At the peak of their strength in 2002, Colombia’s strongest leftist rebel group was capable of taking over entire towns, or killing dozens of soldiers in carefully planned ambushes. But the days of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) launching deadly attacks with hundreds of well-trained recruits appear to be over.
InSight interviewed a demobilized commander of the FARC’s 36th Front, and learned that the group’s ability to offer serious political or military training to its young recruits is now severely limited. With FARC combatants forced to keep constantly on the move, operating in groups as small as five or six, huge military training camps — or even the presence of experienced military trainers — are slipping into the past.
With the establishment of a demilitarized zone in southern Colombia in 1998, under the terms of a peace process led by President Andres Pastrana, the FARC had the space to double the size and sophistication of their training camps. Incoming recruits traditionally had to endure two-month training sessions, which included learning how to handle AK-47 and M-16 rifles and adapting to living in harsh jungle environments.
Indoctrination was also high on the agenda. Recruits studied the FARC’s political ideology and discipline, absorbing the many rules that make up life in a FARC camp. Women had to ask permission to choose a lover (unless their superior commander picked them first), and deserters or those suspected of feeding intelligence to the paramilitaries or the army would be executed. Life in the guerrilla ranks followed a strict hierarchy and broken rules did not go unpunished.
A special by independent Colombian TV program, “Testigo Directo” gives a rare inside look at some of the FARC’s methods for training up their more specialized combatants. In the video, alias ‘Asdrubal,’ a demoblized combatant who is reportedly a former military trainer for the guerrillas, gives a classroom-style lesson about how the FARC used to plan and launch their ambushes against the security forces, using hundreds of trained guerrillas.
The attacks described by Asdrubal, involving forces of 50 to 200 guerrillas, are precisely the kinds of large-scale offensives rarely seen from the FARC these days. Now, “professors” or military trainers like Asdrubal are rare: with the FARC moving in smaller groups, sometimes of no more than four or five combatants who do not even operate in uniform, there is little time, resources or space for military training.
In the video, Asdrubal’s descriptions of hypothetical guerrilla assaults reminds us that the FARC can be sophisticated and tactical warriors. And back when they could rely on the firepower for large-scale gun battles, they were more than capable of delivering a series of humiliating defeats to the Colombian security forces.
With a force of 50 guerrillas, Asdrubal explains, he would deploy a unit of ten combatants to cover one flank, and another twenty to cover the opposing flank. Reserve units are deployed to the rear, to prevent any survivors from getting away, while another reserve unit is responsible for evacuating the wounded and the dead.
Besides road ambushes, other FARC offensives against the security forces — say, strikes against a police station or a military outpost, the kind the FARC used to carry out with some frequency in departments like Antioquia, Vaupes and Meta in the late 1990s — require a bit more planning and intelligence, as these would more likely result in higher casualties. As Asdrubal explains, in these cases the FARC have to spend a significant amount of time tracking and studying the security forces, with several key considerations: the size and strength of of the enemy, how well are they trained and with what kinds of weapons, the movement of any guard patrols, and so on.
With a detailed strategy in mind, a force of 200 guerrillas could then conceivably try to take a police station or a military outpost. As detailed by Asdrubal, a group of the 50 best-trained guerrillas would lead the initial charge, while the 150 remaining combatants provided support from different directions, inflicting more damage and compensating for any losses.
The FARC did once have the numbers and the skilled fighters needed to win key military victories, such as the takeover of Mitu in 1998, or the battle of Jurado, Choco, in 1999, which ended with 25 soldiers dead and another 12 kidnapped.
But now the FARC have returned to classic hit-and-run guerrilla tactics, with little room to maneuver or gather in large groups. The days of Asdrubal are disappearing, and few fronts now dedicate the resources to political or military training, focusing instead on money-making activities.
Case in point: the FARC’s 36th Front, once one of the most battle-hardened units of the Ivan Rios Bloc, is now mostly confined to a corner of Antioquia, where its main focus is extorting gold miners and developing the coca base trade.
InSight talked with a demobilized commander of the FARC’s 36th Front, Alberto de Jesus Morales, alias ‘Pajaro,’ about what kind of military and political training the guerrillas are undergoing these days. Morales’ answers stand in sharp contrast to the hypothetical guerrilla battles detailed by Asdrubal.
The 36th Front is active in Antioquia’s Anori department, and is led by the commanders known as alias ‘Olmedo’ and ‘Anderson.’
An audio and transcript of InSight’s interview with Morales follows. The “Testigo Directo” video report is also included below.
InSight: Tell us a little bit about a normal day in the FARC. You usually had to wake up pretty early, right?
Alberto de Jesus Morales, alias ‘Pajaro’: Yeah, there they make you wake up around five in the morning. At six, or maybe like five or six, you start listening to the news, RCN or Caracol. Later on Olmedo would take you into a classroom, usually made out of sticks — you’d sit there and you’d have a conference for an hour and a half, something from a book, or something about politics that he knows about.
There more or less your day goes on, then a breakfast, then some news at midday, then a bath, then a dinner. Then another talk or movie about Fidel Castro, or Che Guevara, or Simon Boliviar. From the old wars or from other countries. They also try to infuse you with that kind of thing.
InSight: So is there still time for political training, or is there time every day for political talk when there’s the opportunity and there’s no pressure?
AM: When there’s the opportunity we can be a little quiet and stay in one place for eight to ten days, but that’s all, and that’s when you get maybe a talk in the morning and another in the afternoon. When they hear there’s no [military] operations nearby and that there’s not a lot of aviation overheard.
InSight: That’s always been the biggest fear of the guerrillas, correct?
AM: Yes, it’s the biggest fear.
InSight: Is there movement and contact with the other Fronts or are you more or less isolated?
AM: Isolated from everyone. You see very few people there.
InSight: Are there problems in getting food or ammo or is there a constant flow going in?
AM: That comes in a lot, there’s no lack of it.
InSight: No problems? Not even with weapons? Are there new weapons?
AM: Always the old weapons. But yeah, there’s no problem. Maybe they’ve gotten a hold of some R-15s.
InSight: Most are AKs or Galils?
AM: AK-47s and the old weapons. There’s AK-47s and 762s and some 223s. Machine guns, well, there’s very few.
InSight: And there are no .50s?
AM: There aren’t any, well, I don’t know about them.
InSight: So the training that you received when you started out, how long was it?
AM: A kid there hardly knows anything. They gave us training for something like 20 days, teaching the laws and the rules and what are the rules you have to follow when you’re in there, the discipline you’re supposed to have. Maybe you learn how to dismantle and re-arm a rifle. More than anything, the 36th Front doesn’t have the person, an instructor who knows and who can defend himself and who can train a group of new guys. That capacity isn’t there.
InSight: So the Front doesn’t have the capacity to carry out ambushes?
AM: There is no capacity for combat. The FARC are in that area, the 36th Front, because of the drug problem and because of mining and otherwise they wouldn’t be there.
InSight: Where the money is…
AM: It’s after money, why they’re still there, that’s why people are deserting, because they’re tired of it. They see there’s no hope, they see there’s no change, because in any case there won’t be, there’s not going to be. In that way the corn kernels are falling off.