FARC's Options

Things haven't been going very well for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) over the last year. Missile attacks, bombardments, killing of several leaders, the death of Manuel "Sureshot" Marulanda Vélez, desertions, that Dutch girl who left her diaries lying around and of course the sneaky plot to free Ingrid Betancourt and a couple of US mercenaries.

Opinions differ on what plans the US-Colombia axis may have with the rebel force. Raúl Zibechi writes on the website of the Center for International Policy:


The strategy outlined by the Southern Command (SouthCom) and the Pentagon, and expressed in Plan Colombia II, does not seek the definitive defeat or negotiations with the guerrillas. Eliminating the FARC from the scene would be bad for business and undermine the imperial strategy of destabilization and re-colonization of the Andean region. That project cannot be carried out without a direct or indirect war, without permanent destabilization as a vehicle for the territorial and political reconfiguration of the strategic region that includes the arc curving from Venezuela to Bolivia and Paraguay, and passing through Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru."


In other words, it would be in the US imperialist interest to keep the FARC in a perpetual state of (near) failure (remember that expression), according to Zibechi. Heinz Dieterich, on the other hand, thinks that complete destruction of the FARC is on the agenda to facilitate "war on Chavez":


"El fracaso en Caracas [the failed coup of 2002 - OO] hizo más imperiosa la aniquilación de las FARC, porque Colombia solo sirve de plataforma de agresión militar ---según el modelo de destrucción del Sandinismo desde Honduras--- sin columnas guerrilleras en su retaguardia. De ahí que la Casa Blanca planeó la neutralización de la capacidad operativa de las FARC en torno al año 2007-2008, para desatar una ofensiva generalizada contra Chávez y las fuerzas bolivarianas, a partir del 2008-2009."


In his favor speak, obviously, other events such as - but not limited to - the reactivation of the US 4th Fleet and the magic laptop operetta.

What's a guerrilla army to do in the face of such forces being unleashed against it? While plenty is being written analyzing Hugo Chavez's strategy (from visiting the King of Spain to arms purchases in Russia) for survival, the annihilation of the FARC is treated as already established fact and the only thing missing to complete the picture is Alvaro Uribe standing on a 4th fleet aircraft carrier declaring the mission accomplished.

Not everybody believes that though. Recent victories - yes: victories - of the FARC suggest that it may not have reached the end of its lifespan just yet. Can the FARC survive? Let's make an attempt at analyzing the options:

1. Continue as a guerrilla army. The FARC is structured along classic military hierarchical lines, with a central command, regional blocks, fronts, columns, squads and so on. As such, they're outnumbered and outgunned by the Colombian army and its US backers while being forced by their own organizational structure to adhere to Third Generation Warfare - at which their opponents are much better, as recent history shows. Simply said: They're easy targets. The way they're organized also makes them vulnerable to infiltration as undercover operatives can move through the organization and/or gather information with relative ease because it is so tightly organized. This does not look like a strategy for success in the 21st century.

The least that should be done if the FARC continues down this path (or any other path for that matter) and wants to somehow survive, is cleaning up the IT and communications departments. A few years ago the FARC still distributed news releases which even by this author were easily traced back to certain neighborhoods of Caracas, Venezuela. Similarly, while their laptops are apparently strong enough to survive missile attacks, their content is not safe from prying eyes - Windows is not exactly the most secure operating system around and even a wifi card can serve as a homing beacon. Since none of this is complicated or expensive to fix, the word "bungling" comes to mind.

2. Become a popular movement. As Raúl Zibechi writes in his aforementioned article, there is a void between the guerrillas and "above board" political groups (Polo Democratico) where social movements would operate were it not that, as Zibechi puts it, they "have major difficulties to overcome on the local and sectoral scale and are not in any condition, for now, to put themselves forward as an alternative". The FARC could fill that void and become a gluing force in a network of various social groups, much like the Zapatistas demonstrated during "The Other Campaign". This would of course require substantial changes, like laying down arms (at least temporarily), and exchanging the top-down hierarchical structure for a bottom-up participative form of organizing more in line with 21st century socialism. And they'll probably quickly find out that gathering grassroots community support is very difficult when you routinely kidnap or even kill members of these communities at the same time.

The FARC's involvement - whichever shape that has exactly - in the drug trade is not necessarily an obstacle here. Drugs produced in Colombia are agricultural products just like coffee, and the profits go to a small "narcogarchy" and money launderers up north, protected by Plan Colombia, with the real producers - the growers - receiving only pennies for their efforts. Together with the fact that the FARC has long advocated drug legalization, this is a narrative they could use to their advantage if only they'd manage to bring it across in a comprehensive manner.

3. Open Source Warfare. Imagine the Colombian State as a Microsoft; big, hierarchical and monopolist. Microsoft's biggest competitor is the Open Source software movement. Contrary to Microsoft, Open Source is characterized by networked individuals and groups rallying ("swarming") around one common goal. Information and new findings are quickly shared across the network and, in the case of software, releases are early and often so that others can easily learn and join the effort. The success of this formula, when applied to resistance movements (or terrorism, if you like) can be seen on a daily basis in Iraq and Afghanistan. The goal is usually not to replace the State (as with traditional liberation armies like the Sandinistas and the FARC) but to keep it in a perpetual state of failure, which is accomplished mainly by destroying vital infrastructure using relatively cheap and low-tech (open source) weaponry (and even homebuilt aircraft). It is no coincidence that the only successes of the FARC over the last year have been exactly in this area. Reports James Brittain of the Atlantic Canada-Colombia Research Group:


Between April 29 and May 6, the FARC carried out a coordinated series of attacks that isolated sectors of Colombia’s largest oil pipeline and subsequently halted the production of an estimated eight hundred thousand to three million barrels of oil. In addition, the guerrillas strategically destroyed important transportation routes needed to control the flow of oil and military supplies throughout various departments in the north of the country. And by destroying an essential bridge near Catatumbo in the department of Cesar, the FARC was able to prevent the movement of state and private security forces, thereby keeping existing military units preoccupied. Following the initial offensive, another FARC front near Tibu in Norte de Santander pursued an aggressive attack against security forces guarding the 500-mile Caño Limón oil pipeline—the true target of the attack. Ironically, all this took place just a few short hours after William Brownfield, the US ambassador to Colombia, visited the area and applauded the security situation and economic progress that had resulted from the FARC’s supposed decline.


In response to the FARC’s offensive, the Colombia army’s General Paulino Coronado coordinated a counter-offensive on May 3 in an effort to terminate the FARC attack and resume the flow of oil. The guerrillas quickly defeated the deployed battalion and continued their assault on the pipeline facilities for an another forty-eight hours. Showing that their campaign targeting the Caño-Limón pipeline was not simply a one-time tactical success, the FARC carried out an another attack on an exploitive multinational corporation and state infrastructure when it targeted Colombia’s largest coal mine—El Cerrejón—on the 44th anniversary of insurgency’s inception. On May 27, according to Reuters, FARC guerrillas derailed “around 40 wagons out of the 120-wagon train, carrying 110 tonnes of coal.” While officials tried to downplay the extensive damage caused, it quickly became apparent that the FARC had considerably hampered trading by destabilizing entire export routes.

Former counter-terrorism officer John Robb is probably the expert on this 4th Generation Warfare and describes it on his extensive website this way:

The Bazaar
The decentralized, and seemingly chaotic guerrilla war in Iraq demonstrates a pattern that will likely serve as a model for next generation terrorists. This pattern shows a level of learning, activity, and success similar to what we see in the open source software community. I call this pattern the bazaar. The bazaar solves the problem: how do small, potentially antagonistic networks combine to conduct war? (...) Here are the factors that apply (from the perspective of the guerrillas):

* Release early and often. Try new forms of attacks against different types of targets early and often. Don't wait for a perfect plan.

* Given a large enough pool of co-developers, any difficult problem will be seen as obvious by someone, and solved. Eventually some participant of the bazaar will find a way to disrupt a particularly difficult target. All you need to do is copy the process they used.

* Your co-developers (beta-testers) are your most valuable resource. The other guerrilla networks in the bazaar are your most valuable allies. They will innovate on your plans, swarm on weaknesses you identify, and protect you by creating system noise.

* Recognize good ideas from your co-developers. Simple attacks that have immediate and far-reaching impact should be adopted.

* Perfection is achieved when there is nothing left to take away (simplicity). The easier the attack is, the more easily it will be adopted. Complexity prevents swarming that both amplifies and protects.

* Tools are often used in unexpected ways. An attack method can often find reuse in unexpected ways.

(The attentive observer will also note that much of this can be applied to non-violent grassroots initiatives, political campaigns and protest movements as well).

Given the current state of affairs, it is most likely that the above is the direction in which the FARC will evolve as it offers the highest probability of successes with limited resources. If this is desirable or brings peace any closer for Colombia's battered population is, of course, an entirely different matter.

About Okke Ornstein

Okke Ornstein is from the Netherlands where he worked for about 15 years in the wonderful world of television and radio before accidentally moving to Panama. He works as a journalist, radio producer and photographer. Assignments include reporting from Panama, Afghanistan and recently Syria. Ornstein runs the blog Bananama Republic and his own site at ornstein.org.


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About Okke Ornstein

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Okke Ornstein is from the Netherlands where he worked for about 15 years in the wonderful world of television and radio before accidentally moving to Panama. He works as a journalist, radio producer and photographer. Assignments include reporting from Panama, Afghanistan and recently Syria. Ornstein runs the blog Bananama Republic and his own site at ornstein.org.