Colombia's Rebels Face Possibility of Implosion

By Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 22, 2008

PEREIRA, Colombia -- Hungry, desperate and afraid for his life, Pedro Pablo Montoya shot the commander he was supposed to protect. He then severed the commander's right hand -- as proof he'd killed one of Colombia's most wanted men -- and deserted the once-powerful rebel group to which he had pledged allegiance.

The slaying this month of Manuel Jesús Muñoz, a member of the ruling directorate of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, was a dramatic signal that a rebel group known for its resilience is engulfed in an internal crisis that could lead to its implosion after four decades of armed struggle.

In a country where most people cannot remember a time of peace, Colombians are for the first time raising the possibility that a guerrilla group once thought invincible could be forced into peace negotiations or even defeated militarily.

Weakened by infiltrators and facing constant combat and aerial bombardment, the insurgency is losing members in record numbers. The FARC, as the group is known, lost 1,583 fighters in combat last year, its columns are plagued by command-and-control problems, and popular support is evaporating, the government of President Álvaro Uribe says.

Since 2000, the Uribe administration has received $5 billion in U.S. aid, mostly for military and anti-drug programs -- more than any other government outside the Middle East. The money has helped it revamp the Colombian army, paying for new helicopters and training for elite troops, although rights groups remain concerned about abuses, including the killings of civilians.

The most serious problem the FARC is facing is not guerrilla deaths or the loss of territory, but mass desertion, according to political analysts, military officials and former guerrillas interviewed this month. Many said desertions have badly hurt morale and provided the military with important strategic information about the hermetic group.

"If the situation continues like this, the FARC will be finished," said Ivan, 33, who deserted from the group Dec. 27 after serving as the No. 2 commander of a unit in the coffee-growing west.

"It won't be tomorrow, and it could take years, but it will happen," said Ivan, who asked that his last name not be used out of fear the FARC might kill him.

Montoya, 33, said the threat comes from men like him who have lost their devotion to the FARC. In an interview at a military base here, he spoke of how he had once dreamed of taking power and spent 16 years becoming an experienced warrior. But then, he said, he began to fear being killed by the Colombian troops chasing his rebel unit or even in one of the purges his commander had been ordering.

"The internal situation is this: Finances, bad; medicines, bad; supplies, bad," Montoya said.

"The civilian population does not want to collaborate," he added. "There is a complete rejection. Even civilians are telling guerrillas: "Desert. Don't let yourself get killed."

Last year, 2,480 rebels abandoned the FARC, up from 1,558 the previous year, according to the Defense Ministry. Most are classified as "men in arms," fighters on the front lines of a simmering conflict. About 40 percent are plainclothes militiamen who carry out intelligence operations and supply provisions to FARC units.

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