South America has been a special part of my life for four decades. I have lived many years in Brasil and Peru. I am married to an incredible lady from Argentina. I want to share South America with you.
AS DEFENCE minister for almost three years under President Álvaro Uribe, Juan Manuel Santos led the crackdown on the guerrillas of the FARC. Their numbers fell from around 18,000 in 2002 to 8,000, and they were driven from areas in central Colombia that they had held for decades. Soon after Mr Santos took over as president last August, the security forces killed the FARC’s top military commander, Jorge Briceño (nom de guerre,“el Mono Jojoy”) in a ground and air operation that destroyed his headquarters.
Now there are some worrying signs that the FARC is bouncing back. Those who remain in the outfit are the radicalised hard-core, according to Rafael Guarín, the deputy defence minister. They are concentrating on attacking security forces using landmines and hit-and-run snipers. Last month the FARC kidnapped four Chinese oil workers and ambushed an army unit guarding a bridge in Caquetá department, killing two civilians. On June 29th the guerrillas erected a roadblock on the main road between Medellín and the Caribbean coast. When police arrived, they detonated a bomb, killing a police chief.
According to Mr Santos, these attacks are a response to pressure from the state. On July 3rd the government said that Alfonso Cano, the FARC’s commander in chief, had narrowly escaped a raid on his camp three days earlier, for the third time in recent years. But the ELN, a smaller and often underestimated guerrilla group with around 2,000 members, is also staging a modest comeback. It has ended an internecine war with the FARC and increased its involvement in the drug trade. Last month it placed a car bomb in Cauca, killing one person; it killed three soldiers in a clash in Norte de Santander; and it is alleged to have massacred eight civilians in Nariño.
The uptick in guerrilla violence has been paralleled by a rise in activity by former paramilitary groups, recycled as criminal bands. They are behind recent attacks on human-rights activists and some massacres of villagers. Kidnapping is up 16% in 2011, and Mr Santos himself says he does not believe the low official figure for extortion “because of what I hear and perceive.”
These attacks come as the army’s morale is being undermined by several judgments by Colombia’s courts, some of them questionable. One ordered the government to pay almost $1m to three conscripts who were wounded in a FARC attack on an army base in 1996, in which 31 soldiers were killed and 60 captured. The court ruled that the state had failed to prepare the soldiers properly or to protect them. The Supreme Court determined that information found on computer hard drives in a raid on a FARC camp just over the border in Ecuador in 2008 was not admissible, barring the prosecution of several politicians for alleged ties to the guerrillas. Last month an Ecuadorean judge charged five Colombian generals over the raid. Colombia does not recognise Ecuadorean jurisdiction in the case.
Critics of Mr Santos, who increasingly include Mr Uribe, say the government has let down its guard on security. “Not true,” says the president, citing the capture of more than 10,000 criminal suspects since he took office. Colombia remains much safer than it was a decade ago, and the murder rate continues to decline. Foreign investment is pouring in. But Mr Santos has acknowledged that Colombians feel less safe than they are in reality. Although 76% of respondents in poll last month by Invamer-Gallup approved of the president’s performance, 62% disapproved of his handling of security. That in itself is a small victory for the FARC—and a reverse for Mr Santos.