FARC Must Now Begin To Think About Its End Game

Wednesday July 2, 2008

In recent weeks, COHA has issued a number of communiqués to the press that have explored various aspects of Colombia’s domestic and regional policies. This material, in addition to that which is available on its website, can be obtained by contacting COHA’s office at or calling 202-223-4975. To contact COHA director Larry Birns, please call 202-215-3473.

FARC’s Fatal Blow
In yet another blow to Colombia’s leftist guerrilla group Las Fuerzas Armadas de Colombia (FARC), former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and fourteen other hostages were freed in a brilliant military operation on 2 July 2008. Betancourt was taken captive six years ago and was, for the duration of that time, the FARC’s highest profile hostage. Among the other detainees rescued are three American defense contractors and members of the Colombian security forces.

According to Colombia’s hardline Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos, whose star is very much in ascendancy in a movie-script fashion, Colombian intelligence forces managed to infiltrate the FARC’s Secretariat and intercept the transfer of key hostages from one area of the country to another. The operation, termed jaque, after the Spanish word “check,” as in “check mate,” was the culmination of a year’s worth of preparation. The rescue of the hostages represents a huge victory for the Uribe government and yet another in a series of crucial defeats for FARC forces. It may also signal the successful impact of the hundreds of millions of dollars that have been pumped annually into the Colombian military by the U.S. under Plan Colombia. Such funds already have been used to persuade hundreds, if not thousands, of FARC fighters to demobilize and certainly provided a strong motivation for the murder of Ivan Ríos (for which his renegade personal bodyguard was rewarded $2.5 million).

FARC’s Precarious Future
With Betancourt’s release, the FARC has lost its highest profile hostage and now is in a very precarious position for negotiation and may have to bow to the demands of the Colombian government. Hopefully, its recent fate will be a clear signal to the FARC that Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez was correct when, on June 10 of this year, he urged “Enough of so much war, it is time to sit down and talk of peace. […] The guerrilla has passed into history.”

Recalling the abrupt decline of Peru’s Shining Path guerrilla movement after the 1992 capture of its leader Abimael Guzman, it is unlikely that FARC will be able to survive in its present form given the natural death of its leader, Manuel Marulanda, and the series of crippling blows it has experienced at the hands of the Colombian army. Undoubtedly, Colombia’s military has been assisted by the CIA and the hundreds of U.S. armed forces advisors and trainers now in the country.

Political Implications
Uribe has benefited immensely from the rapid decline in the FARC’s vitality and relevance. Only time will tell how Uribe’s military exploits and his astronomical approval rating will affect the possible de-legitimization of his 2006 run for office. It will also be interesting to see if Betancourt, immensely popular during her run for Senate and the presidency, will present a very strong challenge to the president if she decides to run for office either in a possible re-run election or the official elections slated for 2010.

It is true that Uribe’s hawkish democratic security policy has resulted in significant progress for the country. Homicide and kidnapping rates have fallen dramatically and Colombians have resumed many of their ordinary activities without fear of suffering violence caused by the conflict. His popularity is a result of these advances, however, this success may unfortunately lend credibility to those who have supported Uribe’s iron-fist approach and substantive program from the beginning: members of the Bush administration and presumptive Republican nominee John McCain. The danger in attributing Uribe’s accomplishments to U.S. foreign policy achievements in Latin America is that it reaffirms strategies that are overly simplistic and ill-informed. It should not be ignored that upwards of twenty percent of Uribe’s legislature is currently under investigation for its links to paramilitary groups, who are historic human rights violators. Even Uribe himself has been accused of links to the illegally armed groups. Mindless U.S. support of a regime that tacitly allowed such groups to function should not be applauded nor should the hundreds of trade union leaders that have been murdered during the Uribe presidency be forgotten.

Additionally, cocaine’s effect on the trajectory of the conflict cannot be underestimated. In the 2008 World Drug Report, the United Nations reported that coca cultivation in Colombia increased 27% in 2007. Assistant secretary of State Thomas Shannon attributed these statistics to the growing sophistication of coca cultivators. This is certainly true for many aspects of the conflict. For every bit of progress that the Colombian government makes, various actors will try to stay one step ahead, driven by vast cocaine profits which provide an incredibly strong incentive for the continued destabilization of Colombian institutions. No matter what the ultimate fate of the FARC, it will be quite some time before Colombia can claim victory for the quality or depth of its democracy.