The highway between Medellín and Colombia's Caribbean coast winds through one of South America's major drug-producing regions. The road is controlled by army and police checkpoints, but to enter the Cordillera Occidental mountains that hover above it, you need the permission of the FARC (The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), the fierce Marxist guerrillas who control the cultivation of the area's coca crop, the raw material of cocaine. That rare permiso allowed TIME to take an eight-hour mule ride through the mountains, rivers, jungles and dozens of coca plantations to the encampment of German Silva Hernandez, alias Comandante Alberto, one of the commanders of the FARC's 18th Front. He carries a bullet scar on his stomach and a $36,000 government bounty on his head. But unlike so many FARC members these days — especially in the wake of this week's astonishing army rescue of high-profile FARC hostages — he has no intention of coming down from the mountains. He remains convinced that the insurgency has a future. "The new generation of guerrillas," he grouses, "needs better political training."
. But in strongholds like the Cordillera Occidental, FARC commanders and soldiers remain defiant. And while it might sound delusional to many, they insist the guerrillas have more life than the government claims. "They've been saying [we're defeated] since the 1960s," says Comandante Alberto, who joined the FARC when he was 15 and has spent more than two decades in these mountains. "If they couldn't defeat us when we were a few dozen farmers, without uniforms and hardly any weapons, how can they beat us now when there are [still] thousands of us all over Colombia? This is a propaganda war. A couple of weeks ago the army came in here — we ambushed them and they ran away.
Drug interdiction was the professed purpose of the $5 billion U.S. Plan Colombia, launched in 2000, but its focus shifted instead to a counterinsurgency campaign to eliminate the FARC. "Most of the money that was supposedly for the war on drugs has been used for war against the guerrillas," Comandante Alberto notes. Plan Colombia, which has afforded Colombia's military U.S. hardware like Black Hawk and Huey helicopters, making it difficult for the rebels to concentrate in large units, has been successful in hobbling the FARC. But coca cultivation in Colombia rose in 2007, according to a new U.N. report. A widespread fear is that the remaining members of the FARC will become full-fledged drug lords.
FARC commanders dismiss the "narco-guerrilla" portrayal as government propaganda and insist they're still a viable rebel movement whose survival doesn't depend on drug income. For his part, Alberto points to his unit's spartan housing conditions — mountain and jungle shacks often without electricity or running water — as proof that they're not exactly living as sumptuously as famous cocaine kingpins like Pablo Escobar.
The comandante also downplays factors like the recent death of FARC's founder, Manuel Marulanda, 79, from a heart attack in one of his jungle lairs. "It's a big blow, but it's not a disaster," he says. "It was a natural death — he died of old age. The enemy didn't kill him." But he admits that where he and his comrades would once have heard immediately of news like Marulanda's demise through FARC communications channels, this time they had to rely on news radio. It's the kind of structural breakdown that allowed the army to plant a mole inside the FARC and dupe its leaders into delivering Betancourt and the other hostages to the army. Even more damaging than the loss of Marulanda and other leaders is the number of guerrillas giving up the struggle. The desertions come after a sustained government radio and television campaign telling rebels how to turn themselves in and offering education and training as well as rewards for information about FARC arms stashes and the location of commanders.
That campaign is likely to become more effective after Wednesday's rescue operation. But while Alberto, a government target himself, admits the FARC has been rattled, he believes it won't collapse. In fact, the unraveling of the group's central authority could end up making local bosses like him stronger. "We can't deny that we have suffered desertions of combatants who haven't understood clearly the reason for our struggle or who have let themselves be influenced by state propaganda," he says. "We have to study the situation so this doesn't keep happening." But he insists that in his rebel bailiwick, retention is still high, despite the fact that any guerrilla who wanted to bolt the 18th Front could be free and clear in a nearby town within a couple of hours.
As a result, despite the government's gains in recent years, the comandante is confident in his front's abilities to defend its own turf. As soon as the military enters the 18th Front's territory, the FARC usually hears about it from its large network of civilian informants. Many of them rely on FARC-protected coca cultivation for their livelihoods, but others are simply poor rural residents who have been beaten down for decades by the military and still believe in the FARC's original social-justice crusade. The guerrillas dress in civilian clothes and can be hard to distinguish from local farmers, and the difficult terrain is perfect for hit-and-run guerrilla warfare. The government "could not sustain an offensive on this scale without U.S. help," says Alberto. "They use American money to set up high mountain battalions, pay informants, for training, helicopters, boats and every type of war materiel. We believe we could overthrow the Colombian state if it weren't for U.S. help
Either way, few believe the FARC could ever topple the government today. And for many, it's getting harder to believe that the government won't eventually defeat the FARC, a 44-year-old insurgency. But it still has thousands of armed fighters, a war chest of hundreds of millions of dollars and a triple-canopy rain forest to hide in. Despite the heavy blows it's taken in recent years, the rebels continue to dominate regions like the Cordillera Occidental, where teachers, farm laborers, health workers and even locals who have spent more than a year outside the area must secure the FARC's permission before they can enter. The 18th Front remains the only authority for miles around, executing thieves, suspected informants and anyone who tries to evade the coca taxes. And despite the area's narco-economy, drug consumption of any kind is strictly forbidden — to such a draconian extent that a few days before TIME arrived, guerrillas executed two drug addicts in the nearby town of Puerto Valdivia.
A radio call forces Alberto to interrupt the interview. "I'm afraid something's come up," he says when he returns. "There's a problem I have to go and deal with." An army patrol is headed in his direction. "They are about two hours away," Alberto's second-in-command says. "We're gathering intelligence, and we're going to see if we can hit them tomorrow. It's better if you leave. The army is going to seal off the area. If they find you, they'll kill you, then blame it on us." Whether or not that's true, deaths, drugs and desertions — and now its hostage debacle — have left the FARC with a bigger public relations challenge. It's one that guerrillas like Alberto have to confront as hard as the Colombian army is now engaging them. — With reporting by Tim