A ‘Colombian Bagdad’? Toribio, the FARC’s front-line

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Boos and whistles greeted Juan Manuel Santos this morning as his presidential helicopter touched down in Toribio, south west Colombia.

Santos lands after nearly a week of intense FARC bombardments that have left thousands displaced, and whole streets reduced to rubble.

Over the last decade the FARC have attacked 500 times. The municipal, known locally as ‘Toribistan’, or as Semana magazine put it, ‘Bagdad’, is at the front-line of a terrorist struggle against the Colombian state.

Despite the president’s arrival, the situation remains tense with reports this evening that the FARC have shot down a military aeroplane. At the same time, the area’s large indigenous population, frustrated at the apparent impotence of the state, are threatening to take things into their own hands, taking the fight to both the FARC and the military.

The drama should not be over-played, this does not represent a return to Colombia’s past. But Santos knows that he must seize control, and re-assert his policies on national security.

An impoverished front-line of narco-terrorism

Toribio, nestled in the mountainous countryside of the department of Cauca, is home to a community living through an almost perpetual battle against with the FARC. The first attack took place in 1983 and the guerrillas have returned over 600 times since. This year alone there have been 12 incursions.

In July 2011 a chiva (traditional Colombian bus) packed full of explosives was activated outside the police station, killing four officers and destroying dozens of homes. Curiously, according to the publication Semana, these same houses were bombed again by the FARC this week.
The locality’s population has grown accustomed to ‘war’; it is not uncommon to see houses fortified with trenches and tunnels as rudimentary protection against the bullets and bombs of the guerrillas.
Toribio is a victim of its geographical location, forming part of the route connecting the centre of the country with the pacific coast, a key pathway for the transport of cocaine (the FARC’s subversive campaigns are funded in large part by the profits of the cocaine trade).
According to Semana, Cauca’s concentrated indigenous population also permits the FARC to move easily across the territory. The indigenous groups are exploited by the FARC to form a strategic barrier, limiting the ability of the military to carry out raids. Indigenous groups have been accused in some cases (by no means all) of actively aiding and abetting the FARC.
Despite the near permanence of the FARC in the area, the scale of the battle that began on Friday has surprised the authorities and has shocked the nation. Videos have emerged of soldiers crouching behind, and peering over, sandbag fortifications, firing towards the rebel mountain hideouts.
No, this is not a Fallujah nor it is a Bagdad. Nevertheless as Caracol Television and RCN interviewed terrified residents fleeing their homes amid a cacophony of machine-gun fire, it was impossible to avoid the sensation that this was a town at the front-line of a civil conflict.
A failure of Santos’ security policies?
This crisis arrives as the president faces constant attacks from those who oppose his approach to national security. Little doubt remains that the issue is Santos’ Achilles heel; the most recent Gallup poll revealed that as little as 29% of Colombians back Santos’ anti-terrorist measures.
Worse still for Santos, just days ago Alvaro Uribe officially launched the Puro Centro Democratico (PCD) political movement to fight against the president’s re-election in 2014. The PCD has promised to place the fight against terrorism at the heart of its campaign.
Although the public perception is negative, the Santos regime has delivered major blows against the FARC, taking-out not only the chief military strategist ‘Mono Jojoy’, but also the overall leader of the group ‘Alfonso Cano’.
Santos argues that the recent upsurge in FARC activity is evidence of the guerrillas’ increased desperation – their blaze of glory.
The problem for Santos is that because he has not stuck to Uribe’s hard-line Democratic Security doctrine – all out war against the FARC – many Colombians view him as soft. Santos, since coming to power, has adopted a more subtle strategy that looks to build the conditions for a post-conflict Colombia rather than just fighting fire with fire.
Opponents exploit the rumours, circulating with increasing frequency, that Santos is conducting secret peace talks with the FARC. The president denies this but it remains easy for Uribe to cast his old defence minister as a terrorist appeaser.
Although Santos is right to look to the future, the nation remains concerned about the present.
Playing politics with the blood of soldiers

The Santos camp – as well as the rest of the nation – will be dismayed that his arrival in Cauca today has not calmed the situation. Guerrilla attacks took place before, during and after the visit of president – both in Toribio and in other parts of the department.
The images of indigenous groups threatening vigilantism to force out the military also make for unhappy reminders of the birth of the auto-defence groups in previous decades – groups spawned by the inability of the state to guarantee the safety of their territory in the face of guerrilla and criminal aggression.
Moreover Santos is battling against the public perception that he acted too late. On Sunday, the president announced that the government had the situation under control. Critics pounced, claiming that the ‘business as usual’ message was not one the country wanted to hear. The boos that greeted Santos as he arrived this morning suggest that his critics were right.
It is hard to understand why Santos did not visit Toribio earlier. Events now appear to be (politically speaking) manna from heaven for Alvaro Uribe.
Ex-president Ernesto Samper (1994-98) last night warned against playing politics with public order, and Santos himself last week asked for opponents to refrain from politicising ‘the blood of our soldiers’.
Uribe would do well to remain quiet until order is restored in Toribio. After such time it is impossible to see how he will not use the events of the last week, coupled with the evidence of a report published by the University Sergio Arboleda that shows the FARC have returned to 50 municipals from which they had been expelled, to launch repeated attacks against the Santos regime.
Although the talk of Santos’ loss of control over the country’s security is exaggerated, this is now largely an irrelevance. The first casualty is always the truth…The danger for Santos is that he could end up neither winning the war nor the argument.

Unfair as it might be, the Cauca of today reminds Colombians of a time when the FARC controlled large swathes of the country. This was a time before Uribe came to power – it was precisely the reason Uribe came to power.

Kevin Howlett – http://Colombia-Politics.com

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