FARC is on the run -- for now (Colombia)

The FARC has deployed land mines and trained dozens of snipers to keep large enemy formations at bay until its fighters can withdraw.


A massive Colombian military offensive has pushed leftist guerrillas out of their strongholds, but it's not clear if the soldiers can hold their new positions in the long run. FARC has deployed more land mines and trained dozens of snipers to keep large enemy formations at bay until its fighters can withdraw, and launched attacks outside the southeast to force the security forces to react and stretch their resources.

This isolated village was an icon of the FARC guerrillas' power since 1998, when they wiped out a government outpost, killed 68 soldiers and police, wounded 87 and captured up to 40 others in the worst-ever defeat of Colombian security forces.

But today, police and soldiers have a base here again and an army brigade has been pushing the FARC farther from the village and deeper into the jungle, seizing hundreds of weapons, overrunning rebel camps and claiming to have cut the rebels' strength in the area from 600 to 350 fighters.

''We're attacking them once a week,'' said Col. Jorge Rodríguez, commander of the army's 10th Mobile Brigade, part of an unprecedented military offensive dubbed Plan Patriot and designed to reestablish government control over huge parts of southeastern Colombia that the FARC had ruled for years.

The results, on the surface, seem positive for the government and the $3 billion in U.S. aid it received to fight drug traffickers and guerrillas like the FARC -- the Spanish acronym for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.


Increasing numbers of rebels are surrendering or being killed. For the first time in the war's 40-plus-year history, top FARC leaders have been killed or captured. And the FARC's ranks have shrunk by some accounts from 17,000 to 15,000 since 2001.

Two other illegal groups meanwhile have agreed to peace talks -- the notoriously brutal United Self Defenses of Colombia, or AUC, which has already demobilized more than 10,000 fighters; and more recently the leftist National Liberation Army, or ELN.

And it's not just the fighting that has eased. Kidnappings -- a key FARC source of income -- and murders are way down, and daily life throughout much of Colombia seems calmer than it has in years.

But doubts remain. The FARC, the oldest guerrilla force in Latin America, has responded to the military offensive with counterattacks that have killed more than 350 soldiers and police so far this year -- on pace for a record.

Other FARC units are avoiding combat and apparently waiting for the exit of President Alvaro Uribe, a hard-liner who ordered the Patriot offensive early last year. Polls favor him to win reelection next year -- if the courts approve a recent constitutional amendment allowing reelection.

And the military may find it difficult to maintain the costly offensive, with Uribe having already raised taxes and Washington increasingly preoccupied with the costs of the war in Iraq and the reconstruction after Hurricane Katrina. The U.S. Congress is considering a proposal to give Colombia another $700 million in the coming fiscal year.


But in places like Miraflores, a village of mud and clay block homes 270 miles southeast of Bogotá where the FARC ruled unfettered for decades, the Patriot offensive has clearly notched good results for the government.

More than a quick strike, the offensive was designed as a methodical effort to squeeze the guerrillas away from their home bases in southeastern Colombia and toward difficult jungle terrain -- an ambitious task for government security forces that at the end of 1998 seemed on the verge of collapsing under a steady stream of FARC attacks.

''Plan Patriota represents shifting of initiative from terrorists to the government.'' U.S. Ambassador William Wood told The Herald. ``We know, for instance, that the FARC, in its stronghold, cannot be confident on any given day where it's going to sleep that night.''


The government's success has been due in part to the huge increase in the strength of its security forces made possible by the U.S. aid -- from 278,800 soldiers and police in 2002 to 363,600 this year; the deployment of a new fleet of U.S.-paid for helicopters; the use of more efficient joint-task forces of ground, air and maritime forces; and the real-time intelligence often provided by the U.S. government to surprise the rebels.

Beginning last year, the military sent 17,000 troops to the southeast for a virtually permanent deployment, overran dozens of FARC camps and reportedly killed hundreds in air bombings and ground attacks.

In the early days of the campaign, government forces killed several mid-level FARC commanders near Bogotá, and have since captured higher-ranking leaders like Ricardo Palmera, aka Simón Trinidad, and Nayide Rojas, aka Sonia, both later extradited to the United States to face terrorism and drug charges. Authorities also have arrested dozens of alleged FARC couriers, drivers and money handlers.

Army officials claim that the military pressure also forced the FARC to change tactics -- moving in small groups of 10 or 12, instead of 50 or 60, as they did only four years ago. And these changes favor the military, they argue.

''The FARC's way of doing business has been changed by the dynamic of the military,'' said Navy Capt. Ed Turner, deputy chief of current operations at the U.S. Southern Command in Miami.

The military also has focused on draining the FARC of its resources, which mostly revolve around the illegal drug trade.


Police have sprayed plant-killing chemicals on coca crops, once a staple of the Miraflores area, and burned cocaine refineries. The FARC regularly extort protection payments from growers and traffickers and, the government alleges, often traffics some of the drug.

''We are constantly changing our tactics,'' said Lt. Col. Francisco Javier Cruz, commander of an army battalion ordered to attack FARC guerrilla strongholds along the nearby Colombian border with Ecuador. "Because the guerrillas are constantly changing theirs.''

Army officers in the Miraflores area also claim their operations have cut rebel funding and supply lines that once allowed them to buy weapons, ammunition, food, gasoline and other supplies.

''I won't say they don't have money, but they have less of it,'' said Rodríguez in a boast touted by the military in several large areas once controlled by the FARC.

Equally important is the sense of calm that has returned to the country's major population centers and highways since the military campaign began. Bogotá, a city virtually ringed by FARC fighters in 2002 in an attempt to choke it off, is pumping with economic activity again; cars flow toward weekend retreats along highways once virtually abandoned out of fear of rebel attacks and kidnappings.

''People here say there's a guerrilla war,'' said armed forces chief Gen. Carlos Ospina. ''That's not true. What we have here is a prolonged war that tries to move from guerrilla warfare . . . toward a [conventional] war of positions.'' But the military operations, he added, ``have lowered them down to a guerrilla war.''

Still, maintaining the security forces' control of the newly occupied areas could prove difficult.

Southeastern Colombia is about the size of Iraq, with challenging jungle terrain bereft of roads and airports.

''The army will have a hard time staying in this area,'' said Alfredo Rangel, a former security analyst for the Colombian military.

"The army can go in there and destroy this infrastructure, but staying there is another thing. The guerrillas are just waiting for them to leave.''

The FARC also has been using new tactics to counteract the government offensive.


It has deployed more land mines and trained dozens of snipers to keep large enemy formations at bay until its fighters can withdraw, and launched attacks outside the southeast to force the security forces to react and stretch their resources.

In July, its fighters raided an isolated army base in the southern Putumayo province town of Teteyé, killing 22 soldiers. And when the government tried to counterattack, the FARC ordered a province-wide ''armed strike'' -- a work and commerce strike enforced at gunpoint.

Military efforts to break through road barricades and protect food and gasoline deliveries and keep normal life going further dispersed the security forces.

''The guerrilla war is very difficult to decipher,'' Lt. Col. Cruz said.

The FARC fighters had been bombed for two days straight and their campsites had been overrun by army troops that were trying to outflank them, a handful of rebels told a Herald correspondent who found them at an abandoned farmhouse.

Yet ''the government can never defeat the FARC,'' said one rebel as he fiddled with one of several 81mm mortar shells near him.

"The more days and the more offensives they throw at us, the worse it is for the government because they realize that the guerrillas can deal with whatever comes their way.''

He and another rebel then headed toward a hilltop to launch the mortars and try to slow the army's march toward their position so that he and the rest of his unit could escape.

Von: 26 September 2005, http://www.miami.com, by STEVEN DUDLEY

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