The past few months have been a heady time in Colombia. It all started in February when an estimated 10 million citizens throughout the country demonstrated against the ongoing murderous activities of the nation’s guerrilla organizations, principally the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) and Ejército de Liberacion Nacional (ELN).
In March, three of the FARC’s seven directors, known by their aliases as Manuel Marulanda, Raul Reyes, and Ivan Ríos, died. Reyes was killed by the Colombian military and Rios was murdered a few days later by his security chief. Marulanda, the FARC’s founder, soon died of a heart attack. Shortly thereafter, two senior FARC comandantes voluntarily surrendered. FARC guerrilla ranks have plummeted from more than 25,000 to less than 8,000.
Most recently and in spectacular fashion, the Colombian military humiliated the country’s largest terrorist group with the bloodless rescue of 15 high-profile hostages on July 2. The daring helicopter mission, in which seven specially trained, unarmed troops impersonated guerrillas and foreign mediators (a doctor, nurse and the crew remained in the chopper), completely outwitted 60 FARC guards, incurring no injuries on either side and without a shot being fired.
The dramatic rescue has seriously weakened the support base of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and his fellow leftist presidents in Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua, all former FARC supporters. Opposition demonstrations have so seriously undercut their domestic support that Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa suddenly nationalized the country’s two leading television stations on the pretext of their owing the government substantial funds. The action triggered the resignation of the country’s finance minister and brought thousands of citizens into the streets, undoubtedly bringing him closer to removal from office.
Less radical Latin American heads of state have taken pains to congratulate Colombia’s president, effectively negating the anti-Uribe attacks urged by Chavez at the infamous March and May meetings of the leftist Sao Paulo Forum co-founded by Brazilian President Luiz Lula da Silva, which includes eight leftist presidents, plus FARC and ELN representatives. Significantly, Chavez has suddenly agreed to a long-proposed rail link between Venezuela and Colombia, and Lula da Silva will visit Colombia later this month to celebrate Colombia’s independence, when the same group that organized the massive February demonstrations plan more popular antiterror manifestations.
The run of success for President Uribe and the Colombian military follows years of pressure, particularly from overseas, to negotiate with the FARC. Even evidently friendly foreign leaders seemed to be telling the president to deal with the terrorists. Captured FARC computers reveal that shortly after taking office in 2007 the government of Nicolas Sarkozy paid the terrorists several hundred thousand dollars for the release of Colombian-French former leftist presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt. The FARC took the funds and kept Betancourt.
A year ago Uribe seriously pondered changing his policy and holding direct, mediated, public contacts with the FARC, with the objective of exchanging their hostages for government prisoners. Although he knew that every negotiation with the FARC had failed miserably, Uribe was considering reversing his longstanding position of combating the guerrillas until they sued for peace. Fortunately, trusted strategists convinced the president to at least postpone any change.
Then, in July 2007, the FARC slaughtered ten elected officials they held prisoner, buried them in the jungle and gave the Red Cross their location. This was more than enough to convince Alvaro Uribe to stand firm and continue his relentless pursuit of the terrorists.
In an exclusive interview at military headquarters on July 8, Freddy Padilla de Leon, commanding general of Colombia’s armed forces, explained Operation Check (for the penultimate chess move before achieving checkmate) that rescued the 15 kidnapped individuals, including three American civilian trainers and 11 Colombian soldiers.
Phase I included intercepting and confusing FARC communications so that their leadership was unwittingly involved in the operation plus comprehensive training (manual combat, guerrilla dress and acting lessons, which included mimicking FARC members and pacific non-Colombian personalities participating in former rescue missions, plus a Cuban “adviser”). All 60 FARC guerrillas guarding the prisoners were so completely fooled, that the planned 7 to 10 minute rescue mission encountered no problem, although the rescue party was on the ground a seemingly endless 22 minutes.
Phase I of Operation Check focused on rescuing the 15 hostages and taking the two senior FARC captors. Phase II provided the ultimate proof of the Colombians’ humanitarian strategy.
Although a battalion of 500 specially trained commandos surrounded the FARC encampment, no action was taken to kill or capture the remaining 58 terrorists. According to General Padilla, “We had no intention of harming or capturing any FARC member, except the two leaders whom we wished to take back to Bogotá for interrogation and trial. The most senior individual, alias: Cesar, is a seasoned guerrilla comandante, in charge of FARC Sector 1, extending from the Venezuelan border to the center of Colombia. This is a prime cocaine cultivation and transport area. Cesar and his fellow guerrillas lost their highly valued hostages, whom they despise and consider human merchandise.
“Our motivation in not harming the FARC troops was two fold,” General Padilla continued. “The objective was to mentally disarm and disorganize the FARC and this meant as little bloodshed as possible. We also wanted to send a message to all terrorists that they have an opportunity to lead a decent and peaceful life. In short, we wanted to give them a second chance to live.”
General Padilla has recognized the importance of motivational leadership throughout his 40-year career. His book, Liderazgo Militar (Military Leadership), has sold more than 200 thousand copies and he frequently speaks on leadership to gatherings of his troops and university students.
The armed forces of Colombia have perhaps the highest esprit de corps of any military in the world and simultaneously enjoy the highest respect from the Colombian people. A Pulso Colombia poll conducted June 27-28 before Operation Check showed the armed forces in a virtual tie with President Alvaro Uribe, as the most respected institution and individual in the country. Fifty-six percent of those polled gave the military a “much” trust rating and an additional 21 percent “some” trust.
Pulso Colombia measured popular opinion July 2–3 and, not surprisingly, found euphoria. Published by the respected El Espectador newspaper, respondents ranked the two still at the top and still virtually tied, with the armed forces receiving 81 percent “much” trust and 12 percent “some” trust. As for President Uribe, popular intention to vote for him in the event he runs for an unprecedented third term in 2010 jumped from 69 to 79 percent in the second poll (voters reelected Uribe with a 62 percent majority in 2006).
Nevertheless, there is a concerted effort by left wing organizations including many leaders of the Polo Democratico and Liberal political parties, members of the Supreme Court, and university dons to disparage the contribution of the Colombian military, and the Uribe administration. Colombian government leaders, both civil and military, are deeply concerned with what many view as treacherous behavior.
In the Pulso Colombia poll taken in late June, the Supreme Court received just 33 percent while the Liberal and Polo Democratico parties respectively garnered 29 and 24 percent “high” trust ratings, with commensurately low “some” trust marks. Moreover, 52 percent of those polled expressly do not trust the Colombian judicial system.
According to former Minister of the Interior Fernando Londoño, the effort to discredit the Colombian armed forces has long and deep roots. Londoño cites numerous examples wherein highly rated army officers “have been falsely accused of recklessly murderous activities against sindicalistas [union members] who in fact are terrorists. It has long been known that if they hold a union membership card, they have a degree of protection and if they are killed or captured the military can be accused of violating their ‘human rights.’ In fact, the vast number of so-called union members killed by the military in the last several years were simultaneously members of terrorist or communist organizations.”
Londoño, who hosts a leading morning radio talk show, La Hora de la Verdad (The Hour of Truth), believes these actions are “specifically designed not only to protect murderous terrorists but also to diminish respect for the Colombian government and military both at home and abroad. Fortunately, a large majority of Colombians hold the military in the highest regard; unfortunately, misguided members of the U.S. Congress have been fooled into thinking our government and military disrespect ‘human rights.’”
The cover of the March 17 edition of the leading Colombian weekly, Semana, shouted, “The End of the FARC Will be Long and Bloody.” Not so, according to Freddy Padilla de Leon: “We are winning this war faster and more efficiently than any one would have predicted. It should not take much longer to pursue the terrorists to el fin del fin [the end of the end, colloquially meaning the end of the road].”
General Padilla has slightly more than two years left in command of Colombia’s armed forces and it is clear he intends to conclude most, if not all, phases of the anti-terror war during his tenure, noting “We will continue to press the fight against guerrilla and paramilitary leadership at the same time as we offer their troops every opportunity to rejoin society.”
“Of course, they must pay a price but we will be as humane as possible,” Padilla observed. “Most terrorists come from very poor and rural areas of the country, are recruited between the ages of 12 and 15 and are often taken against the will of their parents. Having little education, it has proven relatively easy to indoctrinate them with revolutionary ideas and against Colombian society. Their conscription and indoctrination is hardly the youngsters’ fault.”
This is not to say that things are perfect within Colombian government and civil society. Corruption at all levels of government and throughout the society remains a daunting challenge, much of it fueled by narco-trafficking wealth used to buy bureaucrat and businessman alike.
As recently as February this year, when 14 paramilitary leaders were extradited to the United States from three high security Colombian jails, an estimated 30 to 40 laptop computers owned by the leaders mysteriously disappeared and until now no trace of them has been found. It is widely suspected within and without government that jail officials seized and disposed of the computers the very moment the 14 paramilitary leaders were taken from their cells.
This incident does more than underscore the extent of corruption in official circles: it means the government has lost an invaluable source of information. Highly placed authorities suspect that the computers contain extensive incriminating information concerning paramilitary involvement with members of the Colombian Congress and highly placed officials of the Colombian national police, motivating the latter to assure that their contents would never be revealed.
The disgraceful situation in Colombian prisons falls under the management of a special police unit, INPEC. Prisoners who can pay for special treatment have as many as 12 cells in which to luxuriate with catered food, television and periodic visits from young ladies; while regular inmates live in cells designed for two inmates but housing four and as many as seven individuals. Moreover, over 700 Manos Por La Paz members who in the past year have formally renounced their revolutionary ways and declared their opposition to return to the guerrilla organizations, fear for their lives surrounded as they are by unrepentant terrorists.
Civil leaders including Liduine Zumpolle, representing the Dutch foundation Support Reconciliation Colombia, are campaigning for separate prison facilities for “Manos” prisoners who have affirmed their willingness to stay in jail rather than be involved in a hostage exchange. Says Zumpolle: “These people are not angels and they deserve to pay for their crimes, but they also deserve not to be killed!”
A former FARC comandante and founder of Manos Por La Paz, known only as Raul, says bluntly, “The guerrilla leaders tricked us; they are gangsters, not revolutionaries. If we are able to reach every guerrilla, 90 to 95 percent would lay down their arms, provided they can trust the word of the Colombian government.”
Building this trust has become a priority of Vice President Francisco Santos and many other government officials. General Padilla believes Manos Por La Paz is having great success. “In just a year they have shown how much the power of the guerrilla organizations has fallen when hundreds of guerrillas risk their lives and say ‘No more. We are through with you and prefer to stay in jail!’”
The widely popular General Padilla says he has no specific plans following his term at the top of Colombia’s military in December 2020. “I certainly want to continue serving my country,” he told us, “and I would like to assist Colombia’s poor people in finding a solid place in our society. But for now my thoughts are totally focused on the job at hand. We must win this war, as soon and yet as humanely as possible.”
Increasing numbers of Colombian citizens believe Freddy Padilla de Leon is the man to at last write al fin del fin to the terrible decades of terrorist turmoil.
– John R. Thomson is a geopolitical analyst focusing on developing countries. Dorotea Laserna is a commentator on Latin American affairs. Both are based in Bogota, Colombia and welcome comments at firstname.lastname@example.org .