By Mark P. Sullivan*
Colombia has three terrorist groups that have been designated by the US Secretary of State as Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs): the leftist National Liberation Army (ELN), remaining elements of the demobilized rightist paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), and the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
The ELN has a dwindling membership of about 2,000 fighters with diminished resources and reduced offensive capability, but has continued to inflict casualties through the use of land mines and continues to fund its operations through taxation of illegal crops, kidnapping, and extortion. Past peace talks between the ELN and the Colombian government ended in 2008.
With more than 32,000 members demobilized, the AUC remained inactive as a formal organization, but some former AUC paramilitaries continued to engage in criminal activities, mostly drug trafficking, in newly emerging criminal organizations (known as BACRIM, Bandas Criminales Emergentes). According to the terrorism report, the Colombian government continued to process and investigate demobilized paramilitaries under the Justice and Peace Law, which offers judicial benefits and reduced prison sentences for participants who confess fully to their crimes and return all illicit profits. Many former AUC members also were receiving some reintegration benefits.
The FARC has been weakened significantly by the government’s military campaign against it, including the killings of several FARC commanders in 2007 and the group’s second in command, Raúl Reyes, during a Colombian government raid on a FARC camp in Ecuador on March 1, 2008. In May 2008, the FARC admitted that its long-time leader, Manuel Marulanda, had died of a heart attack in March. In July 2008, a Colombian military operation in the southeastern province of Guaviare rescued 15 long-held hostages, including three U.S. defense contractors held since February 2003—Thomas Howes, Keith Stansell, and Marc Gonsalves; Colombian Senator and presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt; and other Colombians. While the 2009 terrorism report maintained that the Colombian military’s momentum against the FARC slowed somewhat in 2009, the military dealt a significant blow to the terrorist group in September 2010 when it killed a top military commander in a bombing raid on his camp in a mountainous region of Meta department in central Colombia.3 Desertions among the FARC were just over 2,000 in 2009 compared to 3,000 in 2008, while current overall estimates of the strength of the FARC is between 8,000-9,000. Despite the government’s campaign against the FARC, the group continued a campaign of terrorist attacks, extortion, and kidnappings.
Colombian terrorist groups continue to utilize the territory of several of Colombia’s neighbors— Ecuador, Panama, Peru, and Venezuela—according to the State Department’s terrorism report (see Figure 1). The FARC uses Ecuadorian territory for recuperation, medical aid, weapons and explosives procurement, and coca processing. While Ecuador’s relations with Colombia became tense in the aftermath of Colombia’s March 2008 military raid on a FARC camp in Ecuador’s Sucumbios province, Ecuador’s military increased the number of operations against the FARC in its northern border region. Nevertheless, according to the 2009 terrorism report, insufficient resources, corruption among members of the Ecuadorian military and police, the challenging border region terrain, and a tense bilateral relationship with Colombia have made it difficult to thwart cross-border incursions. Under new Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, the two countries made progress in improving bilateral relations, and in November 2010 agreed to restore full diplomatic relations.4
In Panama, a small number of FARC members from the group’s 57th Front were reported to operate in the country’s Darien province bordering Colombia, using the area as a safe haven and drug trafficking base. In January 2010, three FARC members were killed and two were captured in a clash with Panamanian forces in Darien, while late in 2010, Panama and Colombia agreed to establish police stations near each side of the border.
In Peru, the FARC was reported to use remote areas along the Colombian-Peruvian border to rest, regroup, and make arms purchases. According to the State Department terrorism report, experts contend that the FARC continued to fund coca cultivation and cocaine production among the Peruvian population in border areas.
Both the FARC and the ELN reportedly crossed into Venezuelan territory regularly to rest and regroup as well as to extort protection money and kidnap Venezuelans in order to finance their operations. Various press reports have alleged a guerrilla presence in the Venezuelan states of Zulia, Tachira, and Apure. According to the 2009 terrorism report, it remained unclear to what extent the Venezuelan government of President Hugo Chávez provided support to the FARC and ELN. In 2010, outgoing Colombian President Álvaro Uribe asserted at the Organization of American States that Venezuela was harboring FARC guerrillas. In response, Venezuela suspended diplomatic relations on July 22, 2010, yet less than three weeks later new Colombian President Santos met with Venezuelan President Chávez and the two leaders agreed to reestablish diplomatic relations and to improve military patrols along their border. In congressional testimony on February 15, 2011, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Arturo Valenzuela maintained that there was reduced Venezuelan support for the FARC since President Santos has reached out to Venezuela.5
Mark P. Sullivan
Specialist in Latin American Affairs
This article is an edited selection of the longer February 23, 2011 report “Latin America: Terrorism Issues” by the Congressional Research Service
3 Sibylla Bodzinsky, “With Honcho’s Death, Colombia’s FARC at Crossroads,” Miami Herald, September 24, 2010.
4 “Ecuador & Colombia: Making Progress,” Latin American Regional Report, Andean Group, September 2010; “Colombia-Ecuador: Santos Steers Ship of State into Safer Waters,” Latin American Weekly Report, Dec. 2, 2010.
5 “House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Holds Hearing on U.S.-Latin America Relations,” CQ Congressional Transcripts, February 15, 2011.