Colombian Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón: FARC Close to Collapse
By Dialogo May 13, 2013
Colombia’s longstanding conflict against FARC terrorists is beginning to look less like an all-out military conflict and more like a government crackdown on organized crime.
That’s the word from Colombian Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón, who says the Marxist-oriented Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC] is on the run and has been changing its tactics.
“They are moving closer to dissolution, but also this brings us a challenge,” Pinzón said. “We are hitting FARC on the head and eliminating the way they operate nationwide, but they are becoming more localized.”
Pinzón’s April 29 appearance at the National Defense University’s William J. Perry Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies in Washington, came as Colombian and FARC leaders met in Havana for an eighth round of peace talks that began last year. The FARC — which both Washington and Bogotá classify as a terrorist group — claims to represent Colombia’s rural poor against exploitation by the country’s elite.
But Colombian government officials have long denounced FARC’s tactics, which include kidnapping, drug smuggling, extortion and violence. The conflict is deeply entrenched and has killed more than 600,000 people in the past five decades, according to international human rights organizations.
Pinzón: FARC becoming less predictable
Pinzón said the FARC gradually has become less predictable and less visible, which makes it more difficult to track than an organized, high-profile military movement.
“They are more like a mafia,” he said. “They are more dispersed and less concentrated in rural areas. They are using casual dress, smaller guns and cellphones. They are not using all the weapons and uniforms they used to, and they are often in civilian clothes and sometimes unarmed to prevent military action.”
He added: “They are more like a group of criminal bands, but we are defeating those criminal bands one by one.”
Violent gun battles remain commonplace, even though overall fighting between FARC guerrillas and government forces is less intense than it used to be. On May 5, barely a week after Pinzón’s speech at the Perry Center, army forces killed seven FARC rebels in the southwestern department of Nariño, near Colombia’s border with Ecuador.
Juan Carlos Palou, an official of the Ideas for Peace Foundation think tank in Bogotá, agrees with that assessment.
“As a political force, “the FARC remains very weak, having isolated themselves through the use of increasing levels of sporadic violence and links with Mexican drug-trafficking cartels,” he said, suggesting this has alienated FARC leaders from their traditional base of support.
“It has created a bottleneck effect, pushing against their immediate transition into local or national politics,” said Palou.
Pinzón urges Washington not to give up the fight now
Pinzón encouraged his audience — about 100 Washington-based military and civilian defense officials — to help maintain U.S. financial backing for Colombia.
“If there is a time in which we need support, or a time we need to weaken the capabilities of the FARC, it is now,” he said. “Every week, we are getting rid of a leader of the FARC or we get some weapons, explosives or drugs. Every day we continue to move ahead. Peace will be made with them or without them. The difference will be the timeline. We will do it in the next six months, or we will do it in the next five years.”
Pinzón acknowledged that U.S. budget cuts could affect assistance to the Colombian military campaign, designed to combat terrorism as well as stem the flow of Colombian cocaine to the United States.
“I understand the challenges you have from a fiscal perspective,” said Pinzón, throwing in a football analogy to make his point. “But we are in the red zone. We’ve got to get into the end zone!”
Pinzón, the 41-year-old son of a Colombian army colonel, has a graduate degree in international relations and strategic studies from Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, and a master’s degree in public policy from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos appointed Pinzón as his defense minister in 2011. Previously, he had been the president’s general secretary.
Learning from past mistakes
While Pinzón touted Colombia’s military successes, he also said the government is open to talking with the rebels. He said Santos has offered the FARC a role in the country’s political process, but will not negotiate with respect to its military policies.
“He will not discuss the future of the armed forces with the terrorists, but he is willing to let them participate in the political process,” Pinzón said. “The main peace builders in the country are the armed forces. They are the main protectors of human rights. Yes, we can have a hard stance — and we will if needed — but we also need to talk. We want to integrate the region in a peaceful way.”
Pinzón said the Colombian government is using hard lessons learned in its longstanding struggle against illegal drug production and trafficking to disrupt other criminal activities.
“In Colombia, we have been successful,” he said. “Drug trafficking is around 30 percent of what it was 10 years ago. The size of the coca fields, the level of production and certainly in the way criminal organizations fund themselves have all changed. It doesn’t mean it’s not a problem anymore, but it is a different problem.”
Now, the government is turning its attention to other festering scourges.
“We’re using the experience of the war against drugs to fight new funding sources of criminality — illegal mining, extortion, contraband smuggling, and small-scale drug trafficking in our cities,” he explained. “The next generation is fully committed to the idea that Colombia should learn from history and not keep doing what we’ve been doing wrong.”
Good intervention, one should never give up, it's impossible to abandon the fight. Forward, Military Forces, in spite of B. Obama. The horizon is clear, success in the fight, forward COLOMBIANS for everyone's benefit and tranquility. May God bless you. I think the intervention of the very young Secretary of Defense is excellent. I would simply recommend him to study everything related to the help from Washington, which he considers so necessary. No, Mr. Secretary, remember that this help only means strengthening politics foreign to ours; this is in case we truly want to be independent in matters as serious as those that are being addressed. Let's not allow ourselves to be misled, the way we are going, we are going very well... Peace, the greatest treasure coveted by the whole universe. Without it we have to fill notebooks daily with strategies that don't lead to finding the best option. Long live Colombia.