Small Wars Journal

The Sword of Honor Campaign in the Cauca Valley: 2011-2013 Colombian Conflict Focus of Effort

Fri, 05/31/2013 - 3:30am

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the U.S government, the Department of Defense or the Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies.

The Cauca Valley is the current focus of effort for Colombia’s internal conflict.  Should the peace talks in Havana succeed or fail, the outcome of the fighting in this part of the country will greatly influence the outcome of the whole conflict.  It is not the only place that fighting is taking place, and it is not even the place where  the most forces are arrayed against each other-- that honor belongs to the Task Force Omega area of operations in the borders of Meta and Caquetá Departments--but Cauca is much more politically important, and more socially complicated.

The Cauca is home to the FARC’s Alfonso Cano Western Bloc.  It used to be known as the Western Joint Command, but after the death of Alfonso Cano in November 2011, the name was changed to reflect the Cauca’s increasing importance to the insurgency.  The approximately 1300 full-time guerrillas and 900 militias of the Alfonso Cano Western Bloc in January 2012 were divided between five rural fronts, one urban front, seven mobile columns and three mobile companies.[1]

In FARC parlance, a Bloc is a group of five or more fronts in a given geographical area.  The Western Bloc is one of seven such divisions across Colombia.  A front is a political-military territorial jurisdiction, within which are military, political and financial sub-units.  The mission of a front is to dominate terrain and population within their jurisdiction.  According to the FARC statutes a front is supposed to have at least one combat column of 110 guerrillas within it[2] but in reality, the number of guerrillas in a front has been far more flexible.   In Practice, the number of guerrillas in a front has been entirely dependent on the recruiting and economic possibilities of that jurisdiction.  In their heyday, a few fronts reached as many as 1,000 guerrillas and in leaner times others have numbered as low as 30.  Within fronts are combat units such as guerrillas or companies.  The combat units have the mission to fight.  Guerrillas are platoons of 26 guerrillas divided into two squads of 12 fighters plus the guerrilla commander and deputy commander known as a reemplazante.[3]  A company officially totals 54 fighters and is composed of two guerrillas, the company commander and their reemplazante.[4]   In practice a front can have as few combat units as one “guerrilla”, or as many as several companies organized in columns.  A mobile company is an independent company, financed and supported by the FARC Secretariat that is assigned to strengthen a front or to open up a new territory.  When mobile companies successfully consolidate an area, they are often converted into fronts, whereupon they theoretically become self-sustaining.  In 2012, most companies in the Western Bloc area were understrength, oscillating between 25 and 40 combatants. 

A column is a grouping of two or more companies.  Columns can be permanent, belonging to Fronts or they can be Mobile, similar in funding and support to the Mobile Companies.  Some mobile columns have up to six companies, and some have as few as two.  A Mobile Bloc is a relic of FARC’s apex of strength, when FARC were on the offensive taking town after town between 1998 and 2001.  A Mobile Bloc is a combat formation designed to concentrate men and weapons for offensive action and consists of two or more Mobile Columns.  FARC created two Mobile Blocs in its history.  The 1st Mobile Bloc was later renamed the Juan Jose Rondon Mobile Bloc.  This Bloc was smashed in August 2001 and has never recovered.  The 2nd was the Arturo Ruiz Mobile Bloc.  Half of the Bloc was sent to the Middle Magdalena area, to restore FARC’s fortunes in that zone.  However, on the way it was intercepted and decimated by the 5th Brigade’s Operation Berlin in 2000.  The other half was sent to the north of Valle Department to reinforce the FARC in this area.  This Bloc arrived successfully and began to help FARC fight against the paramilitary elements that had penetrated the zone.  The Mobile Columns of the Arturo Ruiz Bloc are still the predominant FARC force in the north of Valle Department.

In January 2012, the FARC units in the Western area of operations were organized as follows: At the north of the area of operations was the Victor Saavedra Company.  Just south was the Arturo Ruiz Mobile Bloc, divided into four mobile columns, the Libardo Garcia, the Alirio Torres and furthest to the southwest, the Miller Perdomo column while furthest to the southeast, the Gabriel Galviz column.  In the southern Valle and northern Cauca were the 30th Front and the Manuel Cepeda Vargas Urban Front, which operates in the city of Cali, but had significant presence in the Western mountain range to the southwest of Cali. 

In north Cauca the 60th Front operated in the Western Range around Morales, Cauca while in the Central Range around Caloto, the 6th Front dominated.  The Jacobo Arenas column, divided its five companies between supporting the 6th Front in the east, and the 60th and 8th Fronts in the west.  For further support in the west there was the Alonso Cortes Company, and in the east the Alfredo Gonzalez Column.  To the South in Nariño was the 29th Front, the Daniel Aldana Column to the southwest, and the Mariscal Sucre Column to the east.[5]    

The Cauca area of operations had three attributes that make it an ideal area for insurgent activity:

  1) Difficult terrain:  The valley is flanked by two of three of Colombia’s most important mountain ranges, the Central Range to the East and the Western Range to the West.  In between is one of Colombia’s most fertile valleys, a bread basket somewhat similar to the Shenandoah Valley in western Virginia.  The Central Range slopes down to the east into Huila and Tolima, the birthplace of FARC.  The Western Range slopes down to the west into the Pacific Ocean.  The high water table here means the rivers can be navigated year round and much of coast is mangrove swamps crisscrossed with streams and canals, perfect places to hide guerrillas or traffic weapons and drugs.

 2) Social discontent: The area is home to some of Colombia’s largest indigenous communities.  Among the most important are the Nasa and the Paez communities.  The Cauca Indians have been resisting white government since the arrival of the Spaniards.   The Cauca was one of the last places conquered by the Spaniards, and along with Nariño was one of the last places to resist Bolivar’s Liberation Army in Colombia’s war for Independence.  Since then, the Cauca Indians have continued to resist the national government.  In addition, there are also significant Afro-Colombian communities that have also maintained a semi-autonomous way of life, not always voluntarily, from central government control.  The most important concentrations exist along the Pacific coast where government presence and infrastructure is minimal to non-existent.  As a result poverty and lack of education are widespread, which make these communities vulnerable to insurgent and criminal recruitment.

3) Illegal economies: The three departments comprising the area of operations: Nariño, Cauca and Valle, all have areas that are ideal for illegal crops such as coca, poppies and marijuana.   Many of the marginalized indigenous and Afro communities are involved in some aspect of the drug trafficking business.  Illegal mining is becoming increasingly important, and in Nariño, where there is oil drilling, stealing oil from the pipelines and refining it in homemade kitchens is now a major activity.   

4) External borders:  To the South, Nariño shares borders with Ecuador and to the west, is the Pacific Ocean.  The terrain along the borders is extremely difficult and poorly controlled.  Combined with the terrain difficulties, these borders are extremely porous and allow the movement of people, illicit economies and weapons that is almost impossible to block. 

5) Political Importance: Unlike other parts of Colombia where FARC is prevalent, the area of operations is politically and economically important.   The Cauca Valley produces sugar cane, coffee, potatoes, plantains and so on.  It is one of Colombia’s major bread baskets.  The area is also the home of significant light industry such as tires, paper/cardboard, and medicine, among others.[6]  The Pan-American Highway is a major commercial artery running throughout the area of operations north to south from Cali, Colombia’s third most important city, to Popayan, the capital of Cauca, to Pasto, the capital of Nariño, to Ipiales on the border with Ecuador.  Most of Cauca’s important towns are along this artery.  In addition, Colombia’s two most important Pacific ports, Buenaventura and Tumaco connect to the Pan-American Highway via east-west highways to Cali and Pasto respectively.  This means that violence and social turmoil along these arteries make the national and international news, unlike much guerrilla activity in more remote areas of the country.  Insecurity in the area of operations creates a perception of national insecurity.  This is why Cauca has become a major focus for guerrilla and government operations.

The Cauca area of operations has been important to previous Colombian guerrilla groups.  It was the major theater of operations of the M-19 in the 1970s and 1980s.  It was the base area of the indigenous M-19 spin-off known as the Quintin Lame.  When Quintin Lame demobilized it became a major theater of operations for the ELN, but while FARC has been present since the 1970s, it was always a secondary theater of operations until 2008 when it became a primary theater of operations for this organization.   This coincided with the death of long-time FARC leader Manuel Marulanda and the appointment of Alfonso Cano as head of the Secretariat in March 2008.

Under President Uribe, military operations against FARC were based on three major lines of operation: area control, simultaneous and continuous offensive operations, and special operations against high value targets (HVTs).   In 2007 Colombia received Precision Guided Munitions (PGMs) from the United States.  Up until then, while the government could successfully locate HVTs, getting at them was problematic.  PGMs solved this problem.  Where the military had been mostly unsuccessful in killing or capturing HVTs, now they began to kill or capture them on a regular basis.  This started with the September 1, 2007 bombing death of Negro Acacio, FARC’s commander of the 16th Front and chief drug trafficker, and reached its peak with the March 1, 2008 cross-border bombing death of FARC Secretariat member Raul Reyes.  Reyes was the first member of the Secretariat to be killed by the government.  These operations electrified the Colombian public and solidified the political backing of the counterinsurgency campaign.

The problem was that the government gave into the temptation of thinking that HVT operations were the magic bullet.  They reasoned that if they just killed or captured enough HVTs FARC would collapse.  Certainly it seemed that way for a few months.  The same month that Raul Reyes was killed, Ivan Rios, a second member of the Secretariat was killed by one of his own bodyguards who marched out of the jungle with a hand that he had hacked off to prove he had done the deed.  Also that same month, FARC founder, Manuel Marulanda died of natural causes, and was buried in a jungle grave. 

FARC was in disarray.  Taking advantage of this confusion, Colombian military intelligence executed one of the most intrepid rescue operations in history, Operation Jaque, on July 2, 2008.  Swooping in with a faux humanitarian helicopter they snatched 15 high-profile hostages from the FARC --to include three U.S. contractors—without firing a shot, on the pretext of transferring them to Alfonso Cano’s location.   Two years later on June 14, 2010 the Colombian Special Forces carried out Operation Camaleon, in which they rescued four security forces personnel that had been kidnapped in 1998. 

These successes prompted the Colombian military to begin talking about the “End of the end.”  While, justifiably euphoric over their successes, the Colombian government let their euphoria get the best of them.  The HVT operations took enormous proportions of Colombia’s resources, and perhaps more importantly their intellectual focus.  The other lines of operation, took a dangerous back seat.

Alfonso Cano inherited the helm of the FARC and immediately began making changes to revitalize the organization.  His plan known as “Revolutionary Rebirth of the Masses” (Renacer Revolucionario de las Masas) put FARC on a new path of resurgence.

  The FARC resurgence was inadvertently facilitated by the Colombian government.  The focus on HVT operations meant that the other two lines of operation, area control and simultaneous and continuous offensive operations suffered as a result.  Area control was particularly affected, and stagnated.  This gave the FARC room to maneuver and adapt.  While it is clear that HVT operations did have a major impact, significantly weakening FARC, what survived of the organization was leaner, meaner and nastier than what had existed before.

Cano recognized that President Uribe’s policies had inflicted significant losses on the FARC, particularly that the government had recovered territory.  Second, that due to the poor use of their social assets that they had lost significant ground in the political arena as well.  Foreshadowing where FARC would intensify their efforts, there was only one area where Cano considered they were socially strong: Valle, Cauca and Nariño.[7]   He advocated strategically retreating from mobile warfare to guerrilla warfare in order to preserve the core of the organization and rebuild.

Militarily this included: training more guerrillas to conduct special missions, [8] strengthen militias and urban guerrillas, increase the use of mines and improvised explosive devices because it was what had proved the most effective to limiting government forces mobility.  More snipers were to be trained.  Combat intelligence was to be increased through early warning telephone networks and infiltration of enemy ranks by having guerrillas who had done military service to volunteer to serve as professional soldiers.   Finally every effort was to be made to acquire man portable anti-aircraft missiles or MANPADS.  The Central Joint Command, Cano’s command would begin to carry out operations while the Blocs caught up.[9]   

Interviews with deserters from the Western Bloc indicate that the number of guerrillas attending courses in special forces, explosives, artillery (homemade mortars), and snipers increased dramatically.[10]  The FARC began to significantly increase its recruitment of militias and assign them new roles, not just as providers of logistics and intelligence, but combat roles as well such as planting mines, carrying out supporting roles in attacks on fixed objectives, and murdering isolated police and military personnel.  In 2001 FARC was reported to have around 17,000 regular guerrillas and 9,000 militias.  By 2011, this ratio was completely inverted with approximately 9,000 regular guerrillas and 20,000 militias.[11]

Subsequently the FARC developed the Raul Reyes Campaign Plan that was to be implemented in 2010.  The FARC were to infiltrate areas from which they had been previously expelled, but where police presence was weak.  This plan sought to carry out simultaneous small-scale actions across the country that would inflict a cumulative of 50 killed security forces at a time.  These actions would be carried out by designated companies, columns and commando groups.[12]  While these designated units attacked, the fronts would rebuild, retrain and resupply.  In addition they would focus on both national and international political mobilization to regain space lost during the previous eight years.[13]

By the time Juan Manuel Santos was inaugurated as President of Colombia in August 2010, the new FARC mode of operations was having an impact, despite the fact that the government continued to successfully take out top FARC HVTs.  For example, Mono Jojoy, member of the Secretariat and top FARC military commander was killed in September 2010.  Many predicted that once Mono Jojoy was killed or captured, that FARC would begin to collapse.  It didn’t. 

In fact, according to Colombian Ministry of Defense figures between 2008 and 2012, guerrilla attack increased from 486 to 859 per year, the highest since 2003.[14]  Security forces killed made a modest bump up from 373 in 2008 to 483 in 2009, which essentially remained steady through 2012 when it dropped to 377.  However, wounded climbed steadily from 1692 in 2008 to 2377 in 2012.[15]  More significantly, guerrilla casualties dropped significantly.  Killed, captured and deserters numbered 7,128 in 2008.  In 2012 they numbered 4,692.[16]  For less effort and cost, the guerrillas were causing equal or greater losses to the Security Forces than previous years.

Despite the continued HVT operations, FARC conducted a terrorist campaign largely aimed at police patrols and police stations.  Through truck, car, motorcycle and even donkey bombs, homemade mortars of different calibers, and ambushes with daisy chained improvised mines; FARC began to kill groups of 7 to 13 police at a time.  The problem for insurgent legitimacy was that FARC explosives, although targeted at security forces, often killed similar numbers of civilian bystanders.   These attacks were punctuated by occasional raids by groups of guerrillas who advanced barefoot or in stockings in the dead of the night, penetrating army and police perimeters, slitting the throats of sentries and once inside tossing up to 50 grenades against an Army platoon to cause as much damage and confusion as possible before withdrawing back into the dark of the night.  These were FARC Special Forces.  The soldiers called them “pisa suaves” or soft steppers because you didn’t see or hear them until they were inside the perimeter tossing grenades.   Although not as common as other forms of attack, pisa suaves caused the most fear among army soldiers.

For the first time in eight years the perception of security in the country began to diminish.  People began to complain that they felt less safe than before.  The new Santos government vowed to change things, but due to a number of circumstances was unable to change the perception that things were getting worse.  Although not the only place where attacks were taking place, insecurity in Cauca was at the center of the vortex.  Just about every week there was a major action, and sometimes for several days in a row the FARC would harass a town with homemade mortars with seeming impunity.  What was worse; for the first time in several years, FARC was creeping back into Cali and beginning to conduct limited acts of urban terrorism. 

FARC’s increasing actions and internal bickering within the Colombian High Command led to the resignation of the General Commander Vice Admiral Edgar Cely (Colombia’s equivalent of the Joint Chiefs of Staff), his chief of Staff General Gustavo Matamoros, the Minister of Defense, Rodrigo Rivera and one of the Vice Ministers, Rafael Guarin.   Juan Carlos Pinzon, former Vice Minister of Defense under then Minister of Defense Santos, and then Santos’ Presidential Chief of Staff was named Minister of Defense.  His new General Commander was General Alejandro Navas, and the new Army Commander was General Sergio Mantilla.   

Minister Pinzon capitalized on an already existing initiative that had begun under Minister Rivera; a thorough intelligence deep-dive review of FARC strategy, plans, and activities.  The new Minister ordered the formation of a special Committee of Revision and Innovation, known as the CRE-I to be led by General Jose Alberto Mejia, to conduct a 60-day review and development of a new campaign plan.  Mejia, a Naval Post-Graduate School alumni and graduate of the School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS) program at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas drew upon his education to identify all of the components of the FARC “Rival System” and then develop plans to combat and defeat each one.  This process resulted in a new campaign plan codenamed Sword of Honor.     

The campaign was built around mobile task forces created to attack the areas of greatest FARC persistence, activity, and violence.  Ten areas were identified in a “rival system” deep dive analysis of the FARC.  Three of these areas were already covered by existing task forces.  Joint Task Force Omega in the borders of Meta and Caqueta Departments, Joint Task Force Nudo del Paramillo, and Joint Task Force Southern Tolima, which had been pursuing Alfonso Cano in the Central Mountain Range since 2008. The operational results of these task forces had been positive and the military hoped to replicate this success through the creation of additional task forces.

Although initially conceived of as joint task forces, the reality is that they devolved into service-based task forces subordinated to local area commands.  Why not just create more local forces?  Because, the Colombian experience was that when local units were created: battalions, brigades and divisions, it became politically impossible to move them.  Task forces by their very nature were more flexible: mobile, temporary, and could follow the enemy, versus be tied to a jurisdiction.  Despite this, Army task forces were made subordinate to Army Divisions, and the Navy and Air Force task forces were subordinated to their respective territorial commands. 

Due to resource constraints, it was decided to cover six of the seven remaining areas with new task forces.  The Army created four: Vulcano for the Catatumbo area in North Santander, Quiron to cover Arauca, Apolo to operate in Cauca, and Pegaso for Nariño.  The Air Force create Task Force Ares, to suppress drug trafficking in Vichada and the Navy created Poseidon to cover drug trafficking out of southwestern Colombia along the coasts from Nariño to Choco.

The importance of the Cauca area of operations to Sword of Honor becomes immediately apparent when you look at a map.  Three of the six new task forces were located here, two Army and one Navy: Apolo, Pegaso and Poseidon respectively.  The two Army task forces were subordinated to the Third Army Division headquartered in Popayan, Cauca.  This is the only Division that was assigned two task forces.  Furthermore, although Joint Task Force Southern Tolima, now renamed Task Force Zeus, belonged to the 5th Division based in Bogota, its area of operations abutted that of Task Force Apolo.  Task Force Zeus operated on the east side of the Central Range and Task Force Apolo on the west side of the same range.

The task forces were cobbled together during November and December of 2011, by January of 2012 the new Task Forces were in place, although most of them were short men and equipment.  The next six months were dedicated to completing their tables of organization and equipment.  However, operations began immediately. 

Operations in Cauca began with a bang, as Alfonso Cano was killed on November 4, 2011 in Operation Odiseo.  Intelligence located him in the Western Mountain Range and Special Forces from the Army, Navy and Police supported by the Colombian Air Force landed and surrounded Cano’s location.  A firefight ensued and Cano was killed.  Why Cano had left the Central Range for the less secure Western Range can be explained in part by the extreme pressure placed on him by the Southern Tolima Joint Task Force.  To be truthful, Operation Odiseo had been in the works prior to Sword of Honor, but it was a happy coincidence that helped start the campaign out on a high note. 

When the commanders analyzed how they were going to implement the campaign in the Cauca region, the most important FARC units identified in the area of operations were the 6th Front and the Jacobo Arenas Mobile Column.  However, politically the most important task was to stop rising terrorism in Cali.  Intelligence indicated that urban terrorism in Cali was being projected and supported from the mountains of the Central Range above Miranda by the Gabriel Galviz Mobile Column.  Taking away the Gabriel Galviz base area became the first campaign objective.  This is why Task Force Apolo’s headquarters was located in Miranda, Cauca, rather than further south where the 6th Front and Jacobo Arenas Column was located.

The initial fighting was intense as FARC had built innumerable fortified fighting positions in the mountains and foothills above Miranda.  FARC resisted Task Force Apolo with mines, homemade mortars and snipers.  Helicopters and aircraft were shot at with .50 caliber machineguns and sniper rifles.   If units got complacent, FARC struck with “pisa-suaves.”   Despite this, the Army prevailed and numerous critical hilltop positions were taken.  This not only prevented FARC from using them to attack towns and security forces with homemade mortars, but it disrupted guerrilla mobility corridors; used to move drugs out and to bring weapons and explosives in.   The most important result was that urban terrorism in Cali virtually ceased.

Task Force Apolo then began to focus its efforts against the 6th Front.  Troops advanced on El Palo, Toribio and Caloto, Cauca.  The FARC resisted fiercely.  FARC had spent many years developing a relationship with the local indigenous population.  The illegal narcotics economy dominated by FARC provided work and money to a significant number of the community.  Many young men and women served in FARC regular units, and many more members of the community served in the FARC militias, what the campaign plan identified as Terrorism Support Networks, known by the Spanish acronym RATs.[17]

The RATs made it very difficult to get at the FARC regular units.  They warned FARC units of military advances and harassed the security forces with mines and mortars when they attempted to maneuver.  While normally just a nuisance, they could be deadly.  In 2011 an Army Special Forces unit had attempted to conduct an operation in El Palo.  They were able to insert into their area of operations with no problems, but as soon as they were detected, the militias mobilized and pinned them down with mines, small arms fire and homemade mortars.  Unable to maneuver, the team was decimated.

In February 2012, the 14th Mobile Brigade (BRIM) advanced to retake the town.  Fierce fighting took place over the next two months with uniformed guerrillas openly combating the Army in the streets of the town and the surrounding area.  Dominating the heights, the guerrillas rained down dozens of high caliber homemade mortar bombs on the advancing troops, sometimes 60 to 80 at a time.  While the design had greatly improved since 1998--when FARC first unveiled this terrifying weapon--they were still inaccurate.  The problem had been uneven gas pressure propelling the non-aerodynamic projectile towards its target giving the weapon a margin of error of plus or minus 50 meters.  Also, the gas tank launchers had a tendency to burst if fired too many times.  This was due to the use of propane tanks for both launch tubes and bombs. 

New designs in the early to mid-2000s had created aerodynamic bombs that fit their launch tubes better and solved the uneven gas pressure problem.  Instead of propane gas tanks, the design relied on sections of thicker oil pipe for launch tubes.   However, while gas pressure was now consistent, making for consistent range, and tubes no longer burst (making for greater safety), elevation and deflection still relied on the operator’s eye.   This meant that while much more accurate than the original models, random bombs still hit a lot of civilian targets causing terror and panic.  

In February 2012, 14 BRIM took the town of El Palo for good.  It was headed by an armored platoon of three Brazilian-made Cascabel armored cars and an Urutu armored personnel carrier.  The troops fought all day against guerrillas in the streets with mortar bombs raining down from the hills.  To secure the heights, special sniper teams were created consisting of snipers with .50 caliber and 7.62mm sniper rifles, and 7.62mm General Purpose Machineguns (GPMGs).   The sniper teams protected the flanks of the troops in the valley and tried to take out guerrilla snipers, mortar teams and concentrations of guerrillas massing for counterattacks.  While El Palo was taken, it came at a cost.  On February 20, the last mortar bomb fired that day killed the major commanding the battalion in El Palo along with two of his men.  Nine other men were wounded.  To prevent the guerrillas from continuing to use the heights to lob mortar bombs, TF Apolo received permission to employ heavy artillery.  French Brandt 120mm mortars and M-101 105mm howitzers were used to keep the heights clear.  This posed no danger to the civilian population because no inhabitants live up that high.

Once the town was taken, the military began to conduct civic action activities such as medical care, distribution of basic food supplies, and sports days for youths and children.  Through the operations and these activities, TF Apolo was able to gather very precise data on dozens of militia members.  In mid-June, they conducted a model joint-interagency operation codenamed Operation Jerico, involving elements from the Army, Air Force, Police, Technical Investigation Corps (Crime Scene Investigators), Prosecutor’s Office (Fiscalia), and Investigative Detectives (SIJIN[18]).   In a series of raids this team captured over 30 members of the RATs.  After judicial processing, judges found that all but a few merited incarceration.  Jerico was so successful that Operation Jerico 2 was launched in August 2012.  The elimination of the RATs or militia networks then allowed the military to consolidate their bridgeheads into previously FARC dominated territory. 

Unable to successfully counter the task force in the hills where their base areas were, the FARC tried a two pronged counter-offensive.  The first prong was a series of terrorist attacks against the valley towns.  The week of 5 July, the 6th Front and Jacobo Arenas mobile column escalated their activity.  Homemade mortars known as “tatucos” were fired in several towns.  In Argelia, a motorcycle bomb was detonated.  In El Plateado, a civilian helicopter that landed was set on fire and the pilots kidnapped.  In Jambaló, the communications towers were blown.   Between July 5 and July 9, FARC fired homemade mortars at the police stations damaging a dozen houses and an indigenous hospital where two nurses were wounded.  A FARC communique claimed that they carried out 32 military actions in Cauca during that week.[19]

The second prong was to employ non-military means.  In July the “indigenous guard” under the auspices of the Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca[20] known by the acronym ACIN, began pressuring the military to evacuate some of the hilltop forts that they had established around Toribio on the pretext that military presence was causing insecurity by provoking FARC attacks.  This accusation was absurd as before the construction of the forts, FARC regularly occupied those hills and lobbed homemade mortars against the police station.  Lack of accuracy meant that many of the bombs fell on civilian houses, many of which had still not been rebuilt since the military occupied the hilltops.  However, this argument was looked on sympathetically by many Colombian liberal intellectuals and foreign NGOs, particularly European organizations that often view both the guerrillas and the indigenous groups through idealistic filters.  The Indian guard claimed that they would provide security to the town and would negotiate with the FARC to get them to stop attacking the town.  Much of the Colombian population remained ambiguous toward these proposals.

Due to the FARC attacks and the stand-off with the indigenous guard, President Santos announced that he was going to hold a Security Council in Toribio.   The President’s visit to Toribio on July 11, 2012, was a public relations disaster.  While the Generals announced that there was security in the town, journalists, traveling to Toribio had to pass through a guerrilla roadblock, three kilometers from town.  While the hills dominating the town were occupied by troops preventing guerrillas from lobbing tatucos, further outside they were exchanging fire with government helicopter gunships.  All of this was visible to the press.  To add injury to insult, either due to mechanical failure or human error, one of Colombia’s vaunted Super Tucano aircraft crashed into the mountains killing both crewmembers.  For a few days the government didn’t know exactly what had happened.  The guerrillas took advantage of the information vacuum and announced that they had shot down the aircraft.  When the aircraft was eventually found there was no evidence of a shoot-down.  The head of ACIN, Feliciano Valencia, announced that he would not talk to President Santos, and President Santos announced that the military would not evacuate any of the hilltop positions.[21]

One hill in particular was at the heart of the contention, Berlin Hill.  The ACIN claimed this hill was sacred.  Despite this several communications towers had been previously erected on it with no protest.  This was no surprise as the hill also offered a clear view of all of the surrounding terrain.  The fortified base was established to guard the communications tower from guerrilla attack, but as important was the ability to observe and block guerrilla movement elsewhere in the valley.  This was cutting off a major east-west drug trafficking route that was a source of money to both the guerrillas, but also the locals who were employed transporting drugs out and money and weapons back in. 

After President Santos’ announcement, the indigenous guard surrounded the hill with 500 men and marched up the hill to within 100 meters of the army fortifications.  Feliciano Valencia raised the stakes and declared “At this moment we move forward to take territorial control.”[22]  While the guard walked up to the positions and tore down the trenches and bunkers, the soldiers would not leave the position.  A stand-off took place for several days.  If the indigenous guard had maintained their positions and waited, public pressure may have eventually forced the military to give in to the indigenous demands, but they didn’t.  On July 17, the indigenous guard advanced armed with sticks against the soldiers in the presence of multiple media cameras and began forcing the soldiers off the hill.  Armed with only lethal weapons, the Army platoon showed great restraint and did not fire at or attack the crowd.  They only got agitated when the indigenous guard touched their weapons and equipment.

However, the indigenous guard went too far when they physically dragged soldiers from their positions.  In particular, the humiliation of Army Sergeant Rodrigo Garcia, whose tears of frustration and impotence were broadcast nationally and internationally, hardened national attitudes against the Indians.  Colombians disagree about many things, but soldiers have always been highly regarded and since 2002 are universally regarded as heroes.  Where public feelings had been ambiguous, they now turned against the Indians.  With plenty of film and photographs, the government talked of prosecuting many of the guard.  There were also several accusations that known FARC militia were among the guard.  The ACIN denied it.

Early the next morning, soldiers in riot gear surprised the indigenous guard and using tear gas and batons, forced the indigenous guard off the hill.  Once they had recovered the hill, the soldiers in riot gear beat off several indigenous attempts to counterattack and the regular soldiers rebuilt their trenches and fortifications.  Having lost the battle for public opinion, the ACIN desisted.

The military claims that had the ACIN been successful in consolidating Berlin Hill, that the indigenous guard had a plan to then mount similar attacks against all of the strategic hilltop positions in northern Cauca, and that this plan was heavily influenced, if not directed by the FARC.[23]  Nevertheless, on July 11, President Santos announced the creation of Plan Cauca, a $500 billion peso ($278 million dollar) investment plan to build infrastructure and carry out development in the region.

Realizing that the military needed to adjust their approach in the Cauca, the Minister of Defense traveled to Cauca with his top commanders and made changes.  First, changes were made in the command structure.  General Jorge Alberto Segura, former commander of Task Force Southern Tolima (renamed Task Force Zeus), replaced General Miguel Ernesto Perez as Third Division Commander.  Segura had successfully managed the campaign that had forced Alfonso Cano, out of Tolima and into Cauca where he became vulnerable to attack and was killed.  More importantly, the South-West Joint Command was created and General Leonardo Barrero put in charge.  General Barrero had already served successfully in Cauca three times, as the Pichincha Battalion commander in the late 1998, as the 29th Brigade commander in 2006 and as the Third Division Commander in 2009.  The South-Western Task Force was given the mission of overseeing and coordinating the operations of all of the military components in the area, 34,000 men and women of the Army, Navy and Air Force with special focus on the three task forces: the two army task forces, Apolo, Pegaso, and the navy task force Poseidon.[24]

The third Division jurisdiction was reduced.  Where it used to include the 8th territorial Brigade in Caldas, Caldas was given to 5th Division and exchanged for the 37th Mobile Brigade.  A new territorial battalion was created in Argelia, Cauca and urban anti-terrorism special forces platoons known as AFEUR were brought in to conduct operations against the RATs.[25]

With the additional troops and reduced jurisdiction, General Segura reorganized his forces in the following manner.  The main effort was led by Task Force Apolo carrying out offensive operations against the 6th FARC front and half of the Jacobo Arenas Mobile Column along the western slopes of the Central Mountain Range.  Supporting operations were carried out by a combination of elements of the 3rd Brigade, 29th Brigade and 37th BRIM along the Western Mountain Rage aimed principally at the other half of the Jacobo Arenas Column and the 60th FARC front.  To the south Task Force Pegaso was tasked with carrying out a blocking mission, both to prevent supplies and reinforcements from moving north, and to prevent guerrillas in Cauca and Valle Departments from retreating south.  TF Pegaso’s objectives were the 29th FARC front and the Daniel Aldana and Mariscal Sucre Mobile Columns in Nariño Department.  The overall impact of these operations was to shut down virtually all of FARC’s offensive operations.  During the first three months of 2013, FARC were only able to carry out approximately twelve offensive actions in the area of operations consisting mostly of low intensity IED attacks against the oil pipeline in Nariño, on passing police patrols, and one or two more serious vehicle borne IEDs.  The most serious attacks occurred in Nariño, which was where the fewest government forces were engaged.  These numbers were far below the daily attacks from the 2011-early 2012 time frame.[26]  By March, 2013 the Minister of Defense announced that in the last 18 months, FARC had lost 15% of their combat strength across the nation.[27]  FARC losses in Cauca and Nariño were somewhat above average.

Perhaps as important as the military campaign was the effort of the military to work with the indigenous population.  To understand this work some background is necessary.  The Consejo Regional de Indigenas del Cauca (Regional Council of Indians of the Cauca) or CRIC was founded in 1971.  It was heavily influenced by the radical political left, many of whom advocated armed insurgency and attempted to develop a mass base among the indigenous peoples.[28]  This fact is hidden today because this supposedly has little to do with the current political orientation of the CRIC.[29]  However, former insiders allege that the organization have and still are heavily influenced by revolutionary ideologies and ties to a succession of insurgent groups: first the M-19, then Quintin Lame, then ELN and finally FARC.  According to the defectors, the state inadvertently helps maintain the integrity of this anti-state orientation as Colombian law has established indigenous reservations and granted the governing councils known as “cabildos”--dominated by CRIC--political and legal autonomy within the reservations.  The ideology of CRIC is centered on the separate identity of the indigenous peoples, the recovery of the Indian reservations granted to them by the Colonial government, and the “demilitarization” of the reservations, meaning banning the presence of state security forces as well as the guerrillas.  However, in practice the Army claims that it only works against the state and that except for superficial actions against the guerrillas, the FARC roams free, takes refuge in Indian reservations and recruits from among the indigenous population. 

The CRIC’s anti-state agenda is ironically reinforced by the state itself as the state pays the cabildos money based on the population within the reservations.  However, it is alleged that the money is not being used to provide goods and services to the community, but rather to enrich the council members and fund political activities to include support for the guerrillas.[30]  While the degree to which different cabildos have a relationship with the FARC varies, the defectors claim that it is generally much closer than the CRIC admits.[31]  The Army supports this assertion with multiple anecdotes of how their patrols have captured FARC guerrillas in indigenous territory only to be subsequently surrounded by indigenous men trying to take the prisoner from them with the claim that they will submit them to indigenous justice.  More often than not, intelligence is received from other deserters that the individuals in question have returned to activity in the FARC, they are recaptured, or killed in a subsequent military action.[32]

A clearly documented case of indigenous collusion with FARC occurred on October 8, 2012 in the vereda El Placer, El Patia, Cauca.  The Army was informed that armed guerrillas were in a bar.  When the Army arrived the guerrillas fired on them and the Army fired back killing three guerrillas and a girl that was with the guerrillas.  Another girl with the guerrillas was wounded and received medical attention from the Army.  Photographs were taken clearly showing the dead, uniformed, guerrillas where they fell and their weapons.  The Army collected their weapons and equipment for evidence and as is procedure waited for the judicial authorities to arrive to do their incident investigation and remove the bodies.  Within a few minutes, the bar was filled with members of the community, many who were known to be FARC militias.  They traipsed all over the location, contaminating evidence and forcibly removed the bodies.  The next morning, the bodies reappeared at the location of the firefight, this time dressed in civilian clothes with no bullet holes through the cloth.[33]  This incident demonstrates two things: First, clearly some members of the community don’t approve of FARC, because they informed the Army of the guerrilla presence, and second, that clearly there are a significant number of the community who openly support the FARC as evidenced by their open behavior to disrupt the incident investigation and transform it into a case of human rights abuse.  The guerrilla collaborators are tolerated in some of the communities and in some cases are among the leaders of the cabildos.

Disaffected Indians claim that the cabildos have created an anti-democratic government which makes members dependent because the cabildos control the money, force members to participate in land invasions, in road-blocks and marches, and in the so-called indigenous celebrations which they claim are made up and not really traditional.  If a member refuses, or displays too much independence they are punished.  These punishments run the gamut from physical labor for a minor or first offense, beating with sticks for a more serious or second offense, to expulsion for egregious offenses.  It is alleged that when all else fails, that indigenous leaders finger the offender to the FARC, who then assassinate them.  The truth of this allegation is unknown.  The October 2012 murder of Salatiel Mendez Secue by the FARC may be such a case.[34]

This authoritarian approach caused and still causes significant discontent among important sectors of the community.  People who tried to complain to national judicial authorities about the links to the guerrillas and other illegitimate behavior were referred back to the communal justice authorities in the cabildos, the same authorities they were complaining about.  In addition they had other complaints.  They felt that the cabildos should use the government money to fund projects to bring economic prosperity to the community, rather than keep it for themselves or finance anti-government political activity.  Second, they felt that instead of letting recovered farmland go wild, that they should allow community members to put it to use to generate income, other than government welfare for the community and third, that they should welcome government security forces onto the reservations to protect the indigenous communities and allow their children to serve in the Army and Police.[35]

These issues came to a head during the Uribe government when for the first time, the government showed resolve and ability to provide security through the Democractic Security Program.  These Indians broke away from the CRIC and formed a new organization known as the Organization of Indigenous Peoples of Colombia (Organización de los Pueblos Indígenas de Colombia) known by the acronym OPIC.  Their top leaders include Ana Silvia Secué and Rogelio Yunta. 

Point for point the OPIC disagrees with much of the ideology of the CRIC.  Because of this, their perhaps most important role is as a foil for the CRIC’s claim to represent all of the indigenous people’s in the Cauca.  When the CRIC march against the government, OPIC marches for it.  This has reduced the CRIC’s credibility and neutralized much of their political power.  They offer an alternative which fractures the domination of the traditional indigenous organizations CRIC and ACIN.  As James Yatacue, high counselor of ACIN in Santander de Quilichao said “What the OPIC does is to destabilize the process of resistance.”[36]  It is no wonder, that CRIC has often demanded that OPIC be disbanded as part of any indigenous-government agreement, as they consider OPIC a tool of the military. 

While OPIC is close to the Colombian military, it has been as much out of need as choice.  OPIC communities are not yet recognized legally by the government as separate cabildos as they do those dominated by CRIC, although this may change soon.  OPIC leaders said that the government recently acknowledged a provision in the law allowing the division of old cabildos to create new ones.[37]  Meanwhile, it has been the Colombian military that have provided the bulk of assistance to the OPIC.  By the end of 2012, the military were investing 18 billion pesos (10 million dollars) to help 24,000 families in the jurisdiction of the South Western Joint Command.  This included not only OPIC, but other communities as well.[38]

While OPIC is a minority so far, it cannot be simply dismissed as a tool of the government.  Shortly after the incidents on Berlin Hill in July 2012, OPIC carried out a counter-march of at least 7,000 Indians in Popayan, not an insignificant amount by Cauca standards.[39]  Current census data indicates that OPIC represents around 44,000 families (77,000 people).[40]  As OPIC grows, the influence of FARC is becoming unstable.  Because of this, the fate of OPIC will help determine the political fate of the Cauca.

What needs to be done?  The offensive military campaign has gone quite well, but there are some significant gaps that need to be filled.  First, on the military side there is little evidence of a plan to transition from offensive action to permanent local security.  The National Police were going to recruit an additional 20,000 members to take up security duties in the areas cleared by the Task Forces.  While this plan may be in execution, there was certainly little evidence of it in Cauca by the end of 2012.  The battalions of the mobile brigades were taking on that responsibility as they cleared the territory of guerrilla presence.  The problem of course, is that eventually they will become static and lose their mobility.  Hopefully if this happens, they will have first cleared out all or most of the FARC guerrillas.  If permanent local security is not provided soon, the achievements of the Task Forces will come to naught as FARC either recruits new forces or a different illegal armed group fills the vacuum.

What the National Police have done quite well is integrate police investigative teams in each of the Task Forces.  These teams accompany the troops and immediately write up police incident reports that establish what happened from a legal point of view.  This is preventing combat from being turned into faux human rights abuse accusations, as well as educating the soldiers on rules of engagement and legal procedures so they avoid violating the law, whether deliberately or inadvertently.  This has been one of the most innovative and important elements of the task forces.

As significant of a problem is the civilian side of the government.  By the end of 2012, there was little evidence of civilian ministries doing consolidation work in the recently recovered areas of Cauca.  All integrated action (Colombia’s term for civic action) was being done by the military with limited funds.  Long-term impact was dubious. 

Plan Cauca, announced by President Santos in July 2012, has been slow in getting off the ground.  Only in January 2013 was a formal agreement signed by President Santos and the governor of Cauca, and the mayors of thirteen Cauca municipalities.[41]  The plan was now for 622 billion peso (approximately $347 million dollars), $510 billion pesos ($283 million dollars) to be provided by the national government and $114 billion pesos ($64 million dollars) by the local governments.  This amount would fund sixteen projects in thirteen municipalities over four years.[42]   The money was to be apportioned as follows: $173 billion to build seven roads to improve intra-departmental connectivity as well as to connect Cauca to the rest of the country, $196 billion pesos to provide water and sewage infrastructure, $107 billion to help 2,580 rural families out of extreme poverty, $51 billion to build or improve hospitals, $40 billion for education at all levels, $34 billion for communications improvements focused on internet and computers, $7 billion to develop tourism, and $4 billion to build rural electrical infrastructure.[43]

The mayor of Toribio was immediately critical, complaining about the slowness of the process and pointing out that the money was mostly for projects that would facilitate Colombia’s new Free Trade Agreement with the United States and did little to address the basic needs of the citizens of Cauca.  The plan provided no funds to pave many of Cauca’s secondary roads, nor repair or replace many bridges that had been damaged or destroyed by floods and other natural disasters.[44]  While couched in pseudo-leftist rhetoric, what the mayor was correctly pointing out is that the plan was mostly focused on macro-economic development, and not micro-economic development.  His complaint about the slowness of implementation was also correct as it was only on March 11, 2013 that a manager was chosen to lead the effort.[45]  While Plan Cauca may indeed have a positive long-term effect on the departmental economy, it’s focus on macro-economic development and the lethargic pace of its implementation may have little impact on the current counter-insurgency effort under the Sword of Honor Campaign Plan. 

Despite its problems, the Sword of Honor campaign is having an impact, and is probably one of the accelerators that convinced the FARC to agree to sit openly at the table in Havana and negotiate a peace deal with the government when it did.[46]  It is not clear yet whether the negotiations will end with a viable peace agreement as publicly the positions of the government and FARC seem to actually talk past each other rather than to each other.  Nevertheless, whether a peace agreement is signed or not, much of the long-term success or failure of a peace process will depend on the government’s ability to resolve the long-standing security, economic and social problems in the Cauca and its surrounding regions.

[1] Intelligence briefing given to the author on November 19, 2012.

[2] FARC-EP, Estatutos de las FARC, n.d.

[3] Spanish for “Replacement” describing how if the commander dies, the deputy commander assumes command.

[4] FARC-EP, Estatutos de las FARC, n.d.

[5] Third Division briefing given to the author on November 19, 2012.

[6] Ministerio de Comercio, Industria y Turismo Republica de Colombia, Departamento del Valle del Cauca, November 2012.  Ministerio de Comercio, Industria y Turismo Republica de Colombia, Departamento del Cauca, November 2012.  Ministerio de Comercio, Industria y Turismo Republica de Colombia, Departamento de Nariño, November 2012.

[7] Alfonso Cano, Plan Renacer Revolucionario de las Masas, August 16, 2008.

[8] Special Missions or Special Forces within FARC is a variation of Vietnamese Special Forces tactics known as Dac Cong.  During the Vietnam War, allied forces called them “sappers.”

[9] Alfonso Cano, Plan Renacer Revolucionario de las Masas, August 16, 2008.

[10] Author interviews with six ex-guerrillas between 21-28 November, 2012.

[11] Order of Battle briefing given to the author on October 6, 2011.

[12] FARC has very defined terms.  “Commando Group” is a new terms and probably designated a new type of unit, most likely groups of special forces trained guerrillas.

[13] FARC-EP, Campaña Raul Reyes, February 1, 2010.


[16] Ibid.

[17] “Red de Apoyo al Terrorismo.” 

[18] Seccional de Policía Judicial e Investigación.

[19] Cauca, Guerra Sin Fin, Revista Semana, 14 July 2012.

[20] Asociación de Cabildos Indígenas del Norte del Cauca.

[21] “Autoridades indígenas deciden no hablar con el presidente Juan Manuel Santos,” El Pais, July 11, 2012.

[22] “Indigenas desalojan base militar y piden mediación de Baltasar Garzón,” Vanguardia Liberal, July 12, 2012.

[23] Interviews with several senior officers between November 17 and November 30, 2012.

[24] “Comando Conjunto del Suroccidente, el nuevo 'antídoto' militar contra las Farc,” El Pais, August 12, 2012.

[25] Agrupacion de Fuerzas Especiales Antiterroristas Urbanas (Urban Anti-Terrorist Special Forces Group).

[26] Most of this data was gleaned from the website Resistencia Civil Democrática which maintains a fairly comprehensive register of acts of war in Colombia since the early 1990s.  See

[27] “Farc han perdido 35 cabecillas y más de 2 mil hombres en 18 meses,” El Pais, March 23, 2013.

[28] Brett Troyan, “Ethnic Citizenship in Colombia: The Experience of the Regional Indigenous Council of the

Cauca in Southwestern Colombia from 1970 to 1990,” Latin American Research Review, Vol. 43, No. 3 (2008), p. 174.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Interviews with several CRIC defectors who wish to remain anonymous, November 2012.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Interviews with multiple officers and NCOs from the 3rd Division, Task Force Apolo, 29th Brigade and Jose Hilario Lopez Infantry Battalion, November 2012.

[33] The photos have been made into a video that is available at accessed on March 31, 2013.

[35]Interviews with several CRIC defectors who wish to remain anonymous, November 2012.  For similar complaints see Jorge Ivan Posada, Cric engaña indígenas: Ana Secué, El Colombiano, July 17, 2012.

[36]La Opic, otra cara del conflicto en el Cauca, Confidencial Colombia, August 2, 2012 accessed at on March 30, 2013.

[37] Interview with OPIC leaders who wish to remain anonymous, November 29, 2012.

[38] Presentation received by author from the South-Western Joint Command on November 20, 2012.

[39] Op Cit Confidencial Colombia, August 2, 2012.

[40] Email communication with the headquarters of the Southwest Joint Command on April 9, 2013.

[41] The Mayors of: Buenos Aires, Caldono, Caloto, Corinto, Guachené, Jambaló, Miranda, Padilla, Puerto Tejada, Santander de Quilichao, Suárez, Toribío and Villa Rica.

[42] “Con Contrato Plan, Cauca recibirá inversión de $620 mil millones”, El Pais, January 19, 2013.

[43] “Gobierno Firma Contrato Plan por $622 Mil Millones para Norte del Cauca,” Boletin de Prensa, Departamento de Planeacion Nacional, January 19, 2013.

[44] Édinson Arley Bolaños, “El Plan Cauca: ¿Una promesa a medias?”, El Espectador, January 18, 2013.

[45] Designado gerente para contrato-plan del Norte del Cauca, El Nuevo Liberal, March 11, 2013.

[46] Secret pre-negotiation discussions had been going on for some months.


About the Author(s)

David Spencer is Assistant Professor of National Defense Studies at the William J. Perry Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies.  He has spent the last sixteen years working in support of U.S. policy in Colombia and is the lead author of Colombia’s Road to Recovery: Security and Governance 1982-2010, published by the Perry Center in 2011.  During 2011-2012 he was on detail at the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Western Hemisphere Affairs where he served as Director of Colombia Policy.  After leaving OSD he spent several weeks in Cauca doing research for this article.