TAMESIS, Colombia – Didier Alvarez shakes his head with fear as he speaks. Over the last decade, he has seen Salgar, his small town in Colombia's northwest Antioquia province, transformed. In the early 2000s, the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and rival paramilitary units roamed the area, fighting for territory, massacring civilians, and extracting rents from the local economy. By 2008, the armed groups were gone; the FARC was chased into the jungle by the Colombian military and the paramilitaries demobilized. "Things started to calm down," he remembers.
"But we are falling back into crisis," Alvarez continues. "The [FARC] guerrillas and other armed groups are back, destroying our towns, assassinating leaders." Two towns were attacked near his own in the last two months. As the head of the community's local council, Alvarez is terrified. He's not the only one; 74 percent of Colombians believe that security is getting worse, according to a June Gallup poll.
Three years ago, the outgoing government of President Álvaro Uribe declared "the end of the end" of the FARC. The group was in its death throes, and this decades-long conflict was coming to an end, Uribe said, thanks to eight years of intensive military operations. But while few seem to be paying attention, this resilient rebel force, which the International Crisis Group estimates has between 8,000 and 10,000 members, has made a comeback -- and not only in places like Salgar. In the first six months of 2011, the militant group undertook some 1,115 "military actions," including everything from armed combat to kidnappings to land mining. That's an increase of 10 percent from the same period last year. In fact, FARC operations have increased every year since 2005.
So is the FARC making a comeback? Not exactly -- but it has changed its strategy, according to a report released by the local research institute Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris on July 17. After years of operating like a traditional military organization that fought for territory, carving out large swathes of jungle and terrorizing the outskirts of Colombia's largest cities, the FARC is going back to its insurgent roots -- turning to car bombs, land mines, and high-impact kidnappings. Having lost a number of key leaders and acres of turf to the Colombian military, the group has reorganized into small cells of 25 to 35 people known as pisa suaves, or "light treading" companies of men. These units operate like traditional terrorist cells that might sleep for some time, or infiltrate a community, before they strike.
The result has been a surge in media attention for the FARC. High-profile attacks fill the papers here with increasing frequency. Earlier this month, for example, FARC rebels drove a bus full of explosives into a police station in the southwestern district of Cauca. In late June, attacked a major road in Antioquia, returning to a highway previously thought secure. Such attacks make the local front pages, though they may not be tactically important. As Colombian Armed Forces chief Edgar Augusto Cely argued in March, the guerrillas are fighting "a war of perception."
"There is a new cycle of violence," the report's author and the director of Arco Iris, León Valencia, told me. "And the government is still in the process of asking: This new stage, what is it? What do we do?"