Colombia: Road Rage


April 12, 2014: While peace talks with FARC seem likely to produce a final deal in about a year, some factions will resist and the government is already fighting one of these factions in and around the southeastern port town of Tumaco. This area, near the Ecuador border, is one of the largest remaining cocaine production centers. Here FARC and their drug gang allies are fighting hard to keep things going here. The government already has over 2,000 soldiers inside the city and more are on the way until the three gangs (one of them a FARC faction) are destroyed or flee the area. The government also expects a large minority of demobilized FARC fighters to return to crime. That’s what happened when 30,000 anti-leftist militias agreed to disband in 2006. The government studied that development intently and has a number of new ideas to avoid the recidivism. 

Meanwhile next door the meltdown continues and the chaos increases. Venezuela is having more success in suppressing popular dissent than it is in coping with surging crime rates and a collapsing economy. For over a decade the leftist government has maintained a democracy and its own power by spending oil income to gain votes and essential support. The senior people have become rich via corruption and the poorest have seen their standards of living improve. The government also made lots of promises that have not been followed through with and apparently never will be. To get as far as it did the government eventually had to cut funds needed to maintain the infrastructure. Not just roads and utilities (electricity, sewage, water) but the oil industry as well. Diverting the oil industry maintenance funds over the last decade caused oil production to eventually (like now) decline. The government is also running low on credit because foreign lenders can do the math and note that Venezuelan oil production will keep declining unless money is put into repairs and development. So while the Cuban advisors have, because of long experience in preventing popular dissatisfaction over widespread poverty and lack of freedom (and economic opportunity) from escalating into rebellion, kept the opposition quiet, they have not been able to do anything for the crime. That’s because the government has not been able to build the kind of police state system Cuba created in the late 1950s and early 60s. That’s because Cuba created its’ when there were no cell phones and no Internet. Cuba also had a lot of cash and assets to work with initially. In the 1950s Cuba had one of the largest economies in the Caribbean. But once the communist rebels took over in 1959 the economy began falling apart. Russian advisors shared their wisdom on how to set up and operate an effective police state and that was largely possible because that involved forcing the entrepreneurs out of the country and killing or imprisoning pro-democracy Cubans before they could get organized. Before cell phones and the Internet that was a lot easier. Also back in the late 1950s the communist police state had a lot more supporters and many believed it was a viable form of government. The eventually changed, especially in 1989-91 when communist states (including the Soviet Union) basically disappeared from Europe

The Cubans tried to adapt their system for Venezuela, but Cuba had Russia providing large annual subsidies until 1991 and Venezuela has no such patron. Venezuela has the oil, but that is declining and was always insufficient to prop up a socialist dictatorship. Economic and political collapse are unavoidable. That’s because while the Soviet Union eventually failed because of economic issues, the communist bureaucrats did create a police state system that kept quiet Russians unhappy with this situation. One of the key elements of control was exploitation of the fact that the state controlled all jobs and any actual or suspected disobedience would result in unemployment, prison camp or death. The government could jail anyone for any reason at any time. The only ones getting rich in such a system were the government officials who controlled the jobs and security forces. This is how it works in Cuba and where it’s going in Venezuela, except for the fact the Venezuelan government hasn’t got the secret police and tight control of society Cuba does, which enabled Cuba to keep the crime rate low (and prison camps full) and the ability to control the economic crash that arrived in the 1990s as the Russian subsidies disappeared. Cuba had to adopt a market economy and did what China did; allow a free market but still maintain a communist police state. In Venezuela the problem is that no one is taking care of the economy, which continues to degrade until it collapses completely. That’s where the Soviet Union ended up and where Venezuela is headed. The government is keeping people in line by threatening the growing number of Venezuelans with government jobs with loss of those jobs if they misbehave. The entrepreneurs and middle class are doing most of the demonstrating although more and more are simply leaving. The Cuban advisors point that this works for the government, at least as far as maintaining a police state goes. The Cubans are less willing to discuss what this did to the economy in Cuba. The anti-government demonstrations in Venezuela this year have left at least 41 dead, over 600 wounded and more than 2,000 arrested. The government recently agreed to talks with the opposition (who want some economic freedom, and fair elections, back) but nothing has changed yet and the government remains determined to “build socialism” no matter what the cost.

April 10, 2014: Police, acting on a tip, seized seven tons of cocaine headed for Europe. This was the largest seizure since 2005 (when 15 tons was taken in one raid). This one seizure represents about three percent of annual production in Colombia (Peru is now the world leader in cocaine production) and is costing the cocaine producers over $40 million. That’s a big financial hit but not a fatal one. Cocaine users in Europe will have to pay more for their nose candy over the next few months. So far this year 25 tons of cocaine has been seized, which is one of the reasons so much of the production is switching to Peru.

April 9, 2014: In the north (near the Venezuelan border) FARC and ELN blew six holes in an oil pipeline over the last eight days.  So far this year this pipeline (which normally carries 80,000 barrels a day to the coast) has been hit nine times and security forces have found and disabled 58 bombs. But there has been so much effort to damage the pipeline that despite all the police and army activity some damage gets done. All this anti-pipeline activity is largely because the pipeline is so close to the Venezuelan border and in a thinly populated rural area. The leftist rebels can maintain camps in Venezuela (that Colombia cannot go after) and cross the border to raise money. If you behave over there pay enough bribes the Venezuelan army and police will leave the camps alone. For ideological reasons attacking economic targets (to “bankrupt the government and trigger a popular uprising”) is popular with FARC and ELN, plus there’s always the chance the oil company managers might agree to risk prosecution and quietly agree to extortion payments. That would halt the attacks and help keep the local FARC and ELN units alive. But the government is really strict about preventing these extortion payments and that is one of the reasons FARC has negotiated a peace deal and the ELN is moving in that direction. Both groups note that despite their best efforts to disrupt the economy, Colombia now has the fastest growing economy in South America, surpassing even Argentina. 

April 4, 2014: In the west (Jambalo) two policemen were killed when their patrol was ambushed by FARC gunmen.

In the southwest (Tumaco) a major battle with FARC gunmen left six of the rebels dead and eight captured.  

April 2, 2014: In the southwest (Mondomo) FARC blew up a ten meter (33 foot) section of the Pan-American Highway. This is a major road link between the southwest and the rest of the country and some 6,000 vehicles a day depend on this road because there are no alternatives in this remote area.

April 1, 2014:  In Cuba the 22nd session of the peace talks between FARC and Colombia ended with a lot of progress on how to deal with the drug trade. FARC wants legalized production of coca leaf (for cocaine), opium poppies (for heroin) and marijuana as a way to deal with the drug problem. Many in the government are sympathetic to this but realize that the U.S. and European countries that are on the receiving end of these powerful narcotics are not. The legalization of drugs proposal was set aside despite the fact that FARC is desperate to maintain its income. Once the peace deal is done the government expects FARC to exit all its criminal activities (drugs, extortion, theft and kidnapping.) That will mean FARC will lose most of its personnel, as many members are mainly in it for the money.  But if some of FARC’s drug operations are legalized, the leftist group will be much better off. The government is offering alternative economic opportunities.

March 29, 2014: In the northern port of Santa Marta police seized a two ton shipment of cocaine which was headed for the U.S. via Central America.

March 27, 2014:  In the southwest (Cauca) a local FARC leader was killed. This may have caused the destruction of part of the Pan-American Highway a week later. An increasing number of FARC attacks are later found to have been triggered by a desire for revenge. FARC has been taking a beating for years and many of the FARC leaders killed were popular with many of their subordinates. So revenge has become more of a factor as have efforts to get jailed leaders freed (via prisoner exchanges usually and so far without success).

In central Colombia (Meta) another FARC leader was captured.

March 22, 2014: In the northwest (Medellin) a bomb went off outside a drug treatment center and homeless shelter, killing four people and wounding 14 (including six police guards). The attack was blamed on drug gangs who felt the drug treatment effort was bad for business. 




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close