WORLD

COLOMBIA: REBELS WITHOUT A PAUSE

FARC terrorists are facing increasing military pressure—and a wave of desertions

ISABEL VINCENT April 14 2008
WORLD

COLOMBIA: REBELS WITHOUT A PAUSE

FARC terrorists are facing increasing military pressure—and a wave of desertions

ISABEL VINCENT April 14 2008

COLOMBIA: REBELS WITHOUT A PAUSE

FARC terrorists are facing increasing military pressure—and a wave of desertions

How do you get rid of a group of dangerous terrorists when your neighbours think they’re nice guys? That’s the problem Colombian President Alvaro Uribe is facing after a recent standoff involving his own country, Ecuador and Venezuela revealed just how cozy his Andean neighbours have become with the Marxist guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Following the death of Raul Reyes, FARC’s number two, in Ecuador last month (he was gunned down by Colombian military in a raid on Ecuadorean soil), Colombian authorities found three laptop computers with some interesting information about the relationship of Venezuela and Ecuador to the FARC. Computer documents reportedly showed the group hoped Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez would assist them in obtaining a $250-million loan, along with hundreds of used rifles. They also allegedly revealed $100,000 in campaign contributions from the FARC to Ecuadorian leader Rafael Correa, and plans by the FARC to acquire uranium to build a “dirty bomb.”

Interpol is currently examining the information on the computers, and one other seized from Ivan Rios, another member of the FARC’s seven-member ruling secretariat, which is charged with overseeing the seven regions of the country that the FARC controls. Rios was killed a week after the Colombian raid by his own bodyguard, who took Rios’s passport and computer and chopped off his hand to prove his death. The computer allegedly contained plans by the rebels to attack the Medellin subway system.

Although Venezuela and Ecuador raised a regional outcry when Colombian soldiers conducted the bombing raid that killed Reyes in Ecuador’s jungles, they received little support among Latin American leaders, especially when it became clear that the two countries had been aiding a group of rebels that most in the West consider terrorists. In recent months, Chávez has lobbied to have the FARC removed from terrorism lists

around the world, and given the less-damning designation of “insurgents.” So far, the proposal has had a lukewarm reception in Latin America, a region beset by both terrorist and criminal kidnappings that now affect everyone from the very rich to the lower middle classes, who increasingly find themselves the target of criminal gangs looking to extort anywhere from a few hundred dollars to thousands in kidnappings that result in keeping hostages for a few hours (while they are driven to bank machines to

hand over their savings) to a few days.

“If the FARC can constantly take refuge outside Colombia, it becomes a threat to regional stability too,” said Colombian Foreign Minister Fernando Araujo, himself a former FARC hostage for six years. The Organization of American States (OAS) has set up an inquiry into the border skirmish but has so far refused to comment on the computer data. Analysts expect that a border verification mission representing all three countries involved will be needed, and Ecuador’s leader has suggested that UN peacekeepers be brought in to patrol the area—an idea that the Colombians seem to support.

But the border issue has been sidelined of late as Colombia tries to emphasize the region’s most urgent issue, which is wiping out the FARC. After apologizing to Ecuador for violating the country’s sovereignty at a regional summit in March in the Dominican Republic, Uribe went on to blast the FARC as “sinister terrorists.” For nearly 50 years, the FARC guerrillas have waged a campaign of fear and violence in Colombia. They currently hold hundreds of

hostages, including judicial and elected officials, three American intelligence operatives and the French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt, who is their most high-profile captive.

Last week, in the Colombian government’s latest effort to negotiate with the guerrillas, (continued on page 45)

ISABEL VINCENT

(continued from page 44)

Uribe appealed to members of the group to turn themselves in to the government, offering them exile in France. “People have asked me, can they [FARC rebels] also go overseas? Yes, they can go overseas and we will help in that matter,” said Uribe. “We have spoken to the French government, which has told us it would be willing to take them in over there.”

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has made the release of Betancourt, who was a Colombian presidential candidate in 2002, a highpriority foreign policy initiative since taking office last year. Cries for her release have become more urgent in recent weeks after the publication of photos showing the 46-year-old Colombian senator gaunt and in ill-health. A group of FARC hostages released at the end of February reported that Betancourt is suffering from hepatitis B and an unspecified tropical skin ailment, and had sought treatment in a jungle clinic. But last week, her family speculated to French journalists that they believe she may already be dead.

In return for the immediate release of Betancourt and other high-profile hostages, Uribe also agreed to release a select group of jailed FARC rebels in Colombian jails. Earlier this year, the FARC released Clara Rojas, a Colombian politician and Betancourt aide who was kidnapped along with Betancourt in February 2002 while the two campaigned in a FARC-controlled area of the country.

Uribe’s latest conciliatory moves come amid growing speculation that the FARC is crumbling under a wave of desertions and the deaths of Reyes and Rios, two of its key leaders. Colombian defence ministry officials now estimate that the FARC’s membership has fallen from 16,000 members in 2006 to between 6,000 and 8,000 today. Government officials are hoping that the offer of exile in a foreign country might lead to a further wave of desertions, since the FARC has a policy to hunt down and kill deserters if they remain on Colombian soil.

“They are in a process of splitting,” says Colombian Defence Minister Juan Manuel Santos, who has worked closely with his U.S. counterpart to crack down on FARC operations. The Colombian military has also worked closely with Israeli intelligence operatives helping them debrief captured terrorists, who

ernment a great deal of intelligence on the movements of the FARC’s leaders. “They [the FARC] have lost important leaders,” said Santos. “They are facing a shortage of supplies, lack of communications, loss of command and control.”

According to Colombian government reports, there is increasing pressure on the FARC. With the aid of U.S. technology to intercept FARC communications, the Colombian military has forced the rebels to rely on human couriers to carry messages to distant FARC camps, which can take weeks and makes the planning of any large-scale attacks extremely difficult. And in the United States, the jailing of key FARC operative Ricardo Palmera, better known by his nom de guerre Simon Trinidad, has struck a blow to the group. Palmera was sentenced in January to 60 years in prison for kidnapping the three U.S. intelligence operatives when their sur-

veillance plane crashed in the Colombian jungle in 2003• More than 50 FARC leaders have extradition orders pending in the United States. Whether they would rather die in the jungles or turn themselves in to authorities to go to jail in the United States remains to be seen.

But predicting the demise of the rebel group may be wishful thinking on the government’s part. The FARC has learned to adapt in the past, and relies on its share of the profits from the 600 tonnes of cocaine that is produced in Colombia every year. And although Chávez has done a great deal to broker the release of a handful of hostages over the past few months, he seems bent on coming to the rebels’ aid. With profits from cocaine and perhaps the promise of Venezuelan petro dollars, the FARC could still do a great deal of damage. When it comes to getting rid of the rebel threat, Uribe and his allies in the United States and France still have their work cut out for them. M

PREDICTING THE FARC’S DEMISE MAY BE PREMATURE—CHÁVEZ SEEMS INTENT ON HELPING THEM