Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez yesterday (March 8)announced that his government would restore diplomatic relations with Colombia. The easing of the diplomatic standoff has revealed the FARC rebels' recent decline as a military force, as well as President Alvaro Uribe's growing domestic popularity.
FARC crisis. The Colombian FARC guerrilla group has fallen into severe strategic crisis. The group has declined considerably since the late 1990s, when it had some 18,000 soldiers, military fronts across the country, and a growing stake in narcotics trafficking.
FARC uncertainties begin at the top of the organisation. Two members of the guerrilla group's seven-person secretariat have been killed in the last week. In addition to Raul Reyes's death in an air strike on March 1, FARC security officials reportedly turned against another regional commander, 'Ivan Rios', in northwest Colombia. These deaths, combined with the killing of three mid-level commanders late last year, have shaken the FARC's core leadership.
This unrest comes at a time when questions already were surfacing about the FARC's leadership. Late last year the guerrilla leadership appeared disorganised and incompetent when they lost track of a child captive, who in fact had been in government custody for years.
FARC future. After over 40 years of fighting, the group will not disappear or be defeated militarily in the near future. Nonetheless, the FARC appears unlikely to return to its earlier heyday:
• Thinning ranks. Although the FARC remains a formidable fighting force, with an estimated 13,000-person rank and file, the group may struggle to sustain troop levels in the coming years. Reyes was widely revered among guerrillas as a guiding figure in their campaign against the Colombian state. The uprising against Rios is uncharacteristic of the comparatively disciplined fighting force. The Colombian government reports that an increasing number of insurgents have deserted the FARC in recent months.
• Hostage exchange. The past week raises doubt over future hostage exchanges. Although the FARC has become the target of growing domestic and international scrutiny in recent weeks, it is unlikely to cede to this pressure. The group may fear that the release of a high profile hostage, such as Ingrid Betancourt or three US contractors, would strengthen the administration of President Alvaro Uribe more than bolster its international standing. Moreover, Reyes's death may compromise intermittent hostage negotiations between the FARC and the international community, at least in the short term. He was the FARC's primary interlocutor with Venezuela, Ecuador and a few European states, each of which has tried to secure the release of several prominent hostages.
• Trans-border operations. The Colombian government's raid into Ecuadorian territory will not deter the FARC from operating in neighbouring countries. Although guerrillas will have to be more discreet about communications, as US intelligence agencies intercepted Reyes's position, the group will continue to take advantage of the region's porous and ungoverned frontiers.
The FARC may exploit Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's vows to go to war if Colombia pursues its fight with guerrillas in Venezuela. This threat could embolden the group to operate with greater freedom in Venezuela and other neighbouring countries, knowing that another Colombian incursion could have dramatic repercussions. Such a tactic would be ironic, as it supports the Uribe administration's claim that the FARC has become too weak to operate Colombia.