BOGOTA, COLOMBIA — The sensational rescue of 15 hostages from the grip of Latin America's largest rebel group has highlighted the diminished state of an organization that just six years ago threatened to overrun the Colombian government.
Once fueled by Marxist ideology and awash in narcotics profits, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, now finds itself facing a more robust Colombian military led by a popular president. The group has suffered the deaths of top leaders, seen large-scale defections of supporters, and is being squeezed for the money it needs to sustain its operations.
Now the FARC has lost its trophy hostages: ex-presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and three U.S. defense contractors whom the rebels viewed as human shields against all-out government attacks. The nature of the rescue mission -- in which government agents posed as rebels and freed the hostages without firing a shot -- was widely seen as a deep humiliation and public relations disaster for the FARC.
Security officials warn that the rebel group retains some sting. The number of militants has dropped by about half in the last decade, but it still has about 10,000 armed guerrillas spread from the Caribbean to the Amazon jungle. And it continues to hold 700 hostages, bargaining chips that preclude a quick end to the group's 44-year-long insurgency.
But President Alvaro Uribe's strategy of aggressively taking the fight to the FARC, backed by a $5-billion U.S. aid package, appears to have seriously degraded the rebels' ability to challenge the state.
Uribe took office in 2002 as the Colombian capital was virtually encircled by FARC forces. A missile and mortar attack marred his inauguration.
He has bolstered the number of government troops by 40% while greatly improving surveillance abilities. Troops have disrupted logistics and killed or captured numerous key FARC lieutenants, leaving guerrillas beleaguered and demoralized.
"Every time we looked up, there was the army," Nelly Avila Moreno, a 24-year FARC veteran and renowned guerrilla leader known as Karina, told interrogators after surrendering in May. "We were totally besieged."
The FARC has also seen a drastic decline in support among average Colombians, even with its traditional bastions of peasants and leftists.
"You couldn't confide in the people [any longer] because they would betray you," Avila said.
The FARC no longer controls any significant towns and has been reduced to bands operating in isolated redoubts with fragmented central command, according to intelligence officials. They contend that recruitment is down and that tensions with civilians have risen as the FARC seeks younger recruits, some as young as 13, while forcing urban sympathizers to join rural combat units.
Defectors also say that mid-level commanders live in fear of being turned in by fighters for hefty ransoms offered by the Colombian government. In one notorious case this year, a guerrilla killed his superior in return for a government payout, providing authorities with the slain leader's bloody hand as proof of his treachery.
"You may have a lot of fighters at your side, but you never know what they are really thinking," ex-guerrilla leader Avila told journalists after she turned herself in.
The FARC, she said, was "crumbling."
The group's cash-flow woes seem to be a paradox considering its revenue from Colombia's booming cocaine trade, which the FARC long ago embraced, along with kidnapping, as means to finance its war. But a crackdown on exchange houses used by the group to launder money has sapped available cash, according to a U.S. intelligence source.
In some cases, the FARC has been reduced to using chits instead of cash to pay cultivators of the coca leaf, from which cocaine is made, a Colombian intelligence officer said.
Officials say low-ranking fighters are bearing the brunt of the cash shortage. Defectors and ex-hostages have described a lack of basics such as food, boots, uniforms and other items in the far-flung encampments.
"Mid-level commanders who control the money are giving up and fleeing with the cash," said Gen. Freddy Padilla, the Colombian armed forces' chief of staff.
This week's daring snatching of the hostages away from their captors has led some observers to herald the imminent demise of the rebel group.
"The FARC are a painful inheritance of the Cold War," wrote Patricio Navia, a Chilean political analyst. "We must celebrate that their end now appears near reality."
Others are more cautious. "The FARC continues to be an organization that represents a significant threat, with a significant capacity to do damage," said Alejo Vargas, a political analyst. "It maintains the essential guerrilla structure, which cannot be minimized."