FARC Leader Alfonso Cano’s Death Fails to Stop Colombia Violence
By Dialogo January 09, 2012
BOGOTA — Colombia’s FARC guerrillas bid adieu to 2011 in typical — and tragic — fashion.
On Dec. 30, the rebels fired a homemade rocket at a police station in the southern town of Orito, near Colombia’s border with Ecuador. No police officers died in the explosion but it did kill the wife and eight-month-old son of the police chief, who had taken up his new post just two days earlier.
“That does not show military strength on the part of the FARC,” said Alvaro Jiménez, a political analyst who heads a Colombian organization that promotes the removal of land mines from the battlefield. “Killing a wife and a baby is simply a crime that generates horror and rejection among Colombians.”
Jiménez and other analysts say the Orito bombing and other recent rebel hostilities illustrate Colombia’s battlefield paradox as the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia enters its 48th year of waging war.
The guerrillas stepped up their attacks on government troops, remote towns and energy infrastructure in the past year. Yet the FARC also suffered devastating blows, such as the Nov. 4 death of its maximum leader, Alfonso Cano, in an army operation.
Analysts debate effectiveness of anti-FARC tactics
These conflicting signals over the course of the war in 2011 has led to fierce debates among analysts over whether the FARC is gaining momentum after a decade of decline and retreat.
Alfredo Rangel, director of the Bogotá-based Security and Democracy Foundation think tank, points out that kidnappings by the FARC jumped by 10 percent last year, acts of sabotage by 32 percent and attacks on oil infrastructure by 80 percent. In June, for example, the FARC kidnapped three Chinese oil workers and their translator in the southern department of Caquetá. All four men are still missing. The rebels also bombed oil pipelines and trains carrying coal to Caribbean ports.
Indeed, the growing perception that security in Colombia has deteriorated led to the August resignation of Defense Minister Rodrigo Rivera. He was replaced by Juan Carlos Pinzon, a long-time aide to President Juan Manuel Santos.
In a recent interview broadcast on Dutch TV, Tanja Nijmeijer, a Dutch woman who joined the FARC a decade ago, said: “The FARC is pressing forward without Cano. There have been a lot of military actions in the wake of his death…. That proves we are moving ahead and that the end of the FARC is a long way off.”
Troop morale is also an issue, according to Rangel. He claims that soldiers have been less aggressive on the battlefield due, in part, to judicial reforms that allow troops and officers to be tried by civilian, rather than military, courts for alleged human rights violations related to their actions against the FARC.
If not for the killing of Cano, Rangel said, 2011 would have been viewed as a wash for Colombian security forces. “The day before Cano was killed,” Rangel noted, “the entire Colombian press corps was questioning the effectiveness of the fight against the FARC.”
Think tank: FARC’s resurgence a ‘false alarm’
But other analysts offer strikingly different view of the FARC war machine.
María Victoria Llorente, who heads the Bogotá nonprofit group Ideas For Peace, said warnings about a major resurgence by the FARC constitute “a false alarm.” Her organization published a lengthy assessment of the conflict in August that painted the FARC in a state of steady decline.
The report attributed the recent increase in rebel attacks to a FARC strategy aimed at dispersing government troops and distracting them from their top priority of taking down top guerrilla leaders. These hostilities often involve land mines, sniper attacks and other actions that require minimal military effort by the rebels.
Jeremy McDermott, co-director of Insight Crime, a Bogotá research center that tracks organized crime and conflict in Latin America, said that because army pressure has FARC combatants constantly on the run, the rebel organization’s ability to provide serious political and military training to its recruits is severely limited. Rather than combat, he said, many FARC fronts are focused on money-making activities, such as extorting gold miners and trafficking drugs.
Young guerrilla recruits “hardly know anything,” a demobilized member of the FARC’s 36th Front told Insight Crime. “They gave us training for something like 20 days… Maybe you learn how to dismantle and re-arm a rifle. More than anything, the 36th Front doesn’t have an instructor who can train a group of new guys. That capacity isn’t there.”
FARC fails to disrupt local elections
When the FARC does strike, many of the clashes take place in remote jungle regions and border areas where rebels can evade government troops by crossing into Ecuador or Venezuela. But, unlike the widespread havoc wrought by FARC actions in the late 1990s and early 2000s, recent rebel assaults have had little impact on Colombia’s political and economic life.
Despite intense efforts by the FARC to disrupt state and local elections held on Oct. 31, for example, only a few incidents of violence were reported — and the voting took place in a largely peaceful atmosphere. Jiménez noted that amid attacks on Colombia’s pipelines and power plants, “the oil continues to flow. The economy continues to grow.”
The Ideas For Peace report claims that the decrease in army combat operations against the FARC has nothing to do with troop morale. Instead, the report said the dropoff was the natural outcome of the FARC’s dwindling numbers.
A decade ago, the FARC fielded about 15,000 combatants who were active in 377 of Colombia’s 1,100 municipios or townships. Today, the FARC has about 8,000 fighters active in 142 townships.
“For these reasons, it’s wrong to talk about a reactivation and strengthening of the FARC,” the report said. Recent events “reflect the opposite. The FARC’s loss of offensive military capacity is irreversible and the group is now desperately trying to guarantee the survival of its rearguard.”
Yet even if that’s an accurate X-ray of the state of the FARC, McDermott warns against triumphalism.
Army pressure on the rebels, he says, is having the “adverse effect” — forcing the FARC to find new ways to survive, such as establishing temporary alliances with former paramilitary units that once fought the rebels but are now involved almost exclusively in drug trafficking. In fact, these new criminal gangs are now responsible for most of Colombia’s kidnappings and, according to Jiménez, now constitute the nation’s biggest security threat.
Acknowledging that there’s little realistic opportunity of total battlefield victory over the FARC, many analysts have applauded Santos for recently opening the door to peace talks with the rebels.
That could prevent the further degradation and criminalization of the FARC and allow Colombia to reduce spending on security — which constitutes about 4 percent of GDP — and shift that money to other areas.
However, Santos said negotiations could only take place if the FARC releases all of its remaining hostages and refrains from further kidnappings and attacks on the civilian population. And that seems unlikely.
The rebels have unilaterally released a few hostages and promise to free six more in coming months. But the FARC refuses to renounce the practice of kidnapping. What’s more, non-uniformed FARC militia members are often based in urban areas where they continue to target civilians.
“I am very skeptical about FARC statements that they want peace,” Rangel said. “It’s just a lot of empty rhetoric."
These guerrillas don't fight because of the social inequality in Colombia -- they're criminals, murderers, thieves, extortionists and cowards who plant drugs, harvest them and make lots of money, which in the end they can't enjoy because their conscience won't let them. I congratulate President Santos -- stick it to them, they have no souls they sow pain and tears throughout Colombia.