BOGOTÁ — Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos ended a weekend of bloodshed July 6 by declaring that the Armed Forces had regained the upper hand in response to a series of coordinated and deadly mortar bomb attacks by FARC on the southwestern rural towns of Toribio, Miranda and Monterredondo.
“Despite the cowardly terrorist attacks, our public forces have total control and protects the population,” Santos said through his official Twitter account. And yet, the rebel attacks by the FARC’s Frente 6 faction continue.
Toribio, a town in fertile coffee-growing territory, is located in northeastern Cauca department, only 55 miles over perilous mountain roads from the Cali metropolis. On July 6 — after 72 hours of continual bombardment and firefights between police and armed forces on one side, and Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia terrorists on the other — the town was declared back under government control. But the fighting left four children injured and thousands of people displaced.
The Colombian Air Force was called in to back up 2,000 government troops on the ground, using Super Tucano planes to bomb strategic Marxist rebel hideouts and positions around Toribio.
Welcome to ‘Toribistan’
Colombian national news outlets have been particularly scathing, quoting locals of the town as referring to their home as “Toribistan.” Even the weekly news magazine Semana has likened Toribio to wartime Baghdad.
Despite the Armed Forces’ efforts, Toribio Mayor Ezequiel Vitonás disputes that the town is once again secure from the guerrillas. He claims that in the last decade, Toribio has come under attack at least 450 times, resulting in many deaths and injuries. In July 2011, for example, the town was savagely attacked when a traditional chiva bus laden with explosives blew up in front of the local police station killing several officers, wounding nearly 100 more and damaging or destroying as many as 500 buildings.
Since February 2012, according to the governor of Cauca, Temístocles Ortega, the town has come under fire 30 times — and these onslaughts alone have left 40 people dead.
In a conflict so often confined to guerrilla stealth and evasion tactics employed in jungle warfare, Toribio and the surrounding municipalities have emerged as the de facto frontline between the FARC and Colombian government forces.
“The locality’s population has grown accustomed to war. It is not uncommon to see houses fortified with trenches and tunnels as rudimentary protection against the bullets and bombs of the guerrillas,” said British author Kevin Howlett, an expert on Colombia.
Violence nothing new for Toribio and its neighbors
Located between the FARC’s coca fields and the traditional “secure” exit for this lucrative cash crop to the Pacific Ocean that runs from the departments of Tolima, Huila, Cauca and Valle de Cauca, Toribio — and many municipalities like it — have been strafed by violence for years.
But Vitonás said the outside world had never heard of his inaccessible town until earlier this month, when journalists were able to reach it for the first time and get images out.
The media’s presence hasn’t been lost on the FARC, who, according to Pinzón, “have been creating their own media circus by shooting at will from houses they have occupied belonging to local farmers, taking advantage of the fact that the Armed Forces will not respond where there are civilians at risk.”
Reports coming out of this mountainous region suggest that anywhere between 300 and 3,000 people from the municipalities of Toribio, Miranda, Argelia and Corinto have been seen loading their belongings into suitcases and boarding every available bus out of town.
According to the Army, the FARC uses such tactics in geographically hard-to-reach places in this region. By launching attacks, the rebels hope to draw government attention away from their actual priority — which is to move their fighters safely from one place to another.
The department of Cauca and all of southwestern Colombia remains on high alert as the Armed Forces have allegedly launched various missions aimed at pushing the guerrillas back.
Terrorized town gets a presidential visit
On July 10, Santos flew down to Toribio with Pinzón in tow, to view the war zone and reassure the region’s citizens.
The president’s rushed visit almost backfired since reports in national newspapers El Tiempo and El Espectador claim that explosives had been placed on the town’s soccer field, close to where the presidential helicopter was scheduled to touch down. These explosives were then detonated securely and the president’s meetings took place as scheduled — but the government’s successes were marred by the crash of an Air Force Super Tucano plane in the mountains near Jambaló, just 12 miles from Toribio, killing both pilots aboard.
“Unfair as it might be, the Cauca of today reminds Colombians of a time when the FARC controlled large swathes of the country,” said Howlett.
While the inhabitants who have remained in Toribio have not heard the sound of gunshots in two days there are the telltale echoes automatic weaponry off in the distance.
“These are the gunshots of the government forces repelling the FARC,” said Gen. Sergio Mantilla San Miguel, commanding officer of the Colombian Armed Forces. “The army is present, as is the air force and the police, and we are here for the Colombian people.”