The FARC’s claim to have shot down an air force plane in Cauca, one of Colombia’s most fiercely contested regions, highlights the importance of air power, which has the potential to change the course of the country’s conflict.

On July 11, a Colombian Air Force plane disappeared while on a mission in the Pacific province of Cauca, after taking off from the city of Cali earlier that afternoon. The wreckage was eventually found in the municipality of Jambalo, some 20 kilometers from Toribio, where fighting between the security forces and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has been raging for days (see map, below).

The FARC were quick to claim credit. Before the plane had even been located, a man identifying himself as a member of the Jacobo Arenas Column called various media outlets to say that the guerrillas had shot it down and that both men on board were dead, giving the locations of their bodies. On July 12, local newspaper El Liberal published a statement from the guerrillas, which said that the plane had been bought down “by our anti-aircraft fire … and not, as they cynically try to claim, a technical or human error.”

The Colombian government did not immediately deny that the FARC were behind the crash. Air force head General Tito Saul Pinilla did not rule out the possibility, though he said it was improbable, as the aircraft would have been traveling too high to be hit from the ground. President Juan Manuel Santos added that it was very unlikely, because “the guerrillas don’t have the weapons capability to shoot down aircraft.” El Colombiano, however, reported that one local resident said they had seen guerrillas shooting at a plane, before it took a nosedive, streaming smoke, and disappeared.

After tests were carried out on the wreckage, though, the air force released a statement on July 14 saying that the plane had not been hit by any anti-aircraft system, proving the FARC were trying to mislead the country. According to the president, the tests showed that “the plane was not hit by any .50 caliber machine gun, and much less by a missile.” He also noted that a missile would have blown the plane into pieces, whereas it was found relatively intact, and called claims to the contrary “unpatriotic.” (See video, below, of images from the crash site.)

Assuming that the government is correct, and the FARC were not responsible, the episode demonstrates the rebel group’s ability to quickly take stock of a situation and turn it to their strategic advantage. The guerrillas got to the crash site fast, removing the body of one of the men but leaving the other, apparently because it was in too bad a state to move. They displayed the corpse and parts of the wreckage to journalists, and later that day asked the International Red Cross to come and fetch the body. The guerrillas also sent photos of items from the site, including a helmet and personal possessions of the dead men, to Caracol Radio.

With these actions the FARC managed simultaneously to make headlines around the world, grasp at legitimacy by handing the body over, and make deft use of the Colombian media.

The initial uncertainty surrounding the downed Super Tucano holds particular significance because, if the FARC had brought down the plane, it could mean that they had managed to acquire surface-to-air anti-aircraft missiles, something that could change the course of the Colombian conflict. Air supremacy has been the determining factor in the ability of the state to turn the tide against the FARC since 2002. In the space of less than a week in March this year, for example, the government killed some 69 rebels in two air strikes on camps in the west and center of the country. Three members of the ruling Secretariat, including top commander “Alfonso Cano,” have been taken out in bombing raids in the last four years.

The threat of aerial bombardment has forced the rebels to abandon big, semi-permanent camps and stay in smaller groups — sometimes of only three people — that are constantly on the move. The psychological toll is demonstrated in a video report from journalists Karl Penhaul and Carlos Villalon, who spent some time embedded with a front from the Eastern Bloc, portraying a rebel movement obsessed with the risk of being killed by a bomb raid while they sleep.

Many of the government’s military units in remote locations are supplied only by air, meaning that if the FARC had anti-aircraft missiles it could hit the government’s ability to station troops in certain areas of the country. This would allow the rebels to retake territory, and could push the conflict from a guerrilla war back to a war of positions, in which the FARC hold large swathes of land and can engage in sustained combat with government forces.

The guerrillas know that challenging the government’s air supremacy is the only way to level the playing field. There have been reports of the FARC trying to acquire surface-to-air missiles; according to the Colombian government, the rebels have attempted to buy portable missiles known as MANPADS from Venezuelan dealers. Indeed, if the FARC were found to have acquired ground-to-air missiles, suspicion could fall on elements in the Venezuelan military. It is also possible that Iran could deliver weapons to the rebels, handing them over via Venezuela. Another potential source could be Libya; emails recovered from the computer of slain rebel military commander “Raul Reyes” reportedly asked then-leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi for a $100 million loan to buy surface-to-air missiles, and MANPADS have reportedly gone missing from the country’s stockpiles. It is not out of the realm of possibility that the FARC were successful in their efforts — arms dealer Victor Bout was convicted of agreeing to sell weapons including 700 MANPAD missiles to people he thought represented the rebel group.

Bringing down a Super Tucano would also have massive symbolic, as well as strategic, significance. The Brazilian-made light single-engine plane is specially designed for counterinsurgency and anti-drug missions, and Colombia has deployed them against the FARC and National Liberation Army (ELN) since buying 25 from Brazilian company Embraer in 2005. None had ever crashed or been shot down in Colombia. (However, it’s worth noting that a Brazilian air force pilot died earlier this month when his Super Tucano crashed in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul. The causes still have not been identified). Super Tucanos were used in the military operations that killed FARC leaders Alfonso Cano, Raul Reyes and “Mono Jojoy.” According to Semana, military sources identify the purchase of the Super Tucano as a turning point in the fight against the rebels.

The plane plays a key role in counternarcotics efforts across the region. Brazil uses the same model to patrol the Amazon for drug flights, and sales have been made, or planned, for anti-drug missions in Peru, Guatemala, and the Dominican Republic, amongst others. Venezuela tried to purchase 24 of the planes from Embraer in 2005, but the deal was blocked by the US, which provides many of the parts.

Even without surface-to-air missiles, it is possible that rebels on the ground could bring down a Super Tucano, as Joe Katzman of Defense Industry Daily explained; “Some very good shooting could kill a pilot or engine, and crash the plane.” The Super Tucano would normally survive a hit from .50 caliber machine guns, which the rebels are known to possess, but it would be easier to bring the plane down with automatic cannon fire, according to Katzman. This would still require a very lucky shot, as these weapons are not heat-guided. Such cannons would be easier to acquire than missiles, but are extremely difficult to move around, making it less likely that the guerrillas would casually bring them into combat throughout the country.

The chance of the FARC deploying such heavy weaponry in this area of Cauca, however, is increased by the fact that Jambalo has enormous strategic importance for the rebels. Along with the neighboring Toribio, Caloto, and Tacueyo, Jambalo sits on a key route connecting the FARC heartland in the interior of the country with the Pacific coast, which is vital for launching drug shipments. The FARC was the only authority in the town of Jambalo before 2001, according to reports, but was pushed out to the surrounding hills by the arrival of police in that year.

There is precedent for the FARC taking down aircraft without using missiles. In 2000, in the northern Antioquia province, guerrillas ambushed a Black Hawk helicopter that was bringing troops to launch an attack on the FARC-held town of Dabeiba. As the helicopter prepared to land, it came under heavy fire from the rebels. The pilot was hit in the head by a bullet, and the Black Hawk crashed to earth, with no survivors among the 23 men on board.

It remains unclear what brought down the Super Tucano, but the case emphasizes how much is at stake both in the Cauca region, site of some of the country’s worst conflict in recent years, and in the question of who controls Colombia’s skies.

View Jambalo, Cauca in a larger map

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