Despite Attacks, Colombia’s Rebels Are Losing the War: Report

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According to a Colombian think tank, the FARC’s increased reliance on landmarks and sniper fire is a sign of weakness, not strength, masking the fact that the rebels are falling behind in their struggle with the government.

The Ideas for Peace Foundation (InSight Crime’s primary sponsor) released a study on Monday which argues that Colombia’s security forces are carrying out more offensive actions than the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and have not lost the initiative in the conflict. The author of the report, Camilo Echandia Castilla, conflict analyst and professor at the Universidad Externado, asserts that the FARC are a long way from regaining the military capacity they had during the 1990s. Far from making a resurgence, the rebels will never again be capable of holding large chunks of territory, and have instead prioritized the defense of a few key strategic corridors, Echandia writes.

As Just the Facts and Semana have noted, these conclusions clash with those presented by another Bogota-based think tank, the Nuevo Arco Iris Foundation. In a paper released in July, the organization argued that the FARC had increased their actions since 2009. The FIP agrees with this, but presents a markedly different set of numbers. Nuevo Arco Iris counts nearly 2,000 FARC actions in 2010 alone. The FIP counts just a fraction of that number, 359, between 2007 and 2010.

Why two opposing sets of data when looking at the same conflict? Unlike Nuevo Arco Iris, the FIP did not count the use of anti-personnel mines or sniper fire as FARC actions. The two think-tanks have several overlapping categories for what constitutes a FARC attack: assaults on infrastructure, ambushes, combat (firefights that last over two hours) and harassment (“hostigamientos,” or hit-and-run attacks).

But as the FIP argues, the use of anti-personnel mines and sniper fire are defensive strategies. The FARC’s increased dependence on such tactics is evidence of weakness, the FIP says, as it points to their decreased ability to carry out aggressive military offensives like the mass kidnappings and the takeover of army bases and police stations seen in the 1990s. This is even though mines are the among the rebels’ most deadly tactics and are responsible for the high casualty rate suffered by Colombia’s security forces.

The report’s other key arguments include:

1. The FARC are deliberately forcing the security forces to distribute their resources thinly across Colombia. By engaging in small-scales attacks across the country, the rebels are trying to distract the military from their central objective: targeting the FARC’s top leadership. This is most true for the army’s campaign to find and kill FARC leader Guillermo Leon Saenz Vargas, alias “Alfonso Cano.” The army currently has four mountain brigades and a special task force of 7,000 personnel devoted to tracking down Saenz, believed to be hiding in the mountain ranges of the central Tolima department. The FIP argues that since 2009, the FARC have primarily been acting to relieve the military pressure on their top leaders. This explains why the FARC’s guerrilla-style attacks are so concentrated in Colombia’s central and southwest region, where Saenz is based.

2. The FARC have scaled back their actions but are still inflicting high casualties. The security forces, meanwhile, have had to redouble their efforts just to keep up. The FIP describes the rebels’ strategy as “economy of force.” Thanks to the guerrillas’ reliance on anti-personnel mines and militia members, who operate in urban areas in civilian clothes, the military has to work twice as hard to gain results. The most intense period of fighting between the FARC and the army took place during President Alvaro Uribe’s first term in office, between 2002 to 2006. Since then, the number of military actions have dropped, but this isn’t because the army has lost the initiative, the FIP says. The dropping numbers are another sign of the FARC’s weakness: as the rebels have been pushed back, the military has had fewer opportunities to engage them.

3. The military is still effective. The FIP counts 529 combats initiated by the security forces during the first half of 2011; compared to 279 actions carried out by the FARC. Additionally, the military are twice as active as the guerrillas in municipalities which experience combat. Between 1990 and 2002, the FARC consistently carried out more armed actions than the security forces, according to the FIP’s tally. That all changed when Uribe took office, and the trend has continued since then.

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