BOGOTA, Colombia – The sensational rescue of 15 hostages from the grip of Latin America’s largest rebel group has highlighted the severely diminished state of an organization that just six years ago threatened to overrun the Colombian government.
Once fueled by Marxist ideology and awash in narcotics profits, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, now finds itself facing a more robust Colombian military led by a popular president. The group has suffered the deaths of top leaders, seen large-scale defections of supporters, and is being squeezed for the money it needs to sustain its operations.
Now the FARC has lost its trophy hostages: ex-presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and three U.S. defense contractors whom the rebels viewed as human shields against all-out government attacks. The nature of the rescue mission – in which government agents posed as rebels and freed the hostages without firing a shot – was widely seen as a deep humiliation and public relations disaster for the FARC.
Security officials caution that the rebel group retains some sting. The number of militants has dropped by about half in the past decade, but it still has about 10,000 armed guerrillas spread from the Caribbean to the isthmus of Panama. And it continues to hold 700 hostages, bargaining chips that preclude a quick end to the group’s 44-year-long insurgency.
But President Alvaro Uribe’s strategy of aggressively taking the fight to the FARC, backed by a $5 billion U.S. aid package, appears to have seriously degraded the rebels’ ability to challenge the state.
Uribe took office in 2002 at a time when the Colombian capital was virtually encircled by FARC forces. A missile and mortar attack marred his inauguration.
Since then he has bolstered the number of government troops by 40 percent while greatly improving surveillance abilities. Colombian troops have disrupted logistics and killed or captured numerous key FARC lieutenants, leaving guerrillas beleaguered and demoralized.
“Every time we looked up, there was the army,” Nelly Avila Moreno, a renowned guerrilla leader and 24-year FARC veteran known as Karina, told interrogators after surrendering in May. “We were totally besieged.”
The FARC has also seen a drastic decline in support among average Colombians, even with its traditional bastions of peasants and leftists. The FARC no longer controls any significant towns and has been reduced to a series of bands operating in isolated redoubts with fragmented central command, according to intelligence officials. They contend that recruitment is down and that tensions with civilians have risen as the FARC is seeking younger recruits – some as young as 13 – while forcing urban sympathizers to join rural combat units.
Defectors also say that midlevel commanders live in fear of being turned in by fighters for hefty ransoms offered by the Colombian government. In one notorious case this year, a guerrilla killed his superior in return for a government payout, providing authorities with the slain leader’s bloody hand as proof of his treachery.
The group’s cash-flow woes seem to be a paradox considering its revenues from Colombia’s booming cocaine trade, which the FARC long ago embraced along with kidnapping as means to finance its war. But a crackdown on exchange houses used by the group to launder money has sapped available cash, according to a U.S. intelligence source.
In some cases, the FARC has been reduced to using chits instead of cash to pay cultivators of the coca leaf, the principal ingredient in cocaine, said a Colombian intelligence officer.