FARC has been severely hit by the killing of its leader Alfonso Cano, but it has proven to be a resilient and adaptive insurgent movement and is unlikely to demobilize any time soon. For the Colombian conflict to be resolved, political measures will be crucial.
By Lisa Wüstholz for ISN Insights
There is no doubt that the death of Alfonso Cano, head of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), on 4 November 2011 has dealt a severe blow to the guerrilla movement. Cano was the ideological leader of the Communist insurgent group and an old hand at rebelling against the Colombian government. He was the first Comandante en jefe in FARC’s 47 years of history to be killed in combat. As a committed Marxist, he had sought to intensify the revolutionary fight against the government ever since taking over FARC from one of the group’s founders, Manuel Marulanda, in 2008.
The death of Cano is the more troubling for FARC since it constitutes only the latest in a series of setbacks that the rebel group has recently been experiencing. On the level of leadership, three senior members of the Secretariat, FARC’s seven-person high command, have been killed in the past three years: Raúl Reyes, el Mono Jojoy, and Iván Ríos. Like Cano, they were all iconic figures of FARC.
Cohesion and vulnerability
At the level of followers, FARC is estimated to have shrunk from 20,000 members at its peak a decade ago to around 8,000 fighters. There are reports of large-scale desertions and battle fatigue among the revolutionary troops. Generally, there are signs of growing fragmentation among the rebels. Some fronts are said to operate more and more autonomously from the central command, being more concerned with trading drugs than with the revolutionary struggle. Recently, FARC also had to give up some historical strongholds in the center of the country and move more to the west (in the direction of Cauca, where Cano was found) as well as towards the northeast, further splitting the group. Hence, cohesive action in the name of the group’s stated goals has become ever more difficult. FARC has certainly lost its aura of invulnerability.
What is worse from FARC’s perspective is that the Colombian armed forces are still advancing. Their fight against the rebels has intensified ever since former President Álvaro Uribe came to power. US support has significantly strengthened the military capabilities of the Colombian forces: Among other things, they received Blackhawk helicopters, making it possible to carry out air strikes against rebel camps, as well as help in improving surveillance obtained through satellites and the interception of phone calls in order to locate FARC’s positions.
Additionally, the armed forces have improved their position thanks to valuable intelligence gained from FARC deserters and successful raids on FARC camps. In a raid on a camp in Ecuador, during which FARC international spokesman Raúl Reyes was killed, laptops, hard drives and memory sticks containing sensitive information about FARC operations were discovered.
With FARC on the run rather than on the march, the guerrillas have less time than ever to indoctrinate their new members. This, in turn, is bound to further the decrease in cohesion of the rebel troops.
A resilient and adaptive movement
For all these setbacks, it would be premature to expect the demise of FARC. The end of the group has been predicted several times already. For example, when he was serving as defense minister, current President Juan Manuel Santos declared FARC decidedly shaken. However, three years later, FARC is still fighting. The guerrilla movement has shown remarkable resilience in the face of campaigns to eradicate it. It has also demonstrated the ability to adapt, adjusting its way of fighting to match its own strengths and the actions of the Colombian armed forces.
There are many indications that the guerrilla group is still very active. Its propaganda machine is running, as can be seen on the continuously updated FARC website. The battle is still on, as shown in the frequency with which the rebels continue to launch deadly attacks: Shortly before and after the death of Cano, FARC carried out several strikes, killing at least three people and injuring 23 in the first half of November alone. According to a Colombian think-tank, the number of attacks is actually on the increase. In 2010, the figure was close to reaching the record 2,063 strikes of 2002.
Having adapted their strategy, FARC fighters today tend to launch more small-scale attacks using weapons that require no direct interaction with the Colombian army, such as IEDs and land mines. Furthermore, having retreated to the border regions with Ecuador and Venezuela, they now operate in territory that is not conducive to the Colombian army conducting large-scale raids. The terrain also makes it easier for the rebels to hide. There is substantial evidence that FARC has expanded into the territory of these neighboring countries, leading to inter-governmental disputes. Even though President Santos has reconciled with Venezuela, these liminal territories are still patrolled less vigilantly than those of Colombia and thus provide a hideout for the rebels.
Leadership and financial means
The death of the FARC leader will not plunge the organization into chaos. FARC is hierarchically structured, similar to regular armed forces, and the succession of Cano has likely been decided for a long time. That Cano would follow the FARC’s long-time leader Manuel Marulanda had been decided four years before the latter’s demise. Cano’s replacement, Timoleón Jiménez alias Timochenko, was apparently elected as early as one day after the killing and his succession publicly announced only a few days later; Iván Márquez was already positioned as second-in-line. Both commanders are senior members of the FARC Secretariat, having fought for almost 30 years, and they have proven their skills in the military and the political fields, respectively. Both are said to be inclined to continue the path chosen by Cano, even though Timochenko is known to be a touch more radical.
The diminishing of the group has to be put in perspective: FARC is still as big as the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) at their peak and is stronger in numbers than many jihadist groups. It continues to constitute a viable fighting force; one could even argue that FARC is becoming “leaner and meaner“.
Furthermore, FARC has enough financial means at its disposal to continue fighting for a long time. The group is estimated to gain at least $100 million a year through the drug trade, extortions, and kidnappings. The wealth of the guerrilla group also allows it to buy heavy weaponry: its arsenal is said to include – among others – mortars, landmines, surface-to-air missiles and anti-tank weapons. There are even rumors that it was involved in trading uranium.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, FARC has already stated that it will continue fighting and not lay down arms before a peace agreement has been signed. This is also because the group’s previous attempt to engage in legal political activity backfired: The killings of 4,000 members of the Unión Patriótica (a political party founded by former FARC members and other left-wing organizations) by right-wing paramilitaries have not been forgotten.
A window of opportunity, nevertheless
For all these reasons, it seems safe to assume that the killing of Cano has been a mostly symbolic blow to FARC. Still, the current situation does constitute a window of opportunity for the Colombian government to settle the conflict, provided that it plays its hand right.
First, it should not rest on its laurels, as FARC is not even close to being militarily defeated. The fact that the death of Cano was revealed without the euphoria that accompanied past announcements suggests that the Colombian government is quite aware of this. The armed forces need to continue their current advance and not give FARC time to reorganize. Second, to diminish public support for FARC, the government must address the grievances of the rural population. Above all, land reform is urgently needed in Colombia. Third, as in the case of the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, there is need for a political solution to the FARC challenge. There have been several peace talks in the past and these talks should now be resumed. Relying on military means alone might lead to more fragmentation within FARC, but will not put an end to the violence.
Juan Manuel Santos could actually be the right man to finally bring peace to Colombia. Being less of a hard-liner than former president Álvaro Uribe, he has already succeeded in reconciling with Venezuela. This was a major step towards undercutting the guerrillas’ operational base, as tensions would only help FARC – especially because the new leader, Timochenko, is said to have connections to the Venezuelan elite. With Cano killed, Santos has the domestic political capital to kick off new talks. His idea of a constitutional amendment to integrate former guerrillas into civilian life could be a good starting point for a dialogue with FARC.