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Volume 18, Number 3
April 12, 2012

Panama Spanish Schools in Bocas del Toro and in Boquete, by the beach and in the mountains


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Also in this section:
Chaplain warns that police are prone to politics
United States facing bold new calls for "Drug War" alternatives
PRD ready to rumble --- with each other
Martinelli's Easter Tweet
Can the Panamanian women's vote be alienated?
New threats to expropriate Casco Viejo properties
Constitutional chess game leaves many unanswered questions
Cops dismiss importance of Calle Uruguay gun play
Is FARC's insurgency winding down? What might that mean for Panama?
Fear, loathing and electoral love in Mexico
New World Bank president: what's on the agenda?
Is MOLIRENA about to split into three?
Suspense about an animal cruelty law
Farrar approved as the next American ambassador here
Clash between loggers and Wounaan community leaves two dead
Atlantic Side bridge plans indicate further moves
A proposal to purge the courts and bring in Martinelista replacements
A de facto police coup, even if Martinelli lingers on
Partial agreement sets off furious rows in the left and the comarca



Panamanian wanted poster for Colombian FARC rebels
Archive photo by José F. Ponce


Colombia's FARC releases military and police prisoners, says it won't kidnap for ransom anymore

What do FARC's woes mean for Panama?

by Eric Jackson

On April 2 the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) released six police officers and four soldiers that they had been holding prisoner for as long as 14 years. Some had skin or digestive problems typical among people who live in the jungle and one had suffered from malaria during his captivity, but overall they were in good health, especially considering their ordeal.

In those 14 years, FARC reached the height of its power in a territorial sense, but by that time it had largely turned from a focus on revolution to one of economic gangsterism and regional warlordism, and consequently had been marginalized as a political force in the eyes of most Colombians. The guerrillas steadily lost ground to a ferocious US-backed counteroffensive, not only by Colombia's military and police forces but also with the informally allied AUC paramilitary organization, which was like FARC funded by drug money, and with foreign mercenary forces that included US-based military corporations like DynCorp and Israeli instructors and gun runners who worked with the AUC.

The tide began to turn dramatically four years ago. In March of 2008 three members of FARC's seven-member secretariat died. The most serious loss expected, and to natural causes: Manuel "Tirofijo" Marulanda, who had taken up arms as a teenager, in the civil war that broke out in 1948 with the assassination of Liberal presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán and the bloody rioting in its aftermath. The Communist Party armed cells of which he was a part reconstituted itself as FARC in 1964, cut its formal ties with the party, and has been fighting ever since. Marulanda, said to have been christened as Pedro Antonio Marín Marín, was FARC's founding leader and was very good at what he did. It was to be expected that when he died, at age 77 of a heart attack, that the rebel group would be confronted with a succession problem.

That leadership vacuum was made far more acute three weeks before Marulanda's death by the death of FARC's second-in-command Raúl Reyes, in the bombardment of a FARC camp in Ecuador close to the Colombian border, and then by the betrayal and assassination of a third member of the secretariat, Iván Ríos, a few days after Reyes was killed.

In July of 2008, a ruse made possible by high-level defections within FARC led to the rescue of 14 hostages, including Colombian-French politician Ingrid Betancourt. It was a major political blow for the guerrillas and sent the defense minister at the time, Juan Manuel Santos, on his way to the presidency.

In September of 2010 Jorge "Mono Jojoy" Briceño, FARC's top military commander, was killed in the bombardment of his guerrilla camp in southern Colombia. Ailing from diabetes and deeply dug into a jungle bunker, those who bombed his camp knew exactly where he was and hit the spot with some 70 tons of explosives. Later the world learned through WikiLeaks that the United States had been waging drone warfare against FARC since at least 2006, and from a slip-up in a congressional budget publication we learned of US drone bases in Panama. So were Reyes and Briceño killed neither by artillery fire nor a conventional air strike, but by American drones? And if so, did these drones come from bases in Panama? Those things we don't really know.

This past November 4 FARC suffered another devastating blow with the death of Alfonso Cano (Guillermo Leon Saenz) --- Marulanda's successor --- in a gun battle at a remote jungle hideout in southwestern Colombia's Cauca department. There, too, the special forces who killed Cano knew precisely where he was and that would have been due to information from a spy, drone surveillance or a combination of these things.

Compañero Timochenko (Rodrigo Londoño) took over. Thought to be a hard-line militarist and with a $7.6 million price on his head ($5 million by the United States and $2.6 million by Colombia), Timochenko commanded FARC's forces along Colombia's border with Venezuela and was especially resented for heading a campaign that started in 2000 to assassinate drug traffickers allied with the AUC and thus consolidate FARC's power to tax the cocaine trade.

But the current political and military situation has is not propitious to hard-line approaches. FARC has lost about half of its fighting strength since its mid-90s peak of some 18,000 soldiers and has been driven from most of the territory it once held. Along Panama's borders, FARC's 57th Front is hard-pressed by government forces, with Panamanian and US forces "secretly" attacking from the Panamanian side. A late March find of a FARC refuge in the Tuqueza area of Darien, hailed as a major blow by the Martinelli administration, found lodgings and supplies for 32 people. That makes it a much smaller FARC camp than we had seen on this side of the border in previous decades, which probably indicates both a shrinkage and an atomization of the 57th Front. On a tactical level, people who were once uniformed FARC troops have donned civilian clothes and slipped back into rural society or into the towns as small militia units, apparent working people by day and rebel fighters when mobilized.

Timochenko has stepped up attacks, but also sued for peace. In addition to his call for peace talks, he has moved to end two of the most unpopular things about FARC, kidnapping for ransom and the long-term imprisonment of captured cops and soldiers. In February came the unilateral announcement that the group would no longer kidnap people for ransom, although some of those who were being held for ransom then still are being held. On April 2 came the release of the last uniformed FARC prisoners. None of the some 8,000 people held prisoner on terrorism charges in Colombia, let alone any of the several FARC people who have been extradited to and imprisoned in the United States, were released in exchange.

Thousands of other FARC rebels have accepted amnesties in exchange for laying down their arms, after which their general lot is urban poverty. There are multiple generations of FARC, people who have grown up in the rebel movement and know little else. Much of the problem with their integration into Colombian society has to do with the rural warlordism and centrifugal politics that have characterized Colombian since at least the time of independence from Spain. There are some four million internally displaced persons in Colombia, some who fled from FARC, other who fled from FARC's enemies, but across much of Colombia's hinterland --- the places beyond the largely urbanized central highlands around Bogota --- the politics are about wealthy ruling oligarchs versus peasant rebels fighting for control of the land, each side without particular loyalty to or concern for Colombia as a nation. Panama's separation from Colombia in 1903, as well as Ecuador's and Venezuela's exit from Simón Bolívar's Gran Colombia much earlier, can be seen as symptoms of the forces that have always torn away the periphery from Bogota's authority and continue to do so today.

Although he was Álvaro Uribe's defense minister and chosen presidential candidate, Santos has gone a different way. A number of former Uribe administration officials are in jail or are fugitives due to their prosecution for abuses during the previous administration. There is a slow-moving program to return lands that were seized from campesinos by the AUC paramilitaries and government forces doing the bidding of rural oligarchs. While Uribe's foreign policy was a US-aligned belligerence toward Colombia's leftist-ruled neighbors Venezuela and Ecuador, Santos has patched up relations and secured agreements to further isolate FARC by getting those countries to act against the rebels taking sanctuary on their sides of the Colombian borders. Bogota continues to press with its war effort.

Few seasoned observers are optimistic about peace finally coming to the Colombian countryside. One reason is that there are dozens of far-right politicians in the Colombian congress who got where they are with paramilitary support and who are a rural power bloc opposed to Santos. FARC may be on the way out, but they are only the left side of a long-running revolt of the regions against the center that shows no sign of going away.

And the AUC? Under US pressure Uribe turned on these erstwhile allies of his --- and indeed, of the United States --- and many of their leaders have been extradited to the United States on drug trafficking charges. Most of the rank-and-file paramilitaries were demobilized, at least formally. However, some paramilitary units just changed their names and continue much as before, with the backing of the same wealthy right-wing supporters as before. Some demobilized paras have gone into the direct employ of drug gangs that would have once dealt through their former commanders. Others are freelance drug smugglers, kidnappers, assassins or petty thugs. A bunch of people who made a lot of money off of the AUC have made their way to Panama, where they and their wealth have gone into real estate and other ventures.

The man who is formally leading the fight against FARC from the Panamanian side, National Frontier Service (SENAFRONT) director Frank Ábrego, was on TVN celebrating the bloodless late March capture of the three FARC camps in the Darien. He said that they were encountered in a joint SENAFRONT and Red Cross food relief mission in the area --- which raises some interesting questions given the supposed strictly demilitarized status of the International Committee of the Red Cross and Red Crescent --- and that it was nothing new to find such a camp. He denounced and warned Panamanians who harbor FARC rebels, as usual. Then he noted that the demobilized AUC paramilitaries have largely gone into various lines of thuggery, and warned that the end of FARC would not be the end of Panama's problems with them. That's because some of them have been engaged in kidnapping, smuggling and killing for all of their lives and Ábrego expects that they would continue in those occupations, some coming across the border to pursue them in Panama.



If FARC is really on the way out, the world does need to think about what its people will do








    

Also in this section:
Chaplain warns that police are prone to politics
United States facing bold new calls for "Drug War" alternatives
PRD ready to rumble --- with each other
Martinelli's Easter Tweet
Can the Panamanian women's vote be alienated?
New threats to expropriate Casco Viejo properties
Constitutional chess game leaves many unanswered questions
Cops dismiss importance of Calle Uruguay gun play
Is FARC's insurgency winding down? What might that mean for Panama?
Fear, loathing and electoral love in Mexico
New World Bank president: what's on the agenda?
Is MOLIRENA about to split into three?
Suspense about an animal cruelty law
Farrar approved as the next American ambassador here
Clash between loggers and Wounaan community leaves two dead
Atlantic Side bridge plans indicate further moves
A proposal to purge the courts and bring in Martinelista replacements
A de facto police coup, even if Martinelli lingers on
Partial agreement sets off furious rows in the left and the comarca



© 2012 by Eric Jackson
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