The Colombian security forces know where the FARC's top commander is hiding and will not hesitate to kill him, the president has stated, amid rumors that alias ‘Alfonso Cano’ may already have fallen.
”The armed forces and the government know perfectly well where Cano is. We are breathing down his neck. This bandit will fall like Mono Jojoy (FARC field marshal Victor Suarez) fell,” said President Juan Manuel Santos.
Heavy fighting has been seen in the Cañon de las Hermosas in the central province of Tolima, the mountain lair of Guillermo Leon Saenz, alias ‘Alfonso Cano’, the commander-in-chief of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC). Soldiers are looking for the body of Cano among the dead, believing he fell in the last wave of combats.
However the government policy, mimicking that of the United States, of eliminating HVTs (High Value Targets), may be counterproductive in the long term, although gaining Santos political breathing space right now as his security policy comes under criticism.
Since 2008 the FARC have lost four members of the seven-man Secretariat, its ruling body. Manuel ‘Sureshot’ Marulanda, the FARC founder and leader, died of natural causes; Luis Edgar Devia Silva, alias ‘Raul Reyes’, was killed in an aerial bombardment in Ecuador; Manuel de Jesus Muñoz Ortiz, alias ‘Ivan Rios’, was killed by his own bodyguard who claimed the government bounty on the rebel leader’s head, and finally, in September 2010, Victor Suarez, alias ‘Mono Jojoy’, was killed in an aerial bombardment on his underground bunker in the mountains of La Macarena, in the eastern province of Meta.
The Secretariat members have been replaced, but the truth is that the FARC are running out of veteran and ideologically-committed commanders to run the 60-odd fronts (guerrillas units). A younger generation of commanders is coming up, less ideologically committed and more disposed to see the drug trafficking, extortion and kidnapping that finance the rebels as the end, not the means. InSight has been conducting interviews with FARC deserters and commanders in prison over recent years and the message is consistent: there is less time and effort spent on political formation of new recruits, many of who are minors and illiterate, and few now know why they are fighting.
Many FARC units are working more and more closely with the new generation of narco-paramilitary groups (‘bandas criminales’ or BACRIMS as they are called by the government), once their bitter enemies. There is evidence that in places like the eastern plains, the Pacific provinces of Valle del Cauca, Cauca and Nariño, as well as the northern region of Bajo Cauca, there is an increasing threat of rebels entering into criminal alliances with Rastrojos, ERPAC or Urabeños and becoming sophisticated and highly motivated criminal gangs more than Marxist rebels.
Ironically the conditions for peace talks are better now than they have been since the collapse of dialogue in February 2002. While both the FARC and the government have given mixed signals about the prospects of future dialogue, in the medium term there are some very encouraging signs:
···· Santos is not President Alvaro Uribe, who turned the war against the FARC (backed by Washington) into a personal crusade. The FARC killed his father in a botched kidnapping attempt and such was the hatred between him and the rebels that serious peace negotiations were almost impossible.
···· While Santos has denied a desire to seek a second term in 2014, setting up talks with the FARC might well secure him re-election as well as win him a place in the history books as the man who brought peace to Colombia, now in its 47th year of civil conflict.
···· In a reversal of the position in 1999 when President Andres Pastrana granted the FARC a 42,000 square kilometer safe haven as the venue for peace talks, it is now the military, not the guerrillas, who have the upper hand on the battlefield. Down from their 2002 peak of 16,000 fighters, the FARC now number less that 8,000 and have been pushed into remoter and less strategic areas of Colombia, whereas they once dominated more than a third of the country and camped out on the outskirts of the major cities.
···· The FARC have just released six of their political hostages, leaving 17, who former Senator Piedad Cordoba, head of the humanitarian mission which secured the liberations, said could be freed over the next six months. This signifies the end of the ‘canje’ or prisoner exchange strategy the FARC had insisted on to secure the release of hundreds of jailed rebels. This in itself removes a huge obstacle to peace talks.
···· Santos has already said that should the FARC release all hostages he would be prepared to consider dialogue.
···· The FARC appear to have dropped their demand for another safe haven as a precondition to initiate talks. This means that both sides could start with a blank page as far as negotiations are concerned, and learn from previous failed processes.
The question is whether Cano is the best man to bring the FARC to the negotiating table and find a political solution to the conflict. Since the death in 1990 of the FARC's founding ideologue, Luis Alberto Morantes Jaimes, alias ‘Jacobo Arenas’, his protégé, Cano, has been the movement’s senior ideological and political figure. Unlike Mono Jojoy he was never admired as a charismatic military leader by the rebel rank and file, but his vision of a more urban and politically relevant guerrilla group has found support among the intellectual elements of the FARC. He is however seen as being rigidly Marxist-Leninist, and perhaps not flexible enough to find the grounds of compromise needed to secure a realistic peace settlement.
Should Cano be killed, or already be lying dead somewhere in the Andes Mountains in Tolima, it is likely that, if the FARC can keep their coherence and discipline, Luciano Marin, alias 'Ivan Marquez', will take over. He is a rebel leader with both political experience (he was a congressmen for the doomed Patriotic Union party, the FARC’s one and only foray into mainstream politics) and military credibility. After him, there is no-one with the profile to keep the FARC together and fragmentation and criminalization could follow, ensuring that any peace process with the government would deliver only a fraction of the rebel ranks.
Colombia already has the example of what could happen with a criminalized FARC. The paramilitary United Self Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC), which demobilized in 2006, became the new BACRIMs, whose leadership, and much of its membership, can trace their criminal formation back to the AUC. The seven FARC ‘blocs’ or divisions could become independent criminal entities, or further fragment with individual fronts taking control of criminal activities in their areas of influence, working with the BACRIMs to divvy up territory and resources and smuggle drugs together.
It is time the government thought less about short-term political victories in the civil conflict and focused on the longer-term goal of a political solution, while the FARC are still able to deliver the majority of their troops in a peace process.