The barbarous kidnapping and assassination of Caquetá Governor Luis Francisco Cuéllar suggests that Colombia needs to deeply and thoroughly reexamine its security policy.
Cuéllar’s abduction confirms old rumors that the FARC are re-emerging as a serious security threat in southern Colombia. Over the past seven years, President Alvaro Uribe has led a successful counterinsurgency campaign that reduced the FARC to from about 16,000 fighters in 2002 to about 8,000 today, but the guerrillas have adapted their strategy and tactics. There have been 1,600 FARC attacks this year, up from 1,200 in 2008. The Foundation for Security and Democracy, a government-friendly think tank, reported a 36 percent rise in government troop deaths between 2008 and 2009. In the southern department of Caquetá, guerrilla threats and attacks are a part of everyday life.
Still, Monday’s kidnapping was among the group’s most sophisticated attacks in years. Governor Cuéllar was the highest-ranking official to be kidnapped since 2002, the year Uribe took office. According to local reports, ten guerrillas dressed in Gaula (a government anti-kidnapping squad) uniforms used a grenade to break down the door to the governor’s apartment building in downtown Florencia, the provincial capital. The kidnappers exchanged fire with a couple of police officers before driving to the nearby countryside, where they killed Cuéllar hours later. Worst of all, the kidnapping took place within a few miles of an army division headquarters and a major military base (one of the seven bases that will be used by U.S. forces as part of an agreement signed earlier this year).
While the guerrillas have not claimed responsibility for the attack, government officials have attributed it to the FARC’s mobile Teofilo Forero unit. Teofilo Forero has long been known for strategic sophistication, but it is also one of a few FARC units known to have recently collaborated with paramilitary drug gangs. Indeed, there is growing evidence that guerrillas and paramilitaries are paradoxically joining forces when their interests coincide. Although the government was quick to accuse the FARC, some observers contend that the Cuéllar kidnapping could not have been carried out without financial and/or military support from other drug gangs. Cuéllar has long had problems with both the FARC, which had targeted him since the 1980s, and the former paramilitary umbrella group AUC, which used its military, political and financial might to prevent his rise to power in Caquetá.
In sum, the threat from illegal armed groups is not only growing, but it is rapidly evolving. The distinction between political and apolitical drug-funded groups has been unclear for years, but the recent emergence of new drug gangs and growing evidence of guerrilla-paramilitary collusion make such a distinction impossible.
What does this mean for Alvaro Uribe’s hard-line “Democratic Security” policy? First, the policy seems to be unraveling even where it was most successful, the fight against guerrillas. Democratic Security greatly reduced the FARC’s territorial control, but the group has become leaner, smarter and more elusive. Therefore, the strategies that worked against the FARC in 2002 will simply not work as well in 2009. The guerrilla group’s evolution calls for fresh strategies.
Second, the policy was both late and ineffective in dealing with an emerging paramilitary movement. Democratic Security has always been, first and foremost, a counterinsurgency campaign. In fact, although there has been overwhelming evidence of paramilitary rearming for at least a few years, the government has only recently acknowledged the scale of the new paramilitary threat. Even today, many officials downplay these new groups’ political goals and impact, presenting them instead as ragtag criminal gangs.
Not only do these emerging drug gangs indirectly benefit the guerrillas by destabilizing the countryside. As mentioned above, they have also directly collaborated with guerrilla units in a few limited cases. In short, it is no longer enough for Democratic Security to succeed against the FARC but neglect the emerging post-AUC paramilitary phenomenon. The two threats are mutually reinforcing and need to be dealt with accordingly.
Third, if the FARC were indeed behind Cuéllar’s assassination, then it has been made clear once again that the guerrillas are not to be trusted. The kidnapping comes just as the FARC allegedly preparing to release a few major hostages. President Uribe was right to allow the liberations to proceed, but the FARC’s repeated brutality, deceit and duplicity make a political solution to the country’s conflict much less likely.
Governor Cuéllar’s murder was a tragic national wake-up call. Regardless of who wins the 2010 elections, the new Colombian president should employ a security policy that goes beyond hard-line counterinsurgency. Democratic Security’s successor should do a better job of addressing not only the great diversity of security threats in Colombia (including guerrillas, paramilitaries and common criminals) but also the poverty, unemployment, inequality, impunity and corruption that continue to fuel violence in the country.