Colombia: A General Too Far


November 29, 2014: FARC quickly realized they had made a mistake when some of their men captured an army general on the 16h, who they now promise to release tomorrow. Some FARC leaders thought the general could be used to obtain the freedom of imprisoned senior FARC leaders. Other FARC leaders warned that the army would reject this demand and redouble efforts to find and free the general (dead or alive) and punish his captors. This proved to be the correct assessment and the government also threatened to end the peace talks if the general was not set free. The army has been winning its war with FARC for over a decade and the FARC agreed to peace talks in the first place because it was a viable alternative to eventually being destroyed by the army efforts. The government was better aware of the true situation than some FARC leaders, who (most of them) quickly realized their error as the army began a very efficient and thorough search for the general. Now the FARC wants to be able to free the general before the army can locate and free the prisoner themselves. This requires coordinating with the Red Cross, who acts as the intermediary during FARC prisoner releases. This takes time. Letting the general go will also decrease the additional pressure on FARC forces in the northwest. While this area has been a major operation for the army, it was now receiving reinforcements to help in finding the general. In particular this means more aircraft (to search and bomb) and more special operations troops. Normally the aircraft and special operations troops move around as needed. Now they are all needed in the northwest and the FARC commanders in the northwest do not like this additional attention. If nothing else, it increases the risk of FARC leaders being killed or captured. The government has long put a priority on freeing civilians, police and soldiers held by FARC and the security forces and the population at large support these efforts enthusiastically. The kidnapping of the general increased the enthusiasm and the FARC forces in the northwest noticed that quickly. 

Getting captured was the fault of the general, who had gotten into the habit of travelling inconspicuously in civilian clothes with only one or two armed aides. He had been advised not to do this but believed it reassured civilians who were tired from decades of FARC violence and just getting used to the return of government control in many rural areas.

FARC is believed to currently have about 8,000 armed members while the smaller ELN has about 2,000. Despite all the drug income, ransoms and proceeds from other criminal activities FARC continues to loss personnel and territory. FARC has been at it since the 1960s and most of the older FARC members have lost hope in being able to eventually retire in the socialist paradise FARC has long promised. Instead they note that most of the guys they were with when they joined FARC years (or decades) ago are now dead, in prison or deserted. Thus the government has already won a psychological victory and even a majority of FARC members want a peace deal. But a large (over ten percent) of FARC members are not so sure a peace deal is possible or advisable.

Even after the general is freed and peace talks resume the government is not sure they will be able to resolve the last two items (amnesty and demobilization of armed FARC men) with FARC. The government has said this has to get done in 2015 or else the talks will be abandoned and Colombia will seek a military solution. A minority of FARC is opposed to the peace talks to begin with and most senior FARC leaders are concerned about the amnesty. Popular opinion in Colombia demands that FARC men pay for their most outrageous crimes (especially murder) but that would mean prosecuting hundreds of FARC men, including many of the leaders.

Meanwhile most of the country is at peace. Kidnappings, once a nationwide curse, are down 90 percent since 2000 and now occur mostly in contested areas, which numerous security forces checkpoints warn travelers about. FARC and other leftist rebels and drug gangs are still active in about 30 percent of Colombia, but these are all rural areas and this territory is shrinking every month. For example, attacks on the oil pipelines in the northeast are down by a third compared to last year. The economy has been booming for over a decade and is now the most robust in Latin America.

In 2011 the government agreed to a deal whereby some two million hectares (5 million acres) of land stolen (through fraud, intimidation or outright theft) over the last two decades would be returned, along with buildings and other property, to some 430,000 families. But many of those who stole the land were willing to use lots of lawyers and hired guns to avoid giving back what they took by force (or bought from those who did). This plan got a lot of land claimants killed out in the still lawless rural areas. The delays in the restitution program are becoming a growing problem and the government is under increasing pressure to do something about it.

Nothing has changed next door in Venezuela except that the economic situation is getting worse. Thus it now coast 150 Bolivars (the local currency) to buy a dollar on the black market. That more than three times what the government allows and this is forcing the government to legalize the currency black market. The local currency is becoming worthless and more Venezuelans risk jail by using foreign (preferably American) currency. What is really killing the socialist government, aside from their own inability to manage the economy, is the continuing decline in the price of oil. The government is still dominated by socialist true-believers who are willing to risk an armed uprising in pursuit of their efforts to make their economic theories work. Outsiders are blamed for all the economic problems but a growing number of government supporters know otherwise and are switching to the opposition. This is not going to end well.

November 27, 2014: FARC delayed the release of the recently captured army general from the 29th to the 30th. FARC also demanded that the army halt operations in the northwest so arrangements can be made with the Red Cross to free the general. But the army has basically received permission to try and free the general themselves unless FARC releases the general first. FARC does not like this but popular opinion is against them so all they can do is churn out more demands via press release while scrambling to free the general in as dignified manner as possible before the angry army forces do it. Technically the army had agreed to reduce operations in the northwest to facilitate the release of the general but in practice the army is energetically searching for the general and killing or capturing any FARC men they encounter while doing that.

November 25, 2014: FARC released two soldiers they had captured (on the 9th) as part of its effort to reduce the army pressure on FARC in the northwest.

November 22, 2014: Off the Pacific coast (Gorgona island) FARC attacked a police base killing one policeman and wounding four others.

November 21, 2014: FARC agreed to release the general they captured on the 16th and do it by the 29th.

November 18, 2014: FARC admitted that their forces had captured an army general in the northwest and asked the government to reconsider the suspension of peace talks. The government refused and demanded the release of the general or else things would get a lot worse for FARC.

November 17, 2014: The government has suspended the peace talks with FARC until the kidnapped general and his two aides were set free.

November 16, 2014: In the northwest (Choco) FARC captured the army general commanding forces in the area, along with two soldiers. The general was on his way to inspect a civilian aid project. The government immediately demanded that FARC release the three captives or the peace talks would be suspended until the army could find and release the general by force. This is the highest ranking officer ever captured by FARC. 

November 5, 2014:  In the southwest FARC men killed two members of an Indian tribe who protested the handing out of propaganda leaflets. The tribe responded by hunting down, capturing and punishing the seven FARC men responsible. At least 40 Indians have been killed in this area in the last year and increasingly the tribes are fighting back.





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