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Colombian Insurgency

Colombia is the most troubled country in the hemisphere. A guerrilla war has been going on in that nation since the 1950s. Colombia, which has the third-largest population in South America and the fourth-largest economy, has suffered heavily from a persistent insurgency and a growing narcotics industry. The dismal social and economic conditions that most of the Colombian people endure provide fertile conditions for insurgent efforts to attract adherents and build local bases of support. Colombian insurgents conducted determined campaigns to build popular support for their actions, with varying degrees of success.

Colombia is a poor country that has been plagued by ongoing violence for more than 120 years. During the 1940s, subversive terrorist groups emerged in rural areas of the country when criminal groups came under the influence of Communism, and were later transformed into contemporary groups, such as the Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional (ELN) or National Liberation Army and Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionares de Colombia (FARC) or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). Paramilitary terrorist groups emerged in response to subversive groups and were later transformed into contemporary groups, such as the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC) or United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia.

Colombia's political system has long survived chronic violence by several major insurgent groups, maintaining its stability because disaffected anti-democratic elements constituted a relatively small proportion of the total population. From the mid-1954 to the early 1980s, the security forces were able to contain but not eliminate guerrilla activity, keeping the totalnumber of insurgents at a fairly constant level.

In 1965 the pro-Cuban National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional-ELN) and the Maoist People's Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Popular-EPL) were founded; the next year, the pro-Soviet Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia-FARC) was founded and quickly became the largest guerrilla group. They were joined in 1974 by another left-wing insurgent group, the Nineteenth of April Movement (Movimiento 19 de April-M-19). Although the M-19 and EPL later demobilized and formed political parties (the former in 1989 and the latter in 1991), the ELN and FARC, as well as a dissident element of the EPL, have continued insurgent activities to the present day.

President Belisario Betancur tried a new strategy to end the conflict. Rather than rely on military force, he attempted to negotiate a truce with the insurgent groups to bring them gradually into the political process. Manwhile, Betancur also took a leading role as a regional peacemaker by helping to initiate the Contadora negotiations for Central America. Both e?orts failed.

The 60,000-man Army had primary responsibility for the counterinsurgency effort. After decades of guerrilla violence, it had honed itsinternal security skills at the cost of conventional capabilities. The Colombian security forces' overriding weakness was inadequate funding. Facing serious economic problems and in hopes that the truce with major guerrilla groups would succeed, the administration slashed the defense budget from $885 million in 1983 to $378 million in 1986. Such draconian cuts, of course, not only prohibit the purchase of needed large ticket equipment but also seriously crimp the day-to-day operational readiness and effectiveness of the forces. These longstanding budgetary constraints, moreover, left the Colombian military with antiquated equipment and a shortage of personnel.

By 1986 the combined armed strength of the major insurgent groups was probably some 6,500 to 10,000, reflecting a steady increase over the previous several years. In July 1986 the US Embassy warned that more guerrillas were active, and the level ol violence was higher, than at any time since the l950s. The security forces were hard pressed to contain the insurgents arrayed against them, and, although the insurgents did not threaten the central gnvemment in most urban areas, their in?uence was growing there as well as in ntral areas, where they traditionally held sway.

By 1987 the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the largest insurgent force, was the only guerrilla group still claiming adherence to the truce initiated by the govern-ment in 1984. FARC was exploiting the legal protection the truce provided, however, to recruit and rearm and was putting the truce under pressure by engaging in limited armed operations, kidnapings, extortion, and other anti-government activities. Three smaller but active guerrilla organizations, the National Liberation Army (ELN), the 19th of April Movement (M-19), and the Popular Liberation Army (EPL), had formed a loose guerrilla alliance, the National Guerrilla Coordinator (CNG). These groups operated throughout Colombia, with the ELN undertaking increasingly effective attacks on the nation's major oil facilities. In addition, US Embassy personnel remain targets for drug traffickers and guerrillas.

Insurgent groups in Colombia [and Peru] were largely self-sufficient, but most remained open to external support. The Soviets, Cubans, Nicaraguans, and Libyans contributed varying - but generally limited - amounts of political guidance, training, funding, materiel, andpropaganda support to radical leftist groups in the region. The strongest insurgent groups, however, such as the FARC, did not need external support to sustain current levels of operation. Cuba's influence was of significance only in Colombia. Havana had maintained close and longstanding relationships with several guerrilla groups, and Castro was probably responsible for the continued viability of the CNG, seeing Colombiaas a long-term target for destabilization.

Colombia's FARC was the only major insurgent group in either Colombia or Peru whose ties to drug traffickers were well documented by the late 1980s. It regularly taxed and provided protection for traffickers and occasionally engaged in drug cultivation, production, and merchandising. The FARC was using drug money to obtain weapons, and FARC ambushes and sniper fire made the police reluctant to mount antidrug operations without military support. All other major Colombian insurgent groups - the M-19, ELN, and EPL - reportedly cooperated sporadically with traffickers.

Penetration of organized labor became an important objective for Colombian insurgents. Both FARC and the CNG publicly support a Communist-backed labor union - formed in late 1986 - which has mounted several strikes in 1987 against government and private enterprises. Guerrilla influence was strong in some agricultural labor syndicates, notably among flower and banana growers. The oil sector, however, was particularly vulnerable to infiltration and agitation.

The geography and climate favor insurgents, hinder counterinsurgency objectives, provide excellent cover and concealment, and, at the same time complicate military mobility and tax equipment capabilities. The geographic spread of the insurgent forces over mountainous terrain as well as extensive jungle regions strains the military's resources. Moreover, many large cocaine laboratories are located in the southeastern jungle in areas controlled by the FARC. The security forces are hard pressed to defend many critical political and economic targets - including the oft-attacked Cano Limon oil pipeline along the Venezuelan border.

Erosion of support for the insurgents was dramatically accelerated by M-19's November 1985 take-over of the Bogota Palace of Justice, which triggered a sustained and continuing government response to attacks by CNG insurgents. The insurgent-terrorist group M-19 attacked the national Palace of Justice killing 115 people, including 11 Supreme Court justices. Sympathy for FARC also waned as peace talks have produced few results and truce violations became more blatant.

A new defense plan was initiated in January 1987, the major elements of which included a redeployment of troops into the areas of highest insurgent concentration and the eventual creation of a rapid-reaction counterinsurgent task force composed of several battalions with assigned helicopters. President Barco also approved an overall security force expansion, including the creation of several new military units. Bogota may eventually try to expand the Army by as much as two-thirds, to a strength of 100,000.

As Colombia became a world leader in the production and trafficking of illegal drugs in the 1970s and 1980s, the large drug syndicates such as the Medellín and Cali cartels gained wide power through terror and corruption. During the narco-terrorist era (1983-93), narcotics traffickers sponsored assassinations of numerous government officials, justices, and politicians, particularly those who favored an extradition treaty with the United States. The government broke up the Medellín Cartel in 1993 and later the Cali Cartel by arresting key leaders. Despite the setbacks, drug traffickers continued to fuel the civil conflict during the 1990s, as the illegal armed groups became increasingly dependent on the drug trade for financing their insurgent operations. Strengthened by income from the illegal drug trade during the 1990s, the ELN and FARC extended their territorial presence in Colombia in 1996-98.

The administration of Andrés Pastrana Arango (president, 1998-2002) was marked by high unemployment, increased countrywide attacks by the guerrilla groups, widespread drug production, and expansion of paramilitary groups. As a concession in exchange for beginning peace talks, Pastrana granted the FARC a 51,000-square-kilometer demilitarized zone (DMZ) in south-central Colombia in November 1998. However, the FARC used the DMZ as a haven to increase illicit drug crops, transport military equipment and provisions, and negotiate kidnappings and extortions. Since the collapse of this arrangement along with the peace talks in early 2002, both the FARC and ELN have continued their insurgencies.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:27:18 ZULU