Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Terrorism in Bogota

We had a little spate of terrorism in Colombia on Monday. Nothing too severe. A big assault by the FARC near the Venezuela border with about 16 soldiers were killed and a car bomb went off in Bogota. The first I heard about it was on the internet yesterday.

The reason for this latest outburst is the impending Presidential Inauguration ceremony on Monday. Terrorists love to have largely symbolic acts of violence and the FARC is no different. Even though they have no realistic hope of stopping Uribe's second term, they still want to make their point.

Interestingly, the car bomb went off between two military troop trucks and all of the casualties were military personnel (I think 1 died). I find this curious for two reasons. First, the FARC is savvy enough to realize something that the neocon's haven't: winning insurgency is about winning the minds of the average citizens. If the FARC targeted innocent civilians, they would merely turn the people against their "cause" and grease the wheels of the government killing machine. I believe that the average Bogotano would pretty much give Uribe a blank check at this point anyway, but further civilian deaths would probably tip the country further toward a serious and credible offensive against the FARC.

But even more interesting to me is the question of how. Planning a car bomb doesn't seem like the most sophisticated thing. Slap a bomb together, put it in a car, park the car in a busy area, blow it up. Pretty easy. But, timing a car bombing so that it just happens to go off next to two army trucks full of soldiers? Sounds fishy. Colombia is not a country dominated by sound professional ethics. There's just as much goverment corruption as one would expect and it's certainly not beyond reason that either a) the car bomb was planted by the government, or b) someone on the inside is working with the FARC.

Was this a "fundraiser," an "inside job", or just a stroke of "good" fortune for the FARC? I suspect we'll never know, but it's definitely got me wondering.

Of course all of this leads to two other larger points - one personal, one analytical.

Personally, having a car bomb go off in Bogota isn't exactly causing me to quake in my boots. In fact, it's utterly unaffected me in any way except that traffic is often worse now (if that's even possible) because there are more military and police checkpoints in the city. But really, if I hadn't read about the bomb, I never would have known. Bogota is a vast and expansive city. The bomb was as far away from me as East London was to my house in Earl's Court. (Sorry, it's the only analogy I could think of because Washington DC just isn't big enough!)

My point is, I suppose, that while terrible, car bombs and other forms of potential terrorism aren't exactly worrisome on a day to day basis in Colombia - and this is country with an active internal war that's lasted for 40+ years. There isn't a "color" system to indicate danger, there isn't a general fear in the city, and there certainly isn't any need to alter routines or increase personal security measures. We Americans are so spoiled with our relative security that one serious incident of terrorism is enough for us to sign away a significant portion of our consitutionally protected rights. If Colombians did that, they'd have no rights at all.

At any rate, the big question behind all this is: Is the FARC becoming irrelevant? Seriously. In 2002, the FARC launched a rocket attack at Uribe during the inauguration. This year, just before the election, they managed to kill a kid on the TransMilenio with a bomb. One person, and a child at that. That's a far cry from the military prowess exhibited in the past. I know that in certain parts of the country the FARC is still extremely powerful, but how much influence can they really have if they can't even manage a significant operation in the capital city? Two people killed in 7 months by terrorism? Doesn't sound like a "great threat", even if it is an "enduring" one.

I don't have answers for these questions, only more questions. For example, I'm guessing that, given their loose affiliation to Marxism, that during the Cold War, the FARC was supported by communist countries. Whether that meant the USSR or Cuba by proxy or others, I don't know. But the point is, they were pretty well funded and were a very significant danger. I imagine that their "cocaine" tax was just supplementary income, although we'll probably never know for sure.

Now, it's clear that the FARC has shifted to direct involvement in cocaine production and export. I wonder how that shift of focus has effected their ability to organize, as well as their long term "political" goals. Managing a cocaine business is a lot more labor intensive than taxing coca farmers, so I wonder if that shift has drained the best managers and strategizers away from the "war".

I also wonder if the FARC's leader and founder, Pedro Marin, has finally expired and the spillover effect has decimated the organization from the top. He would have turned 76 years old in May with most of his life spent in the jungles and mountains fighting a war he could never win, but could always gratify his ego, if not his wallet.

I don't know. There are so many questions in Colombia and so few answers. We shall see what Monday brings. But really, I'm not expecting anything out of the ordinary. The country, while militarized, is generally safe and secure. It would be a real shock if the FARC managed to launch a significant action.

(Now, organized crime, that's a whole different story.)


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