Colombia: What's on the Mind of the FARC?

Wednesday night I took a short stroll along the bustling streets of downtown Bogota and when I passed the building where senator Piedad Cordoba lives, I looked up at her penthouse apartment and observed the lights were off. The leader of a social movement favoring a peace process with the guerrillas and who successfully negotiated the release of FARC hostages, Piedad - I thought - must be already in one of the airports from where helicopters provided by Brazil will soon take off and reach an unknown location in the thickness of Colombia where the FARC guerrilla will finally release two soldiers; Pablo Emilio Moncayo, who has been living in captivity for 12 years, and Josue Daniel Calvo, captured 11 months ago and injured by enemy fire. The FARC promised also to hand over the remains of Julian Ernesto Guevara, a police officer, who died four years ago in captivity. According to the Colombian government, the liberation should happen before Monday.

What's on the mind of the FARC? What would they like to accomplish with the upcoming liberation?

The democratic security policy of Uribe was effective in marginalizing in significant ways the presence and the influence of the FARC, especially in urban settings central to the economy of the country. The FARC has suffered significant blows. The year of 2008 represented a black year for the guerrilla. The Colombian armed forces killed in an air strike in Ecuador the number three of the FARC, Raul Reyes, who functioned as a spokesperson and a connector between the FARC and the external world. It was not unusual for politicians, journalists, diplomats, and NGO officials from Colombia and other parts of the world, to visit Reyes in Ecuador. That same year, in an operation that looked as if scripted in Hollywood, the Colombian military freed three American hostages, Ingrid Betancurt, and several soldiers and police officers. It was the so-called Operacíon Jaque, whose success caused such an excitement that the Colombian government then talked already about post-victory. Moreover, thousands of FARC combatants, and among them, significantly, several mid-level commanders, had deserted and gave themselves over to the demobilization and reintegration program of the Colombian government. The perception was that the FARC was broken from within.

The picture in 2010 looks different from the one in 2008. The reasons for a triumphalistic rethoric are less evident. Though severely weakened, the FARC has adjusted to the extremely intense and effective military pressure of the Colombian army. It reviewed its communication system as well as its military tactic resorting to guerrilla warfare. According to some reports, during last year the FARC was able to reactivate 17 structures of its organization. The number of deserters decreased significantly. Though the exact figures are unknown, military officials admit that they lost a significant number of soldiers due to land mines and snippers. Last December, the FARC kidnapped in his own home, and later killed, the governor of Caquetá Luis Francisco Cuellar. In February, the FARC killed six people in an attempt to kidnap the candidate for governor of the Guaviare department. In March, it attacked three towns in the Cauca region, prompting President Uribe to travel to the area and call a security meeting. The harassment by the FARC in Cauca continues to these days. The resurgence of FARC military initiative is also a sign that Alfonso Cano, who took over the command of the FARC in 2008 after the death by natural causes of its historic leader Manuel Marulanda, strengthened and consolidated his leadership within the organization. These deeds, rather then demonstrating the failure of the democratic security policy, show that for its consolidation the policy needs now a diversified strategy.

What the FARC has not been able to reclaim in a significant way is its political initiative. Certainly, over the last year the FARC has strengthened its presence through the clandestine communist party in universities throughout the country; Piedad Cordoba has established with the FARC a relationship of trust, which prompted prosecutors to investigate the nature of her relationship with the guerrilla; Chavez has been providing an ideological umbrella and a safe haven in Venezuela; and there are certainly some spokespersons of the FARC in Europe who entertain some sort of relationship with civil society organizations and with some low-ranking government officials. But in general, the FARC lost political and diplomatic initiative. Something the FARC wants desperately to regain.

The most interesting hint came recently from a letter the supreme military commander of the FARC, Mono Jojoy, wrote in February to the General of the armed forces of Colombia Freddy Padilla. The tone of the letter is quite interesting; it shows respect for the enemy. While dismissing general Padilla´s invitation to surrender, the FARC leader underscored that the time for the two of them to sit down and have a dialogue has long past due. Analysts considered that the letter was not drafted by Mono Jojoy but by Alfonso Cano, who thus seems to leave a door open for dialogue.

The upcoming liberation of Moncayo and Calvo is seen by the FARC as one way to regain political protagonism. And unless someone is still convinced that there is a military solution to the armed conflict in Colombia (but is there someone who genuinely believes this?), the attempt of the FARC to regain political initiative should not be considered as something necessarily repulsive. Certainly, the way ahead is still very long, the direction is unclear, and dominated by ambiguity, but the opportunity for a negotiation at some point should not be overlooked. And if the situation will reach the point of ripeness, under which conditions should a negotiation process happen? How to avoid the mistakes of the past? How should a peace process be conceived? and, beyond putting an end to violence, what should it achieve? how to deal with the FARC deep connections with narcotrafficking? The effort will require great imagination, political courage, strong commitment, willingness to abandon violence, and the belief against all odds that peace is possible. Nobody is under the illusion that this will be easy. And probably only very few think this is achievable.

In the meantime, the imminent liberation of two more FARC hostages is good news. The event required the negotiation and the agreement among the parties of a protocol for the liberation of the hostages. Not only Piedad Cordoba, but also the International Red Cross, the Catholic Church, and the Brazilian government played an important role. This effort should not be dismissed. And let´s see if the FARC will accompany the hostage release with some additional act such as a message affirming the interest in a negotiation. This eventuality would further help us to analyze what´s on the mind of the FARC today.