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Colombia's Rebels Battle for Survival

COLOMBIA’S DRIVE against guerrilla armies is proving so successful that it could be a model for other countries facing similar insurgencies.

President Alvaro Uribe has combined military and political strategies to bring the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to its knees, a feat that evaded his predecessors.

Uribe has expanded the military by 30 percent to 270,000 troops and raised defense spending to nearly 7 percent of GDP. He has also emphasized air mobility. Colombia now has a large U.S.-supplied helicopter fleet and Brazilian Super Tucano strike aircraft. He has also emphasized training, which comes mainly from the United States as well as from British and Israeli advisers.

Most of all, he has recognized that intelligence gathering is key to the military’s success. It has enabled targeted strikes against FARC leaders. Surrendering guerrillas are the main source of intelligence. The government has encouraged desertions by offering individual guerrillas training, jobs, and healthcare when they quit. They also get large financial rewards for turning in or killing top leaders.

The rescue in July of 15 high-profile hostages held by the FARC was evidence of Uribe’s success. Elite Colombian troops secured the prisoners without firing a shot in a flawless operation that combined intelligence work, meticulous planning, and great audacity. The prisoners included Ingrid Betancourt and three American contractors who had been flying antinarcotics missions for the Pentagon. Betancourt was held captive for six years and the Americans for five years.

The tide began turning in March, when Colombian forces raided a FARC camp in neighboring Ecuador, killing its second-in-command. Shortly thereafter, another rebel leader was killed by his own bodyguard, in exchange for a $1 million government reward. Then, Nelly Avila Moreno, a charismatic FARC fighter, defected to the government side. And soon after that, Manuel Marulanda, FARC’s longtime leader, died of natural causes.

The government says that FARC has lost about half its fighters in the last six years, leaving it with around 8,000 guerrillas. The Defense Ministry says more than 2,200 FARC fighters deserted, surrendered, or were killed in the first two months of 2008.

Uribe has also negotiated a demobilization deal with right-wing militias known as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia. As a result of all of these efforts, violence has declined, and the economy has recovered, making Uribe one of Colombia’s most popular leaders ever.

Colombia has made some dramatic improvements in its fight against insurgents, says Adam Isacson, director of the Colombia program at the Center for International Policy in Washington, D.C. He says Uribe has used counter-insurgency troops to retake territory from the FARC and then gradually build up a government presence in those regions.

“First, come the elite and mobile military, but they can’t stay long. Then come conventional] military, police, and then a justice system, and civilian road builders. Then the education and health ministries work hand in hand with local mayors and governors,” says Isacson.

The FARC has also lost popular support. “They have not taken public opinion into mind. They have committed atrocious acts,” says Jorge Restrepo, director of CERAC, a Bogotá-based think-tank.

FARC gathers the money it needs to survive through extortion, kidnapping, and drug trafficking, says Restrepo. It lays landmines indiscriminately, and forces peasants, some of them women and children, to join its ranks.

However, Isacson and Restrepo both warn that Uribe’s counterinsurgency policies are far from perfect. “There are flaws that could be seeds for failure if not corrected,” says Isacson. “There is an overemphasis on the military and not enough attention on civilian governance.”

A serious concern is that army officers violate human rights and collude with rightwing militias. “One big piece of evidence for this is a big increase in extra-judicial killings,” says Isacson. But, he says, the government is cracking down on human-rights violators and is improving the quality of local government practices in recaptured regions.

Even if the government avoids missteps, rebuilding shattered communities is hard and takes time. “Many areas where the FARC had strongholds do not have an economy able to sustain communities,” says Restrepo.

Another problem is that numerous areas recaptured by the government are littered with the FARC’s land mines. The government needs to focus on de-mining if those communities are to thrive. “Demining is a very serious problem. You can’t have secure areas without that,” says Restrepo.

Uribe has not decisively beaten the FARC or the right-wing militias yet. They are resilient and accustomed to withdrawing before resuming the offensive. Despite the recent high profile release of hostages, the FARC still holds hundreds of Colombian and foreign hostages. It is assumed that they are holding these prisoners as trump cards to be used in future talks with the government.

Another strategy may prove useful to Uribe. His government is attempting to thwart the cocaine trade that is the FARC’s great lifeline. FARC units in remote jungle hideouts refine and then export cocaine to the United States and Europe.

Colombia’s antidrug strategy, which gets about $400 million a year in U.S. support, has cut into the guerrillas’ finances. But trafficking continues to be a problem. A Council on Foreign Relations report quotes experts who estimate that the FARC gets $200 million to $300 million annually—at least half its income—from drug smuggling. The FARC supplies more than half the world’s cocaine and two-thirds of the cocaine entering the United States, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.