New FARC offensive suggests shift in Colombian rebels' strategy

The guerrilla group attacked a military contingent Tuesday, killing two civilians and wounding 10. But the Colombian government says the attack is a sign of the rebels' desperation.

By , Correspondent

Though weakened by a sustained military campaign that has taken out some of it top leaders, Colombia’s FARC guerrillas are on the offensive again across the country in what analysts see as the application of a new strategy.

On Tuesday, guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) attacked a military contingent that guarded a bridge in southern Caquetá province. When the soldiers gave chase to the rebels, they were ambushed on the road in a hail of machine gun and mortar fire. A public transportation vehicle was trapped in the crossfire and two civilians were killed, while another 10 were wounded.

The attack was blamed on the FARC’s elite unit known as the Teófilo Forero mobile column, the same group believed to be behind the kidnapping last week of four Chinese nationals who were employees of a foreign oil firm prospecting in the area. The government has offered a reward of up to $1.4 million for information leading to the capture of the unit leader, El Paisa, and $280,000 for El Paisa's lieutenant, known as "Divan," who is believed to have participated directly in the recent attacks in Caquetá. Other recent attacks have occurred from the Guajira region in the far northeast to Cordoba in the northwest and Cauca, Huila, and Tolima in the south.

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After a string of major setbacks in 2008 and 2009, FARC activity has been on the rise since it launched its Plan 2010, which calls for more intense attacks using hit-and-run style operations and the wider use of land mines, according to Ariel Avila, a conflict analyst with the Colombian think tank Nuevo Arco Iris. FARC attacks have intensified in the past month as local and regional elections scheduled for October draw nearer Mr. Avila says.

A new security policy, unveiled by Colombian Defense Minister Rodrigo Rivera last month, aims to respond to this new situation and bring about the “implosion” and “definitive disarticulation” of the FARC and the smaller ELN rebel group by the end of President Juan Manuel Santos’ term in 2014. But Avila says the new policy looks a lot like the old “democratic security” policy implemented by Mr. Santos’ predecessor, Alvaro Uribe, who is credited with sharply curbing the FARC’s operational capacity during his eight-year term. During that time, the ranks of the FARC were eroded by the killing of top commanders, mass desertions, and captures. The number of FARC fighters fell from an estimated 18,000 to about 8,000.

“The policies may have worked, but the situation has changed, the FARC have adapted, they have recovered some operational capacity,” says Avila. The “new” policies unveiled are “more of the same,” he adds.

Colombian armed forces commander Adm. Edgar Cely recognized that the rebels have changed tack. “They changed their strategy and they are creating a situation that we understand perfectly,” he said in a radio interview. “But we’re also changing our strategy. We are not feeling defeated, never.”

Admiral Cely insisted that despite the recent violence and the kidnapping of the Chinese oil workers, foreign companies should not pull out of the country. “We ask that the companies follow security guidelines in these areas and we can set up security to protect them,” he said.

Colombia has enjoyed a surge of foreign investment over the past six years as security improved. Two-thirds of the new investment is in mining and oil.

The uptick in FARC attacks comes as government forces become more agile in neutralizing important mid-level FARC commanders. On June 4, soldiers killed Alirio Rojas, the security chief of top FARC commander Alfonso Cano. Mr. Rojas, known as the "Grandfather," died in a clash with the army three months after troops killed the previous head of security for the FARC leader. But Avila explained that the FARC has become so decentralized that “blows to one unit affect others very little.”

Mr. Santos’ government however, underscores that the attacks are proof that FARC is weak, not that it is regaining strength. “When you turn to terrorism it’s because you are debilitated, trapped,” Santos said on Wednesday. The guerrillas’ latest attacks, he said, are the FARC’s way of telling the world that despite crippling blows against them, “We are alive.”

“We will continue to turn the screws on these bandits of the FARC on every front to continue weakening them," Santos said.

Last week, Santos signed a law that offers restitution to the estimated 4 million victims of the last 26 years of internal conflict among leftist rebels, rightwing paramilitary militias, and government forces. But in a recognition that the conflict continues to simmer, the law accepts new victims through 2021, including the two people killed in Tuesday’s attack.

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