What does the future hold for the FARC?

While visiting Cali for Easter weekend, some friends and I took a day trip to Popayan to observe the Good Friday processions. While passing a curve on the Pan-American highway, one friend pointed to the side of the road, the green Cauca mountains looming around us. “That’s where the FARC set off their bomb last week,” he said. It had only been two guerrillas, and everyone in the nearby local village knew who’d been responsible, my friend told me. They’d coordinated the attack between the two of them using cheap radio transmitters, and as soon as the police began aggressively returning fire, they retreated hastily into the hills.

If my friend is right, the Pan-American attack falls right in line with the kind of strategy FARC is increasingly employing across the country. No longer able to engage with the military in aggressive, large-scale offensives, the FARC is instead deploying tiny groups of combatants to hit quick, then run away even faster. Even the bomb in Buenaventura was reportedly “outsourced” to local delinquents, and was not an operation conducted by actual FARC combatants. During the final months of Uribe’s final term in office, it looks like the FARC are in a bad way – but the media has been announcing the FARC’s demise since at least 2008. Will the military ever be able to deliver the final blow?

The answer can be found by examining several of the FARC’s high-profile actions the past few days. Particularly with the recent release of Josue Calvo and Corporal Pablo Moncayo (who had been held hostage in the jungle for close to 4,500 days), it seems that the FARC is hinting at its desire for a political, rather than military, settlement. Uribe did not concede to the FARC’s demands in releasing Moncayo, specifically, that the government release a group of FARC operatives from prison. And it is unlikely that Uribe will shift his position anytime soon, even though the FARC has another 21 policemen and soldiers captive.

The hostage release, therefore, was the FARC’s tentative step towards regaining some of its political capital, which has been basically non-existent ever since the botched peace negotiations with Uribe’s predecessor, Pastrana. You might even say the FARC lost its political credibility twenty years earlier, after the FARC Secretariat turned their backs on the Union Patriotica, the political party which was intended to integrate the FARC into the political mainstream and which was wiped out in a series of cold-blooded killings. Most tellingly, in the FARC’s official statement following Moncayo’s release, they declared, “we call upon all countries interested in a political solution to the armed conflict,” and lambasted Uribe for “delaying” the release by ten months, by “insisting” upon a military rescue operation. With the upcoming presidential elections, the FARC is interested more than ever in calling attention to themselves, even if this means hinting at a desire for a “political solution” while upgrading their military offensives elsewhere.

And there is no doubt that FARC is on a renewed offensive. The past few weeks have seen a slew of attacks: the Cauca bombing, the Buenaventura bombing, and a twelve-year-old boy killed in Narino while delivering explosive materials. In the past month in Colombia’s south-eastern region, a FARC unit brought down two helicopters, one belonging to an international petroleum company and another belonging to the military. In other areas where the army had successfully beaten the FARC into retreat, guerrilla units are now undertaking a renewed offensive to regain their previous strongholds.

In the northerly and central regions of the country, the FARC units appear so weakened that they are capable of doing little more than planting landmines and sniping at any unlucky military units which come across them. One previously mighty front, the 50th, was reportedly dismantled on March 31 when the military killed and captured the remaining combatants. Nevertheless, the renewed offensive, especially in Cauca, is definitely a cause for concern.

The FARC’s other major strategy for now appears to be to continue to forge alliances with the many emerging criminal drug-trafficking bands that are popping up like daisies across the country. The FARC continues to keep its grip over coca cultivation, especially in the south-eastern jungles, and rather than fighting both security forces and narco-gangs like the Rastrojos, it is far easier (and more profitable) to cement agreements between those whose shared interest is drug money. Such a dynamic will probably continue to make an already messy security situation (especially in the south-eastern departments and in parts of Cordoba, Choco and Antioquia) even messier, as more alliances with more gangs means greater chances of such alliances breaking apart in a hail of gunfire. The recent slaughter of seven people in Cordoba in March was reportedly due to disagreements between the FARC and a narco-paramilitary group.

Both a renewed military strategy and alliances with emerging drug gangs will make it harder for military forces to deliver the final blow against the FARC. But the biggest obstacle remains the Venezuelan problem. There is no doubt that Venezuela is a major transport hub for drug trafficking, especially for drugs headed for Europe. What is probably happening is that low-level Venezuelan officials, both at the border and at air bases or sea ports, are routinely accepting bribes from Colombian drug lords like Pedro Oliviero Guerrero in return for access to trafficking routes. What remains unclear is whether Venezuela’s central government is providing covert aid to FARC rebels.

Rumors continually abound that the FARC’s Secretariat has found refuge across the Venezuelan border, like Raul Reyes found refuge in Ecuador. The files found on Raul Reyes’ hard drives provide some evidence of a Venezuelan-FARC link, which Venezuela strongly denies. And although the files were verified by Interpol as being valid, they also reportedly contain bizarre claims, such as one supposed e-mail from FARC commander Alfonso Cano (sent August 23, 2007) claiming that Gabriel Garcia Marquez was willing to negotiate on the guerrillas’ behalf with the U.S. Not everything in the laptops should be taken as the golden truth, then.

While FARC forces, along with drug-trafficking paramilitary groups, mostly definitely take advantage of Venezuela’s territory, I would still hesitate to say that aiding the FARC is the policy of Hugo Chavez’s government. What is clear is that the government is not doing enough to discourage the FARC or drugs traffickers, and this in its own way, is aiding the rebels. So long as Venezuelan policy remains lax about rooting out police corruption or cracking down on the drug trade, it will be very difficult for the Colombian military to complete their Herculean task.

Here’s hoping that next Easter, a trip from Cali to Popayan doesn’t pass by any bomb craters – but that’s unlikely to happen anytime soon, unless both Colombian (and Venezuelan) security forces have a serious think about the FARC’s future.

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