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U.S. plans to lift terrorist designation from former Colombian guerrilla group

Former FARC leaders speak alongside national and international leaders Dabeiba, Colombia, on Nov. 23, 2021.
Former FARC leaders speak alongside national and international leaders Dabeiba, Colombia, on Nov. 23, 2021. (Joaquin Sarmiento/AFP/Getty Images)
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The Biden administration has informed Congress that it plans to lift a nearly 25-year-old terrorist designation against the former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, following a peace deal the group signed five years ago with the Colombian government.

New designations will be issued for at least one of the splinter groups that have broken with the FARC, as it was known, and still consider themselves at war with the government. The administration also plans to keep in place existing U.S. indictments against individual members, including for drug trafficking, according to people familiar with the decision.

State Department spokesperson Ned Price on Tuesday called the peace agreement “a seminal turning point” in the decades-old conflict between successive Colombian governments and the FARC.

“It is something to be commended,” which “we have sought to preserve,” he told reporters.

Price declined to specify the details of what he called “upcoming actions . . . with regard to the FARC,” which he said would be revealed “in the coming days.” Under law, the administration must notify Congress and provide justification for imposing foreign terrorist designations, or lifting them, seven days before they are publicly announced.

He said that the peace process was “a central topic” discussed with the government of Colombian President Iván Duque during a visit to Bogotá last month by Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Although the delisting of the FARC was proposed by the previous government leader, Juan Manuel Santos, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating the deal, the conservative Duque has not promoted the idea. Instead, he has been highly critical of the agreement many say was too generous to fighters who committed atrocities during the conflict.

Colombia is pitting two vulnerable groups against each other. At stake is the Amazon.

The accord provided, among other things, for demobilization of the guerrilla fighters and surrender of weapons, and amnesty for those who had not committed crimes against humanity or other serious offenses and who acknowledged their activities and apologized to victims. The former guerrillas were promised reintegration assistance and agreed to establish a new political party, with guaranteed seats in the country’s Congress.

But because of the FARC’s designation as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, U.S. officials have been prohibited from funding programs aimed at advancing any accords in which former combatants participate or benefit. U.S. sanctions continue to create barriers to full reintegration of ex-FARC members and in some cases prohibited U.S. officials from even speaking to them.

Some U.S. lawmakers, activists and nongovernmental and civil organizations have urged the administration to lift the restrictions. A congressionally mandated report from the Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission in December urged the United States to “facilitate assistance to demobilized rebels in post-conflict zones.”

“The United States remains fully committed to working with Colombia on implementation of the peace accords,” Blinken said during his Bogotá visit.

Pablo Catatumbo, a former FARC commander who signed the accords and is now a senator in the Colombian Congress from the ex-FARC Comunes party, celebrated the news Tuesday as a positive step that affirmed the United States’ commitment.

“It will generate confidence in the ex-combatants who signed the peace agreement because it ratifies the international community’s commitment to the peace agreement,” he said. He added that he hoped the United States would next take steps to remove demobilized FARC members from the list of “specially designated nationals” — people connected to terrorism, drug trafficking or countries that have been targeted with sanctions by the U.S. Treasury.

“We have carried out the peace process, we have complied with it, and we are for peace in Colombia,” Catatumbo said.

How the U.S. terrorist list is getting in the way of peace in Colombia

Germán Balanta is a technical manager for Humanicemos DH, a group that claims to be the world’s first demining organization made up of former combatants after a peace process. He said that the delisting of FARC members could aid the reincorporation of former FARC members like him, “who are trying, in some way, to reenter the community while also providing these services to people who suffered so many of the consequences of the war.”

While former FARC leaders have said that up to 90 percent of the rebel group, once estimated to have up to 20,000 militant members, have demobilized, dissident fighters from the organization remain.

Chief among them is a group that calls itself Segunda Marquetalia, named for the town, southwest of Bogotá, that the FARC claimed as its founding site more than 50 years ago.

Those militants, headed by former FARC leader Ivan Marquez, surfaced in a 2019 video to declare ongoing war with the Colombian state. The video was believed to have been recorded in neighboring Venezuela, and the group operates primarily in areas along the Colombia-Venezuela border.

The State Department action is expected to designate Segunda Marquetalia and perhaps at least one other militant group as terrorist organizations, while lifting the ban against Comunes, the new ex-FARC organization.

It was unclear how the new designations will deal with a number of individuals placed on specially designated Treasury sanctions lists over the years for alleged involvement in money laundering and other crimes.

Schmidt reported from Caracas, Venezuela. Diana Duran in Bogotá, Colombia, contributed to this report.