Despite being about to enter formal peace talks with the Colombian government, the FARC guerrillas are continuing their campaign of violent attacks, which could derail the negotiations if the rebels go too far.
On October 14, members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) shut down a main road which goes over the border with Venezuela from the Colombian department of Norte de Santander. On the same day, rebels destroyed two electric towers in the province, in attacks that were apparently the work of the FARC’s 33rd Front.
Also on October 14, elements of the FARC’s 10rd Front attacked a column of soldiers in the eastern department of Arauca, killing two civilians in the crossfire, according to military officials.
Both incidents occurred days before FARC leaders are scheduled to meet with representatives of the Colombian government in Oslo, Norway to begin formal peace talks on October 17.
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The fact that the FARC has continued to carry out violent attacks ahead of peace talks is not surprising, as the Colombian government rejected the rebels’ calls for a ceasefire in the lead-up to the dialogue.
The attacks could help the guerrillas strengthen their position at the negotiating table. By continuing their violent campaign, the guerrillas are demonstrating that they are still a serious security threat. This could be an attempt to counter claims that their participation in the peace talks is a sign of weakness, as some analysts have suggested.
The danger is that the guerrillas could overplay their hand, which has happened in the past. The last round of peace talks with the government, for instance, ended in 2002 after the FARC took a commercial airplane hostage. In 2006, the government of former President Alvaro Uribe suspended all contact with the FARC when guerrillas detonated a car bomb outside a military academy in Bogota, injuring 23.
The FARC’s continued use of violence could also indicate something much more dangerous for the prospects of peace in Colombia. It may suggest that the group’s central command no longer has the power to control all the elements of the group, a sign that a formal demobilization process may not end the conflict. The FARC’s organizational structure is thought to have been eroded in recent years, in part due to the rebels’ involvement in criminal activities like drug trafficking, arms trafficking and kidnapping. This was exacerbated by the loss of several key members of the FARC’s leading Secretariat, including Guillermo Leon Saenz Vargas, alias “Alfonso Cano,” who was considered one of the last remaining political leaders of the group.
If this is the case, then the FARC’s future could resemble the history of the paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), which demobilized from 2004 to 2006. During this time, a number of paramilitary blocs turned themselves in in name only, continuing their activities without the cover of political ideology. Many of these successor groups went on to become major players in the country’s criminal underworld, including heavyweights like the Urabeños, and are referred to as “criminal bands” (BACRIM) by the government.
However, there is some evidence that the FARC has cut down its violent activity attacks ahead of the planned talks, at least when it comes to attacks on the energy sector, which it has relied on in the past as a show of strength. Colombian state oil company Ecopetrol announced last month that the number of attacks on their facilities had dropped significantly. “[In September] we had only three attacks, which is nothing compared to the historical numbers,” Ecopetrol representative Adriana Echeverri told the press.
Suspending or cutting down on attacks could help show that the guerrillas are serious about the prospect of peace, something questioned by many in Colombia, and help the talks to move forward.
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