Colombia: Waiting For Venezuela To Explode


February 21, 2015: The FARC peace talks continue to be stalled by the popular opposition to amnesty for FARC leaders. This is becoming a major problem as FARC is adamant about how essential it is for there to be more amnesty for FARC leaders and veteran fighters. Most Colombians, especially the many victims of FARC, insist that FARC members answer for their crimes. If this were done a lot of the FARC participants could be subject to prosecution and are not about to surrender and disarm to face that. The major problem here is that many of the victims (of murder, kidnapping and land theft) have organized and become a major political force nationally. The government cannot ignore the demands of the victims for some form of acceptable justice. The victims of economic crime (stolen land, homes, businesses) want the government to offer some form of restitution. Getting the land and other property back is a struggle with lawyers while demands for government cash face a reluctant electorate. The victims are, after all, a minority. Prosecuting guilty FARC leaders is universally popular and relatively inexpensive to implement. The FARC leaders know that and this has stalled the peace talks.

FARC also wants the government to cease operations against them while the peace talks are going on. That is not happening because in the past such ceasefire agreements enabled FARC to rebuild and then abandon the peace talks. This impasse could cause nearly two years of negotiations to be abandoned and FARC has backed off (but not abandoned) that demand.

Many rebels are willing to end the decades of violence and disarm, but many in the leadership are subject to prosecution for the crimes (murder, rape, kidnapping and sundry acts of violence and theft) they have committed during their years with FARC. This problem is compounded by the fact that many of these criminal acts were committed or ordered by FARC and ELN leaders or veteran rebels who are publically known. There are often still witnesses out there willing to testify. Many Colombians are willing to let the war (which the leftist rebels have been losing for the past decade) go on rather than let so many of the rebels “get away with murder.” FARC is quietly trying to get an agreement that takes advantage of a 2012 amendment to the constitution that allows the government to prosecute and convict FARC and then suspend the sentences. Doing that discreetly would not eliminate the possibility of a public uproar and political crises. There is no easy way out of this mess.

The leftist rebels do not have time on their side. Every month FARC and ELN get weaker from casualties, desertions and the fact that they have lost much of the public support they once had. The government negotiators say they can probably get some amnesty, but not as much as the rebels want and that public opinion against amnesty is widespread and strongly held. The military leaders believe that it the negotiations deadlocked the leftist rebels could be crushed by force, but this would cause thousands of casualties among the security forces and the civilian population. That approach could last another five or ten years before the leftists were reduced to the status of “nuisance” (like some violent European leftists now are). Public opinion might change after a few years of renewed heavy action but no one is sure. The only thing most Colombians can agree on is that they want peace, but on their own terms.

The leftist rebels are being forced out of areas they have long controlled and prospered in by constant police and military action. Many of these guys have sought new hideouts and criminal activities that are not under so much pressure. Illegal gold mining has become a favorite, as is smuggling and extortion. The criminal gangs go where the military and police presence is lightest, like rural areas where illegal mining takes place. With gold selling for $38 a gram (or $38 million a ton) there has been a gold rush in rural northwestern Colombia. The price has fallen from $48 in 2012 but the mining is still big business. Production more than tripled from 15.5 tons in 2007 to 53.6 tons in 2012 and continued to increase more slowly since then. Colombia has been a source of gold for centuries, but the sharp rise in price between 2006 and 2011 made many old mines worth opening again. All turned out to be a lucrative source of income for the leftist rebels who regularly extort money from small miners in return for protection from the police and other gangs. These illegal mines have become a major problem for the rural police. The rebels enforcing the extortion operations do not attract much attention from the army special operations troops used to hunt down rebel leaders and rebel groups that threaten major businesses (oil and legal mining) or infrastructure (roads, electricity and such). The plight of the illegal miners won’t be addressed until FARC signs the peace deal and frees up lots of soldiers and police commandos.

Colombia has yet another security problem it has little control over. This is the growing unrest next door in Venezuela that Colombia fears will escalate into a civil war that will drive many Venezuelans, like more than a million, across the border as refugees. The Venezuelan border is already a danger zone because corrupt Venezuelan officers and officials have allowed Colombian drug gangs and leftist rebels to operate on the Venezuelan side. The United States accuses Venezuela of becoming a major transit point for illegal drugs coming out of Colombia and then onto world markets (especially the U.S. and Europe). Everyone wants Venezuela fixed but no one has a practical plan for how to do it. The basic problems are not getting better. The Venezuelan government recently announced that the official inflation rate at the end of 2014 was 68.5 percent, compared to 56 percent in 2013. The government also admitted that the economy is contracting, at a rate of over 5 percent a year. Many believe that GDP has shrunk even more given the extent of unemployment, businesses closing, the falling price of oil and increasing shortages. Desperate for a solution, the government agreed to legalize the buying and selling of dollars. This was only a band aid applied to a much more serious wound.

The Venezuelan government places the ultimate blame for all its economic problems on foreign conspiracies (usually involving the United States and Colombia) and is responding to that by arresting more and more of its critics and accusing them of belonging to this foreign conspiracy. All this talk is meant to encourage the minority of the population (about 20 percent) that still supports the socialist revolution the government is promoting. The government increasingly sees a need to eventually mobilize its supporters to use force, if necessary, to prevent the majority of Venezuelans from crippling the leader of the revolution (president Maduro) with massive losses in upcoming parliament elections. Currently only 22 percent of voters approve of Maduro and another poll shows over 80 percent of Venezuelans blame Maduro for the economic mess. Some politicians are calling for him to resign, or be forcibly removed.

For the second year in a row an international survey determined that Venezuela was the most miserable nation on the planet. Maduro blames all his problems on foreign interference and economic sabotage. The United States is seen as the main villain here but no one can produce any evidence. Moreover the recently arrested mayor of Caracas is a major embarrassment as he has been elected mayor of the Venezuelan capital twice despite vigorous government efforts to prevent that. The mayor is popular and speaks loudly, frankly and accurately about Venezuela’s real problems.

Venezuela’s experiment in establishing a socialist paradise has been undone by corruption, incompetence and the rapidly declining price of oil. Shrinking GDP and rising inflation has led to high unemployment (or underemployment) and an unprecedented crime wave, with Venezuela now the murder capital of the world. A growing number of poor Venezuelans turned to crime. The murder rate in Venezuela is over 60 per 100,000 people a year; one of the highest on the planet and more than ten times the rate in the United States. Since 1999 the government has implemented at least twenty different plans to deal with the crime and none have had a lasting impact. The fundamental cause of the crime is a lack of economic opportunity, which the Venezuelan government made worse and worse with its enthusiasm for central planning and incompetent implementation of those efforts. The result is growing food shortages, which have gotten so bad that gangs are now concentrating on stealing trucks carrying food. This has led to armed escorts for some food trucks, and even this is sometimes insufficient. President Maduro recently went abroad to beg for more loans or better terms for existing ones. He received neither and now faces default because the loan payments coming due in 2015 cannot be paid without cutting essential imports of food and other necessities.

February 19, 2015:  In Venezuela police were ordered to arrest the mayor of the capital (Caracas), who was then charged with participating in a coup plot. The mayors many followers hit the streets in protest and the government pointed to this as proof that an anti-government conspiracy was underway.

February 14, 2015: In the east (Norte de Santander) near the Venezuelan border a roadside bomb killed three soldiers and wounded two. Leftist ELN rebels were believed responsible because FARC, which also operates along this stretch of the Venezuelan border, is observing a unilateral ceasefire.  

February 12, 2015: Another round of peace talks with FARC ended without a final peace treaty. But FARC did make one major concession; they agreed to stop recruiting anyone younger than 18. For a decade now FARC has become more dependent on kidnapping and brainwashing teenagers (and younger children) to be fighters. This sort of thing has made FARC very unpopular in rural areas where the leftists used to enjoy popular support. Because of all this, FARC was willing to negotiate an end to the half-century of armed rebellion and become a political party. FARC never offered to negotiate its disbanding before and offering to stop recruiting kids means that, if they actually observe this ban, their numbers will shrink even faster. FARC went along with this largely because this sort of thing is enormously popular in Europe, where many leftists still support FARC. That support, and the European sanctuary for many FARC leaders, was threatened by the continued FARC use of “child soldiers”. The government is also pressuring FARC to be more helpful in getting rid of all the landmines it has planted since the early 1990s. These mines have killed or wounded over 11,000 people, most of them civilians, since then. Such mines are still believed to be present in about two thirds of rural areas. The problem, the government fears, is that even FARC no longer has a record of where all of them were placed and is reluctant to admit this.

February 11, 2015:  In the northwest (Choco) ELN gunmen set up a roadblock to stop and rob motorists. Two of the people stopped were also kidnapped and a ransom of $20,000 each is demanded. The government warned ELN that such outlaw behavior makes entering into peace talks difficult.

February 10, 2015: FARC extended the unilateral ceasefire it began in December 20th. The government admits that FARC has so far complied with its unilateral ceasefire. There have been a few clashes with FARC since December 20th but all these were initiated by the security forces. FARC protested these military operations but the government refused to halt operations as they would enable FARC to rebuild its strength. While FARC has issued official protests over continued security forces efforts against them, they have not abandoned their ceasefire and now have extended it indefinitely.

February 6, 2015: In the capital police found and disposed of a bomb that had been placed near a police post. This bomb was believed to have been placed by a local drug gang trying to intimidate police into leaving drug dealers in the area alone.

February 5, 2015: The leader of the ELN said that a peace deal is not going to happen soon. ELN is still waiting to see what, if any, final peace deal will be reached with the larger (by more than three times) FARC.

January 29, 2015: The United States instigated 17 arrests in Colombia and the U.S. and broke up a gang accused of smuggling Colombian cocaine via Venezuela to the United States. Another dozen gang members are still being sought. The arrests were made possible by the defection of a Venezuelan security official to the United States where he revealed details of how this gang operated and identified senior Venezuelan officials who were paid off to let the gang function.

January 26, 2015: The Colombian military, in anticipation of an end to decades of war with leftist rebels, has agreed to supply peacekeepers to UN approved operations. This would enable the army to maintain more combat experienced troops despite the expected future cuts in the defense budget. 


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