Colombia's FARC rebels kill governor, prompting calls for security shift

The kidnapping and killing of Gov. Luis Francisco Cuéllar, by Colombia's FARC rebels, is renewing calls for tougher and smarter government security policies.

William Fernando Martinez/AP
Relatives and friends of Colombia's Caqueta state Gov. Luis Francisco Cuellar, who was kidnapped Monday and killed by alleged rebels, carry the coffin containing his body as people wave white flags during his funeral service in Florencia, southwestern Colombia, Wednesday.

The kidnapping and brutal murder of a provincial governor has shocked many Colombians who had put the dark days of political kidnappings behind them, and renewed debate over whether Colombia needs to change the direction of its security policies.

Members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) kidnapped Luis Francisco Cuéllar, the governor of Caquetá province, late Monday night, according to Colombian officials. On Tuesday, troops who were on the trail of the kidnappers found the governor’s body and it was surrounded by explosives in a rural area of the troubled southern province.

Seven years of hard-line security policies under conservative President Álvaro Uribe have significantly weakened the leftist FARC rebels, and had reduced kidnappings dramatically. The last time a governor was kidnapped was in April 2002.

“We thought all of that was behind us,” says Gloria Galindo, a Colombian housekeeper. “But with those people [the FARC] you can expect anything.”

“Underestimating the capacity of the FARC to plan and carry out the kidnapping of high-level officials and other military operations is a crass error that the society cannot have the luxury to commit,” Colombia’s largest daily newspaper El Tiempo warned in its editorial Wednesday.

With the kidnapping and killing of Mr. Cuéllar “the guerrillas tried unsuccessfully to return to the exhausted strategy of kidnapping political leaders as a weapon top put pressure on the government,” the editorial said.

A rejuvenated FARC

But Ariel Ávila, an expert on the FARC with the Coprporación Nuevo Arco Iris think tank, says he believes the operation was not meant as a return to those old practices but rather to hold Cuéllar accountable for his alleged ties with right-wing paramilitary groups and rival drug trafficking organizations.

“They had been threatening Cuéllar for a while,” Mr. Ávila says. “They were probably going to hold a revolutionary trial and there was no chance he was going to leave there alive.”

But Ávila notes that the FARC were able to carry out such a bold operation because they have been strengthening their numbers and capacity in Caquetá, long a FARC stronghold, through heavy recruitment of new fighters. Cuéllar had recently warned the national government of this and had asked Uribe for more troops.

Uribe, who had offered $500,000 for information leading to the governor’s rescue, said the money would now be awarded to anyone helping to capture those responsible for his abduction and death, which the military attributes to the Teófilo Forero mobile unit of the FARC.

The FARC, once a powerful army of a 20,000 fighters, has been reduced to less than half that size by a sustained military and intelligence campaign known as “democratic security.” Uribe vowed to push on with his aim to defeat the decades-old guerrilla movement. “Amid the pain, and with all the strength, we will advance in the defeat of terrorism, to free future generation from this nightmare,” he said.

Cracks in Uribe's hard-line approach?

But some analysts have warned that the policy is showing some cracks.

In its year-end report on the state of Colombia's four-decade-old conflict, the Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris says that for the first time since Uribe took power in 2002, there are signs of an uptick in homicides, rebel attacks, and paramilitary activity. Nuevo Arco Iris researchers logged 1,429 FARC offensive actions through the end of October, a 30-percent increase from 2008. Those statistics mirror studies by other groups. A separate year-end study from the Foundation for Security and Democracy registered a 108-percent increase in FARC attacks on government troops.

Markus Schultze-Kraft, Americas director of the International Crisis Group, warns that the national debate over whether Uribe will – or should – try to run for a third term in next year’s May presidential vote has overshadowed any real discussion of how the security policies should move forward. “The current security policy needs to be reviewed and adjusted by whoever is president for the next four years,'' he says.

“These type of high-impact [FARC] operations are aimed to put a dent in the public support of the [government's] ‘democratic security’ policies,” the El Tiempo editorial said.”That is why the government needs to begin 2010 with fresh strategies … to reaffirm the gains made and to recover the rhythm.”

"The challenge is to prevent the return of epidemics like political kidnappings that the country had thought were behind them,” El Tiempo said.

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