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14 October 2010

FARC

Cocaine wrapped in small plastic bags, courtesy of Dulue Mbachu/flickr
Creative Commons - Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported Creative Commons - Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported

Plastic bags filled with cocaine

Mono Joyjoy's death does not mark the end of the FARC but a significant evolutionary step toward what the organization is becoming: a disconnected grouping of smaller organizations all focused on the drug trade.

By Samuel Logan for ISN

At the dramatic finale of "Operation Sodoma" on the 22 September, bombs rained down on a hardened camp near the Venezuelan border where Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) military commander Víctor Julio Suárez Rojas, aka Mono Joyjoy, died along with 26 of his soldiers. Pictures of Joyjoy's bloated, bloody face confirmed the passing of a man that many considered to be the driving force of terrorism within the FARC. His replacement has already been named, and the FARC will not soon dissolve; it will continue from Joyjoy's death down the the insurgency-turned-drug trafficking path its been on for many years. Under Colombian President Juan Santos' leadership, the FARC will continue to struggle to find a solid footing in an environment where the Colombian government holds most of the cards, and the FARC have little option but to stay on the move and hope the military doesn't find where they're sleeping.

Joyjoy was more than a military man with a history of tactical success. He was a member of the council of soldiers who together make the decisions that keep the FARC operating across Colombia and many pockets of the world as a cohesive unit. This secretariat, however, has had a hard time of late, losing members faster than FARC leadership is able to replace them. "Since March 2008, the FARC has lost four of its seven secretariat members, after having lost none in the previous 44 years," security expert Doug Farah commented in the wake of Joyjoy's death.

A relentless government offensive

Part of the driving force behind the Colombian government's constant offensive against the FARC is political. Upon entering office, former President Alvaro Uribe made hunting FARC leaders one of his administration's top priorities - with then-Defense Minister Santos at that policy's helm. Thus, the focused attention on killing or capturing FARC leadership was already in place when Santos assumed the presidency - there could not have been a more seamless transition from one executive to the next. This continuity and sharpened focus on hunting men such as Joyjoy, however, could not find success without another very important element: intelligence.

The files obtained from the destroyed camp in Ecuador where then FARC commander Raul Reyes was killed in 2008, opened a Pandora's box of information, leading the Colombian government to publicly bring to light embarrassing communication between the FARC and President Hugo Chavez's administration in Venezuela. The intelligence that was obtained but not publicly shared was more powerful yet. It undoubtedly facilitated a series of bombing raids, arrests and other FARC encampment attacks that unraveled parts of the organization, striking especially hard at the guerrilla's communications systems.

After the Reyes bombing, FARC commanders in the field often had to wait days before receiving their marching orders, delivered by runners, before they could make a move. For all its tactical insight, the intelligence haul from the Reyes bombing cannot be compared to what Colombian authorities found at Joyjoy's camp - a reported 15 computers, 94 USB memory sticks and 14 hard drives. Information on these devices will surely require close scrutiny before any public statements will be made, and while Chavez should be nervous about the information on those drives, the FARC's remaining leadership has more reason to worry.

"This is a tipping point," the Colombian president said while visiting the military camp at La Macarena in La Meta department and surrounded by the men who carried out the successful operation against the FARC's supreme military commander.

"This successful operation against Mono Joyjoy is a tipping point, where with a good margin of confidence we can say that [this] is the beginning of the end of the FARC," Santos said.

Momentum on the uptick

Already, Santos has ordered more bombings. It remains unclear if the latest round of attacks was planned before the Joyjoy bombing, or if they are the result of intelligence haul from his camps, but the impact is the same: Santos has the FARC on the run.

In the latest round of bombings, the Colombian military focused on FARC encampments located less than a kilometer from the Colombia-Panama border, near the infamous Darien Gap. The focus this time was the FARC's 57th front, considered to be a financial hub for the organization. The bombing raid that concluded Operation Darien on 2 October was targeted to coincide with a meeting between three men, known as 'Silver', 'Ignacio' and 'Nader', who were all considered high value targets for their work supporting the FARC's financial flows.

So far, Colombian press has reported on the death of Silver, and Defense Minister Rodrigo Rivera did not hesitate to count Silver's death as a success. He compared it with the deaths of two other FARC commanders, Edgar Tovar of the 48th front and Negro Acacio of the 16th front, both known for their work in the FARC's significant drug trafficking businesses.

Meanwhile, across the country in Arauca department near the Venezuelan border, a surprise military offensive led to the death of Hugo Hernandez, who reportedly handled extortion payments made to the 45th, 38th and 56th FARC fronts. His death, according to Brigadier General Rafeal Alberto Niera Wiesner, commander of the 18th Military Brigade will reduce the "financial capacity of the 45th FARC front."

In less than 10 days, a quick succession of three attacks against FARC positions across the country has given the Santos administration a confidence and momentum that it will use - together with the intelligence haul - to hit the FARC harder and faster than it can respond and retreat. This offensive posture is also psychological, impacting the FARC rank and file.

In 2009, the FARC lost 2,128 soldiers to desertion, according to EFE, and from January to October 2010, 1,924 soldiers have deserted, bringing the total to 4,052 in just under two years. As military offensives continue to bring the Santos administration success, this desertion number will certainly continue to grow.

With desertions a constant bleed on the rank and file, and bombing raids a very real nightmare for FARC commanders, Santos stands on solid footing when he claims that October 2010 is the beginning of the end of the FARC.

But many made the same claim in 2008, when the Uribe administration killed Reyes. It was clear at the time that the FARC's revolution was over, though the organization has remained remarkably resilient, as it has continued to scale down in size and operational footprint while maintaining a surprising amount of relevancy in the international drug trade as Colombia's top cocaine exporter in 2009.

The FARC's number two in command, Joyjoy is dead. FARC supreme commander Alfonso Cano most certainly remains a target of interest, and he has few cards to play. With or without Cano, however, the FARC long ago set its path down a road where the guerrilla organization will do what it does best: keep a low profile and produce cocaine for export. Surprise bomb attacks and the occasional offensive on remote villages will continue, though at a reduced pace.

Santos refers to the beginning of the end of the FARC as a cohesive organization, and that may be true, but a sudden collapse of the organization will not happen. It will be a slow, steady decline - one that sees the FARC as a less relevant national security threat in Colombia, with each disparate front of battle more involved in the international drug trade as a criminal business organization and less as one part of a cohesive insurgency.


Samuel Logan is an investigative journalist, and author. He is the director of Southern Pulse | Networked Intelligence, a decentralized, field-based security consultancy, and has reported on security, energy, politics, economics, organized crime, terrorism and black markets in Latin America since 1999.

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Logo International Relations and Security Network (ISN)