May in Colombia: Juan Manuel Santos’ Most Difficult Month

What does a good month in Colombia look like? Well, the opposite of what we saw this past May. The Colombian government wanted ongoing investor confidence to remind everyone about the country’s progress, but an attack against a conservative former minister, and the capture of a French journalist by the leftwing FARC guerrillas revealed the contrary. In Colombia, security remains a weak spot. Colombia is on a positive path, but its government should not be too confident about the country’s success

Colombia has made progress on its security and economic fronts. A stronger police force, a better military, and more effective, yet still subpar government institutions have combined to wage an effective war against left-wing guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries, and drug-trafficking organizations. Although much still needs to be done, Colombia is no longer seen as a failed state. But, illegal groups still have a presence in remote and strategic areas of the country.

Improved security and a well-managed economy are the anchors of an average GDP growth rate of over 4 percent in the last decade, compared to a regional 3.4 percent. Foreign direct investment (FDI) has soared, reaching $13 billion in 2011. Close to 40% of these flows went to the oil industry as a result of improved control over the territory, a successful oil sector reform, and high commodity prices. Against this backdrop, throughout the month of May, Colombia wanted to celebrate ongoing investor confidence and the taking off of the long awaited U.S.-Colombia trade agreement.

Indeed, last month the Santos administration organized several events to celebrate the U.S.-Colombia trade agreement, the country’s economic stability, and Colombia’s security achievements. On May 15th, the day the trade agreement finally took effect, the port of Cartagena hosted the country’s leading industrialist association, as well as president Santos and other government officials so they could dispatch one of the inaugural low-tariff cargoes due for the United States. The Colombian export promotion agency, Proexport, simultaneously presented Colombia’s success story and business opportunities linked with the agreement to investors across the United States.

The Colombia’s security exchange also contributed to the celebration by organizing a roadshow, Colombia Inside Out, in London and New York, showcasing Colombia’s capital markets, as well as relevant sectors like oil and gas. Similarly, the National Hydrocarbon Agency took advantage of the month-long celebration to open the Ronda Colombia 2012, the bidding process of 109 oil and gas exploration and production blocks. The Financial Times, Time Magazine, and Monocle Magazine each also showcased Colombia’s achievements. Indeed, Colombia had reasons to celebrate, but it had not yet reached (and still has not) a solid turning point.

Despite this Colombian miracle hype, two shocking events reminded everyone that the unthinkable could still happen. First, the day the U.S.-Colombia trade agreement commenced, Fernando Londoño Hoyos, a staunch conservative radio talk-show host, suffered a terrorist bombing attack in Bogotá, leaving him and 50 other people injured. This bomb blew up two of Londoño’s bodyguards. That same day, the Bogotá Police de-activated a car bomb planted near the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police in downtown Bogota. Secondly, in late April, the left-wing FARC guerrillas captured French journalist Romeo Langlois while he was embedded in an army unit covering a raid on cocaine labs in Caquetá. He was released in late May.

The day the U.S.-Colombia trade agreement took off, while protests against it were expected in Bogotá, the attack on former minister Fernando Londoño surprised everyone. On the morning of May 15th, as Londoño’s armored car approached a stoplight in a very busy street near Bogotá’s financial district, a terrorist posing as a street vendor ran confidently to his car, placed an explosive device on the car’s passenger door, and ran away. The bomb exploded after he remotely activated it. The last attack in Bogotá that targeted a political figure (current Housing Minister German Vargas Lleras, then a Senator) took place on the evening of October 10th, 2005 when a car bomb was activated as Vargas Lleras’ motorcade drove by. Bogotá has thus been exposed to terrorist attacks, which include also the bombing of news broadcast Caracol’s headquarters in 2010, the Nueva Granada military university bombing of 2006, and the El Nogal Club bombing of 2003. While in the past parked cars have carried the bombs causing sporadic chaos in Bogotá, the recent attack on Londoño is the first time that an individual has approached his target confidently by foot while carrying an explosive device.

The attack on Londoño was a bitter reminder that even Colombia’s safest areas are still vulnerable. It also revealed that the illegal groups that plague the country will continue to resort to violence to advance their “cause” (or criminal activity). The main suspects of this recent attack are the FARC guerrillas. That same day, intelligence agencies tracked and prevented the explosion of a car bomb the FARC had planted near the headquarters of the metropolitan police station in downtown Bogotá, which could have been a decoy. In the past, the FARC have deceived police and military intelligence by using decoys while executing bomb attacks in urban areas. However, just like the attack on Senator Vargas Lleras in 2005, the perpetrators of the Londoño attack may be from the far right, acting with or without the support of rogue members of the intelligence community.

No one knows why Londoño was targeted. If the FARC perpetrated the attack, it was probably done in order to remind everyone of the FARC’s resilience, despite the big leadership losses they have recently suffered. If instead, the far right was behind the attack, then they probably wanted to undermine a transitional justice bill that is in the Colombian Congress and to hinder any peace negotiations efforts with the FARC. Regardless of who the perpetrators are, and what their motivations are, this event has contributed to debunking both the public and the government’s confidence in the story of the Colombian miracle. The day of the attack, President Santos, who was in Cartagena for the celebration of the new trade agreement, had to sourly return to Bogotá to confront the crisis. He didn’t get to give the U.S.-Colombia trade agreement inaugural speech in Cartagena.

In addition to the attack on Londoño, the kidnapping of Romeo Langlois by the FARC guerrillas also tainted the Colombian miracle story. On April 28th, a routine army anti-narcotics operation carried out by air near the municipality of Montañitas, Caquetá turned into a strong firefight. As army troops descended from their chopper onto the ground, the FARC terrorists launched an ambush that turned into a 7-hour firefight. The army reported that three army men, a police officer, and a guerrilla member died in the clash. Langlois was embedded with the army unit, collecting film material to produce a documentary about Colombia’s drug wars. In the heat of the battle, he saw no other option than to leave the army troopers charged with his protection in order to hide, but he eventually turned himself into the FARC to avoid death.

Although the Colombian military has decimated the FARC by eliminating several of the group’s top leadership, the FARC remains resilient. Beset by the Colombian authorities, the FARC have found a save haven in several border countries. Despite their losses, the FARC have appointed new leaders. And regardless of their military weakening, Caquetá remains the FARC’s historical stronghold. The FARC has recently launched attacks on oil infrastructure, which has affected the assets of Canadian Emerald Energy, and they continue to attack civilians. All in all, the FARC are still capable of responding to army attacks, assailing civilians, and hindering economic activity. In a surprise move, however, the FARC announced in February that it would no longer kidnap people. But Langlois’ retention has proven the FARC’s promise false. It has also shown that there are areas of Colombia where illegal armed groups, such as the FARC, still remain strong. The Colombian Army-FARC showdown in Montañitas was different, however. Had it not been for the Langlois’ capture, the clash would not have made headlines.

A few days after the ambush, the FARC announced they had the French journalist, that he was injured, and that he was a prisoner of war, with no mention of options for his release. The European Union, the Inter-American Human Rights Commission and the NGO Human Rights Watch each condemned the FARC’s action, calling for Langlois’ immediate and unconditional release. The government of Brazil offered to mediate the release. Similarly, the FARC’s action was rejected in Colombia. Political parties rejected the retention of journalists and civilians under all circumstances. President Santos demanded Langlois’ immediate and unconditional release. The ICRC, media organizations, journalists, foreign governments and the Colombian government declared the labeling of Langlois as a prisoner of war as erroneous.

But despite such pressure, it took the FARC a month to free the French journalist. Before his release on May 30th, in a press release dated May 12th, that reached the public until May 20th only, the FARC bartered Langlois’ freedom against a public debate about the role of media in the Colombian conflict, arguing that there is a strong bias in the Colombian press. This request shows the FARC’s hypocrisy, for as they held a journalist at gunpoint and planted a bomb on a journalist’s car in Bogotá, the FARC simultaneously wanted to have a discussion about freedom of information in Colombia. Fortunately, this inane proposal didn’t succeed and the ICRC office in Colombia, a group of Colombian peace activists, and the French Embassy in Colombia mediated Langlois’ release. This operation required the suspension of all military operations in 400 square kilometers near the Caquetá area where the FARC originally kidnapped Romeo Langlois for 24 hours.

On May 30th, the FARC organized a parade in San Isidro, Caqueta, the village where Langlois was finally handed over to the ICRC delegation. This date was strategically chosen: it served to commemorate the terrorist group’s 48th anniversary. The group falsely celebrated their resilience, despite suffering from a decade of heavy losses. In a region where cocaine paste, the raw material for the production of cocaine, is currency, and where the FARC controls the production and traffic of cocaine’s raw material, the FARC also publicly harangued the government for not investing in the rural areas of Colombia. After suffering a decade-long pounding, the FARC needed to stage a position of strength. They achieved this right as the country’s victory over their stubborn fratricide campaign was yielding the so-called Colombian miracle.

In his first words to the press since before his abduction, Langlois said that the FARC had used him as a puppet. Langlois returned to France the day after his release, but has said he will return to Colombia to continue covering security issues.

Just as the Santos’ government planned to celebrate the Colombian Miracle, the FARC gerrillas reminded everyone of their resilience. Colombia offers a myriad of opportunities for local and foreign investors, but security remains a serious risk. Attacks in Bogotá are rare, but urban areas and their perimeters are vulnerable to the threats posed by groups like the FARC. The attack on former Minister Fernando Londoño was a bitter reminder of this. Similarly, as the month-long retention of Romeo Langlois showed, Colombia’s massive rural periphery remains the strategic bastion of illegal groups like the FARC. The FARC will continue to attack vulnerable targets in urban and rural areas of Colombia, which should serve as a wakeup call to an overconfident government. The Colombian government has a military advantage over the FARC, but this terrorist organization still is able to wreak havoc.


One thought on “May in Colombia: Juan Manuel Santos’ Most Difficult Month

  1. Pingback: Colombia’s Deteriorating Security Outlook Could Impair Ronda Colombia’s Outcome | Jorge Godoy Coy | Blog

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