As Colombia’s oldest and strongest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed
Forces of Colombia (FARC), turns 45 on Wednesday, its guerrillas have
withdrawn into the jungle.
In hamlets dotted around the lush green expanse of southeast
Colombia, the oldest residents still remember how FARC fighters used to
be more visible as they patrolled the streets.
“They came very
well-armed and dressed in clean uniforms and they began to behave like
the authorities, because there were none here,” said Cristino Vega, a
peasant whose hands are weathered from years of tearing up coca leaves.
“They resolved fights between neighbors and sorted out the drunks.”
one of the closest US allies in Latin America, has been ravaged for
decades by a civil war between left-wing guerrilla groups and
right-wing paramilitary organizations.
For years, the FARC, which
is on US and European lists of terrorist organizations, built a
stronghold in the jungle zone of southeast Colombia where a third of
the country’s coca leaves are grown, hiding hostages and gathering
their own taxes from the cocaine trade.
These days, the group
notorious for kidnappings has increasingly resorted to ambushes and
bomb attacks, before rapidly withdrawing to jungle hideouts.
President Alvaro Uribe first took office in 2002, he launched an
aggressive security campaign against the FARC and the National
Liberation Army (ELN) — another major rebel group — helped by US
funding from Plan Colombia, a multi-billion-dollar counter-narcotics
The FARC then suffered a series of blows in 2008,
including the death of its founder Manuel Marulanda, nicknamed
“Tirofijo” or “Sureshot,” who died of a heart attack in March.
Raul Reyes, seen as the FARC’s number two, was also killed in combat.
months later, the rescue by the military of 15 high-profile hostages,
including the former presidential candidate Franco-Colombian Ingrid
Betancourt, was another blow to the group’s powers of negotiation for
the release of their militants.
“The FARC have returned to
guerrilla warfare, their initial combat strategy, because they no
longer have the power they had some years ago,” retired colonel German
Pataquiva, who formerly fought the rebels, told AFP.
Pataquiva, the reverse was helped by the government’s increased
capacity for aerial reaction — including heat-seeking radar to track
people in sparsely populated jungles — thanks to funds from Plan
But the FARC — who in 45 years have survived at least
four campaigns against them by 11 governments and taken part in three
attempts at talks — are far from disappearing completely.
an estimated 6,000-7,000 fighters, the FARC maintains a presence in
areas producing coca, from which they make between 400 and 600 million
dollars per year, according to the defense ministry.
have an extraordinary capacity to adapt” and “they seem to be offering
an iron resistance in some areas,” the International Crisis Group said
in a report published in March.
A wave of attacks in the first
months of 2009 — three with car bombs, killing a total of 10 and
injuring 36 — was blamed on the group.
Uribe’s new police
commissioner, Frank Pearl, calculated at the start of May that it would
take “some 15 to 20 years, including a considerable path toward
reconciliation” to end the war.
Efforts for more peace talks
remain stuck, however. Allegations in March 2008 by the Colombian
government that the FARC was receiving support from the Venezuelan
government further complicated those prospects.
rebels claimed last week that in March alone 297 soldiers had died and
340 had been hurt in “the war that the government denies, to avoid
recognizing the political nature of the insurgency.” (AFP)