In August 2002, the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) greeted Colombia’s new president with a mortar attack that killed 14 people during his inauguration. The attack was intended as a warning to the fiercely anti-FARC newcomer. But it became the opening salvo of a war that would shatter the rebels’ hopes of a military victory.

The election of Alvaro Uribe as president was a message to the FARC: the Colombian people were not with them. The failed peace process of Uribe’s predecessor Andres Pastrana took a population already alienated by terror tactics and kidnapping, and filled it with cynicism over whether the FARC would ever agree to peace. Their response was to elect a war president, making it clear to the rebels that if they were to seize power it would have to be in battle.

Militarily, the new president had two main advantages in his war against the FARC. The first was a set of two military plans: the US aid package Plan Colombia — established during the Pastrana presidency — in which billions of US dollars along with US personnel and advisors helped shape the Colombian military into one of the strongest and most advanced in the region, and Plan 10,000, a move to professionalize the army by replacing conscripts with voluntary recruits. The second was a paramilitary movement whose brutality and scorched earth offensives were proving devastating counter-insurgency tactics.

This article is the first part of a four-part report that focuses on the history and future of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) as the end of nearly 50 years of conflict with the Colombian state looks possible. Read the other chapters here.

But Uribe was not only fighting a military war, he also launched a rhetorical war. He denied Colombia had a civil conflict, instead placing violence within the paradigm of the post 9-11 global “war on terror.” Under this new conceptualization, the FARC were nothing more than bandits and terrorists. Anyone seen as an ideological sympathizer, or that stood in Uribe’s way, became a terrorist too. Uribe’s campaign was aided by a number of powerful countries placing the FARC on their terrorist lists, including the United States in 1997 and the European Union in 2002. The rebels’ dreams of international legitimacy receded.

The security forces offensive fanned out from Bogota with the goal of forcing the guerrillas out of the center of the country. They flushed the guerrillas out of regions of commercial and industrial importance; secured infrastructure linked to energy production and extractive industries; and retook control of the country’s main highways.

The military invested heavily in its aerial capacity and severely weakened the guerrillas through relentless airstrikes. The strategy included using heightened intelligence capabilities to target leaders and, with the help of a covert CIA program, carry out a devastating “decapitation” policy that took out at least two dozen FARC commanders.

In many regions, the army was not acting alone. The military worked in close collaboration with the paramilitaries of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). Since 1997, state forces had used them as shock troops and a clandestine arm, able to do the dirty work the army could not admit to. Collaboration with the AUC also reached into the highest levels of government, with alliances between the paramilitaries and Uribe’s top political advisors, senior appointments, and even the president himself, according to the testimonies of demobilized AUC commanders — claims Uribe fiercely denies.

The offensive drove the FARC back to the periphery of the country. The border regions became critical, with the FARC using camps in Venezuela and Ecuador to retreat, recuperate and launch attacks. Guerrilla units became smaller and more mobile but also more isolated and fragmented. The security forces’ new intelligence gathering capacity made communications difficult, affecting unity and the rebel command’s capacity to coordinate strategy. There were record levels of desertion, with somewhere around 20,000 members demobilizing after 2002, according to official figures. The number of fighters the FARC could call on fell to an estimated 8,000.

The Uribe administration’s campaign against the FARC peaked in 2008. A controversial airstrike against a FARC camp in Ecuador killed the rebels’ number two, Luis Edgar Devia Silva, alias “Raul Reyes.” Shortly thereafter, Manuel de Jesus Muñoz Ortiz, alias “Ivan Rios,” the head of the FARC’s Central Bloc and youngest member of the Secretariat, was killed by his own security chief, who then claimed the reward offered by the government by sending them Rios’ severed hand. Just weeks later, Manuel Marulanda died of natural causes. Then, with the FARC still reeling, the Colombian government struck a painful PR blow by rescuing the guerrillas’ most high-profile hostage — former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt.

Born Again, but Different

With defeat after defeat on the battleground, the loss of their spiritual leader and some of their most skilled and experienced commanders, large scale desertions, and rock bottom popular support, the FARC had lost a great deal of power in just six years.

However, they retained a formidable fighting force and the funds to rebuild and continue in the struggle. What they needed was a new strategy.

Following the deaths of Marulanda and Reyes, leadership of the FARC fell to Guillermo Leon Saenz Vargas, alias “Alfonso Cano.” Within the insurgency, Cano was more renowned for his political theorizing than his military skills, yet the counterattack strategy he devised — Plan Renacer (Rebirth) — would put an end to hopes the Colombian government could militarily defeat the insurgency.

SEE ALSO: Alfonso Cano Profile

Cano’s plan called for a move back to guerrilla warfare. Smaller, more mobile units would halt the advance of the army through the use of landmines and snipers, and go on the offensive by ramping up ambushes and bombings. The FARC would also invest heavily in more rural militias to regain influence and crank up their offensive capacity.

The strategy also called for a political offensive, increasing efforts to infiltrate and manipulate social movements, boosting the rebels’ political wing, the Bolivarian Movement, and seeking to strengthen international support and win over public opinion.

The impact of Plan Renacer was plain to see. In 2007, the FARC launched 1,057 attacks, according to think tank Nuevo Arco Iris, just over half of the 2,063 committed in 2002. Four years later they launched 2,148 attacks — a new record. Between 2008 and 2012, the rebels increased their territorial presence by 30 percent and began launching attacks in 50 new municipalities, according to monitoring group Centro Seguridad y Democracia (pdf).

The focus of the FARC’s offensives also changed. The mining, oil and gas sectors became major targets. These attacks boosted the rebels’ ideological credentials by taking on what some Colombians saw as exploitative foreign companies, and the FARC were able to simultaneously increase extortion revenues by threatening the companies. The guerrillas also began a campaign of assassinating members of the security forces — their “Plan Pistola” (Pistol).

The militias proliferated rapidly, and by some estimates, the FARC can now count on up to 30,000 members, outnumbering fighters in the field by more than three to one. The militias — which are usually either associated with a FARC front or with its political wing, the Bolivarian Movement — are not as well-trained or well-armed as their counterparts in the field and for the most part are part-time insurgents. However, they are camouflaged among the civilian population and make for much harder targets than guerrilla columns. They have also increasingly been receiving military and explosives training, helping turn them into one of the FARC’s primary weapons.

The militias not only strike through urban attacks and assassinations, they also operate profitable criminal networks, principally focused on extortion. The fact the militias are involved in crime has led to close ties with criminal groups, with the FARC sub-contracting work to specialists for both political and criminal attacks.

The FARC’s rebirth was also aided by the end of Colombia’s counterinsurgency movement after the AUC completed its demobilization in 2006. While numerous pseudo-parmilitary groups emerged from this breakup, they had neither the capacity nor the motivation to take on a guerrilla army. Instead, they sought out alliances with the rebels, becoming business partners in the drug trade, and in some cases in arms deals and even intelligence sharing.

Although the FARC was once again successfully competing on the battlefield, the military continued to pick off key rebel commanders. In 2010, one of the guerrillas’ most notorious and militarily adept commanders, Victor Julio Suarez Rojas, alias “Mono Jojoy,” was killed in a military offensive. A year later, Alfonso Cano was killed in an air strike. Five members of the FARC’s previously untouchable seven-man secretariat had died in just three years.

Breaking the Stalemate?

In February 2012, the FARC, now led by Rodrigo Londoño Echeverry, alias “Timochenko,” announced they were to end kidnapping. The news was greeted by widespread skepticism, with the public reluctant to believe it was anything more than an empty public relations drive. Instead, it turned out, they were meeting a precondition of peace talks with the government.

SEE ALSO: Timochenko Profile

In August that year, the FARC’s old enemy, ex-President Alvaro Uribe, denounced his successor Juan Manuel Santos for secretly negotiating with the FARC. Santos dismissed his comments as “pure rumors.” A week later, he confirmed they were true.

Official talks have now been ongoing in Havana, Cuba, since October 2012. However, the government, wary of creating another Farclandia, has flatly refused the FARC’s calls for a ceasefire, and combat continues.

Since 2002, the Colombian government has thrown everything it has at the FARC, recording major successes. And yet the guerrillas still have close to 40,000 members, as well as a presence in 28 of Colombia’s 32 departments and 262 of its 1,119 municipalities, according to Indepaz. They remain one of the largest, best-armed and funded Marxist insurgencies of the modern era. A lot is at stake in Havana.

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