2. The Big Three Attacks of 1998
Generally, the FARC has relied on hit and run, kidnappings, bombings, and other guerrilla tactics. It was rare for the rebels to launch a major offensive. Even at its peak, the FARC’s ranks were never as big as the military’s. Add in training, access to weapons, and international support enjoyed by the government and it was clear that the FARC were going to have to fight an asymmetrical war.
In 1998, the FARC switched gears and launched several large-scale attacks. These attacks would rock Colombia, showing that when it wanted to, the FARC could go toe-to-toe with the police and military, especially in the rural regions of the country.
In March of 1998 the 52nd counterguerilla battalion of the Colombian Army’s 3rd Mobile Brigade entered Peñas Coloradas, hoping to roll back the FARC’s influence in the rural region. The communist rebels launched a massive counter attack, with around 700 FARC troops clashing with the military division.
In the ensuing battle 64 government troops were killed, while 19 were wounded and another 43 were kidnapped. The FARC saw 30 troops killed and 80 troops wounded, but were able to push the division out of the town. This large scale battle marked one of the biggest defeats of the war.
In August of the same year the Colombian military would suffer another major setback. Hundreds of FARC troops launched an attack on Miraflores, another isolated, rural town. Part of the Colombian government’s anti-drug task force was based Miraflores. With the FARC increasingly relying on narcotics to fuel their operations, targeting anti-drug units was becoming a priority.
In total, 110 government troops and 70 anti-narcotics police were stationed in the town. Meanwhile, hundreds of rebels crept up on the village under the cover of the forest and terrain, and were able to launch a surprise attack. A fierce gunfight quickly erupted but for several hours the government forces were able to hold the rebels back.
With ammunition running low, and poor weather hampering the ability to call in effective air support, the military base was eventually overrun. 16 government soldiers were killed, 26 injured, and 129 captured, marking yet another stunning defeat for the government. Some government troops were able to escape into the jungle, and it is unknown how many rebels were killed.
Another big defeat for the government was yet coming. In November of 1998 the FARC launched a massive attack on the department capital of Mitu. It’s believed that 1,200 or more FARC rebels were involved. They were able to quickly overrun the government forces in the town, holding it for three straight days. During their occupation, the FARC executed 30 security force members and 11 civilians, and took another 61 people prisoner.
FARC troops retreated only after government reinforcements arrived, and after Brazil granted the Colombian government permission to use a nearby airfield. The Colombian government was eventually found guilty of neglect, having ignored warnings from civilians and other parties of the impending attack.