Back in February, 30 Colombian special-forces commandos silently descended on the jungle home of "Comandante Sonia," a top leader of the rebel army known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
The commandos captured "Sonia," along with her valuable computer hard drive which detailed key FARC drug and weapons connections, without a single shot being fired. In doing so, they netted perhaps the biggest fish in the FARC chain of command since President Alvaro Uribe took office almost two years ago. "Sonia," whose real name is Nayibe Rojas Valderama, is one of several top FARC leaders wanted by the US on charges of drug trafficking, along with Simon Trinidad, who was nabbed in January in an operation in Ecuador.
The two captures are part of a bold new initiative by the Colombian government and armed forces. In the past year, they have gone aggressively on the offensive in a military push known as Plan Patriot, which seeks to turn the tide of the 40-year war against the FARC. With US tactical and logistical support, about 15,000 Colombian troops have been dispatched into the FARC stronghold of southern Colombia, in an effort to decapitate the 17,000-strong rebel army.
The results will determine the future of the Colombian conflict, whether the FARC will continue as a potent guerrilla movement fueled by drug money, or be forced to come to the negotiating table for good.
"It is the largest military campaign that the Army has launched against the FARC since Operation Marquetalia in 1964," says independent Colombian defense expert Alfredo Rangel, referring to the military offensive against 100 communist rebels that resulted in the formation of the FARC 40 years ago.
Plan Patriot, which aims to capture or kill members of the country's rebel groups and take back the land they have claimed, apparently began last June with the first efforts to eliminate the terrorist network surrounding the capital, Bogotá. Then last fall, in an operation called Liberty One, which many officials point to as the real beginning of the plan, the Army felled five FARC commanders and captured at least four others, virtually eliminating the FARC presence around the capital.
Before Liberty One, officials note that the rebels had succeeded in drawing a noose around Bogotá, preventing its 7 million citizens from traveling far outside it. Now that threat has been lifted.
Though the Colombian government is quiet on the plan's details and cost, US assistance comes from the same resources used for the $3.2 billion antidrug effort called Plan Colombia, which began in 2000. With this new initiative, US officials are pushing for an increase in the four-year-old cap on troops and contractors that currently limits to 400 each the number of military and civilian personnel permitted in Colombia at any one time. The Bush administration wants to double the troop cap to 800 and raise the ceiling on civilian contractors to 600.
In Congressional testimony last Thursday, Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega called the existing caps "too restrictive" and said they were damaging the implementation of new and existing US-funded programs. The House Armed Services committee has raised the troop cap to 500, but that number could change when a vote goes before the full Congress.
Defense Minister Jorge Alberto Uribe describes Plan Patriot as a series of operations that will yield small victories, like seizing weapons caches or getting rebels to defect, over the next few years. "Plan Patriot is not a great military operation, it is a jigsaw puzzle," he says. "This is going to last a long time. There is not going to be one great battle."
He says the plan is a continuation of the government's "democratic security" policy that has seen sharp decreases in homicides, kidnappings, and overall terrorist activities. The unusual calm was broken earlier this month when 34 peasants were massacred, allegedly by the FARC, while tending to coca crops in the Norte de Santander region.
Defense experts like Mr. Rangel caution that the government, despite its effort to lower expectations, might be setting itself up for failure by trying to nab elusive FARC commanders.
He notes that instead of confronting the Army head on, FARC rebels were disintegrating into smaller bands and making a tactical decision to retreat deep into the Colombian jungle where capturing them could prove impossible.
Instead, Rangel argues that the Army should focus on more practical goals like dismantling the urban terror networks outside major cities. When attempting to penetrate the FARC's strongholds, Rangel warns that it should only be done with special commando units and not with a noisy deployment of regular troops. "They've already lost the element of surprise," he notes.
But the Colombian Army has radically improved its capabilities and tactics in recent years, thanks largely to US training and resources under Plan Colombia. According to US officials, the US has trained new commando units to operate behind enemy lines deep in the Colombian jungle. US helicopters, which are being freed up from antidrug tasks as the amount of coca sharply decreases, were used to dispatch 1,000 soldiers to the front lines.