Colombia’s oldest left-wing insurgency, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), has no intention of going quietly — despite a series of setbacks capped by the death of its supreme commander and difficulty recruiting new members.
In fact, FARC leaders are eager to demonstrate that predictions of the group’s collapse may be premature. In recent weeks, they’ve launched a series of attacks, including on two towns in the southwestern department of Cauca. In separate clashes in Tolima province with the Colombian Army’s 6th Brigade, they killed a non-commissioned officer and three enlisted men.
Norte de Santander and Putumayo provinces have also seen an uptick in FARC action as 2011 turned into 2012, leaving a woman and her baby dead and nearly two dozen wounded.
But Colombian military and civil authorities see the recent FARC attacks as the thrashing around of a movement that has lost its reason for existence and is mired in the throes of dissent.
And they remain confident that the guerrilla movement is vulnerable and weakening fast, with divisions over strategy widening and debate taking place within the movement over whether to prolong the insurgency.
FARC is ‘losing ground, says top general
“They are losing more ground every day,” Gen. Alejandro Navas, the commander of Colombia’s armed forces, told the Bogota newspaper El Nuevo. Recruitment is becoming harder and the movement’s isolation from ordinary Colombians is now almost complete, he said, maintaining that the guerrillas are on “the road to defeat, undoubtedly.”
Army spokesmen estimate that FARC has sustained a halving of its numbers in the past few years, from 16,000 to 8,000 members. Independent analysts concur and say that FARC, despite the hundreds of millions of dollars it generates from involvement in the drug trade, is looking for an end to its long struggle.
For military analyst Alfredo Rangel, the killing by the Colombian military last November of FARC’s supreme commander, Alfonso Cano, will be seen as the key turning point.
“The government landed a significant blow with Cano's death,” said Rangel asserting that it will lead to numerous desertions, further reducing FARC strength. Another well-known Colombian academic, Ancízar Marroquín, said “the disappearance of FARC’s historical leaders could herald the demobilization of the guerrilla war.”
How that may finally come about, no one is sure. Rangel thinks the movement’s new leader, 52-year-old Rodrigo Londoño Echeverry — also known as Timochenko — will fight to the bitter end in keeping with his reputation as a military tough guy. Other analysts such as Marroquín suspect the end could be closer, but advocate that the government should focus on breaking up the more efficient guerrilla units.
Mexico could learn from Colombian tactics
There are no signs that easing off is in the wind. President Juan Manuel Santos seems determined as ever to ensure the end of an insurgency that has plagued Colombia for decades.
Nearby countries, most notably Mexico, are closely monitoring developments in Colombia to try to assess what ramifications FARC’s collapse may hold for them — and more urgently to evaluate whether Colombian tactics can be of any use in combating their various security challenges.
Central American governments are impressed with the success Colombia has had in its confrontation with FARC. Since 2002, the number of municipalities FARC operates in has dropped from 377 to 142.
Santos recently suggested Colombia has a lot to offer neighbors by way of expertise and tactics. He said sharing intelligence on the links between FARC “fronts” and Mexican cartels such as Los Zetas can assist law enforcement agencies throughout Central America.
Colombia is certainly no stranger to counter-narcotics operations. Aside from battling FARC, Colombian authorities in the 1990s dismantled two of the world’s most powerful transnational crime organizations: Pablo Escobar’s Medellín cartel and the Cali cartel.
While there are major differences between the two situations – FARC remains an insurgency aimed overthrowing the government, whereas Mexican organized crime doesn’t have a political ideology — Mexican authorities clearly hope to gain from Colombian expertise in fighting drug trafficking. Colombian special forces train their Mexican counterparts
Gen. Luís Alberto Pérez, the director of Colombia’s Narcotics Police, said that last year, more than 100 Mexican police and soldiers trained with Colombian special forces. The four-month commando courses included jungle training, raiding heavily fortified strongholds, and the use of assault weapons and explosives.
Pérez said other countries could learn much from the counter-insurgency strategy known as Plan Colombia, which itself has three primary goals: to clear insurgents from territory, to hold territory wrested back from the guerrillas while weakening the FARC’s drug-dependent funding, and finally, to sever ties between locals and guerrillas by promoting economic and social development.
Mexican cartels are just as determined as FARC to control and dominate territory. Yet police and military officers there are not up against a clearly visible uniformed armed group like the FARC. They do, however, confront traffickers who employ increasingly terror-like tactics such as mounting ambushes, planting bombs and trying to outgun authorities when raided.
Mexican officials aren’t only interested in observing Colombian military tactics. The province of La Macarena — once a FARC stronghold that the government wrested from the guerrillas — has lately been the focus of development programs implemented by the Santos government in order to prevent a return to violence and drug trafficking.