BOGOTÁ —In 2008, Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, the so-called “Merchant of Death,” was arrested in Thailand in a sting operation in which U.S. federal drug agents posed as Colombian rebels seeking hundreds of surface-to-air missiles.
It was an excellent cover story, because the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has long coveted these portable, shoulder-fired missiles, known as SAMs, to counter the Bogotá government’s highly effective air war against the guerrillas.
But as the Thailand sting illustrates, it’s not always easy for illegal armed groups to acquire them.
In this case, stricter international controls, the lack of cooperation from sympathetic governments that have SAM, and the hardships of maintaining sophisticated weapons while on the run in the jungle appear to have prevented the FARC from building up a potent anti-aircraft capability. But that hasn’t kept the rebels from trying.
Jeremy McDermott is co-director of InsightCrime, a think tank that tracks organized crime in Latin America. He points out that air power has provided a major strategic advantage for the Colombian military, with bombing raids responsible for some of the greatest blows against the FARC — such as operations that killed rebel commanders Raul Reyes and Jorge “Mono Jojoy,” Briceño, and former maximum leader Alfonso Cano.
Continuing air war erodes FARC leadership
The air war has also hurt FARC morale, leading to massive desertions. Many demobilized rebels said jungle life had become intolerable because they never feel safe, even at night, due to the possibility of being bombed.
“For simple payback, the FARC would want these weapons,” McDermott said. “A Stinger missile would bring down anything the Colombian Air Force has at the moment.”
In emails recovered from rebel computers following raids on their jungle camps, FARC commanders constantly refer to the need for SAMs. Such missiles would allow the rebels to deal “forceful blows to the enemy's air power,” Cano wrote in an Aug. 16, 2009, email intercepted by Colombian military intelligence.
The FARC does appear to have some anti-aircraft capability, ranging from artisanal to the sophisticated.
The rebels are known to string wires between mountaintop trees in an effort to snag the wings of crop dusters fumigating their coca and opium crops, the raw materials for cocaine and heroin. They often fire their heavy .50-caliber machine guns at choppers and planes, but these weapons are highly inaccurate when aiming at fast-moving military aircraft.
Raids uncover FARC’s sophisticated weaponry
Following a July 2008 raid on a FARC camp, soldiers recovered three Swedish-made AT-4 anti-tank rocket launchers that had been sold by Sweden to the Venezuelan military. That sparked fears that President Hugo Chávez’s populist government was helping to arm the FARC.
Two years later, police in the southern department of Cauca stopped a taxi carrying two U.S.-made Ultramag .50 caliber long-range sniper rifles, which can pierce armor and take down aircraft. Police said the rifles were destined for the FARC.
But given the FARC’s strategic need for missiles, its access to millions of dollars in profits from drug trafficking and extortion, and its links to the international weapons black market, the guerrillas would seem to have myriad possibilities to acquire SAMs — as did El Salvador’s Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front rebels and Afghanistan’s Mujahadeen resistance in the 1980s.
Douglas Farah, a senior fellow at the Washington-based International Assessment and Strategy Center, said SAMs can be bought on the black market in Central and South America for about $15,000.
But in both El Salvador and Afghanistan, the missiles arrived via friendly governments during the Cold War. The Salvadoran rebels acquired SAMs through the Sandinista government in neighboring Nicaragua, while at the prodding of legendary Texas lawmaker Charlie Wilson, the CIA supplied shoulder-fired missiles to Afghan rebels fighting Soviet occupation forces.
SAMs harder to come by post-9/11
These days, however, international arms controls are tighter. Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the U.S. government has been rounding up and buying back old SAMs from Nicaragua and other countries because it fears the missiles could be used by terrorists to take down military and domestic aircraft, according to Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America.
Alfredo Rangel, director of the Security and Democracy Foundation — a Bogotá think tank — said that although the Venezuelan military has purchased numerous SAMs from Russia, the Chávez government has apparently decided that it would be too risky to pass some of them on to the FARC, even though rebel emails indicate that the guerrillas were pressuring Venezuela for the weapons.
The FARC always has prided itself on autonomy. Before the Colombian military’s air war began in earnest, FARC leaders had less need for SAMs and were determined to develop their own arms technologies, according to Bogotá political analyst Álvaro Jiménez.
During the FARC’s major military buildup in the 1990s, for example, the rebels learned how to build powerful homemade mortars and rockets using propane gas cylinders that wreaked havoc on police stations, army bases and poorly defended towns.
But after 2000, a major ground offensive by the army coupled with constant air raids reduced the FARC from 16,000 to about 8,000 fighters. By then, the FARC’s financial network had been squeezed while its cadre of highly trained mid-level commanders — who could be trusted to handle sophisticated weapons — had been vastly reduced.
SAMs could influence war’s outcome
In addition, it’s difficult to keep SAM components such as batteries in good working order in Colombia’s hot, humid jungle weather — especially when FARC units are being chased by government troops. “FARC units are not in fixed positions, so climate control storage of SAMs would not be easy to maintain,” Farah said.
Even so, analysts say they won’t be surprised if the FARC eventually acquires SAMs. “It’s only a matter of time,” Jiménez said.
Should that happen, Farah said, their impact on the Colombian war might prove similar to the effect SAMs had during the final years of the civil war in El Salvador. The missiles gave FMLN rebels a military and psychological boost and forced Salvadoran air force pilots to change their flying patterns from relatively quick, straight sorties to ‘map of the earth’ flying in which they would skim close to the ground to avoid being seen by SAM-wielding rebels from long distances.
In Colombia, SAMs in rebel hands would likely limit the ability of the Colombian military to pursue the FARC, drop off and pick up soldiers, and maintain its supply lines and troop presence across broad swaths of roadless national territory.
“The military would adjust and recalibrate over time,” Farah said, “but it would certainly give the FARC some breathing room and open operational spaces.”