On Sunday, Nelly Ãvila (alias “Karina”) the head of the FARC’s once-powerful 47th Front, surrendered to authorities in southeastern Antioquia department. She appeared exhausted, underfed and thoroughly defeated, and called on other FARC members to join her in deserting the guerrilla group.
Her capture has triggered another round of articles in the media speculating that the FARC are edging ever closer to a military defeat. Most conclude that while actual defeat remains virtually impossible, the group is being driven out of key areas and may be fragmenting as units in different areas experience difficulty communicating with each other.
In the past twelve months, I count eight Colombian successes against FARC leaders at or above the level of front commander. (Let me know if any are missing.) Analyzing those events geographically shows a few things about the state of the FARC, discussed after the map below.
Actions against major FARC leaders since 2007
1. May 18, 2008: “Karina” (Nelly Ãvila Moreno), head of the 47th Front, deserts.
2. March 7, 2008: FARC Secretariat member “IvÃ¡n RÃos” is killed by his own chief of security.
3. March 1, 2008: FARC Secretariat member “RaÃºl Reyes” is killed about a mile inside Ecuador.
4. October 25, 2007: “Martin Caballero,” head of the 37th Front and a key member of the Caribbean Bloc, is killed.
5. February 26, 2008: “Martin Sombra,” one of the FARC’s oldest members and the “jailer” of many hostages, is captured.
6. September 1, 2007: “Negro Acacio,” head of the cocaine-producing 16th Front, is killed.
7. June 2007: “J.J.,” head of the Manuel Cepeda Vargas Urban Front, is killed.
8. July 15, 2007: Carlos Antonio Losada, a former FARC negotiator and high-ranking member of the Eastern Bloc, is probably wounded in an attack during which Colombian forces recover his computer.
- Units that were already weak are being hit hardest. The FARC’s regional blocs in northern Colombia have long been smaller than those it maintains in the south and east of the country. Blocs in the central coffee-growing region, the Magdalena Medio region, Antioquia department and the Caribbean have fewer members, operate in more densely populated areas, and have had to contend for more than twenty years with paramilitary groups, which originated in this part of the country.
Zones like southern Antioquia and northern Caldas – where “Karina” surrendered and where FARC Secretariat member IvÃ¡n RÃos was killed by his own men in March – have been inhospitable to the FARC for a long time. For years they have been instead considered areas of strong paramilitary influence, particularly of blocs controlled by the recently extradited “Don Berna” and “Macaco.”
With added military pressure in these zones, it is no wonder that Karina’s view of the FARC’s condition is so dire. It is far from clear, though, whether FARC units elsewhere are in similarly bad shape.
- The FARC’s strongest units have suffered fewer reversals. The FARC’s Eastern and Southern Blocs (and to a lesser extent, its Western Bloc) are far larger and wealthier than those that have suffered the strongest blows. They operate in much more remote and unpopulated areas, including triple-canopy jungles, and they profit enormously from the coca economy and control of drug-trafficking routes. Their region is considered the guerrillas’ historical “rearguard” zone.
Though key targets of the “Plan Patriota” military offensive, which has somewhat reduced the area in which they can operate freely, these blocs have seen fewer of its leaders killed and captured. There are two big exceptions, though: the September 2007 killing of 16th Front commander “Negro Acacio” (TomÃ¡s Medina Caracas), who was a key link in the FARC’s cocaine transshipment operations, and of course the March 2008 killing of Secretariat member “RaÃºl Reyes.” Reyes, however, was killed in Ecuador – not while under military pressure in Colombia – apparently while awaiting a visit from a delegation of French government mediators.
- Guerrilla leaders considered more “political” have been hit harder than representatives of the FARC’s so-called “military wing.” Analysis of the FARC often postulates that the group’s leadership is modestly divided into two camps: ideologues and military strategists. In this scheme, the ideologues care more about the group’s image and public opinion, and are somewhat more willing to enter into peace negotiations, while the military leaders are hard-liners who believe only in the use of force, incuding against civilians, to win power.
It has always been difficult to determine which guerrilla leaders fit into which category. However, many of those killed or captured in the last year are believed to be representatives of the FARC’s “political” wing. These include the two Secretariat members (Reyes and RÃos), former peace negotiator Carlos Antonio Losada, and 40-year FARC member “MartÃn Sombra.”
There is no way to know why these relatively less hard-line leaders have borne the brunt of the past year’s military operations. It is interesting to note that while “military” chiefs like “Mono Jojoy” and “TimoleÃ³n JimÃ©nez” remain in the most remote areas, protected by large and powerful blocs, the more “political” leaders have been more exposed – either in less securely held areas like Antioquia, or – in the case of Reyes – in the vulnerable position of meeting with easily tracked foreign delegations.
- Better intelligence is making these efforts possible – and probably dividing the FARC. For the most part, these successes against the FARC are not the product of massive, costly “Plan Patriota”-style military offensives. These seem to do little more than rack up large “body counts” of dead guerrillas of the lowest rank, many of them easily replaceable teenagers. Instead, the latest successes are the product of far better intelligence-gathering.
A few years ago, Colombian military intelligence agencies appeared to do little more than keep tabs on non-combatant leftists and human-rights defenders. While such activities may unfortunately be continuing, the Colombian government is clearly devoting far more resources to gathering intelligence about the whereabouts of top-ranking leaders. It is doing so by treating guerrilla deserters better, thus making more of them willing to talk and more of them willing to desert in the first place.
It is also doing so through improved signals intelligence, some of it a gift from the United States. When not being employed to listen in illegally on political leaders’ conversations, this communications-intercept equipment is making conditions harder for FARC leaders.
At a time when their highest-level leadership is somewhat paralyzed – paramount FARC leader Manuel Marulanda is nearing eighty, and is rumored to be either dead or semi-vegetative – the regional blocs are having a very difficult time contacting each other through anything but human messengers. As the Reyes computer fallout shows, even e-mail communication is now risky.
The result of such difficult communications across Colombia’s far-flung geography could, in the next few years, be greater fragmentation of the FARC. And fragmentation is especially bad news for the smaller guerrilla blocs in northern Colombia that have been most severely damaged by the Colombian government’s latest efforts.