The FARC are reportedly under orders to retake strategic territory in west Colombia, demonstrating the guerrillas’ ability to resurge in areas where they once had to battle paramilitaries.
Testimony from two demobilized guerrilla combatants indicates that both the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) are planning to increase activity in the Pacific province of Choco and the provinces of Risaralda and Caldas in Colombia’s coffee-growing region, according to El Colombiano.
This reportedly includes increasing recruitment efforts and carrying out more kidnapping, as well as expanding their extortion of gold miners and ranchers in the region.
The most significant testimony comes from one FARC deserter who told the military that the guerrillas have orders to “acquire new territory, realize financial activities, collect payments, take a census of the miners, ranchers, businesses and attain control of the area,” according to the newspaper.
The FARC’s once powerful Aurelio Rodriguez Mobile Column, primarily active in the Coffee Region, is charged with retaking the zone, the report says. The column uses the various indigenous reservations found in this stretch of territory as refuge. Under Colombian law, it is difficult for the security forces to enter indigenous communities without special permission. Consequently, many indigenous reserves are used by the FARC to rest and recuperate, while the guerrillas forcibly recruit some members of the indigenous population into their ranks.
The main implication of this strategy is that FARC are keen on expanding in zones where they once had to fiercely fight paramilitary group the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) for power. In the late 1990s coffee regions like Risaralda and Caldas fell under the influence of the AUC’s Southwestern Antioquia Bloc, one of the most well-funded paramilitary factions. In Choco, the Elmer Cardenas Bloc did much to drive the guerrillas out of the department with a bloody offensive. In 1997 and 1998, during the worst years of conflict between the FARC and these AUC, hundreds were killed and thousands more displaced from their land.
Such reports also point to the resurgence of the FARC’s Ivan Rios Bloc. This was the FARC faction responsible for defending territory in northwestern Colombia, and it was among the blocs most affected by the wars with the AUC. The low point came in 2008, when Bloc commander alias “Ivan Rios” was killed by his bodyguard, who chopped off Rios’ hand to present as proof of death.
Many of the FARC units that make up the Ivan Rios Bloc saw mass desertions over the past decade. This includes the same unit, the Aurelio Rodriguez Mobile Column, which is now reportedly set to retake their ground in the Coffee Region and Choco. The Mobile Column was initially deployed from the FARC’s demilitarized zone (held by the FARC from 1999-2002 as part of the government’s peace negotiations). The column was charged with defending the guerrillas’ holdings in northwest Colombia, but was forced to fight the government and the paramilitary offensive at the same time. Thanks to desertions, the unit shrank from 400 fighters in 2003 to just 60 in 2009.
But the Ivan Rios Bloc can now count on a couple of advantages which would allow units like the Aurelio Rodriguez Column to recuperate their lost ground. Thanks to the increased extortion of gold mining, which has helped make previously debilitated units like the 36th Front among the richest in northern Colombia, the Ivan Rios Bloc has a new, very profitable source of cash.
Another advantage is the alliances established between some FARC units and their former paramilitary rivals, groups which the government calls criminal bands (BACRIMs). Notably, in Choco, the 57th Front was actually able to expand their numbers, thanks to their business partnership with the Urabeños.
The FARC have good reason to invest significant resources in the Choco-Risaralda-Caldas axis. Such a tactic would allow the guerrillas to protect their northwestern rearguard, which gives them access to the Pacific coast and, crucially, Panama, another refuge for the guerrillas.
This has essentially become the FARC’s nationwide strategy: pushed out of Colombia’s central areas, they are instead flexing their muscle in border states like Choco, Arauca, and Putumayo, where neighboring countries like Panama, Ecuador and Venezuela provide a safe haven, out of the reach of the Colombian security forces. These are the strategic fallbacks for the FARC, which they are using to expand back into their former strongholds in the interior of the country.