Colombia: The Threat Of Comfortable Exile


December 14,2008: Leftist rebels are trying to adopt roadside bombs as a decisive weapon against the advancing police and army. This has proved difficult, because FARC lacks the people with technical skills to build the bombs, and the  situation on the ground is more fluid than in Iraq. The army and police move around a lot more, and use a lot of foot patrols moving cross country in unpredictable ways. Against that threat, FARC and ELN have had some success with landmines. There are lots of new Chinese and old Russian landmines on the black market, and manufacturing landmines is easy enough that local artisans sometimes do it for special orders from leftist rebels or drug gangs (protecting their assets.) There are a lot of dirt roads in the rural areas where the drug gangs and FARC operate, and larger anti-vehicle mines are a danger to government forces and civilians, or even bad guys who didn't get the memo on where they were planted.

The government continues to wield a decisive weapon against the rebels and drug lords; the ability to extradite the leaders to the United States for prosecution. This is huge, because any major prosecution in Colombia is subject to pressure on (or murder of) witnesses and court officials by the defendants. This is much less likely in the United States, and has, in fact, been extremely rare. Only defendants U.S. prosecutors have very strong (drug or kidnapping of Americans) case against are extradited, and nearly all are convicted and sent away for a long time. None of these Colombian convicts has been busted out yet. Colombian prisons are much more vulnerable. This makes drug lords, and even some FARC leaders (some are still ideological and immune to deal making), more willing to talk, and cut a deal that will keep them in Colombia (and in a special prison for a shorter period). The hard cases are shipped off to the U.S., and that sends another kind of message to the drug kingpins still on the loose.

The government is trying a new tactic to free the dozens of high profile kidnapping victims still held by FARC. These victims are not being offered for cash ransom, but for the freedom of imprisoned FARC terrorists and drug gang leaders.  The government won't go for such an exchange, but is offering cash rewards and amnesty for FARC members who come in with one or more of these hostages. One FARC gunman (Wilson Bueno Largo) who did this two months ago, was paid a $400,000 reward and allowed to go off to exile in France (with his girlfriend). If this encourages more FARC people to come forward with hostages, amnesty (but not for murder or kidnapping) rewards, and French exile (to protect from FARC retaliation) are available. FARC can counter by replacing the current low level hostage guards with more senior men (who are murderers and kidnappers). This will cost FARC more money, since the amnesty-proof guards are more senior and require higher pay and better accommodations. Either way, the FARC is screwed by the new amnesty/exile policy.

While kidnappings have been reduced nearly 90 percent in the last six years, there are still 3,000 hostages being held, while families try to raise the ransom. The kidnappers are greedy and patient, and are willing to give families a year to more to scrounge up the cash. About 700 of these hostages are held by FARC, which has largely been forced out of the kidnapping business by police and army pressure. The government is cracking down on criminal gangs in general, partly in an attempt to free more of these hostages. That is a very popular effort, as most Colombians can identify with the families of the hostages.

The amnesty offer is also making inroads against ELN and FARC rebels all over the country. Police and military commanders have authority, and some leeway, to negotiate deals that take into account local conditions. ELN, which has always been the smaller rival of FARC, has also been less opposed to making a deal with the government. So while local ELN groups can often be talked into doing an amnesty deal, the FARC guys will look to reflag themselves as a drug gang and stay in the game. This is what a minority of the AUC (a huge anti-FARC drug gang) guys did when the entire organization agreed to disband and accept amnesty. Now parts of FARC are going rogue in the same way, without any offer of amnesty as an alternative.


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