Colombia politics: Turning point?

FROM THE ECONOMIST INTELLIGENCE UNIT

Colombia’s armed forces have handed the new president, Juan Manuel Santos, a big early win with a military operation that led to the death of the second-ranking commander of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) guerrilla group. The government and security forces have chalked up major advances in the four-decades-old civil conflict in recent years that have undermined the FARC’s effectiveness. This latest development could mark a turning point as it further debilitates the insurgent group.

Like his predecessor, Álvaro Uribe, Mr Santos, a former defence minister who was inaugurated as president on August 7th, has made domestic security the chief priority of his administration. Mr Santos was one of the architects of the military strategy that during Mr Uribe’s two terms in office put the FARC, Colombia’s largest left-wing insurgent group, on the defensive. Now he can claim a victory of his own.

The FARC had picked up its attacks in recent months before and after the June presidential run-off election. These included a bombing in Bogotá in August. But the military operation, announced by officials on September 23rd, will be a huge setback to its activities. Jorge Briceño Suárez, known as “Mono Jojoy”, was the top military strategist for the FARC and was with the group for some four decades. His death in the elaborate operation, which involved some 400 police officers and soldiers, is the biggest blow to the group since the death of its second-in-command, Raúl Reyes, in a raid in 2008 on a FARC base camp in Ecuador and the loss (of natural causes) of its founder, Manuel Marulanda, shortly thereafter.

FARC’s reversal of fortune

Improvements in the security situation were a key achievement of the Uribe government, and contributed to revitalising confidence among the population, business and foreign investors. Indeed, in 2002, when Mr Uribe came to office, the FARC posed a major threat to the central government, with advance forces encircling the capital and controlling large swathes of Colombian territory. Now the group has been pushed back into its southern jungle strongholds, with its different fronts isolated across the country and unable to mount a concerted military challenge to the Colombian armed forces.

That said, further advances are critical if Colombia is to fulfil its considerable economic potential. As a result, Mr Santos pledged during his electoral campaign to maintain Mr Uribe’s “democratic security” policies. His administration will continue to work to wear down the FARC militarily and to increase the state’s presence in previously FARC-controlled area. Financial and military assistance from the US has also helped the armed forces to be able to target the FARC more effectively, leading to a gradual shift in the FARC’s tactics away from almost a conventional “war of positions” to more traditional guerrilla tactics. Inflows of aid from the US are expected to continue.

After the 2008 raid in which Mr Reyes was killed, information contained in the rebel’s computer and memory sticks provided information that may have been crucial to allowing the Colombian military to maintain close pressure on key FARC personnel and disrupt communication between the group’s different fronts. It may also have provided intelligence that supported the latest operation.

In this latest case, at least 20 other rebels were killed, and soldiers recovered a number of other computers and flash drives that will presumably hold valuable information that can be used to further damage the rebel group.

The FARC’s top leader, Alfonso Cano, who replaced Mr Marulanda after his death, will now have to again revaluate his strategy. Since he rose to lead the group he seems to have focussed on safeguarding the FARC’s strongholds in the southern jungle and largely avoiding major confrontations with government forces (the election-related surge in activity notwithstanding). This reflects the group’s deteriorating military capability as much as a strategic decision. A new leadership shake-up will now be coming, and perhaps a further strategic withdrawal.

Keeping up the pressure

The Santos administrative will keep up the pressure, to further degrade the FARC’s military capability and target key leaders. Intelligence and military efforts will continue to search out Mr Cano and top leaders such as Iván Márquez and Timoleón Jiménez (alias Timochenko).

As a result, the security situation is likely to continue improving, albeit with more clashes between the FARC and the military in FARC-controlled areas. The group may experience further communication problems, making it increasingly difficult for Mr Cano to implement a nationwide strategy.

Over the medium term, questions will multiple regarding prospects for negotiations as the rebel group grows weaker. Nascent initiatives towards a peace process have failed to gain traction under past administrations, and although Mr Santos suggested in August that he might be willing to engage in talks, he has since backtracked from this position.

Mr Santos may be smelling victory in the long battle against the insurgents. However, the FARC’s resilience should not be discounted. Its leadership has shown little inclination to move towards a peaceful resolution to the conflict. The most likely scenario is that it becomes increasingly enfeebled, but over a protracted period of time. Rather than disappearing, it will become even less of threat to the state and will withdraw to its more remote, localised geographical positions—while subsisting on activities such as drug trafficking and other organised crime. For most Colombians, this will represent substantial progress nonetheless.