FARC Pushes to Derail Uribe's Re-election

(International Relations and Security Network, 06/01/2006)

With Adriana Bueno Melo in Bogotá


The leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) killed 28 Colombian soldiers on 27 December 2006 in the embattled department of Meta, which lies at the center of Colombia's "Plan Patriota" military offensive. It was the FARC's most deadly attack in history and proof of its intent to dismantle President Alvaro Uribe's domestic security policy during an election year.


Further attacks on the Colombian military and state-sponsored installations are likely in Met and other departments, as the FARC sets out to prove it has not been beaten by the hard-nosed Colombian president.


Uribe has won his long struggle to change the Colombian constitution, allowing him to run for a second term as president. A secure Colombia is his platform. If re-elected, Uribe promises to continue with his campaign to demobilize the right-wing paramilitaries; construct a cease-fire and lasting peace accords with Colombia's other revolutionary army, the National Liberation Army (ELN); and deal forcefully with the FARC.


To date, he has made advances with two of the three most talked about elements that contribute to Colombia's saga of civil war.


Uribe has managed to bring the ELN to the table. Negotiations are currently under way in Havana, Cuba. The paramilitary disarmament is riddled with legal loopholes and has little financial support, but is moving forward, albeit slowly.


In this election season, Uribe has plenty of progress to show his voters, but they cannot ignore the thorn in his side. The FARC has not diminished in strength, and as the right-wing paramilitary forces withdraw from the countryside in Colombia's northern regions, the FARC moves to increase its influence.


South America's oldest and strongest insurgency wants Uribe removed from the presidency, and is working hard to make sure Colombians think twice before voting in May. At the same time, Uribe will not be intimidated by the FARC. He knows his chances for re-election are strong; but he also knows that every time the FARC makes headlines with devastating attacks on the Colombian military in southern Colombia, he loses votes.


If Uribe wins the presidential elections, despite the FARC's aggressive posture, the rebel army will most likely continue to fight rather than negotiate with the Colombian government. If Uribe loses, there is a chance for peace, but only if Colombia's next president is willing to sacrifice his political future for peace in Colombia.


Intelligence matters


Uribe's domestic security policy, called the Democratic Defense and Security Policy, has put pressure on the FARC, but the insurgency refuses to give in. With hundreds of millions of US dollars in military funding from the US, the Colombian government has modernized, taking an offensive posture by implementing Uribe's "Plan Patriota" - a cornerstone policy of his administration.


US training, helicopters, weapons, and ammunition have significantly upgraded Colombia's military. They have tactical control of the air, and when mobilized in large groups, can outgun the FARC. But the FARC has two tactical advantages: intelligence and a familiarity with the battleground.


Knowing they cannot take on a full company of Colombia's army in open combat, the FARC prefers to be patient, waiting until the enemy has penetrated deep into the combat zone before striking. With thinning supply lines, poor knowledge of the surrounding area, disease, hunger, and the low morale that comes with days on the march, smaller groups of Colombia's military soldiers become easy targets.


The late December attack took place in Vista Hermosa, near the La Macarena mountains in the department of Meta. Troops had arrived to eradicate coca plantations. The FARC attacked 90 men, one-third of a company of Colombian soldiers, with improvised explosive devices constructed from gas canisters and heavy machine guns.


After a firefight that lasted for some three hours, nearly one-third of the Colombian troops lay dead or wounded. Only five FARC soldiers were shot, according to the Colombian daily, El Tiempo.


Some 300 rebels attacked 90 Colombian soldiers. Because the FARC most often moves its men through the jungle by foot, it takes a considerable amount of time, maybe weeks, to pull together 300 rebels for one attack. If the FARC knows Colombian troop movements weeks in advance, its intelligence capability is a critical factor for success.


The shocking outcome of December's attack reinforced what many Colombian voters already believed - that the FARC will never be beaten by the Colombian army. It also lends credence to an already well-founded argument that "Plan Patriota" is not working.


Faltering military policies


"Plan Patriota" is the military component of Uribe's domestic policy. It laid the legal groundwork for a military offensive involving 18,000 troops in the Colombian departments of Caqueta, Guaviare, Meta, and Vaupes. The central purpose of "Plan Patriota" is to go on the offensive against the FARC, and by demonstrating superior military might, to demoralize the insurgency enough to convince the FARC Secretariat to take peace negotiations seriously.


Two years have passed since its implementation, and the government has little to show for it.


"The model of [Uribe's] domestic security policy has lost support and some question its efficiency," Rodolfo Escobedo, an analyst with the Bogota-based Security and Democracy think-tank, told ISN Security Watch. "Even with the great efforts and increased resources the government has put into fighting the biggest guerrilla [army] in the country, it doesn't seem to have diminished FARC's ability to harm people and attack military units," he added.


According to an El Tiempo article written in August 2005 by Alirio Calderon, the former mayor of Puerto Rico in Caqueta, "Plan Patriota" was destined to fail from the beginning. He claims that the Colombian government did not take into account the harsh conditions in Colombia's southern departments in the Amazon basin.


Soldiers from higher altitudes, from the Caribbean, and from other areas foreign to the Amazonian climate found themselves knee-deep in mud fighting off malaria and other diseases from day one. These troops were sent to combat FARC soldiers, many of whom were born in the Amazon, are hardened to its conditions, and are intimately familiar with the surroundings.


"This [situation] led to 30 per cent of the troops being forced to leave the zone with illnesses, in addition to those killed or wounded in combat," Calderon wrote, adding that from its outset, "Plan Patriota" lost some 40 per cent of its military capability.


The success or failure of "Plan Patriota" is closely tied to public perception of Uribe's war against the FARC. So far, neither side has won, and while the FARC may have gained some ground, it is clear it can neither take on the Colombian military in open battle, nor itself be defeated.


There were at least eight significant attacks by the FARC last year, and at least 100 Colombian soldiers, maybe more, died. Some 1,000 soldiers have allegedly been killed by the FARC over the duration of "Plan Patriota". Realistic estimates are difficult, because both the Colombian military and the government are unwilling to release official numbers. Nevertheless, the over 1,000 deaths are a high price for little return.


Elections and security


In the past, Colombians have seen increases in FARC activities during election periods. The insurgency has no active political wing, but is clearly a political actor. Attacks on military and police units, armed strikes in zones where the government has concentrated efforts, and attacks against infrastructure to sabotage elections are common.


The FARC also increases its pressure on power-brokers at the municipal level trough threats and selective murders of local politicians, mayors, and members of the Senate and the Chamber of Representatives. These efforts recently have been stepped up in the departments of Huila and Caqueta by the Teofilo Forero Column, the FARC's highly trained special forces-type unit.


Yet despite the insurgency's ability to gain military intelligence and outmaneuver and defeat its enemy, there are many Colombians that believe last December's attack represents a rebel army grasping at straws, not surging to new heights of power.


"The FARC's attack on Vista Hermosa should have created a great impact on public's opinion perception over the current balance of power between Government forces and FARC," a security analyst with Security and Democracy, German Espejo, told ISN Security Watch, arguing that "in some social sectors, these kinds of attacks are not linked with FARC's increasing military power, but are isolated and desperate actions carried out by this group in response to military pressure".


If this were the case, it would suggest that Uribe's military campaign may be successful. What remains to be seen, however, is how perception - not real events - translates into votes in May. If Uribe is able to sustain the public perception that his policies are working, he has a good chance of keeping his presidential post. If not, Colombians will choose a new leader who will most likely win on a platform of peace, not security. Either way, Colombia's security is still in the hands of the FARC, which shows no indication of stopping any time soon.

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