Colombia’s Campaign Against FARC Rebels Yields Impressive Results

By Geraldine Cook
July 15, 2011

The near-capture last week of the maximum leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, reflects the Colombian military’s largely successful strategy of targeting top rebel leaders in an effort to bring down the 47-year-old guerrilla group.

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — The near-capture last week of the maximum leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, reflects the Colombian military’s largely successful strategy of targeting top rebel leaders in an effort to bring down the 47-year-old guerrilla group.
President Juan Manuel Santos said that top FARC leader Alfonso Cano escaped from a rebel camp “in the space of 12 hours” before the site was raided by Colombian troops. In his haste, Cano left behind his clothes, most of his belongings and his two dogs.
“We were very close to Cano,” Santos told reporters July 3. “We have verified that the night before, Cano slept at that camp…. He didn’t die, but he was very close. Sooner or later he will fall, like all the other FARC leaders.”
Santos has a point. In recent years, FARC’s leadership has been dropping like dominoes.
“The idea is that if the snake is agonizing due to a blow to the head, it will generate panic among the body of rank-and-file rebels and provoke massive demobilizations,” said Ariel Avila, a political analyst who tracks the FARC for a Bogota think tank, Nuevo Arco Iris.
In 2010, the Colombian military killed Jorge “Mono Jojoy” Briceño, the FARC’s long-time military strategist and head of the rebels’ powerful Eastern Bloc. Two other members of the ruling FARC secretariat, Raúl Reyes and Iván Ríos, were killed in 2008.
Also last year, FARC co-founder and maximum leader Manuel Marulanda died of a heart attack and was replaced by Cano, a 62-year-old Marxist academic. And as predicted, these FARC losses have produced a flood of deserters. Between 2,000 and 3,000 FARC fighters have demobilized annually since 2007.
The deserters, in turn, have provided a trove of intelligence on the FARC. In fact, a turncoat tipped off the Colombian Army about Cano’s whereabouts ahead of last week’s raid, which was carried out on the border between Cauca and Huila departments.
“We were very close [to killing Cano] thanks, in part, to the fact that his own people are turning on him,” Santos said.
In the process of homing in on Cano, the Colombian military has killed three of his top aides so far this year. The military pressure may have prompted Cano in February to release a video in which he floated the idea of peace talks. Yet Santos has rejected negotiation while the FARC continues to engage in acts of terrorism.
All these advances come after more than four decades of frustration, a period when the Colombian military failed to kill or capture a single member of the FARC’s ruling secretariat.
The turnaround began a decade ago. Under former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, a beefed-up military launched a long-running offensive that drove FARC units away from key cities and highways, produced a steep drop in kidnappings and reduced the rebel army’s numbers from 18,000 to about 8,000 fighters.
“Compared to 10 years ago, the FARC has fewer than half the rebel fighters and is operating in less than half the territory than they were before,” said Alfredo Rangel, a private security analyst based in Bogotá.
In addition, Santos has repaired relations with Ecuador and Venezuela — countries whose leaders have at times expressed sympathy for the FARC and turned a blind eye as rebels crossed into their territory to seek medical treatment, buy weapons or smuggle drugs.
Ecuador and Venezuela were also incensed at a 2008 military raid ordered by Santos, who was then Uribe’s defense minister. That raid killed Reyes — the FARC secretariat member and spokesman — who was camped out just across the border in Ecuadorian territory.
Yet Santos’ diplomacy has paid off. Recently, Venezuela extradited two important FARC commanders to Colombia. And last months, Ecuadorian authorities captured Fabio Ramírez Artunduaga, alias “Danilo,” who headed the FARC’s powerful 48th Front operating in Putumayo department along Colombia’s southern border with Ecuador.
Ramírez was dispatched to Colombia, marking the first deportation of a FARC commander from Ecuador in seven years. “This capture shows that confidence has been restored between the Ecuadorian and Colombian governments,” Rangel said.
Ramírez was the fourth leader of the 48th Front to be captured or killed in the past 16 months. Yet in spite of these losses, the 48th Front has found new leaders. And that points to the huge challenges that remain in delivering a death blow to the FARC.
Avila says that after suffering heavy losses, the rebels are adjusting to the Colombian army’s strategy and tactics of the past decade which have involved heavy reliance on joint operations, air power and intelligence. Now, Avila says, FARC units are moving in smaller numbers.
Rather than combat, about half of their military operations involve land mines, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and snipers. Earlier this month, for example, the FARC blocked a main highway in Antioquia department, burned a bus, then detonated an IED that killed an army major.
But Colombian officials portray such ambushes as a sign of weakness — especially compared to the late 1990s when the FARC massed up to 1,000 fighters to take over towns and military bases.
“The FARC is trying, in any way it can, to make as much noise as possible through small-scale actions,” said Colombian National Security Advisor Sergio Jaramillo.
Another shift, says Avila, has been the decentralization of FARC operations. The move gives individual FARC fronts more autonomy and has allowed the group to absorb the losses of mid- and even top-level commanders.
The overall impact, Avila says, is that the guerrilla organization has lost influence at the national level but remains entrenched and dangerous in many rural communities where there is little police or army presence.
The other vexing challenge in snuffing out the FARC once and for all is money.
For years, the FARC has financed itself through proceeds from drug trafficking. Indeed, some of the current fighting is between the FARC and new-generation paramilitary and criminal groups over control of the illegal drug trade.
But in the name of profit, the two sides sometimes cooperate.
Emails found on the computer of Edgar Tovar, who was killed in combat and led the FARC’s 48th Front before Ramírez, indicated that the rebels were working in cahoots with a criminal gang called Los Rastrojos on drug shipments and smuggling routes. As for Ramírez, the Colombian Army claims the captured FARC leader was a key contact for Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel.
Still, the drug trade is under stress with anti-narcotics operations in Colombia leading to a sharp drop in the number of acres planted with coca, the raw material for cocaine. In addition, improved security has led to a huge decrease in kidnappings for ransom — another source of FARC income.
As a result, the guerrillas are now focusing on extortion schemes, such as pressuring local politicians for payoffs in exchange for allowing the construction of roads, bridges and other public-works projects in areas where the rebels operate.
Local politicians “must refuse to make extortion payments and denounce this crime,” Santos said in a recent speech. “We are in the process of suffocating the guerrillas. We must not give them any oxygen or they could come back to life.”
Terrorism is like the mythical Hydra, except this one is real. If we cut off one head, we risk having the others strike at us even stronger. If we are to rid ourselves of this scourge, we need support from all the world’s governments. It is hard work, because we are fighting against terror, and debilitating fear. We fight a corruption that has invaded the most stable levels of our society. Blind Justice threaten to fight them, but they have moles within the police forces — let’s focus on finding those informants. This is my humble opinion, it’s just my thoughts, but the only ones who can put an end to all this are the governments. Entire generations of children will be the principle beneficiaries of this struggle.