BOGOTÁ, Colombia – It’s no longer just guns and landmines: The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has added Facebook, Twitter and blogs to its arsenal.
Given the Colombian terrorist group’s actions include ideological propaganda, the Internet is its best and cheapest weapon, according to Alfredo Rangel, director of Colombia’s Security and Democracy Foundation.
“This has clearly become an aspect of Colombia’s internal conflict,” he said. “The FARC has adapted and is using information technologies to convey its messages.”
In September, FARC leader Timoleón Jiménez, “Timochenko,” opened a Twitter account that lists his location as the “Mountains of Colombia.” His account has more than 7,000 followers, while the FARC’s Twitter account has 15,860.
When the FARC kidnapped French journalist Roméo Langlois in late April, the terrorist group relied on Twitter to provide updates about his health and subsequent release.
The FARC also used Twitter to provide details regarding the release of 10 police and military hostages, which occurred in early April.
“The use of Twitter has become a vehicle for announcing the release of hostages. Its website evokes the memory of their fallen ‘heroes’ and the FARC constantly posts messages about liberating Colombia from the [alleged] oppression it is currently enduring,” Rangel said.
The Colombian government will invest about US$2.8 million in technology in 2013 that will allow it to identify the origin of the guerrilla group’s digital communications in an effort to combat the FARC online.
“The important thing is the government understands the FARC’s ability to adapt in this area requires officials to fight terrorism in the media as well,” said Jhoan Guevara, a specialist in political science and communications at Javeriana University, in Bogotá.
Though the FARC and the Colombian government are engaged in peace talks, President Juan Manuel Santos said he won’t suspend military operations against the terrorist group, as fighting the FARC has been a priority since he took office in 2010.
“The FARC is at a numerical and technological disadvantage,” Santos said recently. “One way or another, these terrorist groups are going to disappear. We would prefer that they turn in their weapons and surrender, but if they want to keep fighting, we’ll keep on improving our infrastructure. We’ll add more officers and buy everything we need to combat the FARC from every possible angle.”
By monitoring the FARC’s communications, the government has dealt major blows to the terrorist group. For example, FARC commander Raúl Reyes died in a military operation in 2008 that started with security forces’ tracing his satellite phone to learn his specific location.
Intercepted communications also revealed the FARC’s plans to assassinate Santos in August.
“In the war against terrorism, we have to cover all of the angles and that’s why we have people who work around the clock to monitor the FARC’s communications, analyze them and then attack weaknesses,” said Sergio Jaramillo, a senior national security adviser and one of the creators of the National Intelligence Directorate (DNI), the institution charged with waging the digital battle against the FARC.
Diana Carolina Montoya, a political scientist at the University of Rosario, said the FARC is losing the armed and ideological battles.
“When you read the articles of war published on the FARC’s website, the thing that upsets public opinion is that it presents itself as attacking and harassing the military forces of Colombia. But at no point does the FARC show remorse for the actions taken against civil society,” she said. “For the FARC, the concept of collateral damage doesn’t exist. The FARC uses these means of communications solely to meet its needs.”
Dismantling clandestine radios
The FARC traditionally uses clandestine radio stations to transmit its message throughout Colombia’s rural areas.
“We believe that there is at least one radio station in each region of the country. In the Caribbean, Pacific, Amazon, Andean and Orinoco regions, the FARC has at least one station to specifically reach those areas,” said Ariel Ávila, a researcher with Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris, an NGO that analyzes conflict between the state and the terrorist group.
Colombia’s security forces regularly dismantle the FARC’s clandestine radio stations.
On Aug. 25, Colombian Army soldiers raided a FARC radio station in the rural area of Cubarral in the department of Meta.
During the operation, they seized power regulators, a console, high-powered batteries, communications cables, a scanner and other equipment used to transmit radio signals.
The station covered municipalities including La Uribe, La Macarena, Vista Hermosa, Granada, San José del Guaviare and Mapiripán in the department of Meta, and the Sumapaz region in the department of Cundinamarca, according to the Colombian Army’s 13th Brigade.
The army reported in November 2011 the deactivation of the Cubarral-based “Voice of the Resistance” radio station. The FARC operated the radio station in the region for more than 15 years, mainly for political indoctrination and to boost guerrillas’ morale.