Last month, Colombian security forces killed Jorge Briceno Suarez, the second in command of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebel group. The elimination of Suarez and at least 20 other FARC members is a substantial blow to the guerilla group, which has fought the Colombian government for the last 46 years. The raid that led to Suarez’s death is part of a two-year old government offensive against FARC that has resulted in the death of seven of the group’s top 14 commanders and the loss of over half its forces, reportedly down to about 8,000 members.
Since his August inauguration, President Juan Manuel Santos has taken a hard line on FARC disarmament and demobilization. He insists he is willing to negotiate with the rebel group, but only when FARC agrees to a ceasefire, ends drug trafficking operations, frees hostages, and stops mass forced recruitment. Until then, the Colombian government will continue its attacks. President Santos has also stepped up rural development efforts to improve quality of life in the regions once controlled by FARC.
Some may argue FARC is no longer a threat worth serious consideration. The antiquated rebel group is intensely unpopular in Colombia and has drifted far from its Marxist-Leninist roots and original mission of agrarian struggle. As a result, it has lost all legitimacy and no longer enjoys support from the Colombian populace. The aggressive tactics of Colombian security forces in a U.S.-backed military offensive seem to have crippled FARC considerably. Its weakened state suggests that the group may be willing to approach the negotiating table.
Such optimism is misguided as the rebel group has survived the loss of leaders in the past and may adapt its tactics to better suit its slimmed-down forces. For example, it may launch more mobile units and engage in guerilla warfare including the use of homemade explosives and hit-and-run operations. Further criminalization of FARC is also likely. Colombia’s porous borders facilitate a constant flow of drugs and arms that continue to fuel the conflict and support FARC operations.
Moreover, it is highly doubtful that FARC will entertain any of President Santos’ conditions for negotiations given its weakened negotiating position. The lucrative drug trade coupled with the lack of support for the rebel group among Colombians will see FARC continue in its terrorist activities, which include displacing rural farmers, stealing their land, recruiting child soldiers, and ransoming kidnapped journalists and government officials.
The Colombian government may also be understating the number of FARC forces remaining. Officials claim the rebel force is roughly 8,000 members strong. FARC may in fact be much larger and is capable of regaining strength through forced recruitment. Human rights organizations have also documented that the military inflates the numbers of dead rebels by killing peasants or indigenous populations and dressing their bodies in rebel uniforms. Pressure from the U.S. government to achieve results against FARC has led to this military ploy that neither routs the rebel armed forces nor instills faith among Colombians in their government.
In his inauguration speech, President Santos said his administration “will not rest until the state of law is present in all and each one of the towns of our homeland.” Thus far, he has demonstrated his commitment to strategic military offensives by offering conciliatory gestures to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, whose government has allegedly supported FARC, and by continuing the “consolidation of territory” strategy that was initiated in 2006 when President Santos was Minister of Defense.
The “consolidation of territory” strategy is predicated on strengthening social services for rural communities that were once controlled by guerrilla groups. It is an effort to establish alternative economic opportunities for rural Colombians and shore up support for the government in the process. The government teaches farming practices and gives peasants land titles so they will not resort to growing coca. Additionally, government infrastructure investments allow access to markets, new schools, clinics, and other social services that improve the quality of life in rural areas.
Basic development ethos lie at the core of the “consolidation of territory” strategy. It can be successful at ending FARC control of areas that were once isolated from the benefits of the central government. President Santos hails it as a success, but it is difficult to assess the extent to which the strategy has been implemented and its impact on rebel groups.
President Santos is proving he is trustworthy. His hard line approach to FARC most recently resulted in the fall of the group’s number two commander, Jorge Briceno Suarez. In the meantime, the rebel group shows no signs of laying down arms or negotiating for peace. The only reasonable option for President Santos is to continue with his two-pronged approach: strategic targeting of FARC forces and the creation of viable economic alternatives for Colombia’s rural poor.
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