It appears that the Colombian government is intensifying its propaganda campaign in order to offset declining military successes against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). As Colombians increasingly question the effectiveness of President Juan Manuel Santos’ security strategies, the Colombian leader has increasingly turned to making exaggerated public statements that are not only illogical, but often seem delusional.
When Santos assumed the presidency last August only 33 percent of urban dwellers disapproved of the government’s security policies. But that number has steadily increased and by June had reached 55 percent. One month later, 62 percent of Colombians disapproved of the government’s security policies. Increased attacks against the military by the FARC—along with the establishment of rebel checkpoints on some major highways—has left Colombians feeling that the security situation is deteriorating. President Santos appears to have responded to these concerns, not by implementing a more effective military strategy, but by intensifying the anti-FARC propaganda over the past six months.
On numerous occasions the president has publicly declared that the FARC’s increased military activity illustrates how desperate the guerrillas have become. Last December, after a bus bomb exploded outside a police station, Santos called the attack an act of “cowardice and despair” and stated, “Once a group has to resort to acts of terrorism like this, it means that all our police, our ground troops, sea and air, are doing a good job, because they are a desperate enemy.” In March, Santos responded to increased FARC attacks in south-central Colombia by declaring, “The FARC are desperate, trying to strike blows on all sides.”
And then in late June, after a FARC ambush on a highway killed a senior police officer — a legitimate military target given that Colombia’s National Police are administered by the Department of Defense and is therefore part of the military — Santos declared the attack “terrorist and cowardly.” And then, echoing other recent public pronouncements, stated, “This shows that the FARC are ever more desperate and weak.”
Such statements are clearly designed to alleviate the growing concern among urban Colombians that the security situation is declining. By portraying the FARC attacks as acts of desperation, Santos seeks to create the impression that the government and the military are in control and that the FARC is little more than a wounded animal desperately lashing out. But such an argument is completely illogical. After all, a little more than a decade ago, the FARC routinely detonated bus bombs and attacked the army and police — on a much larger scale than they do today. Therefore, using Santos’ logic, the FARC must have been extremely “desperate and weak” — and on the verge of defeat — in the late 1990s due to the “good job” that the Colombian military were doing.
But anyone that knows anything about the Colombian conflict is fully aware of the fact that the FARC were at their strongest in the late 1990s and the Colombian military was completely and utterly ineffective. Consequently, Santos’ suggestion that increases in FARC attacks illustrate how weak and desperate the guerrillas have become are not only illogical, they border on delusional. This is not to suggest that the FARC are as strong today as a decade ago, they are not. In fact, they are far weaker militarily and their actions are, for the most part, restricted to a few rural regions, primarily in the south of the country. But to argue that the increased military successes of the guerrillas are signs of their weakness is simply irrational and constitutes nothing more than a desperate public relations ploy to restore the waning confidence of urban dwellers, who constitute the president’s core constituency.
Most recently, President Santos told Colombians on July 3 that the military had narrowly missed capturing or killing FARC leader Alfonso Cano in an attack on a rebel camp in south-central Colombia. He claimed that Cano had slept in the camp the previous night and had departed less than 12 hours prior to the attack. Santos again used the military operation to show the Colombian people that the government was in control of the security situation and stated that ‘we will continue with the offensive because every leader and every member of the FARC is going to fall one by one sooner or later.”
But did the Colombian military actually come that close to getting Cano? And if the FARC leader did indeed flee the camp hours before the attack, was it just luck or does it mean that the guerrillas had effective intelligence that warned them of the impending operation? Ultimately, we do not know. However, one thing we do know is that the rhetoric of President Santos is becoming increasingly irrational with regard to the FARC and the country’s security situation. Consequently, everything the Colombian leader says must be taken with a huge grain of salt.
Garry Leech is an investigative journalist and author of The FARC: The Longest Insurgency (Zed Books, 2011) and Beyond Bogotá: Diary of a Drug War Journalist in Colombia (Beacon Press, 2009). He is also the director of the Centre for International Studies at Cape Breton University.