Out of the Jungle

Colombia's capital, Bogotá, long seemed exempt from the lawlessness and violence of that country's chronic civil war. Not anymore.

In town after town like Juradó, FARC and the ELN recruit young men and women for whom the state has done nothing. Some join for the benefits of a steady wage; others get an invitation at gunpoint. Many have already lost a family member in the fighting or have been transplanted from their property, and may feel deep resentment toward the government.

Physically, Juradó also illustrates why the rebels have been able to keep up their fight for thirty-five years. Like many other towns in Colombia, Juradó is completely isolated, surrounded by jungle. In December, Juradó's navy barracks suffered a huge surprise attack by FARC. It took eighteen hours for the Rapid Deployment Force—a brand-new, high-tech mobile battalion whose stated goal is to raise the rebel death rate by at least 50 percent—to reach the scene of fighting. In staging the attack FARC had been able to move 600 soldiers through the jungle undetected. Owing to poor weather, the Rapid Deployment Force had to land at an airstrip thirty miles away. The results of the battle were predictably lopsided: at least forty-five dead soldiers and, reportedly, not a single rebel fatality.

This kind of attack—the overrunning of a military base—has come within the rebels' reach only in the past few years, and it is particularly effective at enlarging the guerrillas' presence in the public mind. Nevertheless, few analysts consider either FARC or the ELN to be capable of toppling the government. Estimates of their combined numbers top out at 25,000, whereas the Colombian army has 120,000 soldiers. But few observers give the government much chance of winning a decisive victory in the near future either. The army is viewed as one of the weakest in Latin America, and it has been unable to prevent the guerrillas from taking control of more than a third of the country. Nor has it done anything to curb the suspicion that the cumulative weight of Colombia's problems may eventually lead to some sort of national disintegration, with or without a clear-cut guerrilla victory.

Paradoxically, increased power seems to have done nothing for the rebels' popularity—if anything, it may have lessened it. One hotly debated subject in Bogotá is whether the guerrillas actually want to topple the government. Judging from what I heard, many people believe that the guerrilla cause is really more like a business—one that makes money by kidnapping executives (an average of seven kidnappings a day take place in Colombia), practicing extortion on oil companies, and taking a piece of the black market. Or, as one well-heeled woman in the capital put it to me, "This is a war between the legal multinationals and the illegal multinationals."

Such a view might seem to betoken the feelings of a defensive elite determined to deny its adversary any respect. But it is not entirely baseless, as the story of Ashock Nandwani demonstrates.

Nandwani, a wealthy businessman, was abducted one night last October. Within days he managed to escape, after his kidnappers, a gang that included former policemen, swamped their getaway boat. Nandwani swam to shore and returned home. His story made headlines, not because of its dramatic ending but because Nandwani was kidnapped from outside his home in Panama City, 500 miles from Bogotá. The kidnappers had planned to take him to Colombia and sell him to the guerrillas, who would then have negotiated a ransom.

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