Thursday, September 23, 2010

The FARC without "Mono Jojoy"

Juan Manuel Santos, at the time Colombia’s minister of defense, poses with then-armed forces chief Gen. Freddy Padilla in February 2009. At the time Colombia’s military, in an earlier attempt to take down “Mono Jojoy,” had found a network of caves used by the guerrillas. (Source)

This morning, Colombia’s government announced that an air raid killed Víctor Julio Suárez Rojas, alias Jorge Briceño Suárez or “Mono Jojoy,” one of the most powerful leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla group. A large-scale military operation – “Operation Sodoma” – destroyed Suárez’s guerrilla encampment near La Julia, in the department of Meta, about 150 miles southwest of Bogotá, in the heart of a zone that had been temporarily ceded to the FARC during a failed 1998-2002 peace negotiation.

“This is the greatest blow to the FARC in its entire history,” said Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who took office seven weeks ago. “This is the FARC’s ‘welcome operation’” to his administration, Santos added.

Despite several tries, it never managed to be a “farewell operation” for Álvaro Uribe, who left Colombia’s presidency after eight years in August. The search for Mono Jojoy and maximum FARC leader Alfonso Cano intensified during the Uribe administration’s final months, and troops were believed to be very close to Mono Jojoy during operations in February and July 2009.

Who was “Mono Jojoy?”
Mono Jojoy was no university-trained intellectual. He grew up and joined the FARC in the part of the country where he was killed: the La Macarena region of western Meta department, an ungoverned rural zone that has been a FARC stronghold almost since the group was founded, in 1964. He joined the FARC in 1975 and rose quickly through its ranks, becoming known for his ruthlessness and his command of military tactics. He became a member of the FARC’s seven-member Secretariat and head of the Eastern Bloc, the largest of the group’s six regional formations. The Eastern Bloc makes up roughly half of the FARC's overall membership and commands guerrillas over a vast stretch of territory, from Bogotá to the Venezuelan border.

Since the 1980s, Mono Jojoy helped pioneer the guerrillas’ practice of kidnapping for ransom – and later, kidnapping prominent politicians to press for the release of guerrilla prisoners – and raising money from ever-greater involvement in the drug trade. Both practices helped the FARC triple or quadruple in size during the 1990s, to the point where guerrillas, often under Mono Jojoy’s command, were handing humiliating defeats to Colombia’s armed forces.

His ascendance strengthened the hand of those in the FARC who, like him, appeared to care little for public opinion and the group’s image, preferring instead to rely on force of arms. While Mono Jojoy was present and participated in the 1998-2002 peace talks with the Colombian government, he was widely viewed to be interested in the talks only as a tactic for gaining power.

At a 2001 ceremony at which the FARC released hundreds of low-ranking miitary and police prisoners, he memorably told those assembled that the FARC would henceforth seek to capture prominent civilian leaders. The guerrillas went on to take more than 40 politicians hostage, with results that were devastating both for the hostages and their families, and for the guerrilla group’s own image and standing, both domestically and internationally.

Is the FARC finished?
For the Colombian government, Mono Jojoy’s death is a huge symbolic victory, and will give a large political boost to President Santos. We can expect the president’s approval rating to approach 90% over the next couple of weeks.

But the FARC leader’s exit from the scene is unlikely to bring the group close to surrender. Nor is it likely to cause the FARC to collapse and fragment as the country’s drug cartels did when their top leaders were captured or killed in the 1990s. The FARC continues to have 7,000-9,000 members scattered across at least half of the country’s departments (provinces), including vast empty zones. It has a steady stream of income from the drug trade. And it has increased the frequency of its attacks in the past two years, albeit in more remote areas of the country.

The FARC is likely to be around, in some form, for many years even without Mono Jojoy. In fact, despite his symbolic value, it is unclear how strong his influence within the group was at the time of his death. Constant pursuit from the armed forces had disrupted his ability to communicate. He was rumored to be severely weakened by diabetes. His reputation as a military tactician declined in the face of the Uribe government's military buildup and anti-guerrilla offensives. Meanwhile Alfonso Cano, who took over as the FARC's maximum leader in 2008, is rumored to have had strong strategic disagreements with Mono Jojoy in the past.

Is peace more likely?
One way to remove the FARC from the scene more quickly would be to negotiate with it, and to demobilize its members so they no longer can be a factor of violence. Though President Santos has not ruled out negotiations, that outcome is not likely in the short term. With Mono Jojoy gone, though, they could be more likely in the medium term.

Over the next few months, though, violence could get worse. The FARC could increase the tempo of its violent attacks to avenge the death of its “martyred” military leader, and to show that it is not defeated and still has military capacity.

The short term will also likely see increased activity among mid-level commanders who served under Mono Jojoy for years in the Eastern Bloc. These commanders are likely to share the dead leader’s hard line and his disregard for their actions’ political consequences, and they are likely to be more active and violent as they seek to fill the vacuum. Whether increased activity among mid-level commanders will be accompanied by fragmentation, division, and internal purges is impossible to predict given the available information, but is certainly a possibility.

(These mid-level leaders include Germán Briceño Suárez, alias “Grannobles,” Mono Jojoy’s brother who is believed to be active near the Colombia-Venezuela border. They also included another top deputy who was probably killed this morning: Henry Castellanos, alias “Romaña,” who oversaw the FARC’s operations around Bogotá a decade ago and encouraged the proliferation of kidnapping at highway roadblocks.)

In the short-term, then, the FARC is unlikely to make any good-faith gestures to convince the Colombian government to negotiate. In the medium term, however – perhaps a year or more from now – the guerrilla group could be more disposed toward talks. With their maximum hard-line leader out of the picture, more politically minded leaders could come to have a clearer upper hand. These leaders include Alfonso Cano, the group’s paramount leader, a former university professor. They also include Iván Marquez, a leader believed to spend most of his time on both sides of the Colombia-Venezuela border.

The ascendance of less hard-line leaders, though, does not at all mean that the FARC is about to embark on a new path of respect for human rights, improved political acumen, and a clear desire to end the conflict peacefully. These men are very radical and have spent most of their lives ordering and carrying out acts of violence and brutality. Nonetheless, they could be more pragmatic and less wedded to a military strategy – indeed, more aware of the military strategy’s obvious failure – than was Mono Jojoy. In the medium term, a FARC leadership without Mono Jojoy is likely to be a FARC leadership that is somewhat more open to ending the conflict through negotiations without preconditions.

The ball, for now, is in the FARC’s court. An obvious and long-overdue good-faith gesture would be the immediate and unilateral release of all hostages and kidnap victims in FARC custody – a gesture that Mono Jojoy was long believed to have opposed.

If the FARC does eventually send good-faith signals of its willingness to talk, the Colombian government must respond positively and creatively by taking steps necessary to move toward dialogue. The United States, which has so generously funded Colombia’s war machine, must also be ready to accompany a possible peace effort.

Talks about conditions for the group’s demobilization would be far better than the likely alternative. That alternative, of course, is many more years – perhaps decades – of armed conflict. These years would no doubt bring more successful offensives against top FARC leaders. But they would also bring the deaths of thousands of non-combatants, and thousands more young, lower-ranking FARC members dead, still at large, or lost to Colombia’s underworld of guerrillas, paramilitaries, and organized crime.