Colombia Sees Gains in Its War With Rebels

Times Staff Writer

For years, eerily abandoned highways testified to Colombians’ fear that anyone rich enough to go by car into the countryside was a target for guerrillas raising funds for their insurgency through ransoms.

Over the last month, however, almost a third of Colombia’s 44 million people hit the road to visit family and friends for the holidays, many venturing from crowded cities for the first time in a decade.

No one in the 17-month-old government of conservative President Alvaro Uribe is ready to declare victory in the 40-year war against the leftist guerrillas, whose factions still hold more than 5,000 hostages, including politicians, industrialists, foreign tourists and middle-class citizens mistaken for pescas milagrosas -- “miraculous fish” that would yield riches.


But last year, government forces trained by U.S. advisors captured top rebel commanders, destroyed half the coca crop that bankrolls the guerrillas and retook most of the Switzerland-sized territory ceded to the rebels under an ill-fated 1998 peace plan. Rebel desertions, up 80% last year, according to the Defense Ministry, have thinned the insurgents’ ranks and provided police and prosecutors with information to find and convict key guerrillas.

“It’s going to take several more years. We can’t say we have won, because they still have a lot of power. But in the strategic sense, there has been a shift to our side,” said Gen. Carlos Alberto Ospina, commander of the Colombian armed forces, which lately have racked up what even government critics acknowledge are impressive gains.

The Jan. 3 capture of Ricardo Palmera, the highest-ranking rebel figure nabbed in the civil war, provided a resounding victory in Uribe’s campaign to unmask the fighters for the criminals he says they’ve become and wrest back the countryside from them. Colombian authorities say Palmera helped oversee the illicit finances of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia -- at 20,000, the biggest group, known by its Spanish acronym, FARC.

Colombian troops also have captured about a dozen “brigadier-general-level commanders” within the main left-wing rebel groups and right-wing paramilitary vigilantes, said a U.S. official here, elaborating on a Defense Ministry memo about the damage inflicted on the insurgents in 2003.

Waging more than 2,300 battles against the rebels during the year, government troops killed nearly 3,000, captured 10,000 and seized cocaine with an estimated street value of $2 billion, the Defense Ministry said. Officials concede, however, that about 30,000 members of various factions remain in the mountains and jungles.

Uribe supporters and detractors alike attribute the gains to deep investment in the army as well as a five-year, $3-billion U.S. aid plan. Although they are aware that even one successful guerrilla attack could undermine last year’s advances, officials exude confidence that the army and police will continue to roll up the insurgents, whom the public no longer views as romantic idealists.

“We finally had the political will that was lacking for so many years,” Ospina said in an interview. “The main factor is our president’s attitude and the people’s support.”

Coinciding with the blow against the guerrillas was a substantial drop in crime and violence. Homicides dropped 22% last year to a rate of about 50 per 100,000 -- still high in comparison with less-troubled neighbors but the lowest rate for Colombia in 18 years. The number of victims of rural massacres fell 37%, according to the Security and Democracy Foundation, an independent think tank here in the capital.

Those accomplishments “have brought a substantial improvement in the perception of security within the population,” the foundation reported in its annual security assessment.

What began as a leftist fight for equality and justice inspired by the Marxist ethos popular throughout Latin America in the 1960s metamorphosed after the collapse of the Soviet Union into a drug-running terrorist enterprise dedicated to maintaining Colombia’s position as the cocaine capital of the world, charged Defense Minister Jorge Alberto Uribe, who is no relation to the president.

“People learned to live with it, like a big wart on your nose that you get used to,” he said of Colombians’ tolerance of the chaos and insecurity around them. “This guy running the country now -- Uribe, the good one -- has changed the whole outlook of the country.”

Colombians are showing their support with approval ratings for the president exceeding 70% and their recent exodus into regions still infested by rebels.

“I think that the improved security on the roads is more important than many of the captures, as traveling by car inside the country used to be quite an adventure,” said Otty Patino, head of the Observation for Peace social research group and a leading figure in Polo Democratico, a left-of-center party opposed to Uribe. “By dismantling various fronts that were situated around the capital, the government has generated relief for those who use the roads.”

Like 14 million of his countrymen, Patino spent the recent holidays on a car trip visiting family. The roads to the Pacific Coast province of Valle del Cauca came to life during the vacation season, he recalled, with farmers setting up their fruit and snack stands to earn money. That return of rural commerce has government officials predicting 3.5% growth in the economy this year.

But Patino contends that the government has exaggerated the significance of some rebel captures to win popular applause. He warned that the FARC retains an intact leadership and is savvy enough to lie low until the government offensive subsides.

Other analysts see the security improvements as more durable in light of the stepped-up government investment in Plan Colombia, a U.S.-supported blueprint for wiping out the insurgency and the drug trade. They warn, however, that the gains are fragile and that FARC still boasts quantities of fighters, weapons and money sufficient to engage government forces for years to come.

“FARC has not renounced its aim of taking power and wants political, social and economic change. But it has lost popular support by resorting to drug trafficking, kidnapping and extortion to finance its military operations,” said Alfredo Rangel, head of the Security and Democracy Foundation.

“I don’t think there is any ideology involved in FARC,” said the U.S. official, who requested anonymity for security reasons. “Maybe there was 40 years ago, but it has evolved into a criminal organization, and the people know that.”

Many Colombian observers fear that having the rebels and drug kingpins on the run could provoke a wounded-bear syndrome. Guerrillas have executed several hostages in recent months, some in reaction to the president’s spurning an offer to swap prisoners.

Although the risk of hostage executions remains ominous, Ospina, the army commander, said that the president had signaled his readiness to negotiate with rebels who laid down their arms and that the amnesty program was luring growing numbers of insurgents out of the underground.

The general suggested that leniency would be in order for FARC members who had been forcibly conscripted. “The FARC is 99% composed of people captured from the fields,” he said, “uneducated people who don’t know what they’re doing. People who are just trying to escape poverty.”