceasefires don’t work and are pressing ELN to accept terms similar to what FARC got and do it quickly. That is proving difficult but primary negotiations didn’t get going until early February. Yet before the end of February progress had been made. Discussions about even starting negotiations did not take place until November 2016 This came after months of delays because some ELN factions refused to release kidnapping victims, which both sides agreed was a pre-condition to talks.

ELN has still not fully complied with this aspect of the agreement but has released the most famous captive. ELN and the government have agreed to a temporary ceasefire and a permanent one will be among of the first items to be negotiated. Meanwhile there are already reports from locals of ELN gunmen trying to take over from FARC in areas where FARC has left or halted operations. ELN is apparently waiting to see how the FARC agreement works out before agreeing to any final peace terms. ELN has been less active recently, in part this is because the FARC ceasefire means the security forces can now concentrate on ELN and ELN is trying to adapt to that. In 2016 at least 46 ELN members were killed in combat, 388 were captured and 252 have voluntarily surrendered voluntarily. That’s over a third of estimated ELN strength at the beginning of the year. ELN has had some new recruits, but not enough to make up for losses.

Venezuela

President Maduro blames all the problems with unemployment, shortages and inflation on an American conspiracy to discredit the socialist paradise leftists have been trying to create in oil-rich Venezuela. The problems are self-inflicted and the results can be seen on the streets of Venezuela and in international comparisons. Thus for the third year in a row Venezuela tops the world Misery Index (that uses inflation, unemployment rates and other indicators). The rest of the top ten are South Africa, Argentina, Greece, Turkey, Spain, Ukraine, Serbia, Brazil and Uruguay. Venezuela also continues to rank high in the list of most corrupt nations in the world, going from the 16th most corrupt in 2011 to eleventh in 2016 and it is getting worse.

The corruption is good for a few hundred well-connected families (most with close ties to the leftist government) but a disaster for everyone else. Those families (including those of Maduro and his predecessor) become very rich with over $200 billion “missing” so far. Much, if not most, of this money ends up outside the country for the day when the thieves will have to flee.

The government recently revealed that the foreign currency available (to pay foreign debts and import food) for the rest of the year was down to $10 billion. Some 70 percent of that is needed to make payments on foreign debt. If these payments are not made the country ruins its ability to get future loans. A lot of foreign loans were taken since 2011 to try and keep the economy going. All that is now coming due and Maduro has put a higher priority on maintaining the national credit rating than in coping with the growing hunger and chaos. Defaulting on foreign loans is seen as creating a long-term problem for whoever rules Venezuela in the future. At the moment no one will sell Venezuela food on credit. It’s cash up front or nothing. Oil production is also declining and oil income is not going up. There is obviously not a lot of food being imported.

Maduro knows that as long as he controls the security forces he will remain in charge. He also knows that most Venezuelans are too busy trying to stay alive to organize an effective opposition. Finding food is a full time occupation for a growing number of Venezuelans. Foreign observers note that nearly half the population is unemployed or underemployed and people are visibly thinner than a year ago. The government is no longer able to supply basic food needs to those who have no money. By 2016 nearly all food was imported. This was made worse as that year the government put the military and pro-government militias (who are fed regularly) in charge of distributing food. In addition to demanding bribes (from a lot of people who could not pay) the troops were ordered to ensure that this food only went to Venezuelans who do not actively oppose the government. There would be a lot more anti-government demonstrations were it not for this use of food as a political weapon. Maduro may be in a bad spot but he knows that there is enough oil income to keep 10-20 percent of the population (security forces, oil workers, and so on) taken care of he will retain power. That, he hopes, is enough to control the unrest as North Korea or Cuba have demonstrated.

Maduro is also depending on oil prices rising again, which would make it even easier for him to become president-for-life. But oil prices may not increase fast enough or high enough to bail out Maduro because even with pre-2014 oil revenues the Venezuelan economy was ruined by government corruption and hostility to privately owned businesses and entrepreneurs in general. Worse the American use of fracking has turned the U.S. into a major oil and gas producer again and that is keeping oil prices low.

The opposition to Maduro has the support of about 80 percent of the population but has not been able to mobilize that to take down the unpopular and inept government. There is an anti-government political coalition called the Democratic Unity Roundtable (DUR, or MUD in Spanish) that tried to remove Maduro legally but Maduro used his control of the Supreme Court to block that. Another advantage Maduro has is that DUR has not come up with a specific plan to deal with the economic collapse. In part that is because the DUR contains many factions that have very different solutions to the problem. Some of the DUR parties are socialist and believe that what Maduro and Chavez preached would work if implemented correctly. That’s what a lot of leftists said after communist governments all over Europe (including the Soviet Union) collapsed between 1989 and 1991. With that in mind DUR plans to spend 2017 trying to get itself organized. If that is not possible then the economy and government will continue to collapse and rebuilding that mess will be carried out the hard way (slowly, sporadically and unpredictably).

Many DUR leaders are aware of that and also the fact that a lot of educated and capable Venezuelans have already concluded the situation is hopeless and have left. It’s no secret in Venezuela that more people with skills (from mechanics to engineers and medical specialists) have been leaving over since 2002 (when the government fired thousands of professionals from the state owned oil company because they could not pass the loyalty test). In the last few years the government has accelerated its efforts to nationalize or shut down privately owned businesses and that drove up the unemployment rate. Those who had the means (financial and otherwise) began to leave in greater numbers. Then many of the less skilled or unskilled began leaving as well. A growing percentage of veteran supporters of socialism are also headed for another country, and few are choosing Cuba. Opinion polls show that by late 2016 nearly 60 percent of adults wanted to leave, which is a sharp rise from 49 percent in 2015. It would appear that about two million have left already but that is accelerating as the Venezuelan economy disintegrates and food becomes increasingly difficult to get, even if you can pay black market rates. At the current rate of emigration three million will be gone by the end of 2017, which is ten percent of the population.

While these economic migrants have been found in 96 countries, most are in the United States, Spain and Colombia. In part because of that exodus there were more sources of information on the extent of Venezuelan government involvement in drug smuggling. This was long suspected but by late 2016 it had to be accepted as fact because in November 2016 two nephews of the Venezuelan president were convicted of drug smuggling. The two nephews were arrested in Haiti in 2015 and extradited to the United States. They admitted they were working for FARC and using their government connections to move 800 kg (1.700 pounds) of Colombian cocaine to the United States via Venezuela, Honduras and Mexico. These two defendants are actually nephews of the president’s wife (Cilia Flores), whose family is infamous for having received so many high paying government jobs since her husband became president in 2013. Flores is a lawyer and politician and even before her husband became president she was known to be corrupt. Flores is aware that the daughter of former president Chavez managed to build a fortune worth over $4 billion after her father came to power in 1998. The Maduro clan is not likely to do nearly as well. The two nephews bragged that some of the drug profits would go to “Aunt Celia.” After they were arrested they insisted FARC owned the cocaine. Before that they said the cocaine was actually owned by two other senior Venezuelan politicians (the minority leader in the national legislature and the governor of Aragua state). Aunt Celia accuses the United States of kidnapping her nephews and wanted them back. Since then the United States has indicted several other Venezuelan government officials on drug charges and because more people are willing (even eager) to talk more indictments are on the way. It has now become clear that for over a decade the Venezuelan government was indeed a sanctuary for drug smugglers, at least the ones who could afford to bribe the right government officials.

March 1, 2017: FARC members began turning in their weapons and going through the demobilization process. Nearly 7,000 FARC members assembled in 26 demobilization areas. All weapons are to be surrendered by May.

February 19, 2017: In the capital, near a major sporting event, ELN set off a bomb that killed one policeman and wounded over twenty.

February 6, 2017: In the east (Arauca province) ELN released a soldier they had captured a week earlier. In return the government released two elderly ELN convicts who were very sick.

 


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