One of a group of less-radical guerrillas who left the ELN in 1994, LeÃ³n Valencia is now one of the most insightful analysts of Colombiaâ€™s conflict and politics. He has been on a roll lately: his latest columns, which appear in El Tiempo and other Colombian papers, have been particularly useful to those of us trying to comprehend the rather confused current moment in Colombia. Whether discussing the security situation, critiquing the paramilitary talks, or calling for unity on Colombiaâ€™s non-violent left (as in the latest Actualidad Colombiana), Valenciaâ€™s writings have been adding new information to the debate.
Here is a translation of his column in yesterdayâ€™s El Tiempo, which is probably the best answer Iâ€™ve seen in a while to the oft-asked question, â€œIs Uribe beating the FARC?â€ (The short answer is â€œno.â€)
La Macarena and the limitations of â€œdemocratic securityâ€
It was the end of December. The FARC dealt the security forces the strongest blow they had suffered during the Uribe government so far. Twenty-nine soldiers died and several were wounded in Vista Hermosa, in the La Macarena Mountains. The president reacted by ordering an offensive of manual coca eradication and military-police occupation of the zone. The FARC responded with a campaign of small attacks, including two that left 12 police dead. Now, the president wants to take the offensive farther, and has ordered bombings in some areas to support the land troops.
These two months have seen a debate about the effectiveness of the governmentâ€™s strategy in La Macarena, and of the consequences it will have on the â€œdemocratic securityâ€ policy.
When the FARCâ€™s first attack took place, Alfredo Rangel [of the Security and Democracy Foundation, a BogotÃ¡ think tank] hastily said that it owed to an error, with the army unfortunately letting its guard down. Someone who writes under a pseudonym in El Espectador, acting as an expert in military and security issues, introduced a more detailed discussion, affirming that these were the normal costs of sustained operations in the enemyâ€™s strongholds. He said that it is the FARC who must be very concerned, because they are being forced to fight in their own territory, because they had allowed themselves to be brought that far by the governmentâ€™s military offensive.
In fact, journalist Jineth Bedoya, in an on-the-ground report, told in El Tiempo how, a few days before the December attack, the troops who were ambushed were on maximum alert. They knew in great detail that the FARC were lying in wait. They had seen guerrillas snooping about, they had suffered the presence of landmines, they had caught a whiff of the smell left by stealthy troops passing by in the middle of the jungle. Their guard was not down.
The simple fact is, the FARC have many things in their favor in La Macarena. Their numbers, the surprise factor, better knowledge of the terrain, the support of the coca-growing population. This is the painful reality of war.
That brings us to the current debate about the conditions in which Colombiaâ€™s war is being fought. There are two commonly mistaken assumptions about the FARC: political analysts and military strategists frequently view them as a classic guerrilla group whose principal art is the tactical offensive; they also insist that they do not have any support in the population. Perhaps this vision of the FARC explains the accumulated failures in confronting them.
The FARCâ€™s art is defense. This is not common in the history of guerrillas. Generally, the smaller force grows by persistently attacking its enemy. Attacking and attacking in the counterpartâ€™s weakest places. Tiring them out. Biting and fleeing. This has been the common language of most guerrillas that fought in the twentieth century. A scholar some time ago called it â€œthe war of the flea.â€
The FARCâ€™s logic has been different. To wait and wait. Only rarely does it go out to seek the enemy. Very rarely does it conceive of large expansion plans. It risks little. It does its utmost to avoid decisive confrontations. Its history has been defensive. It grows while on the defensive. It expands almost because it is forced to, when it is forced to move away from its territory under enemy pressure.
It must not be forgotten that this guerrilla group was born amid the offensive that President Guillermo LeÃ³n Valencia carried out in 1964 against groups of campesinos who had taken refuge in Pato, Riochiquito and Guayabero. To express his disagreement with the National Front and with the guerrilla disarmament of the 1950s, Manuel Marulanda VÃ©lez organized some campesino colonies along the border of Huila and Tolima departments. They grew crops and lived with their weapons at rest, but their eyes open.
The guerrilla mobilization began with the attack on these zones. Many years later, amid a cease-fire entered into with President Belisario Betancur [in the mid-1980s], the FARC calmed down for several years. They were by then a force dispersed throughout all the country, but they concentrated their command in the famous â€œCasa Verdeâ€ in La Uribe (Meta department).
The cease-fire did not lead to peace, and before long [in 1990] the FARC were attacked again. Its commanders retreated to the south, but left its forces sown throughout zones from which it could reach all the way to BogotÃ¡. The defense minister at the time, Rafael Pardo, had said that the guerrillas would be defeated within 18 months, and he had to eat these words and suffer more than a few troubles due to the FARCâ€™s constant harassments and attacks.
The FARCâ€™s most successful defense was that of the Llanos del YarÃ [in eastern CaquetÃ¡ department] between 1996 and 1998. President Samper went after them with operations â€œDestructor 1â€ and â€œDestructor 2.â€ The FARC took this opportunity to hand him 16 consecutive defeats. It was during this time that they destroyed specialized units, killed hundreds of soldiers without compassion, and captured many more.
Everyone in Colombia knows these things. I recall them only to illustrate with some examples the idea that the FARC utilizes the other sideâ€™s offensives to beat them and to grow.
The FARC defend themselves well. But in addition, they concern themselves with maintaining the populationâ€™s support. Their most loyal allies have been the colonos [the word refers to poor farmers, usually displaced within the last generation or so, who have settled into remote, ungoverned areas to try to make a living]. But during the 1970s and 1980s they sought to arrive in the cities and to conquer the middle levels, the social organizations, public opinion. Hand-in-hand with the Communist Party they dared to participate in the formation of the Patriotic Union, a party that, before being exterminated, carved out an important political space in the country and in the Congress.
Attacked at â€œCasa Verde,â€ beaten back in their attempt to conquer the cities through political action, up to their necks in narcotrafficking, pestered and besieged by paramilitary forces, and committing the error of pressuring and attacking the civilian population, the FARC had to unite with coca-growing campesinos and the countryâ€™s marginal sectors. They became a force on societyâ€™s periphery, with no possibility of leading large political actions, but with an immense potential for violence.
Some of the governmentâ€™s critics close their eyes before the successes of its â€œdemocratic securityâ€ policy, but other opinion-makers fail to notice the difficulties within President Uribeâ€™s strategy.
The 100,000-person increase in the security forces during these three and a half years was not in vain. Nor was the increase in defense spending up to 5 percent of gross domestic product. Nor was the persistence of U.S. military aid with its more than 600 thousand [he must mean 600 million] dollars per year, and the growing presence of troops and officials in Colombia.
Murders have decreased significantly, and so have kidnappings, disappearances, attacks on unionists and opposition leaders. There is more territorial control. And, above all, there is a greater feeling of security and confidence. In the confrontation with the FARC there have been some very clear victories. Emptied of guerrillas were MedellÃnâ€™s Comuna 13 neighborhood and key sites in Cundinamarca department, their rearguard was penetrated by â€œPlan Patriota,â€ some mid-level leaders were captured, and it is not too bold to say that their number of combatants has been reduced by about 30 per cent.
But it also must be said that the FARCâ€™s basic structures are intact, that its central command has not suffered significant blows. And most worryingly: the last year has shown signs of a counteroffensive. At first, the FARC has attacked the periphery of its strongholds in NariÃ±o, Cauca, Huila, Putumayo or zones far from its critical areas, such as Arauca, UrabÃ¡, ChocÃ³. Lately, they have carried out actions in the heart of their own rearguard.
The fact is, when the governmentâ€™s offensive advances toward the remotest parts of the countryside and the armed forcesâ€™ lines stretch very far, their forces lose volume and consistency. The further the forces deploy into the territory, the fewer troops can be stationed in each area. The FARC wait for these moments and concentrate their forces to attack. This is what happened in La Macarena. In the days after the attack, they have dedicated themselves to maintaining their victory, avoiding frontal combat and resorting only to harassment of the troops. The eradication campaign and the thousands of troops moved to the zone to fight the guerrillas have had to confront these combat methods.
To the FARCâ€™s art of defending itself must be added the Colombian governmentâ€™s inability to offer anything more than a military offensive, to carry out a social inclusion project, to follow a grand strategy of removing these regions and their millions of residents from marginality and illegality. In past years, the coca-growing campesinos of La Macarena insisted on voluntary eradication programs in exchange for development projects to open new possibilities for life for the region. They got no response, and now, before an exported eradication model accompanied by military force and bombings, they feel attacked by their government and, in some way, in solidarity with the FARC. These two things [the FARCâ€™s defensive nature and the governmentâ€™s lack of a non-military strategy] constitute the great limitations of the â€œdemocratic securityâ€ policy. The FARC thrives on these limitations.