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The Hunt for FARC Commander Alfonso Cano

Sat 29th Jan 2011

The Colombian military has had numerous successes targeting high-ranking leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in recent years. Its two greatest successes were the killing of secretariat members Raúl Reyes in 2008 and Jorge Briceño, alias “Mono Jojoy,” last year. But the guerrilla leader that the military most wants to capture or kill is the FARC’s supreme commander Alfonso Cano. In an effort to achieve its objective, the Colombian army has deployed 5,000 troops with the sole mission of locating Cano. But the task of tracking down and targeting the FARC leader is proving to be far more challenging than the killing of Reyes and Mono Jojoy due to the high altitude and rugged mountain terrain prevalent in the department of Tolima in central Colombia, where the FARC was founded in 1964.

For more than 40 years, the FARC were led by their legendary commander Manuel Marulanda. Following Marulanda’s death from a heart attack in March 2008, Cano became the rebel group’s leader. Cano, whose real name is Guillermo Léon Sáenz, was a student leader at the National University in Bogotá during the 1970s. After joining the FARC he became involved in the guerrilla group’s political activities, including the Patriotic Front (UP) party in the 1980s. After the UP was decimated by right-wing paramilitaries that assassinated more than 2,000 party members, including two presidential candidates and four elected congressman, Cano became the head of the FARC’s new clandestine political organization, the Clandestine Colombian Communist Party.

U.S. aid under Plan Colombia over the past ten years has dramatically strengthened the Colombian military. Its soldiers are now well-trained in counter-insurgency techniques and benefit from U.S. intelligence gathering. Troops can also be deployed quickly to almost anywhere in the country thanks to the Blackhawk helicopters provided under Plan Colombia. Improved intelligence gathering has been a contributing factor in many of the successful air strikes against FARC camps, such as the ones that resulted in the deaths of Reyes and Mono Jojoy.

But Cano is not as vulnerable to satellites, planes and the rapid deployment of Colombian troops by helicopter. The FARC commander is high in the Andes Mountains in some of the most rugged terrain in Colombia, which is dominated by steep canyons, peaks that reach over 14,000-feet and almost constant cloud cover. In fact, there are only a handful of days during the year that the higher elevations of the mountains in southern Tolima are not blanketed with clouds.

As a result, it is difficult for the military to detect Cano’s location with satellite imagery and reconnaissance planes. It is also difficult for the army to rapidly deploy troops because it is too dangerous for helicopters to operate in the cloud-covered mountain terrain. According to Lieutenant-Colonel Rodolfo Mantilla, commander of the Caicedo Mountain Battalion, “Success is often determined by the weather. When we receive intelligence about the guerrillas we have to try and maintain that intelligence sometimes for four, five or six days until the weather clears and we can launch an operation.”

Instead of relying on air support, the Colombian army’s strategy has been to flood the region with ground troops in an effort to gain control over territory. But it has been slow going for the army. As Mantilla explains, “Our troops can only move one or two kilometers a day because of the steep canyons and the landmines planted by the guerrillas. It is also difficult because it only takes one civilian to tell the FARC where our troops are and we can be easily ambushed.”

While some army units are directly engaged in search-and-destroy missions targeting Cano, others are seeking to consolidate control over recent territorial gains. The strategy intends to win the “hearts and minds” of Colombian peasants who have lived under FARC rule for the past 45 years in order to undermine local support for the guerrillas. In 2008, the army began making frequent incursions into remote hamlets situated in the municipality of Chaparral. But as has occurred in many regions throughout Colombia under the government’s democratic security strategy, the army’s advancement into FARC-controlled territory has involved the perpetration of human rights abuses.

During the first year of the army’s efforts to extend state control in the municipality of Chaparral, 823 peasants were forcibly displaced by military operations, according to statistics provided by the Inspector General’s office—the government agency responsible for investigating human rights abuses. The government’s local human rights investigator, Claudia Pena, says there have also been four cases of “false-positives” in the municipality, where the army has executed civilians and reported them as guerrillas killed in combat. However, local residents in one mountain village claim that there has been double that number of false-positives in their community alone. One resident says that the army killed villagers simply because they assumed they were guerrillas.

It is difficult to obtain accurate statistics regarding human rights abuses because, according to Pena, “The people have been caught in the middle of the conflict and are afraid to say who is responsible for killings that occur. When a community refuses to help the army then soldiers assume that they are guerrillas. The same happens when they refuse to help the guerrillas, who accuse them of being army informants.”

Over the past year, the army has begun to consolidate its control over territory by establishing a permanent presence in several remote mountain villages and hamlets. One such village is Santa Barbara, where the departmental government has built a new “mega-school” to serve the 10,000 residents that live in the village and its surrounding hamlets. One local community leader says that the government also provided computers and bicycles for free. The new school, as is the case with other schools in the region, also serves a military purpose. According to Lt. Col. Mantilla, “We are implementing programs in schools throughout the municipality to deter children from wanting to join the guerrillas.”

Not all of the communities in which the army has recently established a permanent presence have received the same amount of attention as Santa Barbara. Three months ago, the army established itself in the mountain village of Limón, which historically was a full day of travel by four-wheel-drive jeep from the town of Chaparral, where the Caicedo Mountain Battalion is based. The state recently paved the rugged dirt track that constituted the principal access route into that mountainous region and it now takes only two hours to reach the remote village.

But like many other former FARC-controlled regions that are now in the government´s hands, the military constitutes the only permanent state presence. Representatives of the government’s Social Action agency only visit the village of Limón once a week and never venture out to the even more remote hamlets. Similarly, Limón’s health clinic, which serves the 5,000 peasants that live in the village and its surrounding hamlets, is only staffed by a nurse, with a doctor visiting on Sundays.

Most peasants living in Limón and its surrounding hamlets live in extreme poverty, supporting themselves through subsistence agriculture and by cultivating a handful of cash crops such as cacao and coffee. However, because most of the farming occurs in the remote hamlets, it is difficult for peasants to get their crops to the market in the town of Chaparral. While the new road has helped, many still have to first transport their crops by mule on dirt trails from their hamlets to Limón; a journey that often involves a four-hour or more trek each way.

Most of the communities throughout the region have lived under FARC rule for decades. The community leader in Limón explains that the FARC ensured there was no violence or crime, and also that farmers didn’t damage the environment. Under state control, there has been an increase in crime and no improvement in the economy. According to a community leader in Limón who belongs to the local Community Action Council (Junta Acción Comunal), “The military is the only state presence here. We need more investment in technology and in infrastructure, like improving the trails so peasants can get their crops to market easier. This is the only way to eliminate the poverty.”

Much of the local population is both distrustful of the new military presence and afraid that the guerrillas might target them if they cooperate with government agencies. The desire to appear neutral is evidenced in the words of a 73-year-old woman named Armelia, who has lived her entire life in the hamlet of Jasminia. Armelia says that the guerrillas never bothered the community and neither does the army. However, she wishes someone would help alleviate the extreme poverty in which she lives, claiming that there has been no change in the social and economic situation during her long life.

While many peasants strive to appear neutral, some are involved with one side or the other in the conflict. One resident of Limón explained that many families have children in the FARC. Another said that the extreme poverty leads many to join either the guerrillas or the army. According to Lt. Col. Mantilla, sometimes when peasants from regions traditionally controlled by the FARC want to join the guerrillas, the rebel group tells them to join the army instead so they can act as informants. Mantilla claims to have discovered two soldiers in his battalion during the last two months of 2010 that were FARC members who had infiltrated his unit.

There is no question that the FARC has been hurt by a more aggressive Colombian military, which has benefited from more than $7 billion in U.S. aid and training over the past decade. The guerrilla group’s influence in regions where it expanded its presence during the 1980s and 1990s has been either completely eliminated or has been diminished significantly in recent years. The FARC’s focus on a military presence in most of these regions often led to local populations viewing the guerrillas as outsiders. The rebel group’s failure to establish close ties to local populations allowed the newly-strengthened and more aggressive Colombian military to defeat it in those regions. As a result, the visible guerrilla presence in northern and central Colombia, as well as in the far eastern departments of Guainía, Vaupés and Amazonas, has been virtually eradicated. However, it is difficult to determine to what extent the FARC still operates clandestinely in these regions.

By the end of 2010, the FARC maintained a significant visible presence in only three regions of the country: the south-east (Meta, Guaviare, Caquetá and Putumayo); the south-central highlands (Huila and southern Tolima); and the south-west (Nariño, Cauca, Valle de Cauca and southern Chóco). Even in these traditional strongholds where the FARC remains organically linked with much of the peasant population, the guerrillas have been forced to retreat to the most remote areas.

Despite these setbacks, the FARC’s military strength and popular support remains relatively intact in its traditional strongholds. In fact, according to a 2010 report issued by the Bogota-based NGO New Rainbow Corporation, more soldiers and police were killed in 2010 than at the height of the conflict in 2002. However, many of these casualties resulted from defensive actions by the FARC such as the planting of landmines, whereas ten years ago soldiers and police were being killed in large-scale guerrilla offensives launched against small and medium sized towns. Nevertheless, the FARC continues to carry out offensive actions, conducting more than 1,800 attacks in 2010, albeit on a much smaller scale than previously. Furthermore, the overwhelming majority of these attacks occurred in the three regions in which the FARC maintains a strong presence rather than throughout the country.

Many of these attacks have targeted the thousands of troops that are hunting Alfonso Cano in southern Tolima. Lt. Col. Mantilla claims it is difficult to determine exactly how many guerrillas are protecting Cano. There are several concentric rings of security surrounding the FARC commander as well as guerrilla units that engage in offensive operations throughout the region. There are also many FARC militia members living in the hundreds of hamlets and villages that are scattered throughout the mountains, as well as in the town of Chaparral.

Despite the army’s many successes against the FARC in recent years, it continues to struggle in its efforts to make significant headway in the guerrilla group’s traditional strongholds. Nowhere has that struggle proven more difficult than in the rugged mountains of southern Tolima. Consequently, notes Mantilla, “There has been a lot of blood spilled in these mountains, by our soldiers and by the guerrillas. This is not a mission that can be accomplished in weeks, or in months. It is going to take years.”

Originally published in Columbia Journal
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