“How big a blow is this for the FARC?”
“How much does this help Uribe’s re-election?”
“What does this mean for the free-trade agreement with the United States?”
“Does this help John McCain?”
All we can do is offer educated guesses to these questions, which have been asked of us many times since yesterday afternoon (Huge. Very much. Not much. Only a little.)
More important right now is to pause, watch the jubilant video footage, and enjoy something that far too rare in Colombia: a piece of good news.
Many, many congratulations to the freed hostages and to their families, who worked so tirelessly to keep their loved ones from being forgotten.
Congratulations to the Colombian military and all others involved in yesterday’s rescue operation. Instead of the potentially disastrous commando raid that so many of the hostages’ relatives feared, they chose a far more subtle strategy – one in which a small number of operatives who infiltrated the FARC’s inner circles bore all the risk themselves.
Yesterday’s operation is another in a string of humiliations for the FARC, a group that only a year and a half ago seemed to be geographically unified, hermetically secretive, and rigidly disciplined. No longer. Since June 2007 the FARC have killed 11 of their captives; lost 4 front commanders and three Secretariat members, including Manuel Marulanda – whose death was announced by Colombia’s defense minister; suffered the embarrassing “baby Emmanuel” episode and the capture of guerrilla messengers transporting hostage “proofs of life”; endured two massive anti-FARC protest marches in Colombia; saw their internal communications revealed via RaÃºl Reyes’ computer; and finally had Hugo ChÃ¡vez tell them to disband.
Another year like that one, and there won’t be much left to the FARC. They will still be around – they will still have tens of millions of dollars per year in drug money, and thousands of members scattered around the national territory. But their capacity will be radically reduced.
What is interesting about yesterday’s operation – and much that the Colombian government has done in the past year or two – is how different it is than what has not worked in the past. Think about all the anti-FARC strategies that have failed over the past forty years, even during the first years of Ãlvaro Uribe’s term, many of them supported by the United States:
- Massive military offensives, like “Plan Patriota,” that have mainly pushed the guerrillas temporarily out of areas that remain barely governed.
- Efforts to rack up large body counts against the rank-and-file of a guerrilla organization made up mostly of very young, poor, easily replaceable recruits.
- Intelligence operations aimed at rooting out a supposed guerrilla “support base” among Colombia’s non-violent left – labor movements, human-rights defenders, opposition politicians and others.
Instead, what has worked over the past few years?
- Putting a much greater focus on intelligence aimed at the guerrillas’ top leadership (and hostage captors). This includes both signals intelligence to intercept their communications, and human intelligence in the form of informants and infiltrators.
- Making clear to the guerrilla rank-and-file, through public-relations campaigns and the testimonies of previous deserters, that those who surrender to the government will not only not be tortured or disappeared (as too often happened in the past), but they will get job training, perhaps a stipend, and the promise of a new life.
- Increasing the security forces’ presence in population centers and main roads and (though there is much room for improvement here) making these forces’ main mission protecting citizens instead of treating them as suspects.
What is interesting about these strategies is that, with the exception of increasing manpower and protective presence, they are relatively inexpensive. Compared to big-ticket items like fumigation and “Plan Patriota”-style military offensives, these efforts make up only a sliver of Colombia’s defense budget (and only a sliver of U.S. assistance). Planners of future aid packages to Colombia should take note.
Intelligence work and encouragement of desertion, these relatively cheap but vastly improved capabilities, made yesterday’s bloodless rescue mission possible. It is hard to imagine the Colombian military circa 2003-4 pulling off an operation like this successfully. But yesterday it went without a hitch.
Now let’s go back to enjoying those videos of the freed hostages. We’ve been waiting far too long to see them.