Colombia: Making Military Progress Pay Off
Latin America Briefing N°17
29 Apr 2008
Almost six years of intense security operations against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) by the administration of President Álvaro Uribe are beginning to produce tangible results. Government forces killed several important rebel field commanders in 2007 and two members of the central command in March 2008, including second-in-command Rául Reyes, and have severely disrupted insurgent communications, prompting a loss of internal cohesion and decreasing illegal revenues. However, this progress has come at the cost of severely deteriorating relations with Ecuador and Venezuela and increased risk of political isolation after the controversial bombing raid on Reyes’s camp inside Ecuador. Military gains can pay off only if combined with a political strategy that consistently pursues a swap of imprisoned insurgents for hostages in FARC captivity, reestablishes much needed working relations with neighbours along borders and strongly advances integrated rural development to consolidate security and broaden Colombia’s international support.
Achieving the hostages-for-prisoners swap is a key challenge for the Uribe administration. The issue has acquired great political significance in Colombia and internationally since mid-2007 and has contributed to increasing tensions with Venezuela. After an initial initiative of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who seeks the liberation of Colombian-French citizen Ingrid Betancourt, and Uribe’s unilateral release of some 180 FARC prisoners in May 2007, the government authorised Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in August 2007 to facilitate a swap. Uribe officially sought to end Chávez’s involvement three months later, however, in the absence of results and following an open display of bias towards the FARC. The FARC unilaterally released six hostages in January and February 2008 (of a total of some 45 so-called “political” and another 700 “economic” hostages, with the latter not being considered part of any deal at this point) as a gesture of support for Chávez. This did nothing to advance a deal, however, despite the support of a group of friendly countries, among them France and Brazil.
The 1 March attack on the FARC camp in Ecuador that produced Reyes’s death triggered the most serious political crisis in the Andean region in many years, Colombia’s condemnation in the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Río Group and a break in relations with Ecuador. It also seemed to slam the door shut to further unilateral releases of hostages and a humanitarian agreement. The insurgents insist on and Uribe rejects the demilitarisation of two municipalities. Meanwhile, there is evidence that the FARC is adapting its method of operation and long-term strategy and, as in the past, may well survive the recent government military escalation. Its ability to use Venezuelan and Ecuadorian sanctuaries presents a major challenge for Uribe’s security policy.
The Uribe administration should not put all its eggs in the military basket. It needs to promptly design and implement a complementary strategy that would allow it to gain political ground on the insurgents as well as recover broader international backing, especially regionally. Moving forward with the hostages-for-prisoners swap is crucial. The strategy should focus on:
devising strongly conditioned political incentives to advance the hostages-for-prisoners swap
with the FARC, including either internationally monitored demilitarisation of Florida and Pradera municipalities or another area of similar size that would serve as the site of negotiations for 45 days on the basis of a prior agreement with the FARC that the hostages and prisoners would be released during that period;
engaging Ecuador immediately and Venezuela subsequently in order to reinforce border cooperation and prevent the use of sanctuaries, including by enhancing the communications and helicopter mobility of the new OAS monitoring mechanism;
redesigning the role of the group of friendly countries by giving it a limited mandate specifically for the hostages-for-prisoners swap and calling on Brazil to assume a leadership role; and
expanding considerably investment in infrastructure for rural development so that economic alternatives to coca cultivation, better governance and rule of law can provide the basis for sustainable security in territory freed from the FARC.
Bogotá/Brussels, 29 April 2008