What is guerrilla warfare and why was it effective?

Guerrilla warfare destabilizes the opponent to defeat them. The word originated in the Spanish War of Independence against the French, and its methods extend to the Vietnam War and the Colombian conflict.

What is guerrilla warfare and why was it effective?
ELN members will be the first to sit down at the dialogue table promoted by the Colombian government. Credit: Telam

Guerrilla warfare is a type of war in which small groups of armed people try to weaken and wear down the enemy so they can win. It is also a type of asymmetric conflict between small armed groups and larger armies, and a way to fight since it can help the regular army.

Guerrillas have been a part of all kinds of wars, from traditional wars in which the people fight back against an invading army by forming fighting groups to internal wars in which revolutionary movements try to overthrow the government. Guerrillas usually come from the civilian population and have some social support. They also know how to use the land to their advantage.

A regular army is stronger in open fields, but guerrillas have the upper hand in places with more obstacles, like mountains or jungles.

Also, they try to be quick and effective in battle, so they usually use sneak attacks, traps, ambushes, sabotage, or the theft of supplies. All of this makes it hard for the enemy to move forward and brings down the morale of their soldiers. But the spread of asymmetric warfare and the fact that other armed groups use these tactics make it hard to define guerrilla warfare.

Guerrilla warfare as a universal tactic

Guerrillas have been around since ancient times. They are small armed groups that fight against larger armies. But the term didn't come into use until after the Spanish War of Independence. When Napoleon invaded Spain in 1808, the people put together guerrilla groups and uprisings in the cities to fight back.

The guerrillas used the rough terrain of the peninsula to attack the French, who lost a lot of people in the process. Guerrilla warfare, along with the regular army of Spain and the army of the United Kingdom, was a key part of the final defeat of the French.

In the 20th century, especially in Latin America, revolutionary movements led to a lot of guerrilla warfare. The best example is the Cuban Revolution of 1959 when people who didn't like Fulgencio Batista's rule formed guerrilla groups led by Fidel Castro and Ernesto Che Guevara to overthrow him.

With the help of the people, the revolutionaries gained ground and strength over the army. This gave them the ability to take control of the island and take power. Since then, the country has been run by the communist regime, which grew out of the revolution.

During the 20th century, guerrilla warfare was also used in more traditional wars. The National Front for the Liberation of Vietnam, also known as the Vietcong, used guerrilla tactics against the U.S. and South Vietnamese armies during the Vietnam War from the 1950s to the 1970s.

Again, the land was important. Traps and lightning strikes made it hard for the Americans to move through the jungle. By doing this, the guerrillas helped the United States lose, which was one of the most important things to happen during the Cold War.

Guerrilla warfare and terrorism

Guerrillas usually don't beat the enemy army or change the way things are done. In a lot of guerrilla wars, neither side can win, and the fighting goes on for a long time. Henry Kissinger, who was the US Secretary of State at the time of the Vietnam War, said that guerrillas win if they don't lose, while armies lose if they don't win.

In Colombia, this is what has happened with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) or the National Liberation Army. In the 1960s, they started as resistance movements. Over time, they grew into armed groups that were able to control a large part of the land. But because of what the government and paramilitary groups did, they were never able to take power. Even though the FARC signed a peace agreement in 2016, the conflict is still going on.

Since the 1970s, guerrilla warfare has changed, especially since urban guerrillas came into being. Because of this change and the different reasons for fighting, there has been a lot of talk about the differences between guerrilla warfare and terrorism. Some people say that, unlike terrorism, guerrillas act on land they want to control, have more social support, stress their subversive message more, and attack military targets instead of civilians.

The Colombian government to start talking to the ELN

Meanwhile, President Gustavo Petro has said that the peace talks between the Colombian government and the National Liberation Army (ELN) will start in Caracas. At the same time, the Prosecutor's Office suspended arrest warrants for 17 guerrilla members who will take part in the talks.

During the conservative government of Iván Duque, Petro's predecessor, talks with the ELN were put on hold. They fell apart completely in January 2019 after the group killed 22 people at a police cadet school. Petro's government, which was led by Colombia's first leftist president, pushed for peace talks with the ELN and other armed groups from the start. This was to copy what happened in 2016 with the now-defunct FARC, which became a political party.

The ELN is a group of left-wing Colombian guerrilla fighters that operate in Colombia and Venezuela. They are Marxist-Leninists and support the Cuban revolution. Since its founding in 1964, it has been a key player in Colombia's internal armed conflict and has taken part in four other dialogues with different governments.

On November 3, the Colombian Congress passed the Total Peace Law with a large majority. This law sets up a legal framework for talks between the government and all armed groups in the country. It is a change to Law 418 of 1997, which is also known as the "Law of Public Order." It now gives groups that are negotiating ways to get along with each other and talk about peace. It also stops arrest and extradition warrants against groups that are negotiating.

Sources: Telam and EOM