Victory soon in Colombia?
The rebel group FARC has suffered major setbacks.
Wearing combat fatigues and a yellow sweat towel slung over his shoulder, Pedro Marin, aka Sureshot, told me in 1999 that the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the Colombian guerrilla organization he created in 1964, was far more efficient than the state because it seriously punished those who were corrupt. "We execute them," he noted.Skip to next paragraph
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That ruthless efficiency might have helped turn FARC from a peasant movement looking for land reform into one of the world's largest rebel forces. Today, it's a top supplier of cocaine and a big reason why Colombia became one of the world's most violent countries. Washington calls it a terrorist group and has spent billions in recent years in part to help the Colombian government stamp it out.
FARC has faced huge setbacks in recent months. This spring, it lost three of its top seven commanders – including founding father Sureshot. In March, Colombian authorities seized a FARC laptop with damaging information – including evidence of ties to Venezuela.
Suddenly, there's talk that FARC could be approaching collapse. Will its remaining forces keep up the armed struggle and kidnappings? Or, as other militant groups have done, will they give up violence and join the political process?
What happens to FARC now is important. That's because Colombia is a crucial American ally in South America and a bulwark against the leftist populism promoted by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and his so-called Bolivarian Revolution. Colombia receives hundreds of millions of dollars each year from the United States as part of the counternarcotics initiative called Plan Colombia, which represents Washington's largest sum of foreign aid outside the Middle East and Afghanistan. Many of those funds go to counterinsurgency activities. If FARC folds, it would be a big victory for US aid.
More broadly, what happens to FARC matters because it's emblematic of the global struggle to stop guerrilla forces, either by defeating them militarily or persuading them to join the political process.
In 1999, I interviewed FARC leaders who were participating in a peace process. The group's top military commander, Jorge Briceño, aka Mono Jojoy, explained FARC's devotion to Sureshot, a man responsible for countless acts of violence: "He is our symbol, a legend … our political and military master … the reason why many of us became revolutionaries."
With Sureshot gone, some of that loyalty may be gone, too. Some observers hope that FARC, in desperate straits, would opt to negotiate with the government, which it has in the past. Some are also hoping for defections.