FARC Moves to Consolidate Trafficking Network
(International Relations and Security Network, 18/07/2006)
One of the largest mass-kidnappings in Colombian history turned out to be an exaggeration. Julio Ibarguen, the governor of Colombia's Choco department, claimed the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) had kidnapped 170 rural workers on 13 July. Ten more were reported killed. Colombian president Alvaro Uribe deployed a mobile battalion of the Colombian military, whose commander immediately refuted the reports, claiming that no more than 35 rural workers actually had been kidnapped.
The exaggeration of a very real event may reveal the level of desperation some Colombian governors feel as they await their share of the promised deployment of 40,000 rural police officers. Such an incident in one of Colombia's most isolated outposts also verifies that security gaps are growing all over Colombia. Slow implementation of political promises and the very real absence of the paramilitaries widen these gaps every day. But that is to be expected.
The FARC has not captured all areas left available by the paramilitaries, but it has moved to take over strategically important areas. Choco is at the top of the list.
The department of Choco has been of strategic importance to both the FARC and the paramilitaries as long as both groups have been involved in the drug trade. Colombia shares some 266 kilometers of a border with Panama, all of which is in the Choco department. This area is also the shortest distance from the Pacific to the Caribbean and is replete with river systems that facilitate transport.
Riosucio is a small town on the Truando River, part of a fluvial system that stretches from the mountains in north-central Choco to the Caribbean. This area is in the center of the current conflict between the 57th FARC Front and the Elmer Cardenas Unit, a paramilitary unit due to disarm at any time, according to Colombian reports.
The FARC is already moving in. They have taken hostages and even killed those who they thought were paramilitary sympathizers. The events of 13 July point out that the FARC is moving in to take over as much of the northern portion of the Choco department as possible, despite any plans the Colombian government has for increased rural security.
Over the duration of his first administration, President Uribe went on the offensive, seeking out conflict with the FARC. Since 2003, Uribe has installed 84 new rural police substations. He oversaw the development of seven new military brigades and 54 mobile squadrons. He started the so-called "public forces," empowering citizens to join a sweeping intelligence network. His capstone offensive, called "Plan Patriota," continues to take the fight to the FARC strongholds in southern Colombia.
Uribe's next move, his promised 40,000 rural police, will be even more invasive into FARC satellite territory. His government will install 400 new substations, according to the Colombian daily El Tiempo. Half of the rural police, some 20,000 in number, will be agents with anti-guerrilla training. A total of 15 anti-terrorist special forces will be deployed in Colombian cities.
Yet for all the muscle, Uribe has put into his so-called Democratic Security program, the FARC continues to thrive, all but securing a corridor to Ecuador by controlling the departments of Putamayo and Narino. Through this corridor the FARC receives supplies and its members escape into Ecuadorian territory when chased by the Colombian military.
The FARC is currently consolidating control of Aruca, a Colombian department that shares a border with Venezuela. Many analysts believe control of this area will open a significant corridor for export of cocaine through Venezuela, one facilitated by the Venezuelan National Guard.
The Dog's Head area, where the Colombian department of Vaupes meets the Brazilian Amazon, has been a long-time FARC strong hold. Neither Brazilian nor Colombian authorities have managed to stymie the number of clandestine airstrips in this area, nor the flow of trade between Brazilian organized crime, based in Rio de Janeiro, and the FARC. The packages used to transport 250 kilograms of pure cocaine, interdicted outside Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in mid-July, bore the distinct FARC signature. This bust indicates that the old alliance between the Brazilian Fernando Beira-Mar and the FARC, propagated by transport routes used in the Amazons, is alive and well.
Colombia's Black River eventually joins with the Amazon River's upstream network in Brazil. It flows south through the Colombian department of Amazonas to the town of Leticia, into Tabatinga, Brazil. Tabatinga is a known meeting place where FARC operatives hand over cocaine, and Brazilian criminals deliver weapons and ammunition.
By most counts, it appears that Uribe's security initiatives have worked well to secure the center of Colombia, the core areas where Colombians live and work, yet the rest of the country, the perimeter, in particular, remains ungoverned. Uribe may have succeeded in delivering security to many Colombians, but he has done very little to actually put a dent in the FARC's wide spectrum of illicit activity.
It is quite possible that in the next year the FARC will have taken complete control of trafficking corridors through Panama, Ecuador, Venezuela and Brazil. If the paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) continues to disarm, as planned, there will be relatively little resistance, by way of irregular security units, in Colombia's perimeter areas.
The recent incident in Choco is just one more bullet point on a long list of upcoming conflicts.
Uribe's plan to install another 40,000 rural police around the country is a great idea. It has raised the hopes of governors. But one, in particular, seems to have become a bit more nervous. His outcry of 170 kidnap victims got the world's attention. Yet there was little anyone could do. The FARC made its presence known, and the addition of one rural police substation in Riosucio would not have made a difference.