The Colombian government inflicted a substantial blow’s to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) on July 2 when they successfully executed military “Operation Jaque” (Operation Checkmate), leading to the rescue of 15 hostages previously held captive by the armed group. Among the freed hostages were former presidential candidate Íngrid Betancourt, three U.S. contractors, and 11 members of the Colombian police and armed forces.
Operation Jaque was followed by a series of other successful counter-insurgency operations. In the month of July, the Colombian Armed Forces occupied three FARC military camps located in the northern area of La Jagua, the Andean village of Dolores, and the southern municipality of San José del Fragua (La Jornada [Mexico City], July 22). A few weeks later, the Army discovered and destroyed a FARC military base and training center in the southeast of Colombia, weakening the logistical infrastructure of the group (Union Radio [Colombia], August 9). At the same time, the government has been able to strike at FARC’s international network by arresting one of the leaders of their International Committee, Jairo Alfonso Lesmes Bulla (a.k.a. Javier Calderón) – previously in charge of gathering financial and political support for the organization in South America (El Tiempo [Bogatá], August 10; El Informador [Guadalajara] August 9).
In the aftermath of these successful military operations, numerous voices within the Colombian government, as well as national and international commentators, started to openly discuss what they described as the ongoing decline of FARC and the gradual erosion of its military and political power. Colombian Minister of Defense Juan Manuel Santos stated that FARC was undergoing the worst crisis in its 44 years of existence, adding that the military power of the group currently amounts to only 7,000 men. The Minister also revealed that between January and June 2008, at least 1,500 insurgents had demobilized and abandoned the armed struggle, mostly due to the organization’s prolonged legitimacy crisis (El Tiempo, August 5).
This description of the current state of crisis of the FARC seems to be accurate, although only partially. The successful rescue of the hostages was indeed a substantial setback for the organization, as it diminished its power projection and compromised one of FARC’s most powerful political tools and means to pressure the government in Bogotá. Moreover, in the past few years, the organization has been suffering from a steady decline in both national and international support, while the leadership transition from Manuel Marulanda (a.k.a. Tirofijo, who died from a heart attack last March) to new leader Alfonso Cano has resulted in internal divisions and a general loss of cohesion, additionally weakening the armed group.
However, despite the reality of the ongoing crisis, it would be premature to infer that the organization has lost its will or capacity to fight. On July 31, Ivan Marquez, one of the leaders of the group, released an interview declaring that the guerrillas would continue their armed struggle against the government (VOA, July 31). Moreover, the group seems to be undergoing a series of strategic readjustments to cope with the recent blows. On the one hand, government sources recently reported that FARC is currently redeploying its elite troops in the border areas of Colombia, giving them the opportunity to regroup and rearm (Union Radio, July 30) On the other hand, FARC has recently decided to multiply its offensive efforts and to escalate its military operations.
On August 5 the organization struck back against the Bogotá government when they blew up a helicopter of the Colombian Air Force as it landed, causing the death of three military personnel (El Financiero [Mexico City], August 5; AFP, August 6). A few days later, on August 10, at least eight people were wounded after a bomb exploded in Bogotá, at the Districarnes factory (El Tiempo, August 10). According to the Chief of the Metropolitan Police of Bogotá, Rodolfo Palomino, FARC attacked the industry in an effort to extort money (EuropaPress [Madrid], August 10).
In the first week of August, a twelve-month-long police operation led to the arrest of five FARC militants residing in Bogotá. The insurgents were caught with 85 kg of explosives, two vehicles that had been prepared to serve as car-bombs, as well as specific plans to conduct future attacks in the capital (AFP, August 8). The five detained members of FARC belonged to the “Teófilo Forero” cell and were planning a series of attacks that were supposed to take place during the national “Battle of Boyaca” national holiday on August 7 (El Universal [Mexico City], August 8; La Jornada, August 6). According to government sources, FARC was planning an attack against former Interior and Justice Minister Fernando Londoño Hoyos, as well as against the brother of Vice President Francisco Santos (El Universal, August 8). Arrested leader Javier Calderon was allegedly planning to conduct car-bombs attacks against Television Channel RCN and against military installations within the capital (El Tiempo, August 10; La Jornada, Mexico, August 6). Intelligence reports also disclosed that FARC leader Orlando Henao Cardona (a.k.a. Alberto), along with 13 insurgents, was planning to attack Colombian President Alvaro Uribe (El Tiempo, August 10).
These recent episodes constitute evidence that FARC activities in the aftermath of Operation Jaque have been particularly intense. Indeed, this seems a strategic move by the organization to demonstrate its resilience and will to continue the armed struggle. Although the ongoing military and political crisis of FARC and the increased effectiveness of the government in combating the organization provide some ground for optimism, the battle against the guerrillas is not yet won.