Early on June 14, the FARC attacked again, this time near the village of Puerto Rico in the Colombian department of Caquetá. Puerto Rico is very close to San Vicente del Caguán—one of the five municipalities that were demilitarized by President Pastrana in 1998 under peace talks with the FARC. Caquetá, a region of vast plains, located several hundred miles south of Bogotá, has been a FARC stronghold since the late 1960s. The FARC prospered there over four decades, under the cover of the jungle, and exploiting the lucrative business of cocaine that flourished in the region. Nonetheless, these types of guerrilla attacks had almost been eradicated during the administration of Álvaro Uribe. He had listed the FARC structures in Caquetá as main targets in his counteroffensive.
In principle, this single attack on June 14 would not justify wondering whether the FARC have successfully reactivated. But the FARC had executed more than five attacks in the past week alone, including the kidnapping of a number of Chinese oil workers in Caquetá and the virtual siege of the village of Caloto, in the department of Cauca. More attacks to police headquarters have taken place in villages of Cauca such as Argelia and Morales. Three weeks ago, in the coastal region of Chocó, the FARC kept a number of civilians under hostage for two days.
In the past seven years, after Uribe’s military offensive began to show results, guerrilla attacks occurred seldom; whenever they happened, reaction by the military was quick and effective. But reaction by the current government under Juan Manuel Santos has been slow, confusing, and often politically charged. For example, some observers perceive the minister of defense, Rodrigo Rivera, as being more concerned with image matters than actual results. Rivera has often downplayed the magnitude and the seriousness of the FARC facts.
Is the FARC undergoing a successful reactivation process? At this point, two things can be asserted. First, the FARC has decided to circle back to a guerilla-warfare model. Second, it has carefully chosen several areas of the country where such model can have a greater efficacy. Caquetá and Cauca are clearly two of them.
The case of Cauca is particularly interesting. A mountainous and difficult region, most of its areas are isolated from important population centers. Topography allows the FARC to develop typical insurgency strategies, acting in small groups, striking, and then seeking cover in the mountains. Military action is not as effective in such landscape as in the eastern plains of the country, where large units of the army can be deployed and air power can be used with little restrictions. In Cauca, the weather and topography contribute to reducing the value of air power. These mountains are well-known to the most veteran FARC commanders, who have been wandering about the region since the late 60s. Now in Caquetá, conditions are somewhat similar, except it is not a very mountainous region. Its forests offer good cover, but experience has shown that military action tends to be effective in such terrain. In Caquetá, FARC’s greatest advantage might be the degree of social control that it had attained before 2002: a great deal of it, we must keep in mind, arises from its participation in the drug business.
FARC’s change in strategy has coincided with changes in the government’s own approach to the problem. In the Uribe era, the President himself was the commander-in-chief of the military offensive. He considered the defeat of the FARC to be his number one priority. Uribe maintained close control of military operations, and he would personally insist on reacting quickly to guerilla actions to the point that, in more than one occasion, he would take his cell phone to conduct a given operation. His knowledge of the geography and the topography of the country was a crucial factor in this. President Santos seems to have a different set of priorities, and, according to several sources, leadership over the military is not as strong, quick and effective as it used to be.
This could spell political trouble for Santos. If Colombians start associating gains in security with the name of Álvaro Uribe, and the loss of it with the name of Juan Manuel Santos, approval ratings could start to diminish. The words of an anonymous woman, an inhabitant of the Caquetá town of Puerto Rico, underscore this sentiment. She claimed over radio on the morning of June 14 that such FARC attacks happened much less under Uribe; when Uribe was president and there was a guerrilla strike, helicopters and airplanes would arrive almost instantly. She continued: “It’s already been an hour and a half, and there have been no helicopters or airplanes.”