The Colombian government is winning in its offensive against Marxist rebels in their jungle strongholds, the country’s new army chief said Thursday.
Gen. Reinaldo Castellanos, who was named to the top army post Wednesday, told The Associated Press the offensive was going well and was aimed at forcing rebels to the negotiating table under conditions set by the government.
“Our activity and the force with which it must be carried out has to compel (the rebels) to sit down under the conditions set out by the government,” Castellanos said in his first interview with the international media since being named commander of the army. “So this is one of the tasks that for us is very much a priority.”
Under the “Plan Patriot” offensive, which began about a year ago, government forces are driving deep into rebel strongholds in Colombia’s southern states of Caqueta and Guaviare.
Castellanos, 55, has been commanding special forces troops spearheading the offensive.
‘I am very optimistic’
“I believe we are winning, for me there isn’t the slightest doubt,” Castellanos said by telephone as he traveled to his installation ceremony at a military school. “I am very optimistic. I believe our men are very committed and resolute.”
Peace talks between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC, in a huge safe haven granted by the government collapsed in 2002 after the rebels hijacked an airliner and kidnapped a senator who was aboard the plane. The so-called demilitarized zone was canceled, and much of the “Plan Patriot” fighting has taken place there.
Hard-line President Alvaro Uribe has ruled out granting another safe haven, saying the rebels must first declare a cease-fire before peace talks can take place. The rebels have rebuffed the conditions.
During the swearing-in ceremony, Uribe told the new commander that his main task was to defeat the rebels.
“The 578,000 square kilometers [360,000 square miles] of jungle won’t be enough for the bandits to hide in,” Uribe said, wagging his finger at Castellanos. “The more they retreat, the more you must go after them.”
Uribe told Castellanos he was being supplied with all the necessary support and resources and that if the military was not victorious, it was not due to a lack of political will.
The FARC and a smaller rebel group have been battling the government for 40 years in an effort to install their own rule. Financed with profits from cocaine trafficking in the world’s No. 1 cocaine-producing country, the FARC’s fighting force now stands at an estimated 17,000 combatants.
More than 3,000 people, many of them civilians, die in the conflict each year.
The offensive aims not only to deprive the rebels of their rearguard sanctuaries but also to hit their major cocaine-producing areas in Caqueta and Guaviare. U.S. military personnel have assisted the Colombian military with training, intelligence resources, operations planning, helicopters and arms, although they are barred from participating in combat operations except in self-defense or to rescue other Americans. Washington has provided $3.3 billion in mostly military aid to Colombia during the last four years.
Trained in the United States
Castellanos received military training in the United States in 1981; U.S. military officials in Bogota have described him as one of Colombia’s most competent and intelligent field commanders, widely respected by his soldiers.
“I maintain good relations with the American military personnel — that’s been very important for me,” Castellanos said.
Castellanos replaces Gen. Martin Orlando Carreno, who was the army’s chief for just under a year before the Defense Ministry removed him from his post Wednesday. The ministry has not explained the move.
Last year, Castellanos commanded the army’s Bogota-based 5th Division, which defeated an unprecedented campaign by the FARC to encircle the capital and cut off major roads leading into the city of 7 million.
In addition to thwarting the offensive, Castellanos’ troops hunted down and killed a record five regional FARC commanders in less than a month, wiping out several urban guerrilla units along the way.