FARC rebels in Colombia’s southern jungle are stepping up their combat operations and strengthening their ranks, the army and locals say. They fear the local units will continue drug trafficking even after a peace deal.
According to the army commander in the Putumayo department, Colonel Juvenal Diaz, there are around 10 rebel attacks per day. Diaz told Colombia Reports he suspects that the guerrillas want to strengthen their ranks before the peace talks are concluded. “We have been working night and day. When the FARC called the unilateral ceasefire I didn’t sleep for 18 days,” he said.
“They blow up the oil pipes, not for any other reason, but for extortion,” said the colonel. According to the commander, the FARC’s 48th Front, the largest guerrilla unit in the region, earns around $1.2 million a month. This “Front” is part of the “logistics” arm of the FARC and responsible for the distribution of funds to other fronts in the area.
“Perhaps the leaders at the talks in Cuba are telling their troops to get as much as they can now before the peace talks are over,” said the colonel. But the other explanation for the increased aggression is what the locals fear the most. “In the worst-case scenario,” says Diaz, “the FARC leaders are planning to make peace, and they will have 30 seats in Congress. Then these other guerrillas here in Putumayo will become dissidents.”
According to Nancy Sanchez of the Alianza Departamento Putumayo de las Mujeres, a network of women’s groups in the area, the FARC are already behaving like a criminal army and the peace talks may have little effect on the situation. “Here in Putumayo we have micro-situations. Maybe in other areas of Colombia the FARC have strong political ideals, but here in Putumayo they spend a lot of time with the drug traffickers. There is a lot of drugs and money to be made,” she says.
The Putumayo FARC units have even publicly come out against the peace process their leaders are so “satisfied” with. Fatima Muriel, a leader of the Alianza “Tejedoras de Vida,” or “weavers of life” women’s group, has a letter that was distributed to the school children in one of the townships last month. The letter called for the students to march against “Santos’ peace, which will take away our lands, our lives, our rights.”
Sanchez suggested that the FARC are flexing their muscles and gathering more power before an agreement is reached between the guerrilla negotiators and the government. “The FARC here need to strengthen themselves in the face of the peace process. They need to gather their power before it is over,” she said. Sanchez has much hope, but little faith that successful peace talks will have any influence on the FARC fighters in her Putumayo.
According to women’s groups in the region the guerrillas have stepped up child recruitment to terrifying levels. “They recruit the children at around 12 or 13 years old. The parents are forced to let them go,” said Muriel.
“Even if the schools and teachers don’t support the FARC,” said the activist, “they are obligated to send out the letter, to protect themselves and to protect the children. The teachers want the children to be safe, so they have to do what the FARC say. The FARC have control.”
Around 14,000 children were reportedly recruited by the guerrillas between 2001 and 2011, and the real number according to Sanchez is probably much higher. “The situation with forced recruitment is even worse now,” she said. “This violence and the disappearances of children go unreported because the families are afraid of the armed groups.”
Farm-owner Silvia Fierro saw the 16-year old son of her friend being taken off by the guerrillas. “It is very worrying for us mothers,” said Fierro who has an eleven-year old son. “They say they are recruiting children aged 11, 12, 13-years old, so we had the idea to hide our children, or get them out of the area. It is terrible, the guerrillas arrive by night and we don’t know what is happening. They come by day, and we send our children to school – we don’t know if they will come back or not.”
The aggression of the Putumayo guerrillas looks set to continue as they gather funds and terrorize the local population into submission. Control of what is one of the most important regions for drug-cultivation in Colombia may be too much to give up for peace.
According to Jeremy McDermott, senior Colombia correspondent and director of organized crime analysis website InSight Crime, the fears of the local residents might be proven untrue.
“While it is deeply involved in drug trafficking it is firmly under the control of Southern Bloc commander Joaquin Gomez,” McDermott told Colombia Reports, adding that it is “unlikely” the front goes solo “unless Gomez does.”
- Interview with Colonel Juvenal Diaz
- Interviews with local women
- Interview with Jeremy McDermott
- FARC, peace and possible criminalization (InSight Crime)