Wednesday, October 20, 2010

FARC on the Edge of Defeat?

Colombia’s ongoing battle against the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) has been progressing in Colombia’s favor for some time, and it appears to have reached an identifiable tipping point. It should also be cause for debating the relative success of Plan Colombia with regards to stabilizing the country and combating drugs.

Less than a month ago, a coordinated air and land assault on a jungle hideout led to the death of FARC’s military commander, Victor Julio Rojas, know to many as Mono Jojoy. 23 other rebels were killed and a trove of intelligence was acquired in the raid. Recently elected, Juan Manuel Santos hailed it as a “devastating” blow against the left-wing insurgency.

While some question the extent to which this crippled FARC, the last two years have been undeniably successful for the Uribe/Santos war against the rebels. At their peak, FARC controlled an area of land roughly equivalent to the size of Switzerland, over half the country. Current estimates show that they maintain a sizeable presence in about 20% of the country. But “sizeable presence” is not the same thing as outright control, and the land to which they are relegated becomes increasingly inconsequential. I would agree that calling this a victory is an embellishment, but characterizing this recent death as evidence of something irreversible is rather apt. Outright military victory is unlikely (dense jungles along national borders have been, and will always be, an insurgent’s haven), but negotiating peace from a position of power is well within Santos’ grasp, and his inaugural address clearly announced this willingness.

Colombia is safer, more economically prosperous, rife with national confidence, and even the likes of Medellín have become legitimate tourist destinations (Medellín? Medellín! There’s hope for you after all Detroit). But Plan Colombia has had little effect in reducing drug use in the U.S. by attacking it on the supply side. Eradication efforts have been inconsequential and other aspects of production have diffused throughout Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador. If one looks at Plan Colombia in terms of drugs only, it is decidedly unsuccessful from the U.S. perspective.

That being said, the roughly seven billion spent on Plan Colombia since 1999 has contributed to a reasonably successful counterinsurgency. Indiscriminate violence was a serious issue in the early part of the decade, but 3,000 extrajudicial killings, and an 80% reduction in violence against trade union members align with theories about transitioning from indiscriminate to discriminate violence during the course of a civil conflict. Colombia had its brutal moments, but we have to understand them in light of how other, similar civil conflicts were prosecuted.

President Obama’s 2011 budget omits Plan Colombia, and that might not be a bad thing. It still will receive a significant amount of aid, and hopefully an approved bilateral free trade agreement. President Santos is primed for this job. He was the defense minister most responsible for focusing the military on doing their do diligence in pursuing and neutralizing FARC elements, and reducing the military’s disreputable behavior. Santos would do best to use his substantial political capital and military leverage to press for a peaceful settlement.

The middling effects that Plan Colombia has had overall on the “war on drugs” should call into question the logic of continuing to look at narcotics in such a myopic fashion. A recent CNAS panel and report puts together a more wide-ranging look at crime and the illicit marketplace in the Western Hemisphere.

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