It isn’t often these days that the West or its allies can, after a counterterrorism operation, make a statement like the following: “The symbol of terror in Colombia has been brought down.”
Less often is it followed by the stirringly confident declaration: “the game is only just beginning.”
The first statement was from Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, after a late September raid on the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) terrorist group resulted in the death of FARC field commander Mono Jojoy, the organization’s overall second-in-command. Bogota, Colombia-based Radio Santa Fe reported that 27 FARC rebels were killed in the operation.
Refusing to rest on their laurels, however, Colombian General Guillermo Suarez–the author of that second quote–set the army’s next target: FARC overall leader Alfonso Cano. Cano, Suarez said, “will be caught one way or another.”
The Jamestown Foundation’s Derek Henry Flood notes that “the government of Juan Manuel Santos is brimming with confidence in its counterinsurgency war.”
That counterinsurgency war began under Santos’s predecessor, Alvaro Uribe. Uribe took office at a precarious moment for the country, which was racked by violence. Yet not only did Colombia remain a democracy under Uribe’s leadership, but murder rates dropped 45 percent and kidnappings dropped 90 percent.
In fact, a poll taken near the end of Uribe’s second term found 83 percent of the country wanted him to be able to run for a third term. (A court ruled it unconstitutional; Uribe complied with the ruling and stepped aside.) With sky-high approval ratings, Uribe was seen as a Giuliani-like figure who had stepped in at a time of crisis and earned the trust and admiration of the people.
Uribe had a close relationship with George W. Bush, who recognized Uribe’s efforts in the war on terror by awarding him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Bush also pushed for the passage of a free trade agreement with Colombia, but the Democratic Congress–led by Nancy Pelosi–worked to kill the deal in a sop to the left’s union allies. (“People in Colombia don’t understand [why] if we are strategic allies, other countries have free-trade agreements that are not as strategic or as good allies,” Santos recently said. “I hope that after November [when Republicans may retake Congress] the free-trade agreement will be approved.”)
Santos was Uribe’s defense minister. He was elected president in June and inaugurated in August, and picked up where Uribe left off. His success isn’t too surprising; he sounds an awful lot like General David Petraeus and other American practitioners of counterinsurgency when he talks strategy. Last month, the Washington Post asked Santos how he’ll finish off the FARC. This was his response:
It is a concept we call “consolidation of the territory.” We come into a certain territory with the armed forces, we clean up, then we come in with the presence of the state–with teachers and doctors to get to a point where if the FARC wanted to come back, they would be rejected by the population. That has been working very well.”
Colombia, then, may be combining counterinsurgency with a tactic often used with success by Israel: targeted assassinations. In a Sept. 19 raid, Colombian police and air force killed Domingo Biojo, a senior FARC commander who led the group’s cocaine trafficking. The same operation that resulted in the death of Mono Jojoy also brought Colombian authorities another scalp, that of Eastern Bloc commander Romaña.
Colombian leaders have not allowed FARC terrorists to feel safe outside of the country’s borders, either. In March 2008, Colombian authorities raided neighboring Ecuador to kill FARC spokesman and Southern Bloc leader Raul Reyes. Santos has been working to restore the relationship between the two countries, which were strained by the cross-border incursion. Santos strives to be pro-American while retaining diplomatic relations with Colombia’s neighbors.
The Santos administration, however, is marking a bold line between interstate diplomacy and negotiations with the FARC. “There will be no dialogue with anyone engaging in terrorist activities,” proclaimed Defense Minister Rodrigo Rivera.
No negotiations with terrorists; skilled counterinsurgency; targeted assassinations without collateral damage–all done with a dedication to democracy by an unabashedly pro-American leadership.
Colombia has ravaged the FARC’s leadership with these tactics. And though Rivera has warned against overconfidence, surely the Colombian public and the country’s Western allies can appreciate the recent success against once-mighty terrorists about whom Santos now says “appear like lions when we know that they are mice that use terrorism as a way to make noise.”