Colombia: Unintended Consequences
(International Relations and Security Network 12/3/2008)


When Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez made a phone call to the number two in command of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Raul Reyes, on 27 February, he did not know others were listening. The conversation was long enough to triangulate Reyes' position, and within 48 hours the Colombian military had launched a strike on the rebel leader's jungle camp, killing him and dozens of others in an early morning bombing raid.


The mission was a success (though the bombs landed two kilometers inside Ecuador, causing Colombia some headache). The FARC leader's death was a boon for Colombia, but once Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa went public with caustic complaints of Colombia's lack of respect for Ecuadorian sovereignty, a wave of response resulted in the rapid escalation of what could have been a war between Ecuador, Venezuela and Colombia.


But most of it was for show. After much saber rattling, the deployment of a cursory number of troops to various borders and some tough words, the three presidents managed to make up after two rounds of high-profile diplomatic meetings.


No one came out the winner, and no one seemed worse off for the experience. Among all the actors involved in the 10-day barrage of tough talk, the only loser appears to have been FARC.


Raul Reyes represented in many ways the best of what FARC officers had to offer. A decent military tactician and a commander long experienced in jungle warfare, Reyes was also the group's political leader. He was considered one of the masterminds behind FARC's overall campaign to keep its struggle relevant as regional geopolitics moved beyond the Cold War.


His death for many members of FARC was a psychological blow, not so much for what Reyes represented as a man, but what he represented as the end of a myth of invincibility that shrouded the group's leaders.


As a member of the seven-man FARC secretariat, Reyes was the first of any member of the leadership council to have been killed. For decades, members had only died of natural causes. And while many FARC leaders have been killed in battle, those who were most important to the organization's national and international endeavors always managed to survive. His death has broken that myth.


Three days after Reyes' death, a mid-level leader killed his commander and turned himself in after walking for three days, carrying the commander's severed hand to prove his death. The commander, Ivan Rios, was killed on 4 March by a mid-ranking FARC soldier known as Rojas who operated Rios' radio and worked as his chief of security. Rios was the youngest member of the FARC Secretariat to be killed, but this time because of mutiny.


Rios' death has led to further demystification, but more importantly it will likely lead to a series of purges among mid-level FARC leaders, some desertions, and invariably a lack of operational cohesion, which, according to Colombia news magazine La Semana has plagued the FARC for the past 10 months. Morale has never been lower.


Since the peak of FARC's numbers - counted at 16,900 in 2002 according to the Miami Herald - until now, many analysts have commented on the presence of a de facto impasse between FARC and the Colombian military. With the deaths of Reyes and Rios, as well as the deaths of at least two leaders in FARC's command and control structure last year, the Colombian military has demonstrated a superior level of intelligence gathering not utilized before.


For months, the Colombian government has used an intelligence gathering and dissemination system whereby different organizations within the country's security structure focus on gathering and deciphering intelligence tied to one specific member of the FARC secretariat. Other organizations that collect intelligence on someone other than the specific target immediately share that intel with the appropriate group.


Via this system, the Colombian military was able to slowly circle Ivan Rios, cutting off his supplies until one of his near-starved soldiers snapped and killed him for the US$2.6 million bounty.

Intelligence gathered by tapping Reyes' phone call led to his death within 48 hours.

Superior intelligence, more than firepower, has begun to tip the scales in favor of the Colombian government.


Operation Phoenix, the bombing raid that killed Reyes and sparked a regional spike in tension, was commanded by Uribe himself. He gave the order to make sure his bombers did not invade Ecuadorian air space, but had no problem with them aiming for a target just inside the Ecuador's border.


Uribe gambled and knew he would upset Ecuador and Venezuela, but he could not have foreseen the fortunate results of his actions. This time, unintended consequences could be viewed as the beginning of the end for Latin America's oldest insurgency.