Pubdate:  June 2000
Source: 2000 Jane's Intelligence Review (UK)
Copyright: Jane's Information Group Ltd
Contact:   Sentinel House, 163 Brighton Road, Coulsdon, Surrey CR5 2NH, UK
Author: Hal Klepak


Successive governments in Colombia have sought alternately to militarily 
defeat the guerrillas, bring them to the negotiating table and detach them 
from the narcos. Amnesties have been offered, peace proposals made and new 
ideas put forward. None of these strategies have worked. Hal Klepak 
explains why peace remains elusive.

Hope is gradually fading for Colombia's peace plan, put forward nearly two 
years ago on the accession of President Andres Pastrana. It was the fifth 
such initiative in 20 years and was invested with great hope by the 
Colombian people, tired after 50 years of civil war and insurgency. Why is 
this plan failing, as its predecessors did? Why have the Colombian 
guerrilla movements of the Cold War years not disappeared? Why is peace so 

Positive Elements

The recipe for peace in Colombia appears at first sight to be present. The 
country has reasonably large armed forces (116,000 men), although this 
figure includes many guerrillas (15,000-20,000 in the main grouping alone) 
against which they are ranged.

The economy has been prosperous in recent years, even if it is faltering at 
present. Such positive economic conditions usually favour moves towards a 
peace settlement. The guerrilla forces have not been able to attract 
significant national support, despite their presence in the country for 
such a long time and the level of indigenous discontent.

There is also considerable and growing international support for a peaceful 
resolution to the dispute and some willingness to support the process. This 
is particularly true of the USA, which has been helping for some time. 
Washington has concentrated its efforts on the narcoguerrilla phenomenon, 
which it considers to be paramount. The USA has spent a considerable amount 
on this project and recently announced a US$1.3 billion aid package for Bogota.

Finally, Colombia is a functioning democracy, even if that status is 
fraught with difficulties. Reform is, therefore, at least theoretically 
possible. Leftist parties have seats in the congress and elections take 
place more or less normally. All of these factors usually operate to favour 
peace settlements. In Colombia, however, they have not. Instead, the war 
not only goes on, but in recent years has increased in intensity.

Colombia's Special Insurgency

The decades-old insurgency in Colombia is greatly different from those in 
many other Latin American countries. Its origins are found in the peasant 
resistance in the 1960s when the wealthy tried to displace them in favour 
of major coffee and cattle development schemes. This resistance became 
increasingly ideological as Cuban and local radical elements sought to turn 
it into a communist insurgency.

In these early days, Havana was active in training, organising, and 
providing advice and weapons to several of these movements. Moscow, 
however, showed greater reserve, fearing a clash with Washington in a 
region that the USA saw as firmly in their sphere of interest and too close 
for comfort to the Panama Canal.

The evolution of the insurgency until the end of the Cold War was unique. 
Split into a series of groups and unable to co-ordinate their efforts, the 
Colombian guerrillas nonetheless survived. Although weakened in the 
counter-insurgency campaigns of the 1970s, they refused to give up. Some 
smaller movements eventually accepted the government's offers to join the 
democratic political process; the larger ones did not.

The Narco Dimension

The first signs of a significant narcotics connection in the country began 
to surface in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Initially in the marijuana 
trade, and then in coca, Colombia began to be seen as the headquarters for 
vast cartels of illegal narcotics producers in South America. As such, 
Bogota could not avoid attracting Washington's wrath as the USA was 
engulfed with the health, security and social consequences of rising 
domestic drug abuse.

In the early days of narco and guerrilla operations, the two had little to 
do with one another. The rebels distrusted the criminal elements, which 
they saw as being behind the trade; the narcos saw the guerrillas as 
natural enemies, with their idealism and political agendas that called for 
a strong state, deep reforms and an anti- capitalist programme.

With time, however, the two factions came to see synergies in their 
activities. The guerrillas could give some security to the narcos. The 
latter could provide significant funds to the guerrillas, especially the 
Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of 
Colombia - FARC), and access to the flourishing illegal arms trade. Taxes 
were often levied on narco operations in zones controlled or influenced by 
the guerrillas, but that money ensured that the narcos could operate 
without interference in areas of the country where the coca leaf could be 
grown in near-ideal circumstances.

Thus while Cuban and other sources of weapons and money became increasingly 
rare, indigenous sources of both grew. While this never became so total a 
synergy as some suggested, there was clearly a growing interdependence 
between the two groups in many areas of the country. The local power nature 
of so much of the Colombian conflict resulted in a complicated mosaic of 
mutual and conflicting interests, and collaboration amid distrust in much 
of the national territory.

The FARC (and to a lesser degree the Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional [ELN], 
a group with even closer links with Cuba than the FARC) gained access to 
alternative sources of vital support. While other leftist movements petered 
out in most of Latin America, the opposite occurred in Colombia. The boom 
in the drugs trade meant that these movements could operate without outside 

Drugs were not the only sources of funds for the rebels. They engaged in 
kidnapping, bank robberies, extortion and other related activities to 
finance their continued growth and operations. Estimates suggest that some 
54% of FARC funds come from drugs, and 36% from other criminal activity. 
Local power bases became essential and control of actual territory became 
the objective for financial as much as political or strategic reasons.

The Government Response

Successive governments sought alternately to militarily defeat the 
guerrillas, to bring them to the negotiating table or to detach them from 
the narcos. Amnesties were repeatedly offered, peace proposals made and new 
ideas put forward.

The army, however, proved incapable of defeating the guerrillas or as 
Colombian strategic thinker Alfredo Rangel wrote, of producing a military 
reason for the guerrilla leadership to seek peace. The police proved 
equally unable to put pressure on the narcos.

Colombia's security forces, while quite large, are neither tactically 
impressive nor strategically on target. Early raids on police posts ensured 
that the police presence in smaller villages disappeared as concentration 
allowed for protection of police installations in larger towns. This left 
large parts of the country with little state security. The police became 
reactive, showing little intention to seize the initiative in the 
anti-narcotics war. They were, and often still are, outgunned by their 
wealthy and modern opponents.

The armed forces were equally badly placed. In an army of conscripts, 
specialist forces were scarce. Companies and then battalions were given 
static roles, guarding installations and VIPs, instead of forming strike 
elements with which to root out the enemy through active patrolling. It is 
estimated that, in general, the Colombian Army has maintained some 20% of 
its total strength in the vital points and VIP protection business, some 
25% in training, 25% in administration and only 30% on active service 
against the enemy.

A lack of mobility reinforced this static strategy. Government forces do 
not have sufficient airlift, riverine lift, or even truck-borne and 
armoured lift. Colombia's daunting geography of high mountain ranges, wide 
rivers, vast plains and jungles makes transport a huge problem for the 

What Do The Guerrillas Want?

What the guerrillas want is rarely discussed in debates on the war. Those 
wishing to discredit the rebels suggest that they no longer have an 
ideological base, or that they are merely an appendage of the narcos. 
Although there are elements of truth to this assertion, it widely misses 
the mark of what is a complex organisation.

The FARC has a long-standing platform of demands that call for a more 
democratic, pluralist and patriotic government. These demands include:

- - an army with a role exclusively in external defence;

- - reform of the state to create a true democracy;

- - economic policies emphasising modernisation, development and social justice;

- - 50% of the budget dedicated to social well-being;

- - progressive taxation;

- - protectionism and agrarian reform;

- - natural resource exploitation in line with national needs, not those of 
international capitalism;

- - total reform of Colombia's international alliances; and

- - a solution to the drugs problem at its source - the demand in developed 

The ELN share many of these objectives, although the question of natural 
resources, especially petroleum, is more central to them.

The Paramilitary Phenomenon

Paramilitary groups have been a factor in Colombia's war for many years. 
Their formation was largely a result of the reactions of land owners to the 
guerrilla threat in their localities, and their feeling that the army could 
not, or would not, act decisively against the rebels.

In the early days, the armed forces co-operated more or less actively in 
recruiting, organising, training and even arming these groups. Local 
officers ensured that considerable support from the army was given to those 
interested in forming such anti-guerrilla groupings. Much dirty work was 
carried out by these groups, encouraged by the military or even conducted 
by them on an 'off duty' basis.

Scrutiny of military activities changed this state of affairs: most 
paramilitary organisations now exist without any real army support. Indeed, 
while this can be easily exaggerated, on a few occasions the army has 
engaged in combat with the paramilitaries. The reality is that the monopoly 
of the use of force is now shared in Colombia. The paramilitaries, present 
in vast areas of the country, are themselves increasingly linked to the 
narcos. They take part in all manner of illegal activities, and, while 
quite willing to massacre unarmed peasants who may be sympathetic to the 
guerrillas, they are usually reluctant to take on the rebels in direct combat.

Recently, the paramilitary groupings have begun to call for a place at the 
negotiating table between the government and the guerrillas. The government 
is reluctant, as are the guerrillas, to grant such legitimacy to groups 
seen as being little better than armed gangs at the service of whoever can 
pay them.

New Factors

The most important recent change on the domestic front has been the 
military success of the guerrillas, especially the FARC. They have moved 
from hit-and-run tactics to what Rangel has called a 'war of movement', 
hammering government forces in a series of battles. While government forces 
have responded with some victories in recent months, the rebels are 
experiencing better results in the war.

The army has reacted by organising more special operations units to take 
the war to the guerrillas. It intends to streamline its operations and 
seize the initiative. However, these aims are easier said than done and 
little change has occurred to date.

Internationally, the most important new factor is increasing US concern 
that the war in Colombia is going badly. This affects US security, 
especially in the electorally crucial area of drugs. There is currently a 
major debate in the USA about how best to react to the deteriorating 
situation. More eradication efforts, with US assistance, are planned, but 
they have the disadvantage of pushing many peasants into supporting the 

Overt military intervention has been discussed, but in February the 
provision of more sophisticated helicopters (30 Blackhawk combat 
helicopters and 33 Huey transport helicopters) and intelligence co- 
operation, including satellite information sharing, military communications 
equipment, and training and equipment for two more special anti-narcotics 
battalions (there is one operational in the south) was announced as a less 
compromising move.

While officially all this aid is to improve the army's capabilities in the 
fight against the narcos, and hence should not in theory (and official 
rhetoric) involve the USA in the insurgency, the realities of the war in 
Colombia are such that fighting one means fighting both. The USA is ever 
more involved in this war.

Other countries were also shaken by the Colombian Army's defeats last year 
and have shown more interest in helping to find a peaceful solution. 
External interest was, until recently, not very well received in Colombia. 
However, the situation is now so bad that such reluctance is giving way to 
the view that any help should be welcomed.

European governments, the Canadians and several Latin American states are 
in support of the Pastrana peace initiative. Various countries have offered 
their capitals or major cities to host discussions between the warring 
parties. However, the situation is so difficult that little has been done 
and the peace process, having nearly ground to a halt, does not seem to be 
at a stage where international assistance can find a useful place or role.

The Impasse

The army is not capable at the present level of national establishment of 
defeating the guerrillas, paramilitary groups and narcos to establish peace 
in the countryside. The guerrillas are incapable, even with the vast 
resources of the drugs trade behind them, of defeating the army and seizing 
power. The paramilitaries are able to spread terror in many rural zones, 
but are no real alternative to the government. The narcos, while vastly 
influential, have little to say on major issues regarding the country's future.

At the political level, the FARC and the ELN are not anxious for peace, 
especially a peace which sees them demobilised. They are doing very well 
out of the war. A young guerrilla is far better paid than his army 
counterpart, enjoys higher prestige within his community and conditions of 
service are better in many ways. The upper echelons of the movement live 
reasonably well and have no financial problems of note.

The guerrillas feel that they are doing well militarily and politically. 
They are also doing well financially due to their links with the narcos, 
and their illegal activities of extortion, kidnapping and bank robbery. 
Recruitment is not a serious problem as the explosion of new 'fronts' in 
recent years shows. Retention of personnel, given the circumstances, is 
also not difficult.

The government is, of course, under considerable pressure to negotiate and 
hence there should be little surprise at seeing successive presidents 
engage in calls for talks. However, although Colombians want peace, key 
circles do not want it at the price of significant social, economic and 
political change. The wealthy classes are resistant to the kind of economic 
reforms called for by the FARC programme. The army will not countenance 
having its external links and the country's alliances called into question. 
Political reform, including ideas of social democracy and economic rights, 
would be anathema to sectors long dominant in Colombian society.

Thus Colombian governments have little room for manoeuvre. Moving towards a 
level of major reform that the guerrilla groups declare to be the minimum 
acceptable would be rejected out of hand by the dominant political groups 
in the country. The consistent refusal of successive governments to meet 
the rebels' major demands means that the rebels have little to gain from 

Likewise, the most important financial and political sectors of the country 
have neither been willing to give the army sufficient support for it to win 
the war, nor to modify their conservative stand on reform. Surprisingly, 
the urban elites have hardly been touched by the war. While doubtless 
greatly affected at times by kidnappings, extortion and generalised 
violence, they have found that money buys security, or at least more 
security. Those who can afford bodyguards and other security measures can 
protect themselves and their families.

The Ley de Bachilleres (baccalaureate law) ensures that very few of the 
young sons of wealthy or even middle-class families are called up under the 
supposedly universal conscription system. Hence a war of the 'pobres contra 
los pobres' (the poor against the poor) is the rule of the day, with narco 
armed gangs, paramilitary units, the army and the guerrillas all coming 
overwhelmingly from the lower classes.

The cities are well garrisoned and, compared to rural areas, heavily 
policed. Few major attacks occur in such urban centres. While kidnappings 
are rife (probably over half the kidnappings in the world occur in 
Colombia), they are increasingly aimed at those below the level of truly 
vast wealth.

The middle class wants peace, as does the body politic as a whole. However, 
translating that into a real pressure on decision-makers to make them 
compromise is another matter altogether. On the military front, that same 
class has not shown itself to be interested in the level of military effort 
and the sacrifices necessary to make that a reality, which might win the war.

Dangers Of A Wider War

A troubling feature of recent years has been the tendency to 
internationalise the conflict. The first sign of this was the use of 
frontier regions bordering on Venezuela by the rebels for rest areas and 
for fleeing army operations. For years this has troubled bilateral 
relations between Bogota and Caracas, and has now led to the deployment of 
significant Venezuelan military resources to the border.

The troubles caused to neighbours by the violence in Colombia have now 
spread. The operations of narcos and guerrillas have expanded across the 
border into the vast Brazilian regions of the Amazon Basin. Brazil is a 
virtually hegemonic power and its concerns over security are nowhere more 
sensitive than in Amazonia. The Brazilians have set up a major surveillance 
programme in response to the Colombian situation. Specifically, they have 
greatly reinforced their military presence in the border regions and have 
made it clear that they will not tolerate guerrilla incursions into their 
territory. There have been reports of recent pitched battles between 
guerrillas and Brazilian troops and police. While Brasilia is trying to be 
patient with Colombian efforts to control the situation, that patience may 
well end.

In Ecuador, the armed forces had been less troubled until recent months. 
There seemed to be tacit agreement between the guerrillas and the military 
that incursions would be kept to a minimum and that no improper activities 
would be carried out on Ecuadorian soil. This has changed recently. Quito 
has moved troops to the border in order to discourage any rebel presence.

Even Panama has not been spared the impact of the war in neighbouring 
Colombia. The country abolished its armed forces following the US invasion 
in 1989, but this led to an inability to properly patrol the dense jungle 
regions of the border where guerrillas from Colombia have arrived in recent 
months. Although reports differ about what is happening there at the 
moment, whatever the truth, the situation has led to the death of several 
Panamanians and scandal at home.

Thus there are regional features that complicate the military and political 
picture beyond the US dimension. How these play out will depend on 
Washington and Bogota, as well as regional capitals, who need to show 
restraint if incidents are not to lead to over- reactions.


These then are some of the factors that make it difficult to end the war. 
The guerrillas are not dependent on foreign aid. Even the ELN's once-close 
Cuban links are a thing of the past. They are self- sufficient in funding, 
and can train themselves and operate without external assistance. Despite 
some reverses, morale is high. Victories have been more frequent and 
dramatic in recent years than defeats, and funds and weapons are easily 
obtained. Their growth has been steady and impressive.

The army, despite increasing help from abroad, has not been able to defeat 
the guerrillas and indeed has lost a great deal of its prestige through 
some shattering reverses in recent years. It feels underfunded given the 
tasks it has been assigned. Still showing many of the signs of a 
conventional army instead of a counter-insurgency force, and far too tied 
to static positions instead of mobile operations, the military have shown 
little ability to even seriously pressure the guerrillas. While key sectors 
of the public do not see military victory as either feasible or worth the 
effort needed to bring it about, there seems little chance that this 
crucial element will be added to the government's abilities to convince the 
guerrillas to come to the bargaining table.

Thus the war does not end, despite the much heralded current peace 
initiative. The international community is more concerned than ever, 
especially the USA and it may prove to have something to offer in the peace 
process. However, its actions have not always been helpful or original. Its 
ability to encourage two diametrically opposed and highly reluctant sides 
to get together may be limited.

This war remains a bizarre mixture of ideological currents, money making, 
naked crime, economic interests, agricultural politics, civil-military 
relations and other elements tied together by what is essentially a 
localised, more than national, struggle for regional power and control over 

The war has defied solution for decades. It shows every sign of lasting 
many more years unless military victory by one or the other side, a drive 
for compromise on one or more sides or decisive international intervention 
occurs. None are likely without a change of heart on the part of one or 
more key actors. How to bring that about is the current challenge and calls 
for great originality in whatever solutions are proposed. 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake