Evaluating Counterterrorism in Colombia


The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia People’s Army or FARC is a political entity from Colombia most famous for carrying out kidnappings and running narcotics operations. The FARC has been a potential regional and international destabilizing force, managing to effectively evade the reach of the Colombian government for around forty years, and indirectly causing conflict wherever drugs were trafficked. FARC was a large threat to the Colombian government and United States interests, most recently at the beginning of the 21st century. The U.S. interest in fighting FARC comes from efforts to fight drug trafficking and the potential effects of a weak state within the United States’ sphere of influence in the western hemisphere.

Much ground has been gained in the fight against FARC, helped by millions of dollars of aid given to the Columbian military by the United States government. At the beginning of the 21st century FARC had 18,000 members. In 1999 FARC committed 2,000 terrorist acts, 3,000 kidnappings, and Colombia had a 60 per 100,000 homicide rate. In 2011, FARC had 8–9,000 members. and accounted for 377 attacks. By 2012 FARC disavowed kidnapping. The Colombian government is currently conducting peace talks with FARC in Havana, but Colombians are a bit torn regarding the peace talks. 20 percent of Colombians polled in February 2013 believed the talks would end in peace, and 80 percent viewed the talks as negotiations of FARC’s surrender, not peace talks between two legitimate political parties.

As of now, FARC’s drug trafficking is still a concern for the United States and the Colombian government. Although violence dropped by a large margin, and FARC’s numbers effectively halved, they remain responsible for 79 percent of all terrorist attacks in the western hemisphere in 2011. This large apportionment of violence is enough to justify U.S. concern about FARC, and the implications that large amounts of unregulated cash flows from FARC to sympathetic ideological allies is another security concern for the United States.

Ideological Foundations

FARC has its origin as a left wing guerrilla group, which claimed to represent the rural poor, opposes U.S. influence in Colombia, multinational corporations, and rightist violence. FARC was the armed component of the Colombian communist party, bent on overturning a political structure which encouraged systemic inequality. FARC doctrine is inspired by Marx and Simon Bolivar alike. Land apportionment in Colombia is incredibly unequal, with fifty percent of the land being owned by one percent of the population. FARC looks to make the distribution of land more equal, claiming that “More than half of the Colombian territory is used for the benefit of an enclave economy.” FARC represents itself as a spokesman for the people, especially those who suffer the most for the benefit of the elitists of the enclave economy. FARC is particularly frustrated with capitalism, capitalists, Anglo-Americans, and corporations which seek to exploit the environment for mineral or energy resources. They are also unsatisfied with the ability of the state to effectively address their grievances, and view the current peace talks as evidence of their defeat of “United States Central Command” and the Colombian government. According to the polls cited earlier, most Colombians do not view the FARC this way, and instead think of them in the context of conflict, instability, drug trafficking, kidnapping, and violence.


In The Colombian Labyrinth, Angel Rabasa and Peter Chalk, both senior political scientists at the RAND corporation, distill FARC’s grand strategy into three broad goals: to consolidate its control of coca-growing regions in the southern and eastern part of the country, to expand the theater of operations to the entire country, so as to force the government to disperse its forces and reduce its ability to regain the military initiative, and to isolate the capital, Bogotá, and other major cities. FARC’s overarching goal was to overturn the conventional Colombian political structure in favor of one more favorable to communist or socialist policy. The ways to achieve this end was through the use of political violence against the Colombian state, and the establishment of a loyal populous in hard to govern areas. The means to obtain funding for this political violence are described below.

FARC initially began collecting taxes from marijuana and coca growers in areas that they controlled, but expanded their drug trafficking to a global enterprise. FARC used drug revenue to create a military specialized for asymmetric/guerrilla warfare. FARC’s tactics included conducting kidnappings to take in large profits from the kidnapped individuals governments or corporations, extortions, and unofficial tax and levies for “protection” and social services. The FARC also conducted bombings, mortar attacks, murders, kidnapping for ransom, extortion, and hijackings, mainly against Colombian targets. They also targeted wealthy landowners, foreign terrorists, and prominent international and domestic officials.


FARC has a complex and loose paramilitary structure. Its current form was adopted in 1993, and consists of “a hierarchical organization with a well-defined chain of command and rank structure at the higher levels of authority with semi-distributed command system that extends across a huge territorial expanse in both rural and urban environments.” FARC is separated into 6 or 7 territorial blocks, replete with 5–20 fronts (with each front composed of about 100 fighters), as well as 15 independent companies assigned to the blocs, and to be used by bloc commanders as they see fit. Bloc commanders report up to the Secretariat and Estado Mayor Central, who in turn are part of. the Central High Command, which includes the Secretariat, which has five permanent members, one of whom is the Commander-in-Chief, and two supplemental members, and the Estado Mayor Central (EMC) which has approximately thirty members.

This structure fits the end states of FARC perfectly. Bloc commanders are given lots of flexibility in their zones of control. FARC is a hard organization to completely destroy. Top. leadership has been killed multiple times since 2008, FARC’s troop numbers have dwindled, yet they still manage to exist and cause irritation to the Colombian government. FARC still has territorial integrity, and certain areas of Colombia are still warzones, where mines are a constant presence and journalists do not have ease of movement.

Scope of Threat

FARC’s scope of threat at first glance seems regional, and most important to the governments of Colombia and the United States. This is mostly true, and FARC’s touch is mostly regional, affecting most the countries of Peru, Panama, Venezuela, and Ecuador. FARC’s drug trafficking is what makes its reach global. FARC is estimated to have $4 billion in assets worldwide. FARC was allowed to traffic drugs through Venezuela to West Africa. FARC will remain a greater threat for regional actors, but its global reach cannot be forgotten.

The late Hugo Chavez from Venezuela was known to have close ties to FARC. Chavez’s friendly relations with the Iranian government should raise the concerns of the US. Under Chavez, passport restrictions were lifted for Iranian citizens, allowing for both ease of access in and out of Venezuela as well as anonymity and no paper trail of Iranian presence in the country. Continued cooperation between terrorist/paramilitary organizations like FARC and hostile state government’s like Venezuela is part of a strategy to counter balance conventional US military power.

FARC: A Threat to State Stability

In 1990 FARC presented a threat to the government of Colombia because of the continuous attacks against government forces, kidnappings of foreigners, and flow of drugs throughout the country. FARC was trying to do nothing less than completely overthrow the government of Colombia, and continued to launch very public and successful guerrilla campaigns for a long time. This was a way to delegitimize the government by demonstrating how weak it was. The kidnapping of foreigners also demonstrated a weakness in the Colombian government by showing that it did not have the monopoly of violence within its borders, and could not guarantee the safety of foreign individuals therein. The flow of drugs throughout the country was also a source of instability, as the illegality and high value of the substances being traded made the armed groups in control of them prone to violence in order to protect their goods.

FARC CT Approach

Colombia adopted a full spectrum approach in 2000 which utilized all diplomatic, intelligence, military, and economic tools to consolidate state power and eliminate FARC’s ability to mobilize effective military force. The diplomatic portion of this plan consisted of internal and external components. The internal components first concerned eventually reaching a negotiated peace settlement with FARC. Another internal portion of this plan was to reestablish the rule of law, and guarantee impartial and fair judicial processes. An external diplomatic component was to garner the support of the international community. The most difficult part of the diplomatic plan is the call by the government on citizens to popularly mobilize and participate in local government, as well as hold the FARC accountable.

The intelligence tools were not explicitly mentioned in the plan, but an emphasis on counter-narcotics operations implies a relationship between Colombian intelligence agencies and those of any country which was to work closely with Colombia (which was to mainly be the United States).

The military portion of this plan had ties to the diplomatic and military tools of political power. Colombia emphasized the importance of conducting multilateral counter-narcotics operations, as well as standing up new counter-narcotics battalions. The plan called for an overall increase in the strength of police and military forces to reinstate the rule of law and provide security for the populace.

The economic portion of this plan also consisted of internal and external components Another internal economic component was the creation of social programs for health, education, and alleviation of poverty.. An external economic component was greater integration of the Colombian economy into the global free-enterprise market. Another one of the external components consisted of mobilization of the international community to take part in the plan. An internal component of the economic portion was the offering of legal alternative crops to coca for farmers to grow by the government.

Theses approach was implemented from 2000 up through 2012.

Definition of success and effectiveness.

The Colombian government defined success as the achievement of the goals listed earlier, but publicly success has been defined by the exceptionally effective military and counter-narcotic operations carried out against FARC.

Short and Long-term Impact on FARC

Overall, the short term impact was to eliminate FARC soldiers and leaders. The Colombian government. killed several FARC commanders in 2007 and the group’s second in command, Raúl Reyes in March 2008. FARC’s long-time leader, Manuel Marulanda, died of a heart attack in March 2008 as well. In July 2008 15 long-held hostages were rescued, some which had been held since 2003. In September 2010,a top military commander, Victor Julio Suárez was killed in a bombing raid. In November 2011, the Colombian military killed top FARC leader Alfonso Cano in another bombing raid. After Cano’s death, Rodrigo Londoño was made the FARC’s new leader in November 2011. In September 2012, a top FARC commander, Danilo García, and 15 other FARC members were killed in a military raid.

The long-term impact was to degrade the military, limit drug flow, and reduce the overall capabilities and threat presented by FARC. The military also made the situation slightly safer for foreigners in Colombia, as FARC recently disavowed its old habits of kidnapping for ransom. Right now, FARC and the Colombian government are in a stalemate, and the future remains largely open to a wide variety of situations. Reconciliation and peace negotiations appear to be the focus of current strategy, following the intense military focus earlier on.

Were these measures successful or unsuccessful in the short- and long-term, and why?

These measures were very successful in the short term and the long. FARC is only a fraction today what it was in the 1990’s. Depending on how peace talks go, Colombia may be close to resolving over fifty years of bloody conflict. The only uncertainty lies in the future sustainability of FARC and the small potential of a resurgence in lieu of unsuccessful negotiations or reinvigorated insurgency as a response to the very aggressive actions of the Colombian military.

Moral/Ethical challenges in Colombian CT policy

FARC is an organization which, like any terrorist organization, has different levels of involvement. There are the hardcore fighters and their commanders. There exist financial backers, arms, and munitions suppliers. At the most surface levels are civilians who support, live, and believe in the FARC’s ideological bent. The biggest moral/ethical challenges the Colombian faced was how to effectively destroy FARC and deny them a safe haven, while avoiding needless civilian bloodshed. The Colombian government would most likely gain from killing civilians who supported FARC. The risk lies, however, in creating more FARC sympathizers. Any civilians killed by the Colombian government can quickly be used as evidence against the legitimacy of their fight. Indeed, the Colombian military has been known to. be associated with kidnappings and executions.

Even more morally/ethically challenging is the safety of civilians who end up getting caught between the Colombian government and the FARC, those who are striving to live day by day. This is difficult, and one of the most obvious and painful moral/ethical challenges which the Colombian government must deal with is the extensive presence of mines left over by the FARC in former FARC territory.

Mines were used by the FARC as a form of unconventional warfare against the Colombian Army’s superior force. The mines terrorized local farmers, and the Colombian government could not really do anything about it, but was complicit in the mines very existence because of their determined hunt for FARC. In a perverse way the Colombian government owes an apology to all those civilians who lose a limb or a relative to these mines, even though they were originally placed by FARC. FARC is the true culprit, but FARC can somewhat make the argument that if they were left alone, the need for mines would be unnecessary.

Significance and Applicability for U.S. Counterterrorism Efforts

On the surface, the case of counterterrorism in Colombia appears to have little or no relation to U.S. counterterrorism efforts. However, the United States’ fingerprints are all over the success of Colombia’s counterterrorism (and really counterinsurgency) efforts. The U.S. provided an incredible amount of money, training, and equipment to the Colombian government. The Colombian government used these resources quite successfully, resulting in the near decimation of FARC over a decade of intense fighting. If in the future the United States has another ally in a somewhat strong centralized state with an internal terrorism problem similar to Colombia, perhaps the correct allocation of money, training, and equipment will allow the successful elimination of that terrorist threat.

The duplication of the successes in Colombia is not guaranteed, and the existence of a semi-competent centralized government is rare to find in most states with internal terrorism issues. Many unstable and weak states in Africa and the Middle East are not trustworthy enough in the eyes of the United States to warrant the granting of large amounts of arms and aid.

The successes in Colombia also appear to be rather bittersweet. A very aggressive approach was taken, resulting in the kind of violence which is not associated with successfully democratic regimes. To ensure that the Colombian government is perceived as a fair government by all of its citizens, any human rights violations which occurred must be acknowledged and taken care of in a court of law. Otherwise, reconciliation may be difficult. Still, that reconciliation is on the table is much preferable to the scenario presented in 1990.


The United States should continue to work closely with the Colombian government to end drug trafficking and the violence associated with it while encouraging dialogue between both parties. Weak or failing states across the world represent havens for those with the desire to push forward causes unacceptable to most of the world. The less influence FARC has in Colombia, the more stable the existing Colombian state structure. The United States should also continue to target FARC in order to balance against Iranian influence in Venezuela. These states are looking to target U.S. power through indirect means, raising funds in a hard to regulate arena. There are questions of corruption and power related to the funneling of U.S. funding to the Colombian government, as well as questions about the amount of control the Colombian government really has over its military, especially special forces segments of the military accused of killing, sexually assaulting, intimidating, and covering up offenses against innocent civilians. All concerns should be investigated, as any friction in this regard is fuel for the fire of continued FARC violence.


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