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Colombia: It’s Not Over Till It’s Over

By Robert Valencia

A special military unit gunned down Guillermo León Saenz, better known as Alfonso Cano,the commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia [FARC] on November 5. The assassination took place near an insurgent camp in Colombia’s southwest in an operation called “Odiseo.” Cano, who had been on the run for three years, was the second commander of the infamous Marxist rebel group, and his death is another major setback for the almost 50-year-old guerrilla organization. Over the years, FARC has financed itself with drug trafficking and kidnappings, but recently, its ranks have thinned. The Colombian government—even with the help of the U.S.—won’t be able to end the violence alone. FARC rebels need to realize that now is time to lay down their arms—or face years of a bloody but ultimately futile fight. With Cano’s death, it should be clear: FARC is no longer the same threat it was decades ago.

FARC’s dwindling power is the result of a coherent, aggressive strategy employed by three consecutive Colombian administrations to eliminate the group. In 1998, former President Andrés Pastrana put into motion the “Plan Colombia,” paid for by a multi-million dollar aid package granted by the U.S. government. With that money, the country overhauled its armed forces and counter-insurgency strategies, infiltrated FARC ranks with informers, and developed a cutting-edge air force. Likewise, the ensuing administrations of Alvaro Uribe in 2002 and 2006 and the current Santos administration reinforced the so-called “Democratic Security,” a policy that consolidated law enforcement throughout the country to more efficiently curb the illicit drug trade and protect the population from terrorist attacks. The policy led to numerous blows against FARC, among them the deaths many of the group’s leaders, as well as the desertion of hundreds of rebels, and the success of the well-known “Operación Jaque” that freed 15 hostages including former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt. 

To make matters worse, FARC’s international support, both ideologically and militarily, is in shambles: Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, a staunch supporter of FARC’s left-leaning politics, has practically phased out his presence in international affairs due to his cancer treatment; Viktor Bout, known as the “Merchant of Death,” could face life in prison for selling weapons to FARC and other terrorist groups worldwide; the Basque separatist group ETA, which established a support network with FARC, recently called to halt its armed struggle in Spain and France; and Libyan rebels ended the life of dictator Muammar Gaddafi, a powerful FARC ally. Experts believe that it’ll be hard for FARC to maintain any international links due to the most recent military pressure from the government.

In light of Cano’s death, the fragmentation of the organization into regional factions, and the overwhelming disapproval of millions of Colombians, many would draw the conclusion that FARC’s existence is coming to an end. But despite the advances made by the government forces, this is unlikely to happen in the near future. According to some military experts, FARC members believe that dying for their cause is a great honor and know that in the event one of their leaders is killed, there will be another commander waiting to take his place. Daniel García-Peña, former peace commissioner, believes that as FARC continues to break into smaller groups, intense battles will take place in areas where there is little to no presence of Colombian law enforcement, particularly in the southwestern part of the country.

Indeed, what keeps FARC running is its income from drug trafficking, which still allows them to be influential in several regions of the country. Drug smuggling is a growing business across Latin America, and given the strong demand from Europe and the United States, it’s difficult for the Colombian government to cut FARC’s funding completely. Despite a recent reduction in the number of abductions and extortions, FARC still profits mightily from kidnappings of high-profile personalities and high-income individuals.

Since the death of Mono Jojoy—FARC’s number two in command—it is evident that FARC and other insurgency groups have not slowed down the country’s socioeconomic success. Yet the country’s international image due to the ongoing armed conflict continues to be poor. According to the Australia-based Institute for Economics & Peace’s 2011 Global Peace Index, Colombia is the most violent country in Latin America, ranked near the likes of Libya, Chad, and Somalia. Other social maladies that fuel Colombia’s conflict include its longstanding high unemployment rate, growing street gang violence in urban areas, and a staggering number of internally displaced persons—the second most in the world after Sudan.

It’s important to note that all Colombian administrations since former President Belisario Betancourt in the early 1980s have tried to establish peace negotiations and subsequent reintegration of guerrilla rebels to society. Some of the treaties were successful with other guerrilla groups like Quintín Lame and M-19, which ultimately demobilized in the early 1990s to participate in politics. On the other hand, negotiations with FARC turned sour in 1999, when rank-and-file members did not show up for President Andrés Pastrana’s visit to FARC’s demilitarized zone—an insulting move from the Marxist group that prompted a law enforcement shift from a friendly approach to an iron fist.

Nevertheless, Colombia has offered at the same time a choice to rebels to live a life at peace. In 2006, the Constitutional Court established the “Peace and Justice Law,” a legislation that allows both right and left wing insurgency members to lay down their arms, confess their crimes in full, provide information to dismantle criminal gangs, and rejoin civil society. A year after the bill’s enactment, 3,025 members from FARC and National Liberation Army (ELN) had abandoned their makeshift camps in the jungles.

Despite critiques from several human rights groups because it offers minimal punishment to those who committed crimes against humanity, the law has allowed key guerrilla members like Nelly Avila Moreno (known as “Karina”) to face justice and collaborate with local authorities to find ways to end the conflict. In the words of Karina, it’s best for FARC members to embrace the Peace and Justice Law to start a process of disarmament and demobilization. With the guerrilla organization’s lack of leadership and intelligence coordination among FARC enclaves, Karina’s message resounds more than ever—and some are listening.

The Colombian government believes that FARC stopped being a threat to its democracy, but it’s ultimately up to FARC members to end the conflict by laying down their arms—something Cano and the other now deceased leaders were not fond of. But for the rank and file, they need not be afraid of being ostracized from society. Time and again, FARC troops have demobilized and reintegrated back into Colombian society. Gustavo Petro, for example, was a former guerrilla member who later on served as senator and was recently elected Bogotá’s mayor—Colombia’s second most important executive office. M-19 guerrilla member Antonio Navarro Wolff was a presidential candidate, served as senator, and recently ended his governorship of the Nariño department. If FARC continues to be a constant security threat, while defending a Marxist ideology that few in Colombia believe in, it will face the same fate as Alfonso Cano, or end up in U.S. or Colombian prisons. With morale already at an all-time low, Cano’s death will hopefully be a turning point, and FARC’s members will finally desert the deadly narco-guerrilla group.

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Robert Valencia is a Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs and is a contributing writer for Global Voices. He also has a personal blog called My Humble Opinion.

[Photo courtesy of dfinnecy]

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