BOGOTÁ — The Colombian government has its best chance in decades to defeat violent rebels fighting under the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) banner.
Political analyst Vicente Torrijos told a group of military experts that recent years have seen dramatic progress compared to the late 1990s, when the Colombian government — in its negotiations with FARC rebels — was prepared to end the bloody conflict regardless of the cost. Now, it seems the FARC is no longer in charge, and that the group’s current generation of fighters seeks more limited military objectives.
“The adversary, in this case the FARC, is striving to achieve what they have yet to enjoy,” Torrijos said. “They want to take power, giving priority to political actions while not forgetting the military ones. This would permit them to be involved in international and diplomatic relations.”
Torrijos spoke Oct. 1 at Bogotá’s Club Militar, on the first day of a four-day “Seminar Internacional de Acción Integral: Desafio y Proyección Construyendo el Futuro.”
While talk of the upcoming peace accords in Oslo and Havana dominated the discussions, there’s also a philosophical approach being lent to the event, which was co-sponsored by the U.S. Southern Command.
Gen. Alejandro Navas Ramos, commander-in-chief of the Colombian Armed Forces, said the FARC has failed to capitalize on its substantial victories during the 1990s.
However, the rebel group’s latest forays into the political sphere show how far the guerrillas are willing to adapt in an attempt to win over the masses.
“We have a mission to bring this conflict to an end and win peace,” said Navas. “The enemy is not defeated until he realizes and accepts that fact. Defeat alone does not assure victory.”
Novoa: Five crises block end to fighting
Navas suggested to his audience of 80 people — which included soldiers from all branches of the Colombian Armed Forces as well as half a dozen visitors from the United States — that “this bloody violence is in our DNA.”
Lt. Col. Laureano Novoa Parra spoke about Colombia’s civil strife and its principal actors as if they were a systematic and functioning part of Colombian society. He said five crises must be tackled in order to end the conflict:
• The crisis of identity, including tensions between nation and region
• Neglect: Much of Colombia remains relatively forgotten mainly due to geographical difficulties
• Involvement: Colombian citizens have low-level participation
• Distribution: Colombia has one of the most unequal income disparities between rich and poor in Latin America, leading to internal instability
• Legitimacy: The state lacks a presence in large swaths of territory, meaning armed groups will move into the vacuum and win the loyalties of local inhabitants
What about the lesser-known ELN?
The idea of demobilized FARC guerrillas in the political and social arena alarms Colombia’s military leaders — especially when their income derives mainly from narcotrafficking, illegal mining, land grabbing, extortion and formerly kidnapping.
Torrijos estimated the FARC’s annual income at about $1.1 billion per year, asking if the rebels would willingly give this up. As Navas noted in his opening remarks, “the FARC looks to the national elections in 2014 as a test, and then the subsequent elections in 2018 as a possible legitimate political victory.”
While the FARC has been coaxed to the negotiating table, relatively little mention has been made of the Ejercito de Liberación Nacional (ELN), the smaller of Colombia’s two well-known guerrilla groups. Torrijos said there must be “a certain notion of revolutionary union” for Colombia to be able to achieve peace.
But talk of a negotiated settlement may be premature, warned Novoa, given that as much as 70 percent of Colombian territory suffers from an inadequate government presence.
The FARC has tapped into urban militias known as RATs (Red de Apoyo al Terrorism) which do not interfere with the guerrilla group’s ideological or social beliefs, he said.
“Now, the FARC is limited to some 60 fronts, each with its own head [cabecilla],” he said. “Each front has a territory for which it is responsible and must be self-sufficient, be it through illegal mining, extortion or other activities. From this, they must pay a quota to the FARC head secretariat.”
However, Novoa said it’s clear that the Colombian military must take advantage of the FARC’s chain of command. He said deep divisions exist between the organization’s political and military wings, and that it is where the Armed Forces need to apply pressure.