BOGOTA Ten years ago, on Feb. 23, 2002, Colombia's Green party presidential candidate, Ingrid Betancourt, was taken hostage by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), an armed Marxist organization that is considered the oldest guerilla group in South America. Three days earlier, Bogota had put an end to peace talks that had been going nowhere for three years. War resumed – and in fact continues to this day. Ingrid Betancourt was freed by a well-executed military operation in July 2008.

In 2002, the FARC was holding some 60 hostages. By now, that number is down to 11. The others having been freed by the army or released by the guerillas. Four were shot at point blank range by the hostage takers on Nov. 26, 2011. Like his predecessor Alvaro Uribe, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos refuses to negotiate for the release of the hostages still in captivity, even though these are all soldiers captured in combat.

The government refuses to "cede to the blackmail" of a guerilla group in decline, it says. In 2002, the FARC had approximately 17,000 armed men, according to official figures at the time. Today, there are fewer than 9,000 FARC. Even if the organization is still recruiting on a regular basis, thousands of rebels have deserted due to army pressure and campaigns led by the authorities promising amnesty if they lay down their arms. Within the space of 10 years, some 17,000 guerilleros have turned themselves in, the vast majority of them young, freshly-enrolled men.

Army figures should be viewed with caution, however. "To get an idea of the FARC's evolution, its territorial presence is a more reliable indicator than the number of recruits," says researcher Camilo Echandia who has been charting the Colombian conflict for the past 20 years. "The FARC was present in 377 municipalities in 2002, as opposed to 142 today," Echandia says. In a country twice the size of France, with a population of 46 million, a military offensive led by the Uribe government pushed the guerilleros away from the cities and the main roadways.

A turning point?

There is no question, though, that the army offensive decapitated the FARC. The organization's "Secretariat," a long untouchable leadership collective comprised of seven members, suffered some mortal blows. On March 1, 2008, the Colombian air force bombed Raul Reyes's camp on Ecuadorian territory and killed the FARC's chief ideologue. Three days later, Ivan Rios, another Secretariat member, was assassinated by one of his body guards. To get the reward offered by the government, the killer presented himself to the authorities with the severed hand of his victim in a plastic bag.

The FARC received an earlier blow in March 2008 when former chief Manuel Marulanda Velez, alias Tirofijo, died of old age. At 78 years old, 60 of them spent as a guerilla, he had become a symbol of the longevity of the FARC, which was founded in 1966. Following these successes the army announced the "beginning of the end of the FARC."

President Santos – who was Uribe's minister of defense – appeared convinced that the death of these FARC leaders marked a turning point. The deaths of other FARC leaders followed. In September 2010, Mono Jojoy, the FARC's grand strategist, died in a bomb explosion. On Nov. 4, 2011, Alfonso Cano, who had been the FARC commander-in-chief since 2008, was also killed. And on Feb. 13, the army announced it had seized "a giant arsenal of more than six tons of weapons and explosives" and a camp in the department of Caqueta, in the south of the country, that could hold nearly 200 guerilleros.

The modernization of the Colombian army, which began in the late 1990s and was largely financed by the United States, gave state forces a decided advantage over the FARC. There had also been progress in the air force, as well as improvements in communication and information.

The army was quick to portray the FARC as cornered and demoralized, just a shadow of its former self. Observers said the only reason it survived at all was its increased involvement in the drug trade. Either way, the infamous guerilla army finally seemed to be fading away.

Staying power

Yet for some reason, the FARC did hang in there. In Colombian back country, its ability to recruit remained pretty much intact – the group hadn't lost sight of its peasant origins. Not only that, but FARC activities appear in fact to be on the rise of late. According to the Bogota-based Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris, the FARC was implicated last year in 2,148 armed actions, of which 421 were combat situations. Those kinds of figures have in fact gone up consecutively over the last four years. "Resisting is what it does best," an army general admits.

The FARC, in would seem, has adapted. "The days when it was capable of getting a thousand fighters together to attack a military base are over," says Ariel Avila, the director of the Nuevo Arco Iris "Observatory." "The guerilla fighters have dispersed, but highly mobile small units continue to make life difficult for the army. Ambushes have become the order of the day along with the use of anti-personnel mines, snipers, and booby-trapped cars." The new tactics are increasingly murderous: between January and October 2011, the FARC killed 429 members of the military and wounded 1,806.

Adapting for the FARC has also meant growing involvement in drug trafficking. "FARC and the drug trade cover exactly the same territory on a map. There are guerillas where drug-producing plants are cultivated illegally, and at the borders where both drugs and arms trafficking take place," explains Camilo Echandia. These are the same areas that harbor the "Bacrims" (short for bandas criminales) -- new criminal bands that are direct descendants of right-wing paramilitary groups that, officially speaking, have been demobilized. Depending on the region, the FARC and Bacrims team up and share the spoils – or kill each other.

"The FARC has not, however, turned into a mafia: drug trafficking is not an end in itself," says Echandia. In mountain hideouts and the depths of the jungle, the guerilleros live a miserable life. "The drug money is used to buy weapons and finance the war," says Ariel Avila.

As far as the FARC is concerned, winning the war may be a long way off, but a negotiated peace is not in the cards. President Santos has demanded that the FARC free all hostages, stop terrorist attacks and hand in their arms before negotiations can get underway. Like his predecessors, the new FARC leader, Timoléon Jimenez, refuses these conditions.

Several indications suggest that there are secret contacts between the guerillas and the authorities. But, as Echandia stresses, "there is no consensus within the army, within Colombian society or probably within the FARC itself that negotiations alone could lead to peace."

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Photo - SMORENO2007