By Jenny Manrique
Have the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia been reduced to a minor presence after a decade of military attacks? Many security and intelligence experts agree that the armed group has been weakened but warn that on some fronts, it has only changed tactics.
The leadership of the FARC, Colombia’s largest guerrilla group, has suffered significant losses since 2008. In January of that year, Luis Edgar Devia Silva, known as Raúl Reyes, was killed in a raid by the Colombian military in a camp over the border in Ecuador. Two months later, the FARC’s founder and main leader Manuel Marulanda, whose real name was Pedro Antonio Marín, died of natural causes.
Then, in September 2010, the FARC commander Víctor Julio Suárez, also known as Mono Jojoy, was killed in combat. In November 2011 Marulanda’s successor, Guillermo León Sáenz Vargas, aka Alfonso Cano, was killed in a clash. He was replaced by Timochenko, the nom de guerre of Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri.
The army’s “Operación Jaque” which freed former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, 11 security force members and three US contractors in July 2008, was also a blow to the guerrilla group.
But that has not meant that the FARC have backed away from their attacks. According to a report by the nongovernmental Security and Democracy Foundation, the first quarter of 2012 has been the most violent in five years. In just 90 days, there were 98 attacks on public security forces.
In late May alone, 12 Colombian soldiers were killed after an attack on the border with Venezuela, which forced its president, Hugo Chávez, to move troops there.
The use of car bombs, mortars and other explosives was used following the 2002-2010 government of former President Álvaro Uribe, which was able to reduce the FARC’s operational capacity, said Carlos Medina Gallego, who studies the FARC at the National University of Colombia.
He said that the FARC renewed their strategy with harassment “that show that the mechanics of war is still alive. The army calls it the FARC’s “Plan Rebirth.”
This “rebirth” has been centered in the departments of Nariño, Cauca, Putumayo and Caquetá, according to the Defense Ministry, which also says it is where the leaders are hiding out.
It is no coincidence that in the Caquetá municipality of Montañitas, French journalist Romeo Langlois was freed by the FARC on May 30, and members took the opportunity to read a manifesto for the group’s 48th anniversary in front of residents. Unlike previous operations, the reporter was escorted by the FARC members to the town center.
In other northeastern regions, like Magdalena Medio, Catatumbo and Arauca, the last two on the Venezuelan border, the National Liberation Army, Colombia’s second-largest guerrilla group, is clashing with the FARC over drug routes and attacking oil infrastructure, causing 76 explosions along the Caño Limón-Coveñas oil pipeline in northern Colombia, according to the Defense Ministry, which has said that the guerrillas hide in Venezuela after their attacks.
The fact that Chávez and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos have reinstated diplomatic relations “doesn’t mean that there aren’t camps in Venezuela and that the commanders of the FARC like Timochenko himself haven’t taken refuge there,” said Alfredo Rangel, director of the Security and Democracy Foundation.
According to Ariel Ávila, an expert in security issues at the nongovernmental Nuevo Arcoiris Corporation, the terrorist acts committed this year by the FARC have had a greater impact in the media, but that does not mean that they have not happened in previous years. The number of the FARC’s fighters is not known: between 8,000 and 12,000, and between 87 and 92 columns, the government estimates.
Rangel, who worked with Uribe’s government, said that the military’s ability to abate these attacks is hampered by low moral of the troops. He blamed two bills that would limit the reach of military tribunals that he calls are a “practical abolition” of the military jurisdiction.
“The operational capacity of military forces has dropped 80 percent compared with 2002”, Uribe’s first year in office, said Rangel.
Initiatives such as the Victims’ Law and other measures that Santos has put forth to implement a transitional justice system to allow for reparations for victims and a dialogue with groups that have laid down arms have been called by hard-line Uribe supporters a major setback for security.
Santos, on the other hand, calls them “advances toward reconciliation.”
After the FARC freed 10 military hostages in April, the group announced it would no longer use hostage-taking as a method, but this also raised questions about the guerrilla group’s finances.
The FARC continue to use extortion, but their main source of income is drug-dealing, and most recently illegal mining, which represents 23 percent of their income, said Ávila, who calls the FARC’s involvement in gold, as well as oil, the new “boom” in the country’s nearly five-decade armed conflict.
This phenomenon is most common in Colombian Pacific, whose port Buenaventura is also a launching pad for cocaine to the United States.
According to the Nuevo Arcoiris Corporation, the monthly cost to maintain a guerrilla is US$600, including uniforms, weapons and food.
Medina adds that the FARC have a “parallel economy” in which they maintain themselves by taxing local residents and investing in agriculture, livestock and other assets.
He affirms that there are some FARC fronts that are more robust than others. Armed Forces Commander Gen. Alejandro Navas said that there are very poor fronts that cannot be supplied due to a “military siege” going on.