Some ask that given the Colombian state’s overwhelming military superiority, why even have peace talks with the guerrillas?
“In reality, if it weren’t for our military capability, the government wouldn’t be talking with us, as it is now,” said FARC peace negotiator “Jesus Santrich.”
A) Because the guerrillas still have a capacity to cause substantial, serious damage. Before its unilateral cease-fires, Defense Ministry reports noted that the FARC was killing most of the about 175 to 300 government troops killed annually (about 700 government troops were reportedly killed in 2002), and the FARC was hammering Colombia’s energy and oil infrastructure, blacking out some rural areas for days and causing serious collateral environmental harm.
The Colombia Defense Ministry claimed that the annual drop from some 700 government troops dead to the low hundreds before the FARC’s unilateral cease-fires was an indication of the military beating the FARC. But an internal FARC document, titled “New Circular (12 Points)” dated February 14, 2010, included in a manual which the FARC showed to me, explains differently the decline in government forces killed: “The Military Forces have accentuated the modality of air bombardment to combat us, among other reasons, because of the enormous quantity of casualties that we have inflicted on the troops in their terrestrial operations. The systematic air bombing is a way of operating cowardly, particularly by military members impotent of confronting revolutionary guerrilla action, [the military air bombing] behind which the North American Pentagon is found, contributing doctrine, instructors, pilots, intelligence, pin-point technology, and great sums of dollars.”
The FARC landed most of its greatest blows from about 1996 to the early 2000s. During that period, when the Colombian Armed Forces was about two-and-a-half times smaller than today and had a fraction of their current airpower, mobility and resources, the FARC routinely interrupted major highways; carried out sabotage, bombings, abductions, and killings against state, military and “oligarchical” targets (including against civilians it saw as enemy collaborators) inside and outside cities and towns. Sometimes back then, the FARC battled government battalions in mountains on the outskirts of Bogota, Cali, Medellin and other cities; assaulted garrisons and outposts, and mauled company-sized army and police units. In November 1998, the FARC captured and held over days the town of Mitu (population census in 2012: 14,112), the capital of remote, sparsely-inhabited Vaupes department, the only departmental capital the FARC has ever seized. During those years was the height of massive “pescas milagrosas” (“miraculous fish catches”) where the FARC would stop traffic along highways, winnow out its catches and hold captive those whom it deemed pertinent.
As things seem now, the FARC would be hard-pressed to re-attain that scope and intensity from 1996 to the early 2000s. But a potentially “radicalized” FARC could conceivably step up its pace, go back to hitting major cities with sporadic bombings and other attacks, and even shift tactics to making a concerted effort to use shoulder-held surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). At least one SAM attributed to the FARC was fired (missing an apparent military aircraft) in western Colombia in 2013, as shown in a You Tube video cited by then-US Southern Command commander Gen. John Kelly in his testimony to a US Congressional committee. But there have been no more reports of fired SAMs. A possible reason for a SAM discontinuance: the missiles are too expensive for the FARC (some US $400,000 per SAM, according to one FARC source, who denied that the FARC had SAMs when I asked him), and that the FARC preferred to allocate that money for other things.
It is important to remember that the eventually killed drug baron Pablo Escobar waged his Medellin-cartel war against the state and enemy drug cartels essentially with a couple of dozen henchman, unleashing an unprecedented wave of terrorist bombings in Colombia’s major cities at a level similar to the Islamic State’s in the Middle East and Europe nowadays. Speaking of the FARC’s capacity for urban actions, while the Colombian security forces—and the “paramilitaries” in the past—have been effective at preventing urban guerrilla attacks and rolling up urban guerrilla cells, the FARC has had and still has significant clandestine urban networks. The FARC urban cells have helped organize protest marches and labor stoppages in major cities. That implies an urban network of substantial size and organization. So, it wouldn’t be far-fetched if the FARC were to have the ability to launch urban attacks of a significant level–even of a Pablo Escobar scale.
The reason that the FARC hasn’t ordered a Pablo Escobar-like wave of bombings is that it sees that it is not in its interests, because such a wave of bombings would kill a high number of civilians and receive national and international condemnation, and almost surely result in the Colombia government ending the peace process. But if the FARC decided that the only way to get the serious attention of the Colombian government and the “oligarchy” to make concessions on FARC “red-line” issues/conditions (like political participation and no jail time) were to take the fight to the cities and against the society “elites,” then the FARC would have the capacity to do it. Between its unilateral cease-fires, when fighting re-flared, the FARC insinuated that it could do this. Remember that in El Salvador, the Salvadoran government, then under the rightist ARENA party, didn’t really buckle down with the then-mostly Marxist FMLN guerrillas to end the war until after the FMLN launched its biggest offensive ever into San Salvador and four other major cities.
B) Colombian Army senior officers, as well as US military officers, have told me that the guerrillas cannot be completely wiped out because of their resilience and ability to replenish their ranks (via forced or voluntary recruitment) and because of the vast expanses in this South American country of approximately 47 million inhabitants and 1,141,748 square kilometers (about 1.75 times the territory of Afghanistan) covered substantially by dense jungles and difficult mountainous terrain, with thousands of kilometers of porous borders with Venezuela, Brazil, Peru and Ecuador. Year after year, over a couple of decades, the Colombian Ministry of Defense claimed that annual FARC losses—totaling killed, captured and desertions—would be several thousand per year. While the FARC doesn’t publicly release figures of its own annual total casualties, it scoffs at the Defense Ministry’s statistics. “Even a fool can see that the Defense Ministry’s numbers [on FARC casualties] are absurd,” one FARC peace negotiator told me. “If you just add them up, we wouldn’t exist, but we’re still here.”
Putting things into context, the government security forces’, “paramilitary”/BACRIM and guerrilla dead totaled altogether per year would range from the high hundreds to about 2,000 or 3,000—a fraction of the peak of Colombia’s homicides one year in the early 1990s when Colombia’s Instituto Nacional para Medicina Legal y Ciencias Forenses tallied the figure to be over 28,000, some 77 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, during the time of eventually killed Medellin drug lord Pablo Escobar. And that figure was 27,829 in 2002, some 68 homicides per 100,000 taking into account population growth. The peak of dead of all warring factions’ fighters in the late 90s/early 2000s is a fraction of Colombia’s 12,193 murders in 2015, according to police figures.