Govt Steps Up Operations in East Colombia, Where FARC Leader May be Hiding

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The Colombian government is stepping up security measures along the eastern border with Venezuela, where the head of the country’s largest guerrilla group is believed to be based, in response to a series of attacks in the region in recent days.

On January 16, Colombian Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon said that the military will increase the number of checkpoints in municipalities throughout Norte de Santander province. Pinzon made the announcement after meeting with local security forces in the municipality of Tibu, which has been the target of several recent attacks by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

On January 13, the group set off a car bomb which killed three in the town of Petrolea. Another bomb was detonated early the next morning at a police station in the nearby town of Sardinata, wounding two police officers.

Norte de Santander is where Rodrigo Londoño Echeverry, alias “Timochenko,” who was appointed the FARC’s leader after Alfonso Cano’s death in November, is believed to be based. Timochenko mentioned the militarization of the department in his recent call to resume peace talks with President Juan Manuel Santos, offering further evidence of his presence there.

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The recent security surge in Norte de Santander could be a sign that the government is hot on the heels of the FARC leader, just two months after his predecessor was killed. This raises interesting questions about the government’s strategy for ending the conflict.

The Santos administration has declined to take up the guerrillas’ offer of peace talks until the rebels release all hostages and declare a ceasefire. Timochenko’s reputation as a hardliner could mean that his death might make the guerrillas more likely to comply with these preconditions. But it also might generate more instability within the group, creating a leadership void which would make it difficult to decide who would represent the rebels at a negotiating table in the future.

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