Exclusive: The U.S. government’s use of targeted killings on al-Qaeda-linked “terrorists” has stirred legal and moral objections. But what about using drones to assassinate Latin American peasants fighting a corrupt oligarchy? That issue has emerged in Colombia’s long guerrilla war, Andrés Cala writes.
By Andrés Cala
There are signs that South America’s oldest and mightiest guerrilla army, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (or FARC), is undertaking a tactical pivot toward ending more than half a century of armed struggle, raising hopes for a lasting cease-fire, eventually a full demobilization and possibly peace.
An examination of FARC’s military actions in 2013 and the evolution of peace negotiations with the government suggest that this turn is more substantive than earlier hopes for a resolution of the long-running conflict. The peace prospects are also enhanced by the likely reelection of Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos who – so far – has been resolute in backing talks.
These initiatives toward peace have played out against recent revelations about the role of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency in assisting the Colombian military in killing at least two dozen of FARC’s leaders under a covert program authorized by President George W. Bush in the early 2000s and continued under President Barack Obama, according to an investigative article in the Washington Post.
Amid this loss of leadership and other military setbacks – as well as the erosion of grassroots support in war-weary Colombia – the FARC has grown demoralized as it faces the government’s superior, U.S.-backed armed forces. As a result, the FARC appears to have concluded that politics is a better conduit for pursuing a revolutionary agenda as part of the continent-wide “Bolivarian” movement for change.
The tactical shift, primarily seen in the FARC’s increasing political and social involvement as well as more targeted military activity, is echoed in year-long and still ongoing peace talks in Havana with the Colombian government.
But the FARC is far from defeated. The guerrilla army retains about 11,000 fighters spread across the country, with a diminished but still disciplined military structure, according to a report published last month by the Fundación Paz y Reconciliación, which analyzes the evolution of the conflict since peace talks began.
In 2013, the FARC was responsible for more than 2,000 attacks, from bombings of the power grid to assassinations. It’s a similar number to the annual average since 2010, but tactics changed in 2013, partly for military reasons, partly to address public opinion, and partly to improve the group’s negotiating hand.
The report also described the FARC ‘s innovations in mobilizing its political supporters into a mass movement conducting protests, peace marches and more, further exposing the group’s transition –however limited – toward taking their grievances into the political arena.
Militarily, the FARC has mostly foregone economically-motivated kidnappings or massive attacks on population centers. Instead, the guerrillas carry out targeted assassinations or bombings and strike-and-retreat attacks on the armed forces. They are especially targeting energy infrastructure, such as oil pipelines, electricity transmission towers and coal railways. These attacks minimize adverse public reactions, while still hurting the country’s economic vitality to get businesses and the people to keep up pressure on the government to sign a peace deal.
President Santos, who is seeking reelection in May, is running primarily on delivering on peace and policies to improve wealth distribution. He is staking his political future on the success of peace talks with the FARC as well as the National Liberation Army (or ELN), the second biggest leftist insurgency.
Indeed, the ELN and the government are expected to soon announce the beginning of parallel peace talks. The FARC and ELN also recently agreed to jointly press their common goals, illustrating the tactical pivot of both guerrilla groups as they shift toward the end of their armed struggle, even if a full demobilization is still distant.
Colombia’s neighbors and other interested parties also have been nudging the warring parties toward a political settlement, but negotiations to end long and bitter wars are delicate matters, meaning that the Colombian situation could change quickly.
Outgunned and Unpopular
In essence, the FARC is finding itself outgunned by the same kind of drone and targeted missile strikes that have been used in Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Middle East and North Africa against radical Islamist militias. These high-tech techniques have, in effect, denied the guerrillas their main military advantage of hiding in Colombia’s vast countryside and jungles. Highly accurate missiles and effective intelligence have resulted in multiple assassinations carried out by Colombian forces with covert U.S. help.
The FARC also has lost territory and thousands of fighters to desertions, captures and combat casualties. But that has involved the movement shedding many of its undisciplined and ideologically dubious foot soldiers whose numbers had inflated the FARC’s fighting force to more than 20,000 at the start of the new century. But the FARC’s growth contributed to its decline as Colombian intelligence infiltrated the FARC’s ranks with spies.
The FARC’s interminable war also has taken a toll on its popular support. Colombians are understandably war-fatigued and that includes the country’s political left and labor movements. The FARC and ELN have not recovered from the public relations damage of indiscriminate terrorist activity, including mass kidnappings, bombings and massacres.
Colombians also strongly and broadly support the decade-old military buildup and offensive against the FARC and other illegal militias, despite the government’s disappointing track record in moving against right-wing, drug-funded paramilitaries that earlier Colombian administrations deployed against the FARC and other leftist movements.
Santos, nominally a right-of-center leader, has broadened the military offensive against the FARC, while simultaneously implementing a series of populist social programs, slowly improving the lives of millions of Colombians. That, in turn, has helped Santos convince many Colombians, including some FARC militants, that politics, not arms, can be a more effective route to social change.
Thus, it appears that time is on the side of peace, since Santos looks sure to be reelected, giving him, the FARC and ELN more time and a renewed mandate to negotiate peace. While the government may have the upper hand, militarily and politically, the FARC may see a path for a nascent left movement to unite and achieve social and economic reforms if peace negotiations are successful.
Under this analysis, the FARC’s more promising route toward transforming Colombia may be to follow the democratic political revolution that the late Hugo Chavez trail-blazed in Venezuela and that Cuba’s Fidel Castro has embraced as a region-wide alternative to violence.
Surviving Reactionary Forces
But the ride to a peaceful transition won’t be smooth. A key reason why the FARC has waged such a long guerrilla war is that the state has historically failed to deliver a meaningful democracy that addresses the needs of the poor and oppressed indigenous groups. Colombia’s reactionaries, led by former President Alvaro Uribe, can be expected to continue pushing back against both leftist social reforms and Santos’s peace efforts.
Uribe, however, has failed to rally public opinion against the peace process and against his heir, Santos, despite Uribe’s best efforts. Every time a security breach takes place, Uribe blames Santos and the FARC. Uribe also orchestrated an attempt through the Prosecutor General’s office to unseat the mayor of Bogota, a former guerilla fighter not related to the FARC. And, right-wing paramilitary forces have killed leftist politicians as a further provocation against a peaceful settlement.
Yet, these attempts to derail peace talks have so far proved unsuccessful. President Obama has lent public support for peace talks with the FARC and other trust-building steps by the Colombian government and the guerrillas.
The Washington Post’s disclosures about the long-running CIA covert operation to eliminate the FARC’s leadership had only a muted impact in Colombia where it’s been well known for years that the CIA has been operating in support of the government’s counterinsurgency war. So have the Drug Enforcement Administration, the National Security Agency and the Pentagon as part of the more-than-decade-old $9 billion Plan Colombia military aid package, as well as earlier cooperation deals.
Uribe and other former Colombian officials have openly acknowledged CIA involvement as legal and longstanding. However, over time, the U.S. aid has achieved a qualitative improvement in the capabilities of the Colombian security forces. Earlier, Colombia’s military lacked the drones and the precision missile technology that enabled the kind of surgical strikes that decimated the FARC’s leadership.
According to the Post article, the CIA held supervisory control of the guided missiles used in the attacks, including one strike across the border in Ecuador that killed Raul Reyes, the alias of the FARC’s second in command. The CIA probably didn’t pull the trigger, nor did it have to. Colombia’s armed forces are proficient enough for that. But the CIA and the U.S. government likely had to approve the operation.
Many Colombians also feel little sympathy for the FARC and view U.S. covert support for these targeted killings as primarily a U.S. domestic concern. In the United States, the Colombian program taps into other questions about what President George W. Bush dubbed the “global war on terror,” which has raised legal and moral objections to what amount to assassinations of people sometimes arbitrarily called “terrorists.”
While some Americans see justification for using these tactics against al-Qaeda leaders – because of the group’s role in the 9/11 attacks – the U.S. participation in drone assassinations of armed peasants fighting against corrupt oligarchies in Latin America could be seen in a different light, as an imposition of a brutal authoritarianism in defense of economic elites.
Moreover, the Post’s highlighting these covert operations at this delicate time in the Colombian peace talks prompted regional rumblings about a possible conspiracy to disrupt the negotiations. Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa suggested that the sources who confirmed the Post story wanted to trigger spats between Colombia and Ecuador, Ecuador and the U.S., Colombia and the FARC, and any other involved parties.
“For me, this is an attempt by Colombia’s right wing and the American and international right wing to boycott the peace process in Colombia, which in my opinion is the biggest news in Latin America in the last decade. The extreme right of Colombia doesn’t want peace, it wants war,” Correa said.
Andrés Cala is an award-winning Colombian journalist, columnist and analyst specializing in geopolitics and energy. He is the lead author of America’s Blind Spot: Chávez, Energy, and US Security.