A “senior Colombian intelligence source” claimed that Colombia was able to pinpoint FARC chief Raul Reyes’ location because of a phone call made to his satellite phone by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
If true, this would have a certain irony (and perhaps also explain why Chavez is so angry – also the source claims Chavez mobilized to protect the ailing FARC founder Manuel Marulanda who is convalescing on a ranch in Venezuela near the Colombian border.)
Bogota is no different from Washington, “senior intelligence sources” say lots of things – and sometimes they are even correct. But there is no question that infiltrating the FARC’s communications systems has been a crucial element in Colombian strategy. It is also an illustration of a successful counter-insurgency turning an enemy’s strengths into weaknesses.
The two of the FARC’s strengths were the vast territory of Colombia (more than two and a half times the size of Iraq), which gave them many places to hide and their ideological flexibility, which enabled them to enter the drug trade and link with international criminal networks. But Colombia’s size made it difficult for the cadres to meet in person. FARC operatives are vulnerable to interception by security forces when moving long distances. Turning to electronic communications only played into the strengths of the US, which has shared intelligence with the Colombians. With both personal and electronic communications under pressure the FARC’s command and control structure has deteriorated. In the 1990s the Colombian government granted the FARC a demilitarized zone. The re-establishment of a de-militarized zone is the FARC’s primary demand in negotiations over the approximately 700 hostages they hold. The need this zone to bring the leaders together – not necessarily for physical or weapons training – but for strategic communications.
The FARC’s engagement in massive criminal activity has been a strength because it kept the organization flush financially and created links for the organization to acquire new technology and skills. But this too has become a weakness. The massive involvement in narcotics trafficking has decimated any credibility the FARC might have once had with the Colombian people – now they are viewed as little more than another cartel. At the same time, the easy money has led to corruption and “lack of ideological rigor” among many FARC commanders. Also, the international criminal networks are subject to infiltration. Only days before the Raul Reyes assassination, the Department of Justice indicted 11 FARC commanders and collaborators based on information obtained from satellite phones purchased in Miami that were being monitored by the DEA. In 2001 the DEA managed to sell four tapped satellite phones to the FARC.
The tactical successes, such as infiltrating satellite phones are impressive. But the real victory, in turning FARC’s strengths to weaknesses, is at the strategic level.