Sometimes it is easy to forget that the FARC are still out there. President Hugo Chavez’s provocations have kept Colombians wondering whether the autocrat of Caracas will go to war against them any time soon. Moreover, the battle for the referendum that could maintain Alvaro Uribe in the presidency for another term became red-hot again, after a group of deputy judges claimed last week that the process of signature collection violated the legal limits on donations from the private sector. More importantly, the election of this year’s Miss Colombia airs Monday night from Cartagena.
With so much going on, the Western Hemisphere’s oldest guerrilla group seems to be getting little attention from the Colombian public. According to Gallup, a statistical consultancy, the proportion of Colombians who believe that insecurity and law enforcement (attacks by the FARC included) are the main problems in the country, was a mere 19% as of last June –that is down from 54% in January 2008. The same Gallup poll suggests that most Colombians (57%) are more concerned about the economy. A simple word count in the website of El Tiempo, Colombia’s leading newspaper, shows that the number of articles that included the word “FARC” has decreased significantly since last year: between January and November 2008, there were about 7,500 El Tiempo articles mentioning FARC; this year, that number is below 5,000.
So, the interest of Colombians in FARC is waning. Perhaps after last year’s resounding military victories against that group, the death of FARC commander Tirofijo, and the liberation of Ingrid Betancourt and other eleven hostages, Colombia is just resting on its laurels. Having noted that FARC were not invincible after all, and that the government and the Armed Forces could deliver on their promise of hitting them hard, it seems that the public stopped seeing FARC as a threat.
What a big mistake. The FARC remains Colombia’s greatest problem in homeland security, and this year they have proven that they are far from total defeat. Last week, a group of 200 FARC rebels attacked the municipality of Corinto, in the Cauca department. Reportedly, the guerrillas fired explosive devices against parts of the town while hiding in the surrounding mountains. During the raid, Corinto was left without phone communications and electricity. Fortunately, a group of Army soldiers responded quickly to the attack, pushing the rebels further into the mountains and away from the town. The Air Force soon after joined the fight against the guerrillas, thwarting the FARC’s plans. According to news reports, nine Army soldiers died in the battle, while up to thirty rebels were said to be killed.
This attack on Corinto is indicative of the FARC’s resilience and of its continued ability to create chaos. Unfortunately, this specific raid is also just the tip of the iceberg: According to Seguridad y Democracia, a think tank, the first six months of this year saw a 75% increase in the number of FARC attacks against army and police elements, compared to the first semester of 2008 (from 67 attacks to 117). Moreover, in the first half of 2009 there were 51% more army and police casualties in attacks by insurgents than in the same period of 2008 (from 57 casualties to 86). If last year it seemed that FARC was on its way to the grave, then this year they have come back alive and kicking.
The Armed Forces ought to step up their offensive against FARC immediately and decisively in order to prevent them from causing greater damage. President Uribe knows this, and he has ordered his generals to look into the situation. The departments of Cauca, Nariño, Putumayo, Meta, and Caquetá, all coca-growing regions, are where the FARC have directed most of their attacks in 2009. Of course, there is no doubt that their interest in the drug business is what leads FARC to operate in these regions. The situation in Caquetá is particularly worrying: from zero attacks in 2008, the department passed to 23 in the first six months of this year.
Alfredo Rangel, from Seguridad y Democracia, reckons that this increase in attacks by FARC does not necessarily mean that the guerrilla has recovered some of its previous strength. Instead, Mr. Rangel argues that even if the number of FARC attacks has grown, their scope and importance has diminished considerably. In his own words, actions by FARC are “significant in number, but not in their impact.” Is that completely true? I think that the increase in soldier and police casualties suggests otherwise: the FARC are killing more soldiers and policemen than before, and that definitely is a trend I am not comfortable with.
Another trend I am not comfortable with, and that needs to be reversed as soon as possible is the following: this year, the Armed Forces have started far fewer battles against insurgencies than in 2008. While in the first semester of 2008 the Armed Forces initiated 652 offensive actions against guerrillas and other armed groups, the first six months of 2009 saw a mere 261 such attacks on insurgents. That is, by far, the lowest number of battles initiated by the Armed Forces in the last eight years. Conclusion: for some reason the army is giving considerable breathing space to the FARC, and the result has been a rise in the number of attacks by this group. The Armed Forces took a break from the war, and now more soldiers and policemen are being killed. Why has the army significantly diminished the pressure against the FARC? Why is the army not attacking the rebels with the intensity of previous years, even in the face of increased FARC activities? I do not know the answers to these questions, but I smell something fishy.
I doubt that tonight, when they are watching the broadcast of Miss Colombia, my fellow countrymen will be thinking about the FARC’s comeback. But they should. We would be wrong in underestimating the FARC’s resilience and adaptability –after all, they have lived through eleven different Colombian presidents. That, however, is an even more important reason why we should hit them with everything we have got.
For some time now, government officials and army generals have claimed that the FARC’s end is just around the corner. With all due respect, that will simply not occur if we stop fighting them as we should.