The fallacies of the ‘rebels-turned-narcos’ premise: a view from Colombia

José A. Gutiérrez D.

[This paper is based on ‘Rebels-Turned-Narcos? The FARC-EP’s Political Involvement in Colombia’s Cocaine Economy’, published (online) in Studies in Conflict & Terrorism.]

There’s a widespread mythology in conflict studies that sees involvement in drugs and the political credentials of rebels as intrinsically antithetical. This argument takes pervasive forms, drawing from disparate paradigms such as Kaldor’s New Wars, Collier’s so-called economic theory of conflict, and Makarenko’s crime-terror continuum/nexus. According to this narrative, insurgencies, as soon as they touch drugs, start a long fall from Grace, a metamorphosis in which they progressively lose their lofty idealsthat are replaced by earthy greeduntil they become nothing more than rackets and brigands. This is what we have termed the rebels-turned-narcos premise. Much ink has been spilt over the last two decades following this logic in countries such disparate as Colombia, Afghanistan, or Turkey.

In a paper co-authored with Frances Thomson, Rebels-Turned-Narcos? The FARC-EP’s Political Involvement in Colombia’s Cocaine Economy, based on our work in Putumayo and Cauca (Colombia), we argue that this logic is flawed on two fundamental ways. First, the involvement in illegal drugs does not necessarily neutralise the politics or ideological commitments of a particular group. Rebels groups, by their very definition, need to engage in illegal activities in order to raise funds for their insurgency. Why involvement in drugs is any different in terms of effects to robbing banks, for instance, is something that the rebels-turned-narcos premise fails to explain. In this respect, it is not the type of economic activity (illegal drugs) that seems to be determinant, but the nature of the rebel group. 

Any group that allows its members to accumulate personal wealth or to appropriate the booty, is likely to attract people interested in the loot rather than the cause. There are examples of this, particularly in civil wars such as in Liberia, that is well documented. However, many rebel organisations, such as the FARC-EP, have strict collectivist policies and do not allow personal accumulation. In those conditions, the logic to attract members cannot be possibly explained by personal greedparticularly if prospective members know that they will get no salary, no share of the results of illicit activities and that any attempt to run away with the organisation’s money can potentially end up in execution. No guerrilla led the extravagant lives of narco-traffickers, living instead nomadic, austere, and often harsh lives in the jungle. In contrast, right-wing paramilitaries and the State army offered a salary, and the former allowed personal enrichment out of involvement in illicit and barely licit activities. Then why would some people choose an organisation that offered less? The paper by Colombian scholar Francisco Gutiérrez-Sanín, Criminal Rebels? offers what is one of the best refutations of the ‘greedy rebels’ paradigm. 

But our argument goes further. We argue that the involvement in illegal drugs can be, in itself, a political act. This is because of two mechanisms: first, because there may be a recognition that the illegal activity (drugs, in this case) is of benefit to a particular constituency that the rebel group aims to represent. Second, because engagement in the drug industry triggers a set of governance practices that, by their very definition, are political. 

On the first mechanism, despite the FARC-EP’s initial qualms about the cocaine economy in the late 1970s, by the early 1980s they decided to engage in it. No doubt, drugs’ taxation provided the FARC-EP financial muscle to wage an exceedingly costly war against the Colombian State, one of the top US military-aid recipients. But it also provided the means for reproduction and subsistence to a peasant smallholder class with little land, scarce access to markets and tenuous claims to their property. As argued in another paper, coca provided these smallholders with the opportunity of marginally higher returns than legal crops, and in the case of extreme land-poverty of regions like Cauca, they represent the sole crop that can guarantee the reproduction of the family unit. When the War on Drugs was fully unleashed against these smallholders from the mid-1990s, the defence of the cocaleros (and the guerrillas advocacy, during different peace negotiations for support for alternative crops) became indivisible from their agrarian programme. This stance solidified their relationship with their constituency.

The second mechanism underpinning the FARC-EP’s political involvement in the drug industry is governance. This engagement was (is) part and parcel of their governance practices in regions where they had a significant element of control. Because the drug industry is by its very nature illegal, they were expected in these regions to act as regulators. Imposing price floors, environmental rules, reinvestment of profits in community infrastructures, trading bans, limits to the surface planted with coca, and regulating transactions was not always a popular activity. Often, their decisions could alienate members of the community, and even gain them their animosity. In other words, if, in general, their regulatory activity was welcome, their particular regulatory actions were not always so. Some of these regulations could be unpopular at times and even run contrary to their own financial interests (like in Putumayo limiting the number of coca hectares to devote land to food production). They clearly derive from deep-seated ideological convictions rather than from an exercise of local populism or the pursuit of economic gain.

To summarise, the Colombian experience shows that insurgents’ involvement in the drug industry, rather than erode their political and ideological commitments can, in some cases, be derived from them, strengthen them, and trigger new political interactions -for instance, in terms of governance. If this involvement depoliticises insurgents or not will depend on many other factors: organisational, ideological, cultural. In one word, there is not a single, unequivocal and mechanical result from rebels’ engagement in drugs or any other illegal activity. 

There is certainly much to discuss in relation to the links between illegal economies and civil war. Some of these issues will be further discussed in a special issue we are coordinating in the Journal of Political Power for the start of next year (2022). And during the next academic year, they will also be the subject of a conference on political power, criminality and conflict in the IICRR, DCU, where we will welcome all critical contributions to this debate.

Profile pictureDr José Antonio Gutiérrez is a Research Fellow affiliated with the Institute for International Conflict Resolution and Reconstruction. He has research experience in three continents, and extensive experience working on conflict, illicit economies, and contentious politics in Colombia

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