In Colombia, FARC rebels strike back

The leftist militants have launched 'plan rebirth' following a year of withering setbacks.

"Phoenix" had been jobless for months in this bustling town on Colombia's southern Pacific coast when he accepted a job, which paid $16 a day, working in a cocaine lab along with 24 others.

But when they were taken to where they were supposed to work, it turned out to be a training camp of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), flush with 75 new recruits. "We were told we were now rebels," says Phoenix, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"Phoenix," who escaped three months later, says he never wanted to be a member of Colombia's largest rebel army, but during his time as a guerrilla, he got a glimpse of the FARC's plan to regroup after a year of devastating setbacks.

After what he described as a month and a half of grueling training and indoctrination, he was handed an automatic rifle, grenades, and munitions. But he used his training to escape and turn himself in. And though many of his fellow recruits seemed as miserable as he was, he says he thinks many will stay on for lack of better options.

Recruitment and indoctrination are two pillars of the FARC's Plan Rebirth, launched to breathe new life into the 45-year-old rebel group after a series of serious blows to its command, morale, and finances.

The leftist rebels have suffered seven years of sustained military pressure under conservative President Álvaro Uribe that has seen top leaders killed, mid-level cadres captured, and the dramatic rescue of its top hostages. Hundreds of foot soldiers have deserted, and the FARC's command and control structure was disrupted.

But with a new leader and leaner ranks, the FARC seems to be retaking the offensive. In early May, the FARC attacked government forces from a variety of different areas of the country, killing at least two dozen soldiers and police officers. In a single day, in fact, the FARC launched attacks in at least four areas, killing six servicemen. Since the start of the year, government forces have clashed with rebels 488 times.

"It's like a poker game: They've lost a few hands and lost a lot of chips, but they still have enough to keep playing," says Luis Eduardo Celis, an analyst with the Corporacion Nuevo Arco Iris, a security think tank in Bogotá.

The latest hand is being dealt by the FARC's new leader, Alfonso Cano, who took charge last year after the death – from natural causes – of founding leader Manuel Marulanda.

"In 2009, we must force ourselves to retake the initiative," Mr. Cano said in a communiqué published in January.

Throughout its history, the FARC have managed to adapt and reinvent themselves, proving resilient to military and political pressures.

The FARC was created by fighters who survived a 1964 Army attack on a small peasant self-­defense force in the mountains of central Colombia. Defining themselves as Marxist-Leninists, FARC members vow to defend the rural poor against the ruling oligarchies.

They have gone from a ragtag band of rebels to a potent army that became a real threat to the state. They have negotiated with four presidents of Colombia, survived paramilitary offensives, and seen their coffers fill with ransom money and proceeds from drugs.

Today, they are Latin America's largest and longest-running leftist insurgency.

But it's an insurgency of dwindling numbers. From a peak of an estimated 18,000 fighters in 2002, the FARC now is believed to have only 9,000. The ranks have diminished through combat casualties, captures, and desertions.

As a government strategy, encouraging desertions by offering leniency, protection, and vocational training has been at least as effective as military offensives against the FARC. Last year, 2,940 FARC fighters deserted. By the end of April of this year, there had been 544 desertions.

To make up for the lost fighters, the FARC are luring young unemployed men like "Phoenix." And part of Plan Rebirth, according to computer files seized by the government that lay out the new strategy, includes reinforcing political indoctrination to deter desertions.

Phoenix describes the FARC unit where he was sent as "well organized." He says the unit's commanders seemed convinced that the FARC is fighting for the poor and that they would take power one day.

Another part of the FARC plan is to use land mines and snipers to strike at Army units while avoiding direct combat. Phoenix says the troops were ordered to avoid engaging government forces directly. "We would watch silently as the patrol boats came up the rivers, but we were told not to attack because that could bring an air response," he says.

Part of the task his unit had was to extend control over the lowlands of Nariño Province, a major corridor for cocaine shipments headed to the United States. "We were told to prepare for a territorial fight," he says, principally to control the cocaine routes, another part of the new FARC strategy.

"We were told to plant bombs to divert military attention from where the drugs would pass," he says.

The drug trade remains an important source of financing for the FARC, whose involvement goes from "taxing" production and transport to direct involvement in the processing and shipping of drugs.

At the same time, the FARC continues to seek a "prisoner swap" of its hostages in exchange for jailed rebels.

Following a peak of more than 50 politicians and service members that the FARC considered "swappable" hostages, there have been escapes, rescues, and unilateral releases that have left the rebels with 22 remaining police and Army officers to use as bargaining chips.

In March, Mr. Uribe said that if the guerrillas truly want peace, he would be willing to sit down to talks with the FARC, but only if they did not carry out any "terrorist activity" for four months.

That idea went out the window after rebel ambushes last month.

"The FARC is not close to defeat," says Markus Schultze-Kraft, Latin America program director for the International Crisis Group, "and under Alfonso Cano is having some success in adapting to the changed strategic scenario and regaining internal cohesion."

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