On Thursday the 14th, and again on Sunday the 17th, several hundred guerrillas from the FARCâ€™s 6th Front and Jacobo Arenas Column attacked ToribÃo, a largely indigenous town of about 3,500 people in the mountains of northeastern Cauca department, about 40 mostly dirt-road miles from the Panamerican Highway between Cali and PopayÃ¡n.
The guerrillas indiscriminately rained homemade gas-cylinder bombs on the town, damaging the police station that the Uribe government had installed, but also destroying a hospital and dozens of houses.
Ten hours after the April 14 attack began, the security forces arrived; several dozen police and soldiers were helicoptered into the town center, and the FARC fighters retreated to the mountains surrounding the town, from where they continued to launch mortars and shoot at the government forces. Military aircraft strafed guerrillas from the air, while FARC fighters took control of both roads entering the town, effectively isolating it by land.
Sporadic fighting continues as the town, protected by difficult terrain, has still not completely returned to government control. So far, the death toll has included at least five police and two soldiers, an unknown number of guerrillas, and a nine-year-old boy. Twenty-three civilians were wounded, some seriously, and nearly the entire popluation of the town has been at least temporarily displaced.
What this means for the Uribe government
The ToribÃo attack was brutal and showed no concern whatsoever for the civilian population, beyond a guerrilla warning issued a few hours before the shooting started. Violations of international humanitarian law, however, are something the FARC commits routinely. More about that in a moment.
ToribÃo was unusual, though, for its scale. During the first two and a half years of Ãlvaro Uribeâ€™s term in office, the FARC simply did not attempt anything this ambitious â€“ a takeover of a mid-sized town with a police station, using hundreds of fighters, that was clearly the result of months of planning.
The relatively low level of FARC activity between August 2002 and early 2005 caused a debate among security analysts about what was going on. Supporters of Ãlvaro Uribe and his â€œDemocratic Securityâ€ strategy gave credit to the presidentâ€™s tough policies, the militaryâ€™s improved capabilities, and even U.S. military aid. Some even went so far as to predict the FARCâ€™s defeat within a few years. Others noted that the militaryâ€™s size and capabilities, though greater, had not grown enough to bring such a sharp drop in guerrilla activity, and speculated that the FARC â€“ its leadership, fronts, and financing largely intact â€“ had chosen to pull back, responding to the Uribe offensive with a â€œtactical retreat.â€
It now seems apparent that the latter group was right. The FARC were capable of launching large-scale attacks like ToribÃo â€“ and the only thing keeping them from doing so was that they chose not to.
In fact, it could be argued that a main reason why the guerrillas attacked ToribÃo â€“ the latest in a wave of attacks on both military and civilian targets that began in late January â€“ was to demonstrate that the Uribe strategy was not affecting the guerrillasâ€™ ability to operate. Top FARC leader RaÃºl Reyes told an interviewer from ANNCOL, a Sweden-based guerrilla-solidarity site, that the ToribÃo action was â€œa blow to â€˜Democratic Security.â€™ â€¦ After this action, the government looks silly when it asserts that it has the ability to force the FARC into retreat.â€ Reyes added that the attack disproves President Uribeâ€™s insistently repeated argument that Colombia has no armed conflict, just a terrorist nuisance.
Indeed, ToribÃo was a blow to the Democratic Security strategy. It was embarrassing for Uribe and the high command to helicopter into the ruined town center on Friday the 15th, call the guerrillas â€œcowardsâ€ and assure the townspeople that they were safe, only to have the FARC attack again two days later. A cornerstone of the Uribe governmentâ€™s strategy was to deploy contingents of police into all the countryâ€™s 1,092 county seats (cabeceras municipales). Actions like ToribÃo â€“ in which the police station, in the middle of town, was nearly as vulnerable as the rest of the population â€“ recall why the police were absent in the first place.
ToribÃo also calls into question the U.S.-supported â€œPlan Patriotaâ€ offensive, which has concentrated about 17,000 soldiers in the departments of CaquetÃ¡, Meta, and Guaviare, a longtime FARC stronghold a couple of hundred miles east of ToribÃo. Plan Patriota has required the deployment of troops away from the department of Cauca; Senator Luis Ã‰lmer Arenas, from the department of Valle del Cauca just to the north, said last week that the armyâ€™s 6th Mobile Brigade, which had been assigned to Cauca, was moved to the zone that had once been demilitarized for the failed 1998-2002 negotiations with the FARC, which lies in the middle of the Plan Patriota area. Arenas said that Cauca has been left with only four army battalions (a battalion usually has about 500-600 men), and these are mostly tied down guarding roads or â€“ as â€œpeasant soldiersâ€ â€“ other towns.
El Tiempo reporter Marisol GÃ³mez speculates that the FARC are responding to the pressures of Plan Patriota by shifting their rearguard to a new â€œtriangleâ€ â€“ the southwestern departments of Cauca, NariÃ±o and Putumayo.
The attacks on ToribÃo could be part of a strategy to consolidate themselves in the Cauca-NariÃ±o-Putumayo axis. Having lost their rearguard in CaquetÃ¡, Meta and Guaviare due to Plan Patriota, the guerrilla group may need a new one in order to provide security to its Secretariat. And what better than a strategic triangle like this one in the countryâ€™s southwest, which it has cultivated for years with its presence. Of this corridor, says analyst Alfredo Rangel, NariÃ±o is perhaps the most important province, â€œbecause it has become the new center of coca-leaf production (it is calculated that there are 17,000 hectares planted there), because it offers access to the Pacific Ocean to get drugs out, and because the border with Ecuador eases the entry of munitions and supplies over land.â€ Cauca also has ocean access, and Putumayo, access to Ecuador. As a result, we cannot view as gratuitous the attacks on the IscuandÃ© (NariÃ±o) naval base, in which fifteen marines died last February 1, and the ambushes in Santa Ana and Puerto LeguÃzamo (Putumayo) on February 2 and March 23, in which nine soldiers and eight marines died. This would also account for the assaults on Samaniego, Ricaurte and Guachavez (NariÃ±o) and on JambalÃ³ (Cauca) on the same day the ToribÃo attacks began.
ToribÃo also calls into question the effectiveness of the Colombian governmentâ€™s U.S.-supported Early Warning System (SAT), which has already been criticized for past failures to respond in a timely way to warnings about imminent armed-group attacks. Representatives of the DefensorÃa del Pueblo (the Colombian governmentâ€™s human rights ombudsman) say that the SAT failed them in the ToribÃo case. Due to a communications breakdown within the SAT the night before the attacks began, â€œwe had to use other, alternative communications channels, because by morning the attack was to begin,â€ said DarÃo MejÃa, the secretary-general of the DefensorÃa, adding that his office had been issuing periodic warnings since December.
Perhaps the most fundamental question about the meaning of the FARCâ€™s latest attacks is: if the guerrillasâ€™ goal is to undermine the Uribe governmentâ€™s security policies, why choose to attack a civilian target? And especially, why choose a target like ToribÃo, which has become a symbol of non-violent indigenous resistance to the conflict? There are no good answers.
As much as 90 percent of ToribÃoâ€™s residents belong to the Nasa or PÃ¡ez indigenous group, one of the largest and most cohesive of Colombiaâ€™s dozens of native ethnicities. During the 1980s, ToribÃo was a center for an indigenous guerrilla group, known as QuintÃn Lame, that sought to resist both the security forces and the guerrillas before demobilizing in 1991. Later, in the 1990s, leaders chose a non-violent option, reviving the tradition of the Indigenous Guard â€“ a â€œself-defense forceâ€ armed only with short ceremonial sticks called bastones. The guard now has over 5,000 members. The guard had successfully prevented FARC incursions in the past, including standoffs with the FARC in ToribÃo and TotorÃ³ in August 2002 and the rescue of ToribÃo mayor Arquimedes VitonÃ¡s, whom the guerrillas briefly kidnapped in August 2004.
This non-violent model has won praise for ToribÃo and the Indigenous Guard throughout Colombia. But the guard resists more than just the FARC. ToribÃo was a center of organizing for the massive minga, or gathering, of tens of thousands of indigenous people last September, who peacefully marched from northern Cauca to Cali to protest free-trade negotiations and the Uribe governmentâ€™s Democratic Security policies. The community members have also been adamant opponents of Plan Colombia.
Clearly, on paper at least, the FARC shares a lot of those political positions. Why, then, would it choose ToribÃo for its most vicious attack on a population in years?
Part of the answer might simply be revenge for the residentsâ€™ past displays of resistance. Part of it might be the FARCâ€™s stubborn belief that they, and only they, are the true expression of resistance to Colombiaâ€™s ruling class. Writes Colombian analyst HÃ©ctor MondragÃ³n, a fierce critic of both Uribe and the guerrillas, â€œThe FARC, now on the offensive, has been spectacularly dismissive of the mass movement of the popular sectors of Colombia. The FARC is uninterested.â€
The FARC, like all of Colombiaâ€™s armed groups, has a terrible record of preying on indigenous leaders and activists. In recent months the FARC has kidnapped or killed members of indigenous communities in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta; Ricaurte, NariÃ±o; and in northern Cauca. And we mustnâ€™t forget the FARCâ€™s murder of three U.S. indigenous-rights activists who were working with the Uâ€™wa people in Arauca in 1999.
Indigenous claims may be irrelevant to a group whose rigid Marxism allows only for the possibility of class conflict. But the FARCâ€™s hostility to indigenous communities probably owes more to military calculations. It is possible that ToribÃo was targeted mainly because its location made it difficult to re-take militarily, because it lies along a key corridor across the Andes, and because it is part of an attempt to create a new â€œaxisâ€ in southwestern Colombia.
If the FARC is indeed still giving primacy to military calculations, it would mean that the groupâ€™s leaders have learned absolutely nothing during the past few years about the importance of politics and the support of local populations. The groupâ€™s image, both domestically and internationally, took a severe battering with the demise of the Pastrana peace process, and its continued resort to terrorism â€“ defined as deliberate attacks on civilians â€“ has made it a pariah nearly everywhere. Its attacks on organized critics of Uribe and the security forces â€“ such as the Nasa in ToribÃo or the five members of the human-rights group Justicia y Paz who were kidnapped for two weeks earlier this month â€“ show that even on the left, the FARCâ€™s attitude is, â€œThe enemy of my enemy is still my enemy.â€
This lack of regard for popular opinion makes the FARC unique among guerrilla groups. In their dealings with the civilian population, most guerrillas have at least tried to follow the dictates of Mao Tse-Tung (â€œthe richest source of power to wage war lies in the masses of peopleâ€) and Che Guevara (â€œConduct toward the civil population ought to be regulated by a large respect for all the rules and traditions of the people in order to demonstrate effectively, with deeds, the moral superiority of the guerrilla fighter over the oppressing soldierâ€).
Instead the FARC, at least many of its fronts during the past few years, has maintained a predatory relationship with the civilian population, a relationship based more on fear than on trust. Some of its leaders (â€œMono Jojoyâ€ comes to mind) clearly believe that military advantages trump all political considerations, including any gains to be had from respecting international humanitarian law. ToribÃo indicates that these leaders are still hugely influential within the FARC, despite the groupâ€™s lack of significant military successes over the last five years or so.
The continued power of the FARCâ€™s most militaristic, least political leaders probably means that peace talks are unlikely to happen anytime soon. But it also means that the FARC may be approaching the end of its existence as a cohesive guerrilla organization.
Ultimately, its illegal money cannot substitute for its lack of popular support. An army of violent resistance that attacks communities of peaceful resistance is on a self-destructive path. It is the FARCâ€™s neglect of politics and popular support â€“ not the U.S.-supported Colombian military pressure â€“ that most threatens to bring the group down in the medium-term. Losing popular support is more than just a tactical disadvantage â€“ it leads a group to lose touch with the pueblo in whose name it claims to fight. The likely consequence of that is increasing division within the group and gradual disintegration.
The ToribÃo attack also shows a far more effective model of resistance: the community that remains strong despite seeing much of its town center reduced to rubble. Three thousand Indigenous Guards, coming from throughout northern Cauca, are poised to enter ToribÃo. The residentsâ€™ opposition to BogotÃ¡â€™s militarized approach remains strong.
To see how well-organized ToribÃo and neighboring communities are, how well-linked with national and international solidarity, look no further than the up-to-the-minute website of the Northern Cauca Association of Indigenous Communities (ACIN). There you find not only calls for humanitarian aid, local development proposals and expressions of support, but calls for alternatives to Plan Colombia and the Democratic Security strategy. This is a model of reform and activism many times more promising than whatever it is the FARC is offering.