Rebels' Grip Tightens

Rebels' Grip Tightens
Posted by FoM on December 18, 2000 at 07:23:37 PT
By Robert Collier, Chronicle Staff Writer
Source: San Francisco Chronicle 
Ever since a year ago, when leftist guerrillas captured this southern farm town in a hail of bullets and grenade explosions, Washington's adversaries have run things just the way they want. The rebels have reorganized the local coca-growing business into a booming, tightly run enterprise. Curillo's streets are clean, common crime has nearly disappeared and justice is simple. Those who disobey the rebels have a choice: Leave town or be killed. 
This is the growing empire of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known by its Spanish initials FARC. Demonized by government officials in Washington and Bogota, despised by much of the Colombian public and treated as a pariah by many international human-rights groups, the FARC has succeeded not only in becoming a major military threat but in creating a vast network of grassroots power. As Colombia's drug war heats up, with peace talks collapsing and a huge new U.S. military aid package kicking in, the FARC is moving toward the top of the rogues' gallery for American foreign policymakers. The rebel army controls nearly one-third of Colombia's territory and is growing fast, flush with hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue from taxing the cocaine trade and running the world's largest kidnapping and extortion racket. U.S. and Colombian government officials routinely call the rebels "narcoguerrillas," and Gen. Barry McCaffrey, the White House drug policy director, has called the FARC "the principal organizing entity of cocaine production in the world." A new $1.3 billion U.S. aid program is intended to help the Colombian army drive the FARC out of coca-producing regions, cut its revenues and weaken it militarily. But the offensive, dubbed Plan Colombia, does not appear to take into account the rebels' strong social networks in countless villages and poor urban barrios throughout the nation. In Curillo, for example, which the FARC captured from the government in an attack last December that killed dozens, the guerrillas' strength comes not just from military muscle. In fact, the rebels are nowhere to be seen - openly, at least. FARC undercover troops circulate through town, springing into action only when needed. Their presence is more apparent out of town, where uniformed guerrillas stop travelers to check identification and interrogate any suspicious out-of-towner. "Nothing happens here that they don't touch," said one local farmer who asked to remain unidentified. "Everything is under control. Everything is in order." The rebels have expelled from FARC zones the middlemen who trade in coca paste - the crack-like substance produced by coca farmers that is eventually purchased by cocaine laboratories - and replaced them with local peasants who are loyal to the rebels. The move gives the FARC near-complete power to set coca prices, levy taxes and freeze out the rightist paramilitaries, who are the rebels' drug-trade competitors and military archenemies. The guerrillas act as a sort of commercial police. "We set prices, levy taxes and check the weights, making sure nobody gets cheated," said Jhon Jairo, a local FARC commander in El Luzon, a town south of Curillo. "And we make sure that no buyers come from outside. We only allow locals we know." The rebel tax varies from region to region, averaging 500 pesos per kilo - about 22 U.S. cents, or one-quarter of the price that middlemen pay farmers. Some Colombian and U.S. officials contend that the FARC has gone beyond the middleman stage, becoming directly involved in the next two levels of the business: the laboratories that process coca paste into cocaine and the export of cocaine to the United States and Europe. However, many experts say the accusations are unfounded. "We have seen no evidence yet that the FARC is directly involved in cocaine production and export," said Klaus Nyholm, director of the U.N. Drug Control Program in Colombia. The FARC leadership admits regulating and taxing the drug trade, but denies any direct involvement in cultivation or trafficking. In interviews, top commanders are defensive and jumpy when discussing the topic, which they know gives them a bad image. They insist they are willing to help fight drug trafficking, and cite FARC communiques earlier this year that called cocaine "a scourge on humanity" and proposed a rebel-run coca eradication program. But there's a catch: The rebels say they will cooperate only if such drug- consuming nations as the United States legalize narcotics consumption, much as the Netherlands and Portugal have done, and concentrate resources on substance- abuse programs and just-say-no public education. "We realize that cocaine is a bad thing and does lots of damage to the poor people in the United States," said Commander Ivan Rios, a member of the FARC's high command. "But we say that simply persecuting the poor peasants who grow coca is not the answer. Instead of bombing and fumigating Colombia, the United States must make its own sacrifices." For Rios and other commanders, the income from taxing the drug trade is simply a means to the end of creating a "New Colombia," a forerunner to a socialist-run revolutionary nation. While such Marxist concepts seem wildly out of place in 21st century urban Colombia, there is no doubt that the FARC is a power to be reckoned with. "The FARC has been misinterpreted as just a bunch of criminal thugs," said Alfredo Rangel, a well-known authority on military affairs and a national security adviser to then-President Ernesto Samper in the mid 1990s. "In fact, although it does engage in a lot of criminal activities, it is a coherent, political-military organization with a clear ideology and a clear plan for undermining the state." The FARC, which is estimated to have 18,000 fighters, has more than doubled in size over the past decade despite nearly $1 billion in U.S. aid to the government. Shaken by this failure, the United States has ratcheted up a military effort unparallelled since President Ronald Reagan's crusade against Central American Marxists in the 1980s. Under a new, two-year aid plan that was approved by Congress in June, Washington is spending $1.3 billion and sending hundreds of Green Berets and other military advisers to help get Colombian troops into fighting shape. Although many FARC critics say the rebels have been corrupted by the drug trade and have lost their Marxist ideology, rebel documents and interviews with commanders and low-ranking rebels indicate that this view is only partly true. Both the FARC and the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN) espouse a mix of Marxism and nationalism - reminiscent of 1980s Latin American leftists such as Nicaragua's Sandinista government. The rebel agenda includes partial nationalization of major industries, distribution of large farms to landless peasants, increased social spending and a purge of the armed forces. "The FARC are ideological Marxists, but they are also very pragmatic," Rangel said. "You won't hear any 1980s-style slogans of 'socialism or death.' " The rebels' pragmatism can be seen in their unusual justice system. They have created a network of "complaint offices" - rural courts in which FARC commanders try a vast gamut of rural cases, from chicken-stealing to drunken brawls. The FARC courts have become popular, with many local residents saying the rebel commanders give fast and fair results, unlike drawn-out trials in government courts that often require multiple bribes to produce a ruling. "I like the (FARC) because I get a solution," said Myrna Ledesma, a resident of the rebel-held town of San Vicente del Caguan, as she left a hearing at which a commander brokered a compromise in a rent dispute with her landlord. But for many observers, "FARC justice" is an oxymoron. By nearly all accounts, the FARC's human-rights record is poor. In San Vicente del Caguan, for example, the rebels have killed at least 19 people since they were given control of the area by the government as a venue for peace negotiations. Rights groups generally blame the FARC and ELN for about 20 percent of the several thousand extrajudicial killings in Colombia each year. The rightist paramilitary groups are blamed for about three-quarters of the killings, and the government's armed forces are blamed for the rest. An example of the rebels' dirty hands is their penchant for kidnapping. The FARC and ELN routinely abduct wealthy Colombians as a means of enforcing what they call a "peace tax." These huge, meticulously run extortion rackets net both groups an estimated $100 million a year. "Of course I pay the guerrillas. Everybody does," said Gabriel Castaneda, president of the Chamber of Commerce of Caqueta province, in the heart of the drug war. "We have no choice; otherwise we'll be kidnapped or killed." The rebels' kidnapping racket has left them the losers in the battle for Colombian hearts and minds - not just among the rich but also among millions of average citizens. And, unlike their ideological cousins in Central America, the FARC has drawn little support among intellectuals. "The guerrillas are very politically isolated, despite their growing military strength and their niche among certain poor sectors of the population, " said Fernando Cubides, a political scientist at the National University in Bogota. "There's growing sentiment among the public for a total military solution against the rebels, a scorched-earth campaign to wipe them out." The FARC's isolation springs in part from its bitter experience with compromise at the peace table. In the 1980s, the movement sponsored the formation of a legal political party, the Patriotic Union. But the death squads and the army carried out a brutal campaign to decapitate the new party, assassinating about 4,000 of its top cadres. "The FARC lost its entire political leadership, its best and most flexible thinkers," Cubides said. "Now it's left with the warriors, many of whom will never believe in peace negotiations." As the peace talks crumble, FARC commanders make little attempt to disguise their viewpoint that a military triumph is the only solution. Cmdr. Julian Conrado, a member of a FARC team responsible for talking with civilian groups, alluded to the gradual breakdown in civil society that Colombia has endured ever since the fratricidal 1948-58 period known simply as La Violencia, when more than 200,000 people were killed in massacres by the country's two rival parties, the Conservatives and Liberals. "In this country, it's easier to recruit people for the guerrillas than for a student discussion group or a labor union," he said. "There's so much violence, the regime is so corrupt, that many people see no other alternative." Conrado, a gregarious man who also serves as lead singer in a rebel band that plays vallenato - a folkloric music popular in Colombia - sees little but bloodshed in the nation's future. "We're not warmongers, but this war is going to get a lot worse before there's any resolution. Until this country feels a lot more pain, it won't change." Law and Order, Rebel Style: The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas have imposed a parallel justice system in areas they control. Critics say it is arbitrary and harsh, but no one denies that it is efficent. Examples of rebel rule include: - Middlemen: The rebels have expelled coca traders from FARC zones and replaced them with loyal supporters. The move gives the rebels near-complete power to set prices for coca paste, levy taxes and keep out the rightist paramilitaries, who compete with the FARC for control of the cocaine business. - Courts: The rebels have created a system of courts that metes out punishment for crimes - most of which are the usual rural crimes of cattle theft, property disputes and drunken feuds. Penalties include, in ascending order of severity: verbal warnings; fines; work on local road-building crews; permanent expulsion from the zone; death. - Morality: The rebels also work hard to stamp out domestic problems such as wife-beating, drunkenness and even what is termed "malicious gossiping." Late-night curfews are enforced, residents must participate in weekly street cleanups and prostitutes get weekly health checkups. - Drug use: Despite the rebels' extensive involvement in the cocaine trade, they strictly prohibit local consumption of cocaine products or any other illegal drugs. Punishment is usually fast and severe. - Municipal spending: The rebels use threats of violence to coerce elected officials to obey rebel dictates on how to spend their budgets. Anti-poverty programs, education and road-building get top priority. - Corruption: Any suspicion of graft by municipal officials prompts a public trial - and, usually, punishment. - Roads: The FARC controls a large fleet of road construction equipment, which it uses to repair and build farm-to-market roads. The FARC's obsession with road-building comes from its top commander, Manuel Marulanda, who was a local highways department boss in Tolima province in the 1950s, before he and a handful of others founded the FARC. - Price controls: The rebels set prices for a wide variety of basic goods, ranging from farm products such as coca paste to consumer items and locally consumed food.Note: Well-organized and flush with cash, FARC promises to make drug war difficult.E-mail Robert Collier at: rcollier sfchronicle.comSource: San Francisco Chronicle (CA)Author: Robert Collier, Chronicle Staff WriterPublished: Sunday, December 18, 2000 Copyright: 2000 San Francisco ChronicleContact: chronletters Website: Articles By Robert Collier:Lure of Coca Money Hard for Farmers to Resist War in the Jungle Articles - Colombia 
Home Comment Email Register Recent Comments Help

Comment #2 posted by Critto on August 26, 2001 at 13:27:16 PT:
I completely agree with Mr. Russo -- let's LEGALIZE coke, and the rebel power will end. Or even if it won't end, we'll be better off by not being so tied to them (coke HAS BEEN grown in US before the prohibition came in 1914).Besides, I'm the libertarian (get to my website) and I support drugs' legalisation as such. All drugs.Yours in Liberty,  Critto
Libertarian website
[ Post Comment ]

Comment #1 posted by Ethan Russo, MD on December 18, 2000 at 08:02:31 PT:
The Only Path to Victory
If the USA wishes to defeat FARC, it will never succeed militarily. The only way to "win" is to cut off the money supply, and that can only be achieved by eliminating the profit margin. The only way to do that is legalize cocaine, which would be available in clinics. No black market means a low price, no drug-related crime in this country, etc. Everyone will win except the moral pontificators. I, for one, care not at all what they think.
[ Post Comment ]

Post Comment

Name: Optional Password: 
Comment: [Please refrain from using profanity in your message]
Link URL: 
Link Title: