Is Colombia's FARC rebounding?

A Colombian think-tank argues that the guerrilla group has retaken the initiative in key regions, and that security forces have thus far failed to adapt to the conflict's changing conditions.

Jaime Saldarriaga/Reuters
A police officer stands in front of a police station that was damaged after being hit by a FARC car bomb in Corinto, Colombia, on July 12.

Corporacion Nuevo Arco Iris, a Bogota-based think-tank that focuses on national security issues, released a 17-page report on Sunday which highlights several trends previously observed by InSight Crime. Most notable among these is that the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC) are increasingly resurgent in the country's southwest, employing tactics like sniper fire and the heavy laying of landmines to harass the army and police.

InSight Crime considers there are four key points to be taken from the report:

1) FARC military actions have been on the rise since 2009, and there are no signs of the guerrillas relenting.

Nuevo Arco Iris counted 1,115 FARC actions in the first half of 2011, a 10 percent increase on the same period last year, according to data kept by the think-tank. That's up from 855 actions in the first half of 2009 and 1,012 during the same time period in 2010. If the FARC continue at the same pace, 2011 could finish with a total of 2,200 guerrilla attacks, which, by Nuevo Arco Iris' definition, includes the use of minefields, snipers, ambushes, infrastructure attacks, "combat" (defined as firefights that last more than two hours), and "harassment" (hit-and-run attacks, often involving grenades, that last less than three hours).

This would be significantly higher than the 1,947 actions registered by Nuevo Arco Iris in 2010. Last year, Colombian authorities argued that overall FARC-related violence was increasing due to the presidential elections, when the guerrillas typically step up attacks in order to prove their political relevance. But according to Nuevo Arco Iris, the rate of FARC violence appears to be increasingly steadily regardless, with election months not a significant influence over the rate of guerrilla actions (That being said, 2011 is another election year, with voters casting ballots for governors, mayors, and town councilors in October).

2) The FARC have changed their military strategy, focusing on more traditional hit-and-run guerrilla attacks.

This is a trend that analysts have been observing since 2008, when FARC leader Guillermo Leon Saenz Vargas, alias "Alfonso Cano," assumed control of the rebel army and implemented a new security strategy, known in some circles as "Plan Pistola." The plan involves the use of small rebel units, of between 25 and 35 people, operating in groups no larger than five. This allows the guerrillas to present the military with few big targets and to avoid the Air Force, still Colombia's most effective weapon against the rebels.

The FARC's new modus operandi also involves increased reliance on militia networks, part-time fighters who operate in civilian clothing and are often based in the cities. These militias are able to more easily access police stations or military bases in towns, leading them to favor urban guerrilla tactics like car bombs. The growing importance of the militias may become even more evident in 2011, which has seen 12 car bomb attacks to date.

3) The security forces are lagging behind.

How the FARC conducts the war has changed, but it's not clear that the military and police have been able to evolve their tactics to match. The rebels' increased use of explosives and snipers means that the security forces are absorbing a high number of casaulties: 2,540 members of the military were killed or wounded in 2010, 300 more than in 2002, when President Alvaro Uribe took office.

4) The strategy of eliminating the top levels of FARC command is not enough.

Colombian authorities are following something like a "kingpin" strategy, focusing on taking out the highest levels of FARC leadership. This has resulted in high-profile successes like the death of Julio Suarez Rojas, alias "Mono Jojoy," in 2010. Now, the government says that the coming months may see the death of rebel leader Saenz.

But as Nuevo Arco Iris rightly points out, the death of Saenz will hardly mean the end of the FARC. While the elimination of the top levels of FARC command delivers important military victories, the "decapitation" of each FARC "kingpin" means that the government is losing another member of the FARC old guard with whom it could be possible to negotiate an end to the conflict. As the FARC is stripped of its key military and political leaders, the organization becomes more fragmented and similiar to a criminal gang, focused on drug trafficking, kidnapping, and extortion. There is already evidence that the FARC are deepening their cooperation with Colombia's new generation of criminal gangs, known by the government as "bandas criminales" or BACRIMS, and formed out of the ashes of the AUC paramilitary organization. If the government succeeds in its efforts to kill off the top level of rebel command, one of the effects could be to deepen this partnership between the FARC and the heirs of their old enemies, the paramilitaries.

--- Elyssa Pachico is a writer for Insight – Organized Crime in the Americas, which provides research, analysis, and investigation of the criminal world throughout the region. Find all of her research here.

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