By Arnold Lewis
July 26th, 2011
Rewritten February 21st, 2012

In 2008, outgoing Colombian President Alvaro Uribe declared, “it is the end of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).” The guerrillas moved into the jungles, and life for many Colombians in the country’s numerous small towns finally began to calm down. However, three years later, the FARC are on the rebound. Launching a new offensive in 2010, the FARC has changed its tactics, devolving from a military force that would fight for, capture, and hold territory to a guerrilla force focusing on hit-and-run tactics, as well as kidnapping and the increased use of explosives such as landmines and vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices against civilian, police, military, and political targets.

The change in tactics suggests that the FARC – having lost its high-level commanders and many of its soldiers to desertion and capture - is indeed on its last legs. However, they also serve as a message, letting political and military leaders in Bogota that the FARC can strike, and strike hard. In order to combat this change, Colombian Defense Minister Rodrigo Rivera has revealed a plan to dismantle the FARC at the end of President Juan Manuel Santos’ term in 2014; however, this plan has come under fire by analysts for being too similar to the successful “democratic security” policy instituted by Uribe’s administration. To quote one such analyst: “The policies may have worked, but the situation has changed, the FARC have adapted, they have recovered some operational capacity.” Simply put, the plan has not adequately addressed the new security challenges that Colombia faces.

This begs the question of what will. Although many of the tenets of the old Democratic Security plan are still applicable, such as eventually dismantling such organizations, protecting the populace from kidnapping and extortion schemes, and combating the cocaine trade to stifle profits to the FARC, many of its tenets are no longer relevant. Colombia’s road system is secure, but this same security has forced the guerrillas into the jungles, where they rest, recuperate, plan, and stage their attacks. Taking out the organization’s commanders has simply led to the creation of smaller groups led by mid-level commanders, which are harder to track and harder to dismantle. This has also led to the FARC creating ties with low-level criminal organizations involved in drug peddling, prostitution, and arms trafficking.

In order to combat a resurgent FARC, the Colombian government needs to change their strategy to account for three things: the importance of local governments in its battle, the importance of continuing its policing endeavors in large population centers, and the importance of monitoring its large border. In this long fight against paramilitaries, the Colombian government has worked to weed out corruption in the governments and police departments of its larger cities to great success. However, as these paramilitary organizations were dismantled or pushed into the jungle, the country’s smaller, more remote institutions were put at risk for exploitation by paramilitaries seeking to defend their political and economic assets. Policing these remote communities, engaging the local population, and strengthening these institutions are a vital step to combating the FARC’s splintered elements. In addition, continuing to police large population centers are also important to defeating the FARC. Instead of a military war, the conflict has changed into a media war, with newer FARC units consisting of individuals in large cities strike government targets while cooperating with gangs. With many analysts pointing at Cali, Colombia’s third largest city, as the FARC’s new headquarters, the importance of cracking down on crime in these cities becomes apparent. Although the country’s borders are hard to lock down, preventing FARC cells from crossing into the country and escaping into its neighbors should be a priority. Indeed, the FARC has received support and endorsement by Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Rafael Correa in Ecuador, as shown by intelligence gleaned from computers belonging to FARC commander Raul Reyes. Because these governments are unreliable partners in combating the guerrillas on their own soil (mostly due to their support and perceived legitimacy of the FARC’s cause and actions), Colombia must work to keep them out and make it harder for those already in the country to depart to safe havens.

As always, the country’s armed forces and intelligence agencies are still the key to obtaining a lasting victory over the FARC. Infiltrating and penetrating the organization’s splintered groups should be the number one, if not a high priority. The intelligence gleaned from such operations would disrupt FARC attacks, lead to the annihilation of entire cells, and lead to the further neutralization of High Value Targets (HVTs). In addition, the Colombian military needs to exploit the COIN principle of relentless pursuit, in which light, rapidly mobile units of infantry track and pursue an enemy over a period of time, eventually tiring the enemy and seizing the initiative. Groups of trackers could aggressively pursue FARC cells, eventually leading to their destruction through vertical envelopment, using the capabilities of the Colombian Air Force’s counter-insurgency aircraft and gunships to their fullest. 

If these measures are incorporated into Colombia’s plan for defeating the FARC, ending the insurgency will become a realistic possibility before the end of Santos’ term in 2014. However, if the Colombians cannot strengthen their remote institutions, protect them from manipulation, win the media war, aggressively pursue and destroy FARC cells, and eliminate the FARC’s ability to replace lost weapons and ammunition, this conflict will continue for years and even decades to come.


Arnold Lewis is the Content Editor for ENGAGED Magazine and his interests currently lie with International Politics & Security. Currently, he resides in Boulder, Colorado.

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