Number three no more Secretary Rice’s trip: three non-Colombia issues
Apr 222005

On Thursday the 14th, and again on Sunday the 17th, several hundred guerrillas from the FARC’s 6th Front and Jacobo Arenas Column attacked Toribío, 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 Popayán.

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 Toribío 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.

Toribío was unusual, though, for its scale. During the first two and a half years of Álvaro Uribe’s term in office, the FARC simply did not attempt anything this ambitious – 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 Álvaro Uribe and his “Democratic Security” strategy gave credit to the president’s tough policies, the military’s improved capabilities, and even U.S. military aid. Some even went so far as to predict the FARC’s defeat within a few years. Others noted that the military’s size and capabilities, though greater, had not grown enough to bring such a sharp drop in guerrilla activity, and speculated that the FARC – its leadership, fronts, and financing largely intact – had chosen to pull back, responding to the Uribe offensive with a “tactical retreat.”

It now seems apparent that the latter group was right. The FARC were capable of launching large-scale attacks like Toribío – 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 Toribío – the latest in a wave of attacks on both military and civilian targets that began in late January – was to demonstrate that the Uribe strategy was not affecting the guerrillas’ ability to operate. Top FARC leader Raúl Reyes told an interviewer from ANNCOL, a Sweden-based guerrilla-solidarity site, that the Toribío action was “a blow to ‘Democratic Security.’ … After this action, the government looks silly when it asserts that it has the ability to force the FARC into retreat.” Reyes added that the attack disproves President Uribe’s insistently repeated argument that Colombia has no armed conflict, just a terrorist nuisance.

Indeed, Toribío 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 “cowards” and assure the townspeople that they were safe, only to have the FARC attack again two days later. A cornerstone of the Uribe government’s strategy was to deploy contingents of police into all the country’s 1,092 county seats (cabeceras municipales). Actions like Toribío – in which the police station, in the middle of town, was nearly as vulnerable as the rest of the population – recall why the police were absent in the first place.

Toribío also calls into question the U.S.-supported “Plan Patriota” offensive, which has concentrated about 17,000 soldiers in the departments of Caquetá, Meta, and Guaviare, a longtime FARC stronghold a couple of hundred miles east of Toribío. Plan Patriota has required the deployment of troops away from the department of Cauca; Senator Luis Élmer Arenas, from the department of Valle del Cauca just to the north, said last week that the army’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 – as “peasant soldiers” – other towns.

El Tiempo reporter Marisol Gómez speculates that the FARC are responding to the pressures of Plan Patriota by shifting their rearguard to a new “triangle” – the southwestern departments of Cauca, Nariño and Putumayo.

The attacks on Toribío could be part of a strategy to consolidate themselves in the Cauca-Nariño-Putumayo axis. Having lost their rearguard in Caquetá, 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 country’s southwest, which it has cultivated for years with its presence. Of this corridor, says analyst Alfredo Rangel, Nariño is perhaps the most important province, “because 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.” Cauca also has ocean access, and Putumayo, access to Ecuador. As a result, we cannot view as gratuitous the attacks on the Iscuandé (Nariño) naval base, in which fifteen marines died last February 1, and the ambushes in Santa Ana and Puerto Leguízamo (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 (Nariño) and on Jambaló (Cauca) on the same day the Toribío attacks began.

Toribío also calls into question the effectiveness of the Colombian government’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 Defensoría del Pueblo (the Colombian government’s human rights ombudsman) say that the SAT failed them in the Toribío case. Due to a communications breakdown within the SAT the night before the attacks began, “we had to use other, alternative communications channels, because by morning the attack was to begin,” said Darío Mejía, the secretary-general of the Defensoría, adding that his office had been issuing periodic warnings since December.

Why Toribío?

Perhaps the most fundamental question about the meaning of the FARC’s latest attacks is: if the guerrillas’ goal is to undermine the Uribe government’s security policies, why choose to attack a civilian target? And especially, why choose a target like Toribío, which has become a symbol of non-violent indigenous resistance to the conflict? There are no good answers.

As much as 90 percent of Toribío’s residents belong to the Nasa or Páez indigenous group, one of the largest and most cohesive of Colombia’s dozens of native ethnicities. During the 1980s, Toribío was a center for an indigenous guerrilla group, known as Quintín 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 – a “self-defense force” 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 Toribío and Totoró in August 2002 and the rescue of Toribío mayor Arquimedes Vitonás, whom the guerrillas briefly kidnapped in August 2004.

This non-violent model has won praise for Toribío and the Indigenous Guard throughout Colombia. But the guard resists more than just the FARC. Toribío 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 government’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 Toribío for its most vicious attack on a population in years?

Part of the answer might simply be revenge for the residents’ past displays of resistance. Part of it might be the FARC’s stubborn belief that they, and only they, are the true expression of resistance to Colombia’s ruling class. Writes Colombian analyst Héctor Mondragón, a fierce critic of both Uribe and the guerrillas, “The FARC, now on the offensive, has been spectacularly dismissive of the mass movement of the popular sectors of Colombia. The FARC is uninterested.”

The FARC, like all of Colombia’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, Nariño; and in northern Cauca. And we mustn’t forget the FARC’s murder of three U.S. indigenous-rights activists who were working with the U’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 FARC’s hostility to indigenous communities probably owes more to military calculations. It is possible that Toribío 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 “axis” in southwestern Colombia.

If the FARC is indeed still giving primacy to military calculations, it would mean that the group’s leaders have learned absolutely nothing during the past few years about the importance of politics and the support of local populations. The group’s image, both domestically and internationally, took a severe battering with the demise of the Pastrana peace process, and its continued resort to terrorism – defined as deliberate attacks on civilians – has made it a pariah nearly everywhere. Its attacks on organized critics of Uribe and the security forces – such as the Nasa in Toribío or the five members of the human-rights group Justicia y Paz who were kidnapped for two weeks earlier this month – show that even on the left, the FARC’s attitude is, “The enemy of my enemy is still my enemy.”

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 (“the richest source of power to wage war lies in the masses of people”) and Che Guevara (“Conduct 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 soldier”).

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 (“Mono Jojoy” comes to mind) clearly believe that military advantages trump all political considerations, including any gains to be had from respecting international humanitarian law. Toribío indicates that these leaders are still hugely influential within the FARC, despite the group’s lack of significant military successes over the last five years or so.

The continued power of the FARC’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 FARC’s neglect of politics and popular support – not the U.S.-supported Colombian military pressure – that most threatens to bring the group down in the medium-term. Losing popular support is more than just a tactical disadvantage – 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 Toribío 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 Toribío. The residents’ opposition to Bogotá’s militarized approach remains strong.

To see how well-organized Toribío 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.

2 Responses to “Toribío”

  1. jcg Says:

    I agree 100% with your conclusion.

    But as you’ve mentioned, apparently some within the FARC still believe that they, and only they, as the armed revolutionary vanguard, can actually succeed, because they have the strength to “turn those claims into reality”.

    Nevermind that the FARC’s own actions have actually been making things worse, overall.

  2. Marc Cooper Says:

    Adam: Thanks for such comprehensive and lucid analysis.

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