In August, former leaders of The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) announced a return to arms and called upon other insurgent forces to intensify their fight against the Colombian government.
The end of the short-lived peace must be seen through a larger perspective that incorporates other important geostrategic changes in South America. Among those are the increasing international pressure against Venezuela, Colombia’s further strategic alignment with NATO, the demise of regional organisations and the recent election of right-wing candidates in Colombia and Brazil must be contemplated as aggravating factors.
It has been long-speculated that Venezuela’s regime holds deep ties with FARC and other Colombian rebel forces. Cuba has also played an important role in providing refuge to Colombian insurgent forces and was a major protagonist in the peace talks that lead to the now failed treaty of 2016. For decades it has been speculated that these foreign actors have held considerable influence over insurgent forces in Colombia.
Providing logistical support, training and occasionally offering safe-heaven for insurgent forces is nothing new in the region - or abroad. However, amid the current political instability in the continent marked by massive protests in Chile and Ecuador, South American nations are likely to be far less tolerable to these foreign interventions.
Luis Almagro, secretary-general of the Organisation of American States (OAS), recently suggested that there was a ‘direct action of Venezuela and Cuba’ in instigating public unrest in these two aforementioned nations, suggesting also that these are not isolated cases but a growing tendency in the region.
Calls for Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to be held accountable for harbouring FARC combatants have recently been made by sectors of the Colombian government and, during the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly this year, Colombian President Ivan Duque presented a dossier which, according to him, held undeniable proof of an alliance between Venezuela’s regime and Colombian insurgents, through which the former was providing safe-heaven for combatants and supplying sensible intelligence on Colombian strategic infrastructures. Such claims led to the resignation of Colombia’s intelligence chief who questioned the legitimacy of such report. Nonetheless, these accusations found support on public announcements from other regional actors such as the United States, Brazil and regional organisations like the OAS.
Amid such tensions, the main concern is that an incursion into foreign territory by FARC or other less-organised groups may prompt an armed response from other regional powers. As is common in guerrilla warfare, hide and seek tactics are often employed by insurgents that make use of both densely populated urban territories and the Amazonian jungle to hide until a more opportune chance to attack appears. This leads often to incursions into foreign territory.
Such incidents are not rare and have in the past led to direct military responses by neighbouring countries, often with support from Bogotá. One of the most notable cases occurred in 1991 when FARC forces attacked a Brazilian Army post on the border, prompting a fierce retaliation in the form of Operation ‘Traíra’ (Portuguese word for ‘treacherous’), where Colombian and Brazilian Armed Forces formed a joint military operation resulting in a short but deadly conflict leaving at least 65 dead.
More recently, in 2018, rogue combatants from FARC conducted a series of attacks against Ecuadorian and Peruvian security forces in the Putumayo province, a tri-border region between Peru, Ecuador and Colombia.
Should FARC continue to rely on these guerrilla tactics to conduct their insurgency against Bogotá, it is likely that incidents such as these will become more recurrent. Transnational crime such as drug trafficking and the kidnapping of foreign citizens for ransom have been the main sources of revenue for Colombian guerrillas, forcing neighbouring nations to become more invested in assisting Bogotá in its counter-insurgency efforts.
The prospect of territorial incursions, however, re-introduces the possibility of foreign military action against rebel forces. Even more worrying, is the possibility that guerrilla incursions around the Colombia-Venezuela border may lead to a Colombian response into Venezuela’s territory and possibly escalate the conflict from an intrastate affair into an interstate conflict between the two, likely featuring other regional actors. Nations seeking to depose Nicolas Maduro might find in a similar incident a justifiable excuse to employ military force against the regime in Caracas. Although extreme, the prospect of a similar ‘script’ would be in tone with the current narrative where Caracas is directly blamed for the escalating tensions in the region.
In light of the current turmoil taking place in the continent, the intensification of international mobilization against Venezuela’s regime and the return of FARC, an optimistic appraisal of the situation would be most improper. It remains to be seen how these factors will converge to affect the grand-scheme of South-America’s unstable regional order.
Arthur Mac-Dowell is the Latin America Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.