Colombia: War by Statistics

About time I blogged about Colombia. It’s a place we cover quite often in Tribune. And it was in the papers recently:

“The legendary leader of Colombia’s biggest guerrilla group has died, delivering a devastating blow to the insurgency. Manuel “Sureshot” Marulanda, the founder and commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), died of a heart attack on March 26, the rebel group confirmed yesterday.” (The Guardian, Monday 26 May)

Such reports might lead readers to believe that the death of this man – who has been commander-in-chief of the Marxist guerilla army for decades (they formed in 1964) – has effectively decapitated the guerillas, and left them vulnerable. The BBC said his death “cast doubts” over the group’s future. Not so.

If the FARC are seriously weakened, it’s not because of Marulanda’s death. It may not even be by the demobilisations which are a linchpin of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe’s policy.

Marulanda has apparently been dead for two months, but the FARC have not gone ungoverned. Like any good Marxist organisation, they are run by committee: a central high command, with a secretariat of about seven people, has the supreme authority. One of its number, Alfonso Cano, is now commander-in-chief. Not much is known about him, expect that he has not held major military office within FARC. Marulanda himself was ill for a while, and how much power he exercised in his dying days we cannot say.

And how do we know FARC’s future is in jeopardy? Part of the reason is the government’s demobilisation policy. But some observers, notably pressure group Justice for Colombia (who are no great fans, it must be said, of the government) say their figures don’t add up. The Colombian Ministry of Defence claims that 7,849 FARC demobilised between 2003 (a year after Uribe came to power) and 2007. The government is also supposed to have demobilised  [page in Spanish] over 30,000 of the right-wing paramilitaries who are sworn enemies of the FARC. But JFC say that there were never that many paramilitaries to begin with. They put the figure in the order of 10,000.

Meanwhile, the FARC, while having a fairly standard-looking command structure, is split into seven blocs spread across the country, and further split into fronts. (Details here). Even if one bloc were annihilated (hard to do in the jungle) it would not necessarily precipiatate the fall of the rest.

That’s not to say FARC haven’t suffered setbacks. The assassination of Raul Reyes, one of Marulanda’s right-hand men and his chief negotiator, was certainly a blow. But it seems unwise to write off this tenacious guerilla army just yet. They’ve lasted 44 years and – for now – have guaranteed income from the drugs trade. The war against them is heavily financed by the US, to the disquiet of some on Capitol Hill. With a US election on its way, the FARC may be hoping they can sit it out.


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One Response to “Colombia: War by Statistics”

  1. Oli Says:

    What do you make of Chávez’s apparent support of the FARC? Is it just realpolitik, a way of destabilising a strong and ideologically hostile neighbour (and by extension, a way of hurting the US), or is it real support of the FARC’s objectives?

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