‘Firm hand, big heart’ really at play for Uribe?

César Carrión – SP

The FARC has been dealt a series of stiff blows in 2008— its founding father forfeits to the abyss, several of its principal commanders are killed, even betrayed, and actionable intelligence flows from a wave of demoralizing desertions. In its wake, president Uribe has refortified his campaign of ‘Democratic Security’, to unprecedented approval ratings among Colombians.

Yet, the rural insurgency slugs onward, low-level and diminished, but at a perpetual buzz. The state’s counterinsurgency campaign has for the time plateaued.

Uribe now faces a tactical crossroad. He’s rolled back force projection of the rebel faction and fractured its operational cohesion. Utilizing his venerable, Mano Firme (Firm Hand) tactics, he has calculatingly diminished the state adversary in both size and capacity, gleaning intelligence and pouncing when it yields actionable targets.

However, the promise always on the horizon, but almost impalpable to the pages of Colombian history— a demobilization of the guerrilla— might just hinge upon the latter part of the president’s catchphrase doctrine, Corazón Grande (Big Heart). Aptly, does the conflict now call for more carrot than stick?

To this end, Uribe reiterated this past week the government’s offer to grant ‘liberty’ to any guerrilla who chooses to abandon the cause and takes with them a hostage to be freed. This serves to undermine discipline through the FARC ranks, appear lenient to the public, and marks potential to draw hostages out by exploiting FARC’s weakest internal links.

In a stump speech from Popayán, Uribe articulated the policy in a rather round-about and ambiguous manner. One is left pondering what exactly the demobilization guarantees the FARC member and what it really means with regard to the judicial review of state crimes— listen below (in Spanish):

[audio:|titles=President Uribe on Demobilization of FARC w/ Hostages]

In summary, Uribe equates this offer to the preconditions of a humanitarian exchange, under which grave crimes against the state cannot be forgiven outright with impunity— they must enter the judicial process for investigation and rendered to due process of the courts. However, in highlighting the case of the recently defected guerrilla, alias ‘Isaza’, Uribe emphasizes an offer of fair treatment, leniency, and generous monetary compensation. Isaza fled a FARC camp with former congressman Oscar Tulio Lizcano and has since been given medical attention and offered asylum in France under the wing of former captive, Ingrid Betancourt.

Uribe’s intended message? Pretty straight forward: flee your dire straits with a hostage and you will be compensated with a potentially respectable living– choose to continue waging the insurgency and you will end up in a body bag.

While I believe this psychological run is a very effective tactic in undermining the FARC, I remain skeptical due to the extremely ambiguous nature of the offer. These guerrillas face a certain death if caught attempting to desert. For a bite at the carrot, the state has to dangle something provocative. Beyond this, if judging by the ugly mess of contemporary paramilitary demobilization, there is much reason for both sides and their respective victims to remain skeptical of guarantees.