June 20, 2013: The peace negotiations with FARC continue in Cuba. The talks have been going on for six months and progress is slow. Implementing the agreements, especially those regarding land disputes in rural areas, will be difficult. That’s because, although FARC has about 8,000 armed men, there are hundreds of other armed groups operating in the country side, containing several times the number of gunmen FARC commands. These armed groups are an old Colombian custom that has proved very difficult to eliminate. The gunmen work for criminal gangs, businesses (or groups of businesses), or local politicians (who often combine legitimate business and criminal behavior). Unlike many countries, Colombia has rarely enjoyed periods when the government provided effective security and courts. If negotiations between the interested groups could not settle a dispute, the guns came out and often innocent bystanders were victims of the ensuring violence. Unless the government can provide fair and effective policing and equally fair and efficient courts for settling disputes, the private militias will remain an obstacle to many decisions the government makes. On the subject of land reform, FARC is asking the government to finally resolve the aftereffects of generations of land grabs by groups with private armies. Many large rural land owners now hold this land and use lawyers, gunmen, and dependent politicians to resist attempts to return any of it to the people it was originally stolen from. The private armies are part of a larger criminal economy that has long been a major part of Colombian life. Still fueled by the cocaine trade, the gangs also rely on smuggling and more mundane crime (theft, extortion, and whatever they can get away with). This criminal activity accounts for some ten percent of GDP.
The peace negotiations are now concentrating on FARC demands for political changes and they are asking that the scheduled 2014 elections be put on hold until these issues are resolved. The government is not willing to delay the elections, which would be very unpopular with the voters.
June 15, 2013: Police rescued two Spanish tourists who had been kidnapped for ransom in May. In Spain police arrested a Syrian and a Spaniard who were trying to collect the ransom. The kidnappers were believed to be a criminal gang, not FARC. Kidnapping used to be big business in Colombia, but over the last decade the police were reformed and reorganized to effectively deal with this crime and the incidence of kidnapping has been reduced by over 90 percent.
June 10, 2013: Venezuela arrested nine Colombian gangsters and accused them of being part of a plot to assassinate recently elected president Nicolas Maduro. There is a lingering dispute in Venezuela over that presidential election, which was unmonitored and supervised by officials loyal to Maduro and his recently deceased patron Hugo Chavez (who Maduro succeeds as president). In response to the ballot rigging accusations, the government has avoided dealing with the charges and instead accuses Colombia of plotting to assassinate and install his rival (Henrique Capriles) who lost the close presidential election. Meanwhile, the Chavez efforts to run a centrally planned economy have backfired badly, causing rising unemployment, inflation, shortages, and crime rates. The growing number of shortages include food (especially staples), many consumer items, and even a recent major national shortage of toilet paper. Venezuela now leads the world in murders and kidnappings. The government blames this on conspiracies hatched by the United States and its puppet government in Colombia. It’s all bizarre and tragic at the same time.
June 7, 2013: In the southwest troops and warplanes fought 20-30 FARC gunmen and captured their hidden rural base, seizing a large quantity of weapons and ammo. Two rebels and one soldier were killed in several hours of fighting, in which the rebels were forced to flee without most of their gear.
June 4, 2013: In the south (Caqueta) FARC ambushed a convoy transporting prisoners, including FARC members. Four prison guards were killed and some prisoners injured but the attackers failed to free anyone.
June 3, 2013: In the south near the borders of Ecuador and Peru, a clash with FARC left four rebels dead. Five people were arrested. Over the weekend a dozen FARC men were killed in several operations in the south.
May 29, 2013: Police seized 1.4 tons of cocaine as it was about to be moved to the Pacific coast port of Buenaventura (halfway between Ecuador and Panama), and thence by sea to Guatemala where it would move overland into Mexico and the United States. This shipment was worth about $30 million at retail in the United States but less than $5 million to the drug gangs that had produced and packaged it. For the drug gangs, losing this shipment is simply a cost of doing business. Buenaventura is a crime-ridden port that has long been dominated by criminals in general and drug gangs in particular.