Colombia's Guerrillas: The Rebellion That Would Not Die

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Luis Robayo / AFP / Getty Images

A policeman lifts the uniform of a killed colleague after the explosion of a car bomb at a police station, in Toribio, Colombia, July 9, 2011.

Over the past three decades, the Colombian town of Toribío has suffered more than 600 attacks by Marxist insurgents, earning it the nickname "Toribistan" as a comparison with war-torn Afghanistan. More recently, guerrillas of the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces, known as th FARC, were supposedly disappearing, giving hope to places like Toribío. But on Saturday, July 9, the hapless burg was once again targeted as the FARC detonated a bus bomb that destroyed Toribío's police station. It was one of six simultaneous attacks in southern Cauca department that killed eight people, injured 100, and damaged or destroyed more than 300 homes. "This," said Cauca governor Guillermo González, "was monstrous."

Saturday's raids followed an equally ugly wave of FARC bombings, assassinations and kidnappings over the past month. On one day, the guerrillas even managed for several hours to block the main highway between Medellín, Colombia's second largest city, and the Caribbean coast, allowing them to burn tractor-trailers and ambush and kill a police major. Despite its significant retreat in recent years, the FARC's resurgence has alarmed Colombians and raised concerns that the decade-long military offensive may have run out of steam. True, recent hit-and-run rebel actions pale in comparison to the destruction wrought by a far-stronger FARC of the late 1990s and early 2000s, when guerrillas overran towns, police stations and army bases and captured hundreds of government troops. But the drumbeat of violence contradicts the government's upbeat talking points.

In fact, in each of the past three years, says Alfredo Rangel, a security analyst with close ties to the government, the number of FARC attacks and incidents involving snipers, mines and bombs has climbed. During the first half of 2011, the actions jumped 29% compared to the same period last year. "You have to put all this in perspective," says Rangel. "Compared to 10 years ago, the FARC has less than half the manpower and operates in less than half the territory. But they have stepped up their attacks."

That's not what Colombians had in mind when they elected Juan Manuel Santos by a landslide in last year's presidential election. Santos was coming off a highly-touted stint as defense minister. From that post, he helped oversee a U.S.-backed military campaign that reduced the FARC from 18,000 to 8,000 fighters and led to a steep drop in kidnappings and homicides. The low point for the FARC, which has been fighting for nearly five decades, came in 2008 when the organization lost three members of its ruling secretariat, including maximum leader Manuel Marulanda, who died of a heart attack at age 78. "For the first time, the end of the FARC is in sight," Santos said at the time.

As president, Santos has bagged more war trophies, including Jorge "Mono Jojoy" Briceño, the FARC's military mastermind who was killed in October. But instead of collapsing, the FARC has adjusted to the army's offensive, which relies heavily on air power and intelligence provided by FARC deserters. Unlike the swaggering Mono Jojoy, who oversaw a massive rebel buildup in the 1990s, current FARC leader Alfonso Cano has emphasized a return to traditional guerrilla warfare which makes it harder for troops to find and destroy the insurgents. "Under Cano, the FARC has dropped the macho talk about confronting the army head-on," says Jeremy McDermott, co-director of Insight Crime, a think tank that tracks organized crime and conflict in Latin America. "By operating in small groups, sometimes down to a pair of fighters, they are able to project strength and move about in a wider area."

These days, the FARC attacks are often carried out by a growing network of urban-based militias. Though their members are FARC supporters and not uniformed guerrillas, they now number about 30,000, according to McDermott. These weekend warriors played a huge role in Saturday's attacks in Cauca. Some of them set up shop in family living rooms to fire on government troops. That prompted a frustrated Santos to contemplate scorched-earth tactics such as destroying civilian homes used by the rebels. But why Toribío? The FARC funds its war, in part, through the proceeds of drug trafficking and Toribío and other battle-scarred towns of rural Cauca have the bad luck to be located in a strategic smuggling corridor. The mountainous terrain connects central Colombia to the Pacific coast where boats ferry cocaine to Central America and Mexico. The FARC may also be trying to divert the military from its all-out effort to get Cano, who is believed to be hiding just north of Toribío in a mountain ravine called Canon de las Hermosas. Last week, Santos claimed that Cano escaped just hours before army troops swarmed into his camp, where the FARC commander left behind his clothes, cigarettes and two dogs.

Some analysts warn that the army has been too slow itself to adjust to the FARC's adjustments. There's also talk that a scandal over the widespread killing of innocent civilians by government troops over the past decade has made a once aggressive army gun shy. "The new reality for soldiers is that a combat death could easily result in accusations of human rights violations," one military official told the Colombian newsweekly Semana.

But even under the best conditions, bringing a counterinsurgency campaign to a triumphant conclusion is extraordinarily difficult. Just look at the National Liberation Army, known as the ELN, Colombia's second largest guerrilla organization. Amid a massive army assault in 1974, the ELN was reduced to just a handful of gunmen. But the rebels regrouped and are fighting to this day.