Guerrilla group the FARC appear to have retaken the initiative in southwest Colombia, where government forces are struggling to contain them. The rebels’ increased reliance on militias, who operate in civilian clothing, could force the government to adopt more extreme measures.
Simultaneous attacks by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) over the weekend in the southwest Cauca department left at least six people dead and about 80 wounded. Now, the head of Colombia’s security forces says he will oversee operations in the embattled region, where the 29th Brigade is already based. This includes the 4th Mountain Battalion, which is responsible for securing the region’s south.
The guerrilla attacks have been concentrated in an approximate 100 mile radius in northern Cauca. The government has said that it is on the verge of capturing top FARC leader Guillermo Leon Saenz Vargas, alias “Alfonso Cano,” who is believed to have found refuge in the mountain range that splits Cauca from neighboring departments Tolima and Huila. It is possible that the aggressive car bomb attacks and road ambushes now hitting Cauca are meant to distract the security forces as Saenz rests and regroups his forces.
However, government claims to be on the verge of closing in on Saenz are nothing new. President Juan Manuel Santos made similar statements in February, after authorities arrested then killed the FARC leader’s two top security chiefs. The Joint Task Force of Southern Tolima, a military unit activated in April 2010 with the stated goal of eliminating Saenz, have clearly been applying pressure on the rebel leader’s inner circle, leaving him more exposed. His last head of security was in command for just under two months before he was killed on June 6, pointing to a high turnover rate among the rebel leader’s closest fighters. Still, the political windfall that would come from killing Saenz means the Santos administration could be overstating how close they are to capturing him.
The current violence in Cauca, then, may have little to do with Saenz’s current movements. The FARC’s Central Bloc, controlled by Saenz, and the Joint Western Command, led by Jorge Torres Victoria, alias “Pablo Catatumbo,” are the rebel units currently causing the most havoc in Cauca. Yet historically, they are the weakest units in the FARC, both in terms of military and financial power, compared to the much more powerful Eastern and Southern Blocs.
That the Central Bloc and Western Command are making the strongest offensive against the security forces, compared to the much quieter Eastern and Southern Blocs, is an indication of Saenz’s willingness to take on the heaviest of the FARC’s fighting. When he first assumed control of the FARC’s ruling body, the Secretariat, in 2008, he was best known as a political organizer and an ideologue within the guerrilla ranks. At the time, there were doubts about his ability to inspire and lead the FARC’s more traditional military wing.
The current violence in Cauca is then a product of Saenz’s willingness to engage in heavy combat while the Eastern and Southern Blocs concentrate on the cocaine trade. It is also a signal, in part, of his success in rebuilding the FARC as a classic hit-and-run guerrilla force. Last year the armed forces suffered casualty rates approaching those seen at the peak of the FARC’s power in 2002. Under Saenz’s command, the FARC have been able to evolve their combat style, and now operate in small cells, sometimes of no more than two or three combatants. Snipers and improvised explosive devices (IEDs), deployed to great effect in Cauca, have now become the guerrillas’ most effective weapons.
Cauca is vital for the FARC’s interests. It is a key drug trafficking corridor, connecting inland coca-covered mountains to the Pacific coast. The need to secure this corridor is one reason why the FARC are intent on rebuilding their military capability in this department. They have been able to do so by evolving their fighting style, under Saenz’s guidance. The guerrillas have stepped up the recruitment of militiamen, part-time fighters operating out-of-uniform in urban areas, instead of the full-time, traditional fighters based in the countryside.
As the attacks in Cauca show, the FARC are operating less like a conventional, insurgent force, and this is bad news for an army highly trained in traditional, counterinsurgent warfare. Colombia’s security forces need to evolve their tactics in tandem with the rebels, and improve their abilities to collect solid, actionable intelligence that would allow the police to target the FARC’s urban militia networks. But as the sustained violence in Cauca illustrates, the security forces are still lagging one step behind the rebels.