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May 212008

On Sunday, Nelly Ávila (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 Ávila Moreno), head of the 47th Front, deserts.
2. March 7, 2008: FARC Secretariat member “Iván Ríos” is killed by his own chief of security.
3. March 1, 2008: FARC Secretariat member “Raúl 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.

  1. 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 Iván Ríos 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.

  1. 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” (Tomás Medina Caracas), who was a key link in the FARC’s cocaine transshipment operations, and of course the March 2008 killing of Secretariat member “Raúl 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.

  1. 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 Ríos), former peace negotiator Carlos Antonio Losada, and 40-year FARC member “Martín 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 “Timoleón Jiménez” 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.

  1. 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.

8 Responses to “Where the FARC are being beaten – and where they aren’t”

  1. Kyle Says:

    Adam, great post and analysis. My hypothesis for why the political leaders hace borne the brunt is that their not-so-strong (or not-as-strong) military knowledge may have led to them exposing themselves and their positions. The military leaders of the FARC know enough military strategy to hide themselves well and to escape and move quicker when necessary. Simply put, the military leaders have been able to adapt to the pressure from the armed forces because of their military experience and knowledge. While the political wing has military know-how, I would say naturally it is not as strong and therefore these leaders for the FARC are more likely to commit errors when it comes to keeping themselves hidden and on the move.

  2. Patrick Higgins Says:

    This analysis leads me to ask two questions: Will the military successes against the FARC, which seem to be causing substantial disintegration/confusion within the group, lead to a political solution? Or, will disintegration/confusion, which seems to be in a certain synergy with declining leadership, make a political solution that much more difficult?

    It does not seem likely, as even Uribe has indicated, that there will be a military solution to the conflict. Owing to this, it seems to me that the second question is the one to ask. I am left wondering then: Who will enter into negotiations on behalf of the FARC should current trends continue? The answer is no one.

    This may be a little too predicative, but I think that addressing the issues that might be raised as a result of a disintegrated yet armed FARC will be an tougher battle to fight than the one at hand. Surely the military is having successes but by no means is this the end of the road. Many bumps lie ahead.

  3. Kyle Says:

    Good points Patrick. I just wanted to add that the case of Reyes may hurt my hypothesis, but it seems like his constant contact with the outside world brought his downfall, which may make him an anomaly with regards to an guessing at why the political leaders tend to be feeling the pressure the hardest.

  4. Tambopaxi Says:

    Patrick, To the degree that current trends continue, that is, continued fragmentation/disintegration of FARC units, it may be that we’ll simply see more FARC folks deserting or turning themselves into the GOC as Karina did. Under that scenario, you may very well not see anyone negotiating on the behalf of the FARC as a whole, because there’s no one left to do it.

    That’s only one scenario, though. To some extent, via field losses of the sorts that Adam describes and simple old age, we’re seeing a changing of the guard or at least a departure of the old guard. If there are young, motivated guys who are willing to move into newly vacated lead positions, and who themselves are capable of recruiting and motivating new cadres, well, this whole FARC thing could go on for some time.

    The FMLN fought the Government of El Salvador to pretty much of a stand-off in that small country and they ended up with a negotiated peace which stands to this day. I must say that I’d never really felt that the GOC could win militarily in much larger Colombia against a foe who’s well financed and who’s apparently never had problems recruiting new kids.

    But I could be wrong (and not sorry about it). I’ve never understood how the FARC has been able to recruit and maintain young foot troops, especially when it’s clear to all that the FARC will never, ever win the war and that’ll always be way the hell out in the boonies where the living’s never been easy, and where you’re usually hunted. It could be that the FARC, after all this time, is beginning to find out that it’s not possible themselves and that they’re starting to slowly wear and fade away.

    Guess we’ll see as political commentators are wont to say….

  5. Jose david Says:

    “I’ve never understood how the FARC has been able to recruit and maintain young foot troop”

    Thanks to social and economical conditions endured by the Colombian state in its dirty war against the peasantry, but also against leftists and political opponents. The continuing militaristic approach might inflict some losses on the enemy, but its impact is much wider and effective in eroding the few democratic spaces alvailable, perpetuating the circle of violence, poverty and human rights violations; 900 extra-judiciary executions, 4 million displaced peasants, 600 labor activists in Uribe’s years are not worth the alleged sucess agaisnt FARC. The armed conflict, which is closer to a dead end than a triumph by either force, implies mutilple armed actors all participating in attacks against civilians and human rights violations, most of them coming from the colombian state and its paramilitary allies. Freedom, justice, social participation and political tolerance are more effective in encouraging political basis for peace than any intelligence or military offensive. Unfortunately, these principles are far from being political goals in this absurd war.

  6. Camilla Says:

    I don’t see what’s wrong with knocking off the low-hanging fruit first. Adam seems to be saying that because the Colombian army is going for the easier targets rather than the harder ones right now, it’s not really a victory and the canard remains intact that the war is unwinnable and therefore the only solution is peace talks, concessions, Switzerland-size lands giftwrapped to the FARC and splitting everything 50-50 and never mind about the small insignificant /s matter of Colombia losing its democracy – FARC’s revolucion of el pueblo is really better anyway.

    But in reality, it’s a credible military tactic to crush the low-hanging fruit first. Once you do that, valuable supply lines are broken, morale is sapped, and the hard core of the FARC down south is easier to defeat. Strip off the protective coating of the jackfruit and see how easy it is to consume the center. It works the same in war and Colombia’s army knows its war, it’s been at it for several decades and very successful at it for the last five years.

  7. Jacob Says:

    If I were to be objective I’d say that the only bloc of the FARC that has suffered any damage in “Plan Patriota” and “Plan Colombia” is the central bloc in the coffee growing region, where indeed they have lost a lot of their manpower, for instance Magdalena Medio just next to it is quite strong with more than a thousand people, and also I do not believe the stratospheric desertion tallies given by the GOC, if these numbers were true, the FARC would have been long gone by now, and at last the talk of “regionalisation” and “fragmentation” of the FARC are fairy tales, why in March AFTER the death of Reyes and Rios the Spanish journalist David Beriain got into the camp of “commander” Pastor Alape, the leader of Magdalena Medio bloc, actually he was supposed to meet Reyes, such a change in the meeting plan shows that the FARC have managed to keep coordination of their fronts and can easily direct people to whatever bloc they want.
    The link with the different video chapters are at http://www.adn.es/etiqueta/en%20pie%20de%20guerra/
    One thing I still don’t understand is how has farc been able to recruit so many people, have they recruited anyone in 08, where are their training camps, how many people are they recruiting and what’s the motivation to join an org that is under an unprecedented onslaught by President Uribe?

  8. Camilla Says:

    I think FARC benefits very nicely from its training and R&R camps in Venezuela and Ecuador, both of which tolerate them on their territory. In Venezuela’s case, based on FARC computer correspondence, there is reason to think they are actively encouraged. With nice camps like that out of the gunsights of the Colombian army, FARC can flourish nicely, particularly with lots of Hugobucks to keep them in rice and beans and Rolex watches.

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