The southern Colombian town where FARC guerrillas captured French journalist Romeo Langlois last weekend has a difficult history. La Union Peneya is an object lesson in how difficult “counterinsurgency” is, even in a country that has substantially weakened its largest insurgency.
In 2004, Colombia’s armed forces launched one of the biggest offensives in its history. Backed by US advisers and logistics personnel, “Operation JM,” the second and largest phase of what was known as “Plan Patriota,” sent about 18,000 Colombian soldiers deep into a broad swath of the southern departments of Caqueta, Meta and Guaviare that had been a FARC stronghold for decades.
As they launched the offensive from bases in western Caqueta, the first major town the troops hit was La Union Peneya, a coca boomtown along the Caguan river in the municipality of Montañita. By the end of 2003, Colombia’s El Tiempo newspaper writes, the town had “seven pool halls, 20 bars, two bordellos, four drugstores, three gas stations and about 20 stores selling fine clothes and trinkets, as well as five apartment buildings and 400 houses.”
In January 2004 the FARC, aware of the coming offensive, told everyone in La Union Peneya to clear out. The town center’s entire population of 2,500 displaced. According to a different El Tiempo report:
When the troops entered they found a well-cared for guerrilla cemetery and many pieces of the scrip, signed by Jose Benito Cabrera (Fabian Ramirez, one of the chiefs of the FARC’s Southern Bloc), that were used as money in that part of the country.
Even as the army established its presence in the town center, la Union Peneya remained a ghost town for at least three years. As “Plan Patriota” wound down in 2007, authorities announced plans to rebuild the abandoned town and the population began to trickle back. This rebuilding, and provision of other services, has been very slow as the government later decided to dedicate more resources to the “La Macarena” zone just to the northeast.
Today, more than eight years after the US-backed “Plan Patriota” rolled through, the town where it all began still has a very heavy FARC presence, and a lot of coca and cocaine production.
Last Saturday, troops from the Colombian Army’s US-backed Counternarcotics Brigade helicoptered into the rural part of La Union Peneya on a mission to destroy cocaine laboratories. They were accompanied by two embedded journalists: French reporter Romeo Langlois (creator of a documentary about Cauca’s “Indigenous Guard”) and Italian reporter Simone Bruno (creator of the documentary “Falsos Positivos”).
The army column and the reporters came under heavy guerrilla attack. A police officer and three soldiers were killed. Langlois was wounded in the arm and taken by the FARC. In a phone call yesterday, a guerrilla spokeswoman told reporters that Langlois is safe, but that because he was wearing a military helmet and jacket at the time, the FARC is holding him as a “prisoner of war.”
Since Langlois’s status as a journalist for France24 TV is confirmed, the FARC’s claim is invalid according to international humanitarian law. (Meanwhile, Colombian Air Force video seems to show the FARC fighters themselves wearing plainclothes, which also violates IHL.) The FARC must release Langlois immediately.
Last weekend’s tragedy highlights the frustrations of Colombia’s approach to counterinsurgency. With a constant military presence in the town center since 2004, La Union Peneya today should not be the sort of place where the FARC can carry out this sort of attack, much less maintain cocaine laboratories. But the fatal flaw of “Plan Patriota” was that over the past eight years, the government presence has been almost entirely military. Behind the troops came nothing: the civilian part of the state failed to appear with roads, schools, health care, land titles and other services one would expect from a government.
This lopsided approach did not bring governance, and did not convince the population that it lived under a credible government. And so La Union Peneya remains ungoverned.