Military Strategy, One Step Ahead

By Dialogo
January 01, 2012

Students with their heads covered to hide their identities blocked streets in
cities across Colombia in September 2011. What began as peaceful student protests turned
into violent clashes with police as the young adults threw stones and explosive devices.
Police in turn responded with tear gas and powerful jets of water. A few days later,
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced that the Revolutionary Armed Forces of
Colombia (FARC) were behind the protest.
A wave of similar activities was part of the guerrilla group’s tactic to stimulate
social protests and produce violence. By the time President Santos’ statement aired, the
government’s plan to fight back was already in action.
On August 7, 2011, President Santos announced that the Colombian Armed Forces will
make an adjustment to the doctrine, operations and procedures used to counter guerrilla
attacks. The military already occupied areas once controlled by rebels and had killed
several important guerrilla commanders. These actions forced the guerrillas to radically
adapt their tactics. They put away their camouflage and dressed as civilians to make it
easier to attack and hide when carrying out small operations against the military and

Despite a reduction of 6 percent in homicides in the country in his first year in
office (890 murders fewer than the previous 12 months), there was concern about the 8
percent increase in kidnappings for ransom (15 more cases). Extortion also took place in
rural areas and guerrilla attacks continued across the country. The use of improvised
explosive devices (IEDs) was on the rise, wounding or killing civilians and military
personnel. It was time to strengthen the strategy of territorial control, which required
better organization of the Armed Forces and an adequate distribution of roles and missions,
according to the president.
FARC’s New Tactics
Silke Pfeiffer, Colombia and Andes project director for the nongovernmental
organization International Crisis Group, told Diálogo that the FARC is conducting guerrilla
warfare, as opposed to the bold attacks that it once launched on Colombian positions when it
had greater numbers. This includes tactics such as moving in small units, attacking military
positions, damaging infrastructure, and planting mines and explosive devices. Pfeiffer said
the FARC changed tactics under the pressure of former President Álvaro Uribe’s Democratic
Security Policy, which sought to regain territorial control by deploying an increased number
of troops and police units across the country.

Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris, a nongovernmental organization in Colombia, indicated
in a 2011 report that the FARC’s attacks seem no longer a random tactic of some units but a
larger, coordinated strategy. They involve several types of distinct actions in a short
time. For example, when Colombian Army units respond with immediate pursuit to the actions
of rebel snipers, they fall into minefields set by the rebels. Insurgents then ambush the
troops who survive the minefield.
To avoid being seen by intelligence aircraft, the FARC has also banned large
concentrations of guerrillas in a single camp. Additionally, they have minimized
communication by mobile phones and radio telephones. Many fronts have also divided into
small teams composed of no more than three to four rebels, with some of them hidden within
the civilian population.

A weakened FARC has responded with acts of terrorism, such as the use of IEDs and
snipers. Given the difficulty of acting against Colombian troops, the guerrillas are using
subsidiary plans such as land mines, snipers, and war politics, said General Alejandro Navas
Ramos, general commander of the Armed Forces of Colombia. This is different from the “war of
movements” approach used in the early 1990s, which allowed the FARC to attack with a large
number of men, weapons and heavy artillery, reported the Colombian newspaper site
A Coordinated Response
President Santos’ plan is based on five areas: strengthen intelligence schemes, run
military operations in smaller units, collaborate with the justice system, implement a
policy of consolidation, and restructure legal defense of the military.When referring to
intelligence, President Santos said it was important to find the enemy in order to give
better protection to the population because when the enemy mixes with the civilian
population disguised as civilians, they hit with even more indifference. “It is clear, when
the enemy plays invisible because it has no other option for survival, it becomes harder to
find and compels us to review and, where possible, to unify our intelligence capabilities to
find them,” President Santos said.
The plan also aims for military operations in smaller units and higher
effectiveness against the hidden enemy. This requires a revision of the doctrine and
training as well as the provision of equipment and great leadership. The third element of
the plan is collaboration with the justice system to dismantle the rebels and guarantee the
rule of law. In addition, the new plan calls for the implementation of a policy of
consolidation, which includes a law to restore land to farmers. The final component is
proper legal protection for the military to ensure the rights to counsel and the presumption
of innocence are not violated. Such protection gives troops the confidence to conduct their
The plan seeks not only to attack the main guerrilla groups, the FARC and the
National Liberation Army (ELN), but also criminal bands (known by their Spanish acronym
Bacrim) responsible for common crime and drug trafficking. The fight against drug
trafficking is a key part of this strategy, according to
In February 2011, President Santos officially recognized Bacrims, primarily made up
of former paramilitary members, as the biggest threat to security in the country. In fact,
the guerrilla groups are aligning with these gangs to traffic drugs. “They [the FARC]
maintain alliances with paramilitary successor groups which they fought at the time,”
Pfeiffer said. “They are very opportunistic alliances that have nothing to do with ideology,
but are individual fronts.”
Upon celebrating his first year in office in August 2011, President Santos said
that during this period more than 1,900 members of guerrilla groups demobilized, almost 40
per week. In addition, 8,800 people who were participating in a reintegration program had
begun to work in the formal sector, and more than 20,000 enrolled in school. The study and
implementation of the new military strategies based on these guidelines were expected to
bear fruit by the end of 2011, he said. “As a government, we must have the humility to know
what needs to be corrected, and that is exactly what we are doing,” President Santos said.
Sources: International Crisis Group, Ministerio de Defensa Nacional de la República
de Colombia,,
Plan of Attack
Colombia’s new military strategy to counter guerrilla attacks is based on the
following guidelines:

1) Improve intelligence
2) Run military operations with smaller units
3) Collaborate with the justice system
4) Implement a policy of consolidation
5) Restructure legal framework for security forces members