Colombia's FARC Rebels, After Resurgence, Dealt a Major Blow

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Eliana Aponte / Reuters

Colombian guerrilla leader Jorge Briceño, known as Mono Jojoy, gives orders in La Macarena in this file photo taken June 27, 2001

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Wednesday's military raid provided a huge boost for President Santos, a former Defense Minister who was sworn in last month. At the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on Friday, Santos plans to outline how improved security has opened the door to new foreign investment and Colombia's steady economic growth. He was also one of three world leaders selected to speak to the UNGA on Wednesday about his nation's progress toward meeting the U.N.'s 2015 Millennium Development Goals.

Colombia's path to prosperity would be a lot easier if the 46-year-old war could be brought to an end. The demise of Mono Jojoy may help. Some predict a wave of desertions among demoralized guerrillas and chaos within the FARC's command structure, which is isolated and often incommunicado. Intelligence officials believe that FARC supreme leader Alfonso Cano is hiding in the mountains of western Tolima state, while other members of the secretariat may be in Venezuela or Ecuador.

But like the mice that Santos referred to, guerrillas can be opportunistic survivors. Knowing they'll be outgunned, the rebels rarely stick around for firefights these days. Instead, they depend on land mines, IEDs and snipers. The FARC has teamed up with criminal bands to extort business owners and traffic cocaine, and some ambushes have been carried out in tandem with the National Liberation Army (ELN), a smaller Marxist group founded in the 1960s that the army has also been unable to snuff out. "They can still cause a lot of damage," Rivera, the Defense Minister, tells TIME.

Santos hopes to eliminate the problem with both carrots and sticks. Besides operations like the one that took out Mono Jojoy, the President is promoting what he calls the "Consolidation Plan" to promote economic development in former rebel strongholds. Once these areas are relatively secure, government teams will build roads, schools and clinics, hand out land titles and offer farmers alternatives to growing coca (the raw material for cocaine).

But as Americans learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, nation-building is often more complicated than fighting. In Colombia's Deep South, many people have brothers, uncles and cousins who are guerrillas. In rural areas, there is little government presence. The guerrillas may not control this territory, but they remain a menacing presence. And they can be spoilers.

In the tiny southern river hamlet of Barranco Colorado, village residents asked for government help to build a dormitory so poor children from faraway homesteads could live in town and go to high school. To keep Barranco Colorado in its grip, the FARC threatened local officials, who are now too scared to break ground. So bags of cement and other construction supplies delivered by riverboat at great expense sit idle in a village warehouse.

That combination of fear, family ties to the FARC and resentment over years of government neglect sometimes deters citizens from cooperating with the army and police. For example, it would have taken FARC rebels a considerable amount of time and planning to carry out the ambush that killed the 14 policemen near El Doncello. It's likely some of the townsfolk knew what was going on, but they kept mum.

But with enough time and money — as well as close coordination between government agencies — Santos' Consolidation Plan might have a chance. It was first launched in the war-ravaged area of La Macarena in 2007 when Santos was Defense Minister. There, the coca crop has been reduced by more than half. In fact, it was near La Macarena that Mono Jojoy met his violent end. And according to Rivera, the raid was made possible by members of the rebel leader's inner circle — who split with their boss and went over to the government's side.

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