The Colombian government has noted that leftist rebels and drug gangs tend to flourish in areas where there are poor roads. So the government is spending several billion dollars over the next six years to build over 8,000 kilometers of paved roads. Much of this will be multi-lane highways between major cities. But more and more of the new roads are going into rural areas that have very few paved roads.
In much of Colombia it’s rivers that provide the most convenient transportation. The leftist rebels and drug gangs resist these road building efforts, so troops, police and private security guards accompany the road building crews. But once the roads are in place, the rebels and gangs move away, Roads make it too easy for the security forces to concentrate force and destroy criminal organizations.
Now that FARC has agreed to peace talks (to begin in Norway next month) it has tried to extract some concessions.
The FARC asked for a ceasefire, which the government refused. In past peace talks, the FARC merely used ceasefires (and in one case a large rural sanctuary that government forces stayed out of) to rebuild and prepare for the resumption of fighting. The government has learned from these earlier scams and won’t do it again. The government knows that the FARC is in very bad shape, and losing strength daily.
A ceasefire would make it easier for the FARC hardliners (who want to fight on no matter what) to derail the talks. But the FARC moderates are willing to discuss demobilization, amnesty and turning FARC into a political party. The government is willing to negotiate that.
The FARC also asked if the U.S., as a good-will gesture, would release some senior FARC members it has convicted and imprisoned. This was turned down as well. In the last decade, a vigorous police and military offensive has cost the organization more than half its peak strength of 19,000 gunmen and even more of the leadership. The U.S. has assisted with training, equipment and technology, but the Colombian carried out economic and social reforms that made the offensive successful. The smaller (under 3,000 gunmen) ELN is also hurting, but not yet willing to talk.
While the main leftist rebels (FARC and ELN) are on the run, they still find ways to be annoying. The favourite method these days is to attack pipelines, coal mines and electricity distribution systems (the tall towers carrying the long distance electricity distribution cables).
These attacks cost the government money and the electricity disruptions get the public’s attention. At one time, the leftist gangs could extort money from the oil and coal companies and electricity providers in return for no attacks. But that is no longer allowed and the attacks simply bring in the police and army commandos to chase down the men responsible for the damage. For that reason, making these attacks is not popular with many the FARC and ELN members, because it often means relentless pursuit and sometimes getting caught or killed. FARC leadership is willing to pay the price (in cash to pay the men involved and the desertions by those who don’t want to take part) because this activity gets lots of publicity and lets everyone know that the leftist rebels are still active. It does little for the FARC’s popularity, but the leftist rebels have largely given up on that.
While the Colombian economy continues growing, as rebel and drug related activity declines, there is growing danger from neighbouring Venezuela.
There, a populist president has used radical rhetoric and a tolerance for corruption (to keep key followers loyal) to stay in power. But the crime rates have skyrocketed and that, for example, has hurt tourism.
Whereas Colombia had seen tourists climb to nearly 3 million a year, Venezuela, which used to have more tourists, has declined to less than half a million a year. The Venezuelan government is fine with this, as it keeps foreign ideas out of the country. The Venezuelan government has taken over most of the mass media and punishes those who disagree with the official government view of the world.
To maintain control of Venezuelans who do not agree with all this, Venezuela’s government has formed a militia loyal to president Hugo Chavez and armed over 100,000 of these men. The growing corruption in Venezuela, combined with the declining economy has made prosperous Colombia a tempting target for Venezuela based criminals.
For Colombia, the Venezuelan border is becoming more of a war zone as leftist rebels and criminal gangs based in Venezuela slip into Colombia to makes some money, then flee back across the border if detected by the security forces.
In Venezuela the nationalization of businesses has scared away foreign investors. But not all of them, as China has become an economic, as well as a diplomatic and military ally. China has loaned Venezuela (whose credit rating Chavez has trashed) over US$36 billion. These loans are being repaid with Venezuelan oil.
China is confident it won’t get screwed, like many other foreign lenders and investors, because China is the only major economic partner Venezuela has left. China recently agreed to a joint venture with the Venezuelan government to exploit major gold and copper deposits. Again, China will rely on its ally status to protect its investment. This has worked, most of the time, in Africa, where China seeks such deals with strongmen who have chased everyone else away.
September 19, 2012: For the third time in the last year, Venezuela has hunted down and arrested a major Colombian drug gang leader. This time it was Daniel Barrera, who had a $7.7 million price on his head. The reward was an incentive, and any Colombian drug gang leader who has not bought the right allies in Venezuela is liable to be arrested. Some Colombian drug lords seek to escape this treatment by getting plastic surgery and staying in jungle camps near the Colombian border. That doesn’t always work, as Daniel Barrera discovered. These arrests disrupt operations in the drug gangs involved, as subordinates fight among themselves for promotion opportunities. But the arrested leaders often provide information on drug operations, in return for lighter punishment. That information makes it easier to do some damage to the drug gang and nail the new leaders. It’s this sort of thing that is driving the Colombian drug gangs to neighboring countries (like Peru, Panama, Ecuador and Brazil)
September 18, 2012: the FARC’s European spokesman (Joaquin Perez Becerra) was sentenced to eight years in jail. Becerra also ran a pro-FARC website from his home (for the last eight years) in Sweden. Becerra thought he was safe because he lived in Sweden and denied any association with the FARC. But the capture of so many FARC documents over the last few years has enabled the government to build cases against many FARC supporters who though they were safe from prosecution. Becerra was arrested in Venezuela last April, as he was on his way back to Colombia for a visit. Colombia extradited him from Venezuela (which does this sort of thing, even to fellow leftists, in return for improving relations with Colombia, which is angry about the growing border violence.)
September 9, 2012: An ELN member deserted from a jungle base in the southwest, and took with him a businessman who had been kidnapped two years ago and was still being held for ransom. After four hours, the two reached an area where the rebel’s cell phone could get a signal and call was made to the military. A nearby group of marines quickly arrived and got the two away to a safe place. FARC has agreed to release all its captives, but ELN still takes hostages and tries to get large ransoms for them.
September 3, 2012: the FARC officially confirmed that it had agreed to peace talks with the government (which had earlier announced the deal).