By JAMES J. BRITTAIN 02.08.2008
At the beginning of the 1970s, early in the insurgency’s formation, the FARC-EP received a devastating blow at the hands of the Colombian state when the Misael Pastrana Borrero administration [1970-1974] implemented massive military counterinsurgency offences against specific guerrilla-extended regions (Premo, 1988: 230; Hobsbawm, 1970: 56). In 1973, the Colombian state, with the assistance of the United States, launched “Operation Anori”, which resulted in the destruction of much of the FARC-EP’s military supplies and sections of its leadership (Avilés, 2006: 154n.25). After this and other counterinsurgency campaigns took place during the early-mid 1970s, it was documented that the FARC-EP had lost seventy percent of its ammunitions with as little as one-hundred-fifty armed and trained combatants remaining (FARC-EP, 1999: 24; Premo, 1988: 243n.45; Ruhl, 1980: 196, 205n.63). While extensive press was given to the FARC-EP’s demise in a few short years such assessments were shown to be premature. The insurgency quickly bounced back from the counterinsurgency campaign and was able to “regroup and conduct sporadic actions on an increasing number of fronts” by the mid 1970s (Premo, 1988: 231; see also Petras and Morley, 2003: 101; Castro, 1999: xx-xxi). Following the US and Colombian-state aggressions, the FARC-EP
succeeded in maintaining their activity, in spite of the initial errors, in spite of the severe handicap of having to arrange for the evacuation, dispersion and resettlement of a civilian population, in spite of the strength of long anti-irregular experience of the Colombian army, and in spite of the deep political divisions in the countryside … [They] succeeded not merely by tactical and technical adjustments, but above all by a profound understanding of the political base of guerrilla warfare (Hobsbawm, 1970: 56-57).
In the spring of 2008 two significant blows came to the FARC-EP when not one but two of the insurgency’s most recognizable leaders were killed coupled by the death of the guerrilla’s Commander-in-Chief, Manuel Marulanda Vélez. In the early days of March, it appeared as though the FARC-EP may have been dealt a mortal blow when Comandante Raúl Reyes and Iván Ríos, two of the FARC-EP’s highest ranking Secretariat leaders and diplomatic representatives, were murdered. Quickly accounts came flooding in of this devastating upset for the guerrilla. Utilizing state reports, Juan Forero (2008) published that “Colombians are for the first time raising the possibility that a guerrilla group once thought invincible could be forced into peace negotiations or even defeated militarily. Weakened by infiltrators and facing constant combat and aerial bombardment, the insurgency is losing members in record numbers”. Using government and military sources, one of Colombia’s most popular newsmagazines published that desertion and lack of internal support has caused a devastating decline for the FARC-EP – potentially resulting in its internal eradication (Cambio, 2008). Even Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez voiced the opinion that the period of organized class struggle through the medium of guerrilla warfare had past. However, while the death of three of the insurgency’s primary leaders was of great significance, reports declaring the FARC-EP’s decline are not new.
The Colombian government and those promoting domestic and foreign economic interests remain threatened by the FARC-EP’s revolutionary push for it continues to erode the state from below. Well known anthropologist Michael Taussig (2004: 13) has argued that the guerrilla is far more powerful than many state outlets will have the international community believe. He noted that “there is an unstated fear that cities all over Colombia could be isolated anytime by the guerrilla” who have the military capacity to block external military support by “blowing up roads and bridges”. In recognition of this power the dominant class periodically employs hegemonic tactics, through both state and media outlets, to portray the FARC-EP as being structurally weakened in the hopes of discouraging both internal and external support for the insurgency. It must be understood that reports claiming the insurgency’s defeat have been repeatedly proven false as time elapses.
Following several significant counter-insurgency campaigns (Plan Colombia [1998-2006] and Plan Patriota [2003-2006]) premature victories over the FARC-EP were claimed. As time past it was realized that the insurgency had not witnessed a decline but rather saw a significant influx in combatant growth and attacks against corporate and state infrastructure (Brittain, 2005). Similarly, the 2008 impulsive allegations of deterioration saw the FARC-EP materially responded by destabilizing Colombia’s most important oil infrastructure facility while eliminating entire military battalions. Between the 29th of April and the 6th of May the FARC-EP carried out a coordinated series of attacks which isolated sectors of Colombia’s largest oil pipeline and subsequently halted the production of an estimated eight-hundred thousand to three-million barrels of oil. In addition, the guerrilla strategically destroyed important transportation routes needed to control the flow of oil and military supplies throughout various departments in the north of the country. Destroying an essential bridge near Catatumbo in the department of César, the FARC-EP was able to severe the movement of state and private security forces thereby keeping existing military units preoccupied (Weinberg, 2008). Following the offence, another Front in Norte de Santander pursued an aggressive attack against security forces guarding the 770 kilometre Colombian-based Ecopetrol and US-based Occidental Petroleum owned Caño-Limón pipeline near Tibu – the true target of the attack. Ironically, all this took place just a few short hours after William Brownfield, the United States’ Ambassador to Colombia, visited the area and applauded the growth in security and economic progress as a result of the FARC-EP’s so-called decline (Reuters, 2008a). In response to the FARC-EP’s strike, Colombian General Paulino Coronado coordinated a mounted offensive on 3rd of May to eliminate the FARC-EP attack and resume the flow of oil production. The guerrilla quickly eliminated the deployed battalion and continued their assault on the pipeline facilities for an additional forty-eight hours (Associated Press, 2008). Showing that their campaign targeting the Caño-Limón pipeline was not simply a one-time tactical success, the FARC-EP carried out an additional attack on Colombia’s largest coal mine – the Cerrejón – on the forty-fourth anniversary of insurgency’s inception. On 27th of May 2008, roughly one month after the transgressions aimed at oil production took place, the guerrilla again targeted attacks against exploitive multinational corporations and state-infrastructure involved in the region by derailing “around 40 wagons out of the 120-wagon train, carrying 110 tonnes of coal” (Reuters, 2008b). While officials tried to downplay the extensive damage it was quickly revealed that the FARC-EP had considerably hampered trading by destabilizing entire export routes (Reuters, 2008c). These are but two actions where the FARC-EP demonstrated their continued military capacity to respond to both state and private security forces in relation to corporate interests. Most interesting, however, was that the coordinated FARC-EP campaigns silenced many officials from both the Colombian and US state. Many have perceived sectors of Colombia’s north to be economically sheltered as sectors of the country’s south have appeared to be the centre of FARC-EP activities; however, the above events demonstrated that FARC-EP support and capacity go far beyond that mentioned in the popular press. As Colombia’s own Interior Minister Carlos Holguin announced, Colombia should not dream or come close to proclaiming a victory over the FARC-EP just yet (see Otis, 2008).
The administration of Álvaro Uribe Vélez [2002-2010] has created a façade of general security in a region that has witnessed a half-century of civil war. It has become general knowledge in Colombia that the state has actively under-represented figures and information related to the civil conflict to present a picture of internal stability. In the summer of 2006, Jorge Daniel Castro, then General Director of Colombia’s national police, stated that 30,944 paramilitaries had taken amnesty since 2003 through Law 975 (Badawy, 2006). This number was double that of any figure ever described by scholars, military analysts, or governments officials when concerning the size of Colombia’s largest paramilitary organization, The United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, AUC) (see International Crisis Group, 2004: 2, 2n.7; Murillo and Avirama, 2004: 89, 108; Livingstone, 2003: 269n.15; Crandall, 2002: 88; Ministerio de Defensa Nacional, 2000: 10). Then in 2007, President Uribe and Vice-President Francisco Santos Calderón were accused of forcing state officials to alter statistics related to issues of internal security and state policy. Cesar Caballero’s, former director of Colombia’s National Administrative Department of Statistics (Departamento Administrativo Nacional de Estadística, DANE), admitted that the state had and continues to manipulate “statistics to make Colombia appear safer than it is, casting doubt on achievements that have made him popular both at home and with the U.S. government … the president’s policy is … to maintain the perception that security has improved, no matter what the case” (Crowe, 2007). An example of such state-enforced disinformation can be realized through a simple evaluation of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Colombia. When examining the issue of displacement, Constanza Vieira (2008) noted that the number of Colombian IDPs jumped thirty-eight percent in 2007. Colombia is now second only to the Sudan for the largest number of IDPs in the world, which only began after the rise of state-supported paramilitarism in the 1980s. To put this into perspective, Colombia has well over one million more IDPs than the entire Middle-East combined (including Iraq). The state stipulates that Colombia has roughly 1.9 million IDPs yet this is half the figure documented by various domestic and international human rights organizations and research centres. For example, the Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement (Consultoría para los Derechos Humanos y el Desplazamiento, CODHES), the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) all agree that the actual figure of Colombian IDPs fluctuates between 3.9 and 4.2 million (see Consultoría para los Derechos Humanos y el Desplazamiento, 2007; Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, 2007; Japan International Cooperation Agency, 2007). By recognizing the above example of state-based disinformation one can understand how reports concerning the FARC-EP’s disintegration may be suspect as well.
While it cannot be dismissed that in the past few months the FARC-EP has experienced unprecedented difficulties it must be realized that as long as inequitable sociocultural and political-economic conditions pervade Colombian society so too will a base from which the FARC-EP can recruit. The FARC-EP remain the longest running and most powerful political-military movement in contemporary Latin America with numbers still ranging in the thousands, arguably tens of thousands. Therefore, to buy into any suggestion that Colombia finds itself in a period of increased stability or that the FARC-EP have past into the annals of history is to adopt a false consciousness of the realities that exist within this Andean country. Jennifer S. Holmes, Sheila Amin Gutiérrez de Piñeres, and Kevin M. Curtin (2006: 178) have clarified that a “lack of economic opportunity contributes to leftist guerrilla violence”. As the nation witnesses accelerated levels of inequality, displacement, and exploitation so too will increased levels of opposition continue. Such are the causes of instability and the true forum through which people become aware of their class positioning; hence, their subsequent engagement in acts of resistance through more extreme measures. Peter Calvert (1999: 128) has argued that political-economic disparity enables “insurgent movements a ready-made mass of disaffected supporters”. Presenting that the FARC-EP is experiencing a period of tactical reformation and withdrawal is correct but to assess that the insurgency movement is over is an ignorant assessment and lacks an understanding of both guerrilla warfare and the material conditions which pervade Colombian society and its class struggle. To suggest that the FARC-EP have experienced defeat fails to understand the right of self-determination through an internal interpretation of revolutionary emancipation. The internal struggle within Colombia is far from over. It will continue to be waged through radical and antagonistic forms. As the United States and the Uribe administration continue to engage a war against the poor so too will they exacerbate and intensify “Colombia’s internal conflict by robbing families of their livelihoods and leaving them with little option but to join the left-wing guerrillas, particularly the FARC” (O’Shaughnessy and Branford, 2005: 7).
James J. Brittain is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Acadia University, Nova Scotia, Canada and the co-founder of the Atlantic Canada-Colombia Research Group. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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