May 1, 2013:
The peace talks with FARC grind on. The two sides agree on some things. One is that FARC will be free to enter politics once the rebels disarm. Then there is the amnesty issue, for which there is no agreement yet. Many Colombians do not want total amnesty for all FARC members. There have been too many victims of FARC violence for the government to offer total amnesty and get away with it in a democracy. But that’s what FARC insists on and it may be a deal-killer. Things like FARC demands for a new constitution are more palatable than letting many notorious FARC killers go free. Another worry is that FARC will not abandon its drug production and smuggling activity as part of a peace deal. Police analysts believe that over the last decade, as many drug gangs have moved operations to neighboring countries, FARC has not (and cannot as it is fundamentally a local political movement) and has come to control most of the drug production and smuggling in Colombia. The intelligence services know there has been a growing problem within FARC over mid-level leaders who are tempted to drop the politics and concentrate on getting rich in the cocaine trade. This is one reason so many FARC leaders are willing to discuss a peace deal because they feel there is a real danger that FARC may degenerate into just another drug gang (or several).
Venezuela continues to be unstable as the election for someone to replace Hugo Chavez selected Chavez’s designated successor, Nicolas Maduro. The opposition accused the government of vote fraud but the security forces have faced down, for the moment, any uprising over the issue. For the opposition, Maduro getting elected is the best thing that could have happened. Chavez’s insane economic policies were dedicated to getting Chavez reelected, not making lasting and positive changes in Venezuela. Chavez, and now Maduro, have used Venezuela’s dwindling national wealth to buy votes from the poor. Venezuela has always had a high poverty rate because previous generations of rulers refused to stress education and economic development for all Venezuelans. The problem was all that oil money, which went to about a third of the population, leaving most Venezuelans mired in poverty and ignorance. Chavez mobilized those left behind but he sacrificed a healthy economy to do so. He also tolerated a huge increase in the crime rate, making Venezuela one of the most dangerous places on the planet. Maduro has initially cracked down on the opposition, banning elected officials who oppose him from participating in running the country, while also trying to find a politically correct (to most of his supporters) solution to all the economic problems.
International surveys continue to show Colombia with the most internal refugees (about five million) of any country. Last year alone over 200,000 Colombians were forced to flee their homes because of the continuing war against FARC and the drug gangs. This conflict has been in high gear for over a decade now, and while it has been successful at reducing the power of drug gangs and leftist rebel groups, there is collateral damage in the form of civilians fleeing the combat zones. They often lose all they own in the process, often including the land they farmed, because most of the fighting is in rural areas where the majority of people live off the land.
Despite the large number of refugees, crime is down fifty percent since the anti-drug and anti-FARC offensive began. A decade of fighting has allowed millions of refugees to return home. That has created other problems. These include all the landmines FARC and the drug gangs planted and then forgot about, as well as gangsters who steal the land of those forced to flee and refuse to give it back, even when the courts intervene. The peace talks with FARC touch on both these issues and FARC is being asked to reveal all it knows about where landmines were planted and members (present and former) who are involved in the land fraud scams. FARC is reluctant to openly admit to both these crimes. Landmine use could get international criminal court prosecutors involved.
The war is fought in the cities as well, against powerful gangs that deal in drugs along with all manner of other crimes. While the drug gangs and leftist rebels are the most powerful criminal organizations, there is still a lot of money to be made from organized crime in urban areas. Not as heavily armed and aggressive as FARC or the drug gangs, the urban criminal syndicates are a major problem waiting to get out of control. For the moment the government does not recognize the large urban crime cartels as a major threat, but urban police know better. Colombia is in for many more years of hard fighting before all the major criminal organizations are cut down to size.
April 18, 2013: In the southwest (Tumarco) three small bombs went off, one at a police station, at the base of an army commando unit, and at the airport. There were a few injuries. Bombings like this are increasingly popular with FARC because they are losing their war and cannot risk too many direct confrontations with the security forces. The bombings, assassinations of commanders, and constant bribe offers are an attempt to weaken the anti-FARC effort.
April 16, 2013: The U.S. indicted the head of the Guinea-Bissau armed forces (Antonio Indjai, who is also part of a junta that that has ruled the country for three years) and accused him of being part of a major drug smuggling organization. Over the last decade Colombian drug gangs have bought the cooperation of Indjai and others so cocaine shipments can be brought into local airports and then moved north, under al Qaeda protection, to the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf. The al Qaeda connection brought with it the enormous American counter-terrorism effort, which is a separate, and larger, operation than the counter-narcotic organizations. This is not the first time South American drug gangs have used an African connection to get drugs to Europe, but this time they are dealing with a military dictatorship that has taken over an entire country to facilitate the movement of cocaine. The indictment means that Indjai has to be very careful if he travels outside Guinea-Bissau.