The FARC's Unhappy Celebration

Mar 5, 2012

By Stephen Johnson

March 1 happened to be the fourth anniversary of Colombia’s raid on a guerrilla camp just a mile across its border with Ecuador.  The event caused a nasty diplomatic stink, even though the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) had been plotting terrorist attacks on Colombia from there for years.  During the operation, Colombian troops recovered laptop computers belonging to FARC Secretariat member Raúl Reyes that contained 8 years of emails, along with a treasure trove of some 30 years of conference records and other correspondence chronicling meetings and negotiations with senior Ecuadoran and Venezuelan officials.  

Last year, London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies published an impressive 240-page documentary analysis called The FARC Files:  Venezuela, Ecuador, and the Secret Archive of Raúl Reyes.  Among other things, it contained an insightful history of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s relations with the FARC, from a tentative meeting of the minds, promises of up to US$300 million in assistance, to efforts to obtain shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles for the rebels.  

It also described contacts with senior Ecuadoran military officers and attempts to lobby politicians from the administration of President Jamil Mahuad forward, including a reported US$400,000 contribution to Rafael Correa’s presidential campaign.  The correspondence suggests that, for their efforts, the FARC secured Ecuador’s neutrality with regard to Colombia’s internal conflict, Ecuador’s refusal to recognize the FARC as a terrorist organization, and promises to purge Ecuadoran military commanders who might resist cooperating with the FARC.  

Yet the death of Reyes and the destruction of his camp started an accelerated decline for the FARC in which one of the eastern fronts was duped into releasing 15 high profile hostages.  Two years later, Colombian soldiers and police managed to bring down the FARC’s number two commander, known as Mono Jojoy.  In the background, defections and demobilizations mounted.  Then last November, a Colombian military operation killed top leader Alfonso Cano.  February 26, the rebels said they were halting kidnapping operations and releasing remaining hostages—some held for as long as 12 years.  While that sounds magnanimous, hostages require food, medical care, and a logistics trail the FARC probably can no longer provide.      

All this is to say, that March 1, 2008 was an important day in a near 50-year internal conflict—the pivotal juncture when the Colombian government really began to take back the country from the clutches of a rural bandit army of, then, no more than 12,000 members.  For what it’s worth, the FARC is still a potent, violent drug-trafficking criminal organization.  But Colombia is a very different country.  It is safer, more democratic, its economy is more open, its society is more respectful of human rights, and its people are more plugged into the rest of the world.  It is a place where a rural insurgency has less and less relevance.  

Stephen Johnson is senior fellow and director of the CSIS Americas Program.