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Rebels Losing Their Edge in Colombia's Civil War

Conflict: The fighting appears to be at a deadlock a month after peace talks' collapse. The guerrillas face stronger, better-equipped foes.

March 28, 2002|T. CHRISTIAN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BOGOTA, Colombia — A month after peace talks collapsed, this is what Colombia's war looks like:

In the countryside, leftist guerrillas have demolished bridges, detonated car bombs and killed soldiers and police in small groups. In the cities, people go on Sunday bike rides, dine at fine restaurants and attend fashion shows.

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Saturday March 30, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Colombian war--An article in Section A on Thursday incorrectly stated the combat status of Colombian military draftees. Only those with high school diplomas are excused from such duty.

In other words, the war looks pretty much the same as it did before Feb. 20, when President Andres Pastrana ended negotiations with the country's largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.

Despite predictions, the end of talks has not produced a blood bath. Instead, more than three years after a devastating series of rebel victories prompted the talks, there is growing evidence that the guerrillas have lost their military advantage.

The Colombian military is stronger, with more troops and better equipment. The country's right-wing paramilitary groups have turned into a powerful enemy. And the U.S.-supported battle against cocaine production and trafficking has cut into the rebels' primary source of revenue, analysts believe.

As a result, the war is at a deadlock. The rebels seem to be positioning themselves for an eventual return to talks rather than national conquest, launching hit-and-run attacks against political figures and infrastructure to improve their negotiating position.

"It's going to take much blood, much destruction and thousands of dead. Then the talks will start again," said Armando Borrero, a former national security chief.

There is a ray of hope: Negotiations with a smaller rebel group, the National Liberation Army, or ELN, have improved. Both sides are examining the possibility of a truce in coming months. The ELN, thought to number fewer than 5,000 rebels, has been devastated by paramilitary attacks.

Fears of a Blood Bath So Far Seem Unfounded

The end of the peace talks with the FARC, which is more than three times the size of the ELN, has not produced a massive surge in casualties in Colombia's internal conflict, which has simmered since 1964. Fighting this year between the military and rebels has killed about 40 combatants a week, up from last year's average of about 26 a week.

Nor have the rebels been able so far to unleash a promised wave of attacks against cities, where more than 70% of the population lives. Military and police have detained dozens of alleged urban guerrillas. The federal prosecutor's office has conducted nationwide raids, seizing dynamite and bombs.

The FARC, made up mostly of impoverished, uneducated peasants, has so far been unable to mount complex operations that would suggest its fighters are ready for the urban warfare necessary to take control of Bogota, the capital, experts say.

"They are historically weak in the cities," said Adam Isacson, the Colombia analyst for the Center for International Policy, a center-left think tank based in Washington. "I don't think they have that capacity."

Even in rural areas, both rebel groups have had difficulty asserting the dominance they once showed. Congressional elections held March 10 went smoothly in all but 15 of the more than 1,000 counties nationwide, a major achievement considering that the two groups control an estimated 40% of rural areas and the FARC had demanded a boycott.

None of this means that the rebels are on the verge of defeat. Their ubiquitous presence and proven ability to destroy infrastructure have frustrated the military. The result is a stalemate, say officials and analysts, with no side able to dominate and years of bloodshed ahead.

"Terrorism is an endemic disease," said Gen. Fernando Tapias, the armed forces chief. "It cannot be totally eliminated, but we can cut down the levels of destruction."

The standoff has changed the character of the war. In the late 1990s, the FARC had grown strong enough to attack army bases and cities in sustained operations with hundreds of fighters.

The rebels wiped out an elite counter-guerrilla battalion outside the southern town of El Billar during a two-day battle in March 1998, killing 107 of the unit's 154 soldiers. In November that year, as Pastrana was preparing to hand over a demilitarized zone to the rebels as a prelude to talks, hundreds of FARC rebels overran Mitu, a regional capital in eastern Colombia, killing 150 soldiers.

More recently, the rebels have had trouble mounting such logistically complicated operations, thanks in part to U.S. military hardware and satellite intelligence.

Last August, an elite Colombian strike force of about 5,000 soldiers transported by U.S.-made Black Hawk helicopters routed a column of about 1,000 rebels who were trying to recapture a crucial drug-and-arms-smuggling corridor in a remote corner of southeastern Colombia.

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