After the dramatic rescue mission of 15 hostages by the Colombian Army last week, many analysts are starting to talk about a possible crisis in one of the oldest guerrilla groups in the world. Some suggest this is the beginning of the end for a rebel group dating back more 40 years. Producer Zulima Palacio takes a look into it. Chris Simkins narrates the story.
Last week's rescue is widely described as an embarrassing setback for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC. Not one shot was fired when Colombian intelligence officials tricked the rebels into handing over 15 hostages in the Colombian jungle last week.
Experts and analysts now say they see a crisis within the oldest guerrilla group in Latin America. Patrick Esteruelas, of the Eurasia Group, says the FARC could be coming apart. "It is the beginning of the end of the Farc guerrilla movement as we know it," he said.
The FARC began in 1964 as a Marxist-oriented rural rebel army. Its initial income came from extortion of landowning elites and emerging drug lords. By the 1980's, the FARC began charging farmers and drugs lords for protection, allowing the group to increase its manpower and to purchase more weapons. In a few years, the FARC activities evolved into an alliance with drug lords. Today, experts estimate that between 60 and 90 percent of the FARC's income comes from the illicit drug business.
Adam Isacson, a political analyst with the non-profit Washington think-tank Center for International Policy, says the FARC fronts operating closer to Venezuela are entirely dedicated to drugs.
Isacon says,"From taxing the growers, to buying the coca paste, to turning it into cocaine and crystal cocaine and to get it through the corridors in Colombia and in some cases getting it out of the country - that's where we do not know how far it goes though. We have heard that the FARC has contacts with Mexican cartels."
Isacson estimates that about 20 percent of the FARC income comes from kidnapping. The group's 70 fronts, or local cells, now hold about 700 hostages and its total income, he estimates, is in the hundreds of millions. "I would say at least half a billion dollars a year," Isacson said.
With estimates of FARC membership running up to 18,000, Isacson says that the defection of hundreds of rebels this year indicates some fronts are facing political and economic difficulties.
Several billion dollars in U.S. aid has helped the Colombian government infiltrate and disrupt FARC operations. There have been arrests and assassinations. In the last few months, FARC's founder died and two senior leaders were killed. The government campaign interrupted communications between many of the fronts.
Eduardo Gamarra of the Latin American and Caribbean Center at the Florida International University says the stated purpose of the U.S. money was to eradicate coca production.
"The investment was originally to stop the flow of drugs into the United States. If you gauged it from that perspective then the plan has not worked. If you gauge it from the perspective of dismantling a major, the major guerrilla force, the most important drug trafficking organization then it is a huge success,” Gamarra said.
According to the U.N., Colombia's production of coca leaf, used to produce cocaine, increased 27 percent last year. But the FARC could be in crisis says Patrick Esteruelas.
"The FARC has not been left with too many options. Right now they are too busy surviving and are not capable of staging anything close to a military resurgence," Esteruelas said.
Colombian analysts and public opinion surveys give the FARC less than a one percent approval rating in Colombia. But while many agree that the FARC has lost members and faces one of its most difficult moments, they also warn that it is probably far from being eliminated.