Plan Colombia’s success reducing coca cultivation and strengthening Colombia´s democracy was tackled in two earlier articles, here I ask how it helped the fight against the FARC guerrillas.
When Plan Colombia started in 2002 the terrorist group stood 18,000 strong. Today they are a much smaller, more dispersed, yet still dangerous guerrilla group, currently in negotiations with the Colombian government to end their near 50 year fight.
While Plan Colombia originally focused on stemming the flow of illicit substances into major American cities, the events of 9/11 and the election of President Uribe, who campaigned for hard line measures against guerrilla groups, changed the rhetoric. And over 75% of Plan Colombia’s funding has been devoted to military and police assistance.
But despite this spending and while there have been high profile successes against the FARC throughout this period, the illegal group´s ability to adapt, innovate and remain a significant threat is notable.
When Plan Colombia began, Colombia was considered a failing state, and there were those who saw the FARC as a serious challenge to the authority and longevity of the Colombian state. The ability of the armed forces to halt the guerrilla´s progress was far from guaranteed. They were fighting against a well oiled and well funded military machine in the FARC.
Academic Jim Rochlin explains Plan Colombia´s work as a process to transform the Colombian military from an immobile, vulnerable and predictable force into a rapid, all terrain military machine capable of defeating a highly successful and well funded guerrilla group.
Plan Colombia sought to provide the Colombian military with a better level of equipment, training and intelligence capabilities. It was essential the military were trained for fighting in difficult terrain; high mountains and rivers.
Plans Patriota and Victoria
In 2004, President Uribe responded by enacting Plan Patriota which saw the deployment of 17,000 soldiers in an effort to debilitate the FARC. Plan Patriota´s success was mixed. During the operation of this plan, the FARC´s military capacity was shown with devastating effect. A 2006 attack on a bus full of innocent civilians in southern Colombia became an emblem of the group´s ability to strike at the heart of the nation.
Plan Victoria however, had far greater success. A key factor in this success was the role of intelligence and surveillance. A long standing problem in the Colombian military´s fight against the FARC was their inability to locate and target the guerrilla’s group’s senior leadership.
Colombian officials would often use the ‘impenetrable jungles’ as an excuse for such limited action where raids were impossible and bombing attacks too indiscriminate. Under Plan Colombia however, real time surveillance equipment was available to the Colombian military and included the use of heat sensors capable of detecting human activity, land radar systems, command and control systems for radar, the translations of intelligence analyses, improved logistical support and night vision goggles.
Such increased capabilities came to fruition in 2008, a year in which the FARC suffered numerous losses. An attack by the Colombian military on a FARC camp in Ecuador of that year saw the killing of the group´s second in command, Raul Reyes. The attack relied heavily on Plan Colombia’s heightened intelligence and surveillance capabilities and remains one of the msot successful hits against the rebel group.
The FARC suffered further serious setbacks in March 2008 when the group’s leader, Manuel Marulanda died of natural causes and the secretariat’s youngest member, Ivan Rios was murdered by one of his own bodyguards in exchange for a monetary award offered by the Colombian government.
The Santos regime has continued where the Uribe administration left off in terms of hitting the FARC secretariat. In September 2010, top military chief Mono Jojoy was killed in one of the first acts of the new government, and a year later Alfonso Cano, then leader of group was also taken out by the army while many assume Santos was negotiating in secret with the FARC to establish the talks today ongoing in Cuba.
The FARC’s control and command communications has also been weakened as a result of Plan Colombia, and the FARC’s declining membership can be attributed to this, along with demobilisation programmes. In 2002 for example, FARC soldiers numbered approximately 18,000 while today they are estimated at 8,000.
Despite such a drop in numbers, and a four year period in which the FARC suffered severe military setbacks, the guerrilla group still pose a significant threat (if not to the state itself as they once did). They have adapted to the increasing capabilities of the Colombian military and continually launch counter attacks due to their weaker position. (i.e. they are less able to launch military offensives).
This is highlighted by their response to the military’s successes of 2008. The FARC adapted, dispersing into smaller units in an effort to avoid surveillance and initiating more defensive, guerrilla like attacks. These include multiple pipeline bombings in the Putumayo municipality immediately after the death of Raul Reyes, and the execution of Luis Francisco Cuéller, the governor of Caquetá in December 2009.
In 2010, the FARC were responsible for the killing of 460 members of the security forces – and alarmingly – 2011 produced more casualties than 2002, when their membership was at its height.
Such attacks included a bomb blast in Antioquia, the use of mortars at a police station in Cauca and the continued use of mine’s throughout rebel controlled areas. In February of this year, seven members of the Colombian military were killed by the FARC and only this week, the FARC are accused of kidnapping two Spanish nationals, although they deny this.
The topography offered by Colombia is a key reason that the FARC have been able to successfully adapt their tactics in the face of Plan Colombia, and remain a live threat. Despite significant funding, the Colombian military have found it very difficult to control the remote and sparsely populated regions.
As such, despite the FARC being the military weaker side, Colombia´s geography mitigates the government’s advantage somewhat, thus making the rebels able to endure for longer periods. The rugged terrain of Colombia, with its high mountains, dense forests and other inaccessible landscapes, favours smaller guerrilla units as they are harder to detect and defeat. They can retreat to such terrain where they are protected from an enemy with increased capabilities and thus find it easier to regroup, rearm and continue fighting.
The FARC´s current leader, Timochenko has taken the rebels into negotiations with the Colombian government (although it is understood Cano himself initiated these talks) in an apparent effort to bring an end to a conflict that stems beyond the FARC’s inception in 1964.
That this is a sign of weakness by the FARC or by Santos himself is arguable, yet while negotiators mediate in Havana, the FARC and the Colombian military continue to battle back home. There is a long way to go before Plan Colombia objective of defeating the FARC can be realised. Many see the current state of play as a form of stalemate in which a negotiated end to the conflict is the most effective way out.