The Evolution of the FARC: A Guerrilla Group's Long History

September 25, 2007

Fierce battles, often characterized by extreme cruelty, marked the early twentieth century in Colombia, as land-hungry peasants and their reformist allies faced off against the country's land-owning oligarchy, which was backed by the conservative hierarchy of the Catholic Church. The land owners and Church leaders, along with peasants under their control, were organized as the Conservative Party; other, reform-minded peasants and their allies were known as Liberals. On the rich and violent soil of those conflicts lie the origins of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country's most powerful present-day guerrilla group.

From 1930 to 1946, a series of Liberal Party-run administrations, referred to in Colombian history as the Liberal Republic, inaugurated land reform that restricted ancestral privileges and unleashed furious political opposition from the Conservatives. After the internally divided Liberals fell in 1946, a new Conservative government used political violence to regain the oligarchy's lands and remain in power. Then Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, a charismatic Liberal and land-reform movement leader, was gunned down in Bogotá in 1948. In response, popular insurrections broke out in the capital and in virtually every city where the Liberals were strong. The assassination unleashed a decade-long heightening of the old conflict. The new strife was known simply as La Violencia. Between 1948 and 1958, La Violencia took the lives of more than 300,000 Colombians.

To subdue the Liberal uprisings, the government gave weapons to Conservative peasants throughout the country, as well as backing from the National Police. At the same time, thousands of Liberal peasants armed themselves against the Conservative government. On the eastern plains, peasants backed by the Liberal Party, with assistance from Communist Party activists, managed to form a 10,000-man army that inspired the formation of small guerrilla groups throughout the country. One peasant guerrilla who emerged from the Liberal uprising was Pedro Antonio Marín. Later he would come to be known as Manuel Marulanda Velez, or "Tirofijo" ("Sure Shot"). Today he is chief commander of the FARC.

In 1953, an anti-Communist military strongman, General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla, came to power by force, backed by elements within both traditional parties and—significantly—by Washington. Once securely in power, the General decreed an amnesty which was welcomed by the armed peasants of the eastern plains and by many Liberals and Conservatives as well.

In 1955, a military operation was launched against rural regions that remained strongholds of agrarian guerrillas who had fought in the name of Gaitán, and where Communist guerrillas were also concentrated. Backed by Washington's National Security Doctrine and a $170 million U.S. loan, Rojas Pinilla began bombing guerrilla and opposition peasant positions. The guerrilla movement tried to dig in and hold out in the highlands, but was ultimately forced to retreat to the jungles of the Andean foothills. In those regions, Marulanda, joined by Jacobo Arenas, a charismatic Marxist ideologue who described himself a "professional revolutionary," organized a community based on economic self-management and military self-defense. This was the first of the guerrilla bases that later came to be known as "Independent Republics." When Rojas Pinilla began flirting with the idea of prolonging his rule, however, the Liberals, who had hoped to win the next elections, withdrew their support. At that point anti-Rojas Pinilla demonstrations spread throughout the country, and many were violently repressed as the government accused the Communists of disturbing public order.

In 1958, the Conservative and Liberal elites brought La Violencia to an official end with a National Front that allowed the two parties to share public offices and alternate in the presidency. But the arrangement did nothing to resolve the underlying land conflicts, and violence continued in the countryside. In 1964, the army attacked the "Independent Republics" of Marulanda and Arenas by land and by air with 16,000 soldiers, and captured the encampments. But they had already been abandoned: Some 43 guerrillas, including the two leaders, had fled and taken refuge in the mountains of the southwestern state of Cauca. Later that year, they founded the FARC in the same area.

Seeing that it would be impossible to break through the rigid political and agrarian structures using legal means, the opposition declared an armed rebellion. During the same period other guerrilla forces, the National Liberation Army (ELN) in 1964 and the People's Liberation Army (EPL) in 1967, were created, and the big landowners dominated the country's economy.

In the 1970s, the National Front was still dominating political life, and on the economic front, the government of Misael Pastrana (1970-1974) adopted a rural development model that aimed to eliminate all obstacles to free investment in the countryside. This led to concentration of land ownership, the undermining of small-scale peasant producers and the rise of peasant proletarization. Because of Pastrana's program, thousands of desperate peasants were propelled into both organized and spontaneous invasions of rural properties. On the Atlantic Coast, for example, peasants invaded the large haciendas common to the region and distributed the land among themselves. Property owners, backed by the area's aggressive political bosses, responded with public and private force, and succeeded in recovering their land. Pastrana's economic development model also drove many peasants to the cities, raising urban unemployment and setting the stage for the great National Civic Strike of 1977 and the Draconian Security Statute of 1978 that drastically reduced the right to protest and organize.

At the same time, there was repression of the peasant movement, expulsion of small tenants from the lands they cultivated and, in general, expansion of commercial agriculture to less populated parts of the country, as well as colonization of unused lands. Many of the most popular destinations lay in the same remote areas where the guerrillas were strong and where they constituted the only authority. During this period the FARC consolidated its influence, opened some new areas, and focused on training military leaders. These were the days when many students, intellectuals, workers and peasant leaders joined the guerrilla struggle.

Between 1970 and 1982, the FARC grew from a movement of only about 500 people to a small army of 3,000, with a centralized hierarchical structure, a general staff, military code, training school and political program. Meanwhile, in the areas of colonization, the colonizers' situation was desperate. Bereft of all institutional support, they lived as permanently displaced peasants. This is exactly what led them to embrace the profitable cultivation of coca. No legal crop offered them the advantages that coca still does: the ease and economy of growing an Andean-Amazon plant that needs no fertilizers or pesticides, a ready market of local traffickers, a fixed price, and constant demand.

At first the guerrillas tried to resist growing coca: They suspected that it represented a kind of underground "imperialist" invasion, and they worried that peasants who became prosperous would stop supporting the revolutionary struggle. But the guerrilla leadership soon realized that banning coca would mean losing peasant support to the authorities. This realization marked the birth of the infamous gramaje, a coca-trade tax that is nothing less than guerrilla-imposed extortion of drug traffickers and prosperous coca farmers. The guerrillas' rapprochement with coca also led to the belief that they are traffickers—narcoguerrillas. That notion is false, however. Cultivation of illegal crops was established in the colonization areas not simply because of weak army presence, but because the colonists were on the brink of ruin. And the guerrillas were in the colonized regions long before coca cultivation appeared. Their growth was due mainly to the repression unleased against popular protest, and by the growing impoverishment of the population—not to their participation in the drug trade.

Since the early 1980s, the history of the FARC has been a history of peace negotiations. At the beginning of his presidency, Belisario Betancur (1982-1986) named a Peace Commission, and talks began between the insurgents and the government. The government's strategy was to offer to legalize the FARC's political activity and to convert their military force into a political party. In 1984, the FARC renounced kidnapping, and the parties agreed to a general, verifiable cease-fire. This led to the formation of the Patriotic Union (UP), a legal political party originally affiliated with the FARC and supported by the Communist Party and other groups on the Colombian left. The UP gained significant parliamentary representation in the 1986 elections.

Meanwhile, the Sumapaz region, about 50 miles south of Bogotá in the department of Meta, was cleared of the military and turned into an area where meetings could take place among representatives of the government, the guerrillas and civil society. The site of the meetings, La Casa Verde, became famous as a hopeful symbol of the peace process. Just as the rules and conditions of negotiation were being agreed to, however, the urban guerrilla group April 19th Movement (M-19) seized the Palace of Justice, leading to the killing of over 100 persons, including several Supreme Court justices. The disaster dealt a crippling blow to the talks, which continued, but in an atmosphere of mutual recrimination. The Palace of Justice debacle, pressure from business associations, and the tactic of carrot and stick—all came together to substantially change the nature of the negotiations.

At the beginning of Virgilio Barco's four-year presidency, in 1986, the government offered "an outstretched but firm hand" to the guerrillas. Unlike President Betancur, Barco tried to offer them full participation in civil and political life if they would lay down their weapons. The government called upon the guerrillas to demobilize and disarm in exchange for political guarantees and economic compensation. Barco wanted to restore the legitimacy of the state, which had been badly damaged in the peasant areas and the territories of colonization. As violence once again escalated, the rebel groups opted to unify as the Simon Bolívar Guerrilla Coordinating Group (CGSB).

In early 1987, the army had unleashed a powerful offensive against the Fifth Front of the FARC in the department of Urabá at the behest of the banana companies, who felt that the guerrillas were backing the banana workers union in its drive for higher wages. A few months later the guerrillas destroyed a military convoy in Caquetá and killed 25 soldiers. The army bombarded the region and the government ended the truce. The Defense Minister declared that it was time to do away with the "myth of La Casa Verde" and that the cease-fire could not be used as recourse for criminal activity. With national negotiations stalled, the FARC, communicating through the Church, proposed a regional dialogue in Caquetá, thus establishing a precedent of using domestic locations for negotiations.

Meanwhile, the paramilitary forces had been growing dramatically, in many cases financed by the head of the Medellín Cartel, Pablo Escobar, especially around the northern region of the Magdalena Medio. With Escobar's financing and the army's tolerance, paramilitaries began decimating the leftist UP with impunity. It was during Barco's subsequent administration that most of the UP's activists were murdered. The final days of Barco's government were notably violent. Gunmen assassinated four presidential candidates: Carlos Pizarro of the M-19 (who had just turned in their arms); Jaime Pardo Leal of the UP, followed closely by his replacement, Bernardo Jaramillo; and the Liberals' Luis Carlos Galán who would certainly have won the election.

Galán was replaced by César Gaviria, a party hack who had been Minister of Government, and who was elected president for the term 1990-1994. It fell to Gaviria to advocate the writing of a new Constitution, a process begun by Barco. The FARC had launched the idea, and public opinion baptized it the "Peace Constitution." Yet the still-mobilized guerrilla alliance, the CGSB, was offered only six of 70 seats in the Constituent Assembly charged with drafting the new document. This small guerrilla representation had been the condition on which the military agreed to permit the process of rewriting the Constitution. The virtual absence of active guerrillas from what was called an "agreement on the fundamentals" had two goals: to reduce their political prominence and to make sure that the crucial theme of military-civilian relations did not become subject to negotiation.

The peace negotiations themselves, which by now had been moved to Caracas, advanced rapidly. Negotiators for both sides agreed to call for a cease-fire and an end to hostilities. For the government this meant placing the guerrillas within fixed geographical boundaries in order to make verification of the cease-fire possible. It also meant that the guerrillas must suspend kidnappings, extortion and bombings of physical infrastructure. The guerrillas refused to confine themselves geographically—since that would mean giving up their most effective weapon—and they demanded that the paramilitaries be disbanded. The government insisted on guerrilla demobilization as a condition for participation in the Constituent Assembly. For its part, the CGSB demanded radical political reform first, beginning with restructuring of the Armed Forces.

While the two sides could not arrive at agreement on that point, they did concur on verification and on the role of international oversight, neither of which could be enacted without a cease-fire. The government and the guerrillas also named a public-order advisory commission, and the government further agreed to name a civilian as Minister of Defense—a position reserved for the military since the onset of the National Front—and agreed to outlaw the paramilitary "self-defense" groups. But these measures were more symbolic than real, and the government demanded that the guerrillas concentrate in 60 sites. For their part, the guerrillas demanded 200 demilitarized municipalities, as well as meaningfully verifiable measures against the paramilitaries.

At this point, a failed assassination plot by guerrillas against a prominent senator named Aurelio Irragori led the government to suspend the negotiations. Weeks later, however, the conversations resumed, but with less trust among the parties. Now, each arrived with proposals impossible for the other to comply with. The guerrillas had not ended their attacks against the oil pipelines, nor had they diminished their kidnappings or seizures of villages and police stations. The business associations attacked the negotiations and demanded that the government harden its bargaining position. In that context, both sides decided to again postpone the talks.

Four months later, however, the delegations resumed contact in Tlaxcala, Mexico. The government named Horacio Serpa as Peace Advisor and created a department of social policy mandated to make "social reinsertion" attractive to insurgents who wanted to give up their arms. In Mexico, the CGSB succeeded in placing a debate about the neoliberal model on the agenda, and the government's economic team came to the negotiations to justify the Washington Consensus of free trade and privatization. The guerrilla team questioned every aspect of the Consensus, even as business associations and the right complained that it was unnecessary and offensive for the government to have to justify its economic policies before a group of "gangsters." For their part, government spokespeople argued that significant economic changes were impossible, since Colombia was now part of a globalized economy that imposed its own obligatory rules.

Amid this less-than-promising atmosphere, the Popular Liberation Army (EPL), a minority group in the guerrilla coalition, kidnapped and killed a former Conservative Cabinet minister named Argelino Durán. The talks had begun with an agreement to continue them "come what may." But in the wake of the EPL action, the government once again canceled the talks, and they collapsed in confusion.

The guerrillas emerged from the talks divided. On the one hand, two different guerrilla subgroups used the accords to reinsert themselves into mainstream politics. These groups, the majority of the EPL and a split-off of the ELN, gave up their arms as well as their areas of control. (Immediately after they relinquished their territory, it was promptly occupied by paramilitaries.) Now, divisions began growing within the CGSB. The FARC felt that the alliance imposed the interests of the minority over the majority, as when the EPL kidnapped Durán, which collapsed the talks at Tlaxcala. For the ELN and EPL, however, the problem was that the FARC wanted to dominate the coordinating group. These differences were dangerous. But they were kept under control, at least for a time, by the moderating influence of much of the guerrilla leadership.

The paramilitaries, meanwhile, had been growing and attracting the sympathy of the right, which argued that these "self-defense groups" should be recognized as the third actor in the conflict. The army continued to facilitate paramilitary seizures of the most important economic, political and military regions: Urabá, the banana plantation area; the Panama border; and Montes de María, an area of big farms near Cartagena. Ernesto Samper assumed the presidency in 1994, significantly weakened by the opposition's accusations that he had received campaign contributions from the drug cartels. His efforts at social reform, his attempted rapprochement with the guerrillas, and his proposed political changes were clouded over by these accusations throughout his four years in office.

Just a few days into his administration, the FARC placed conditions on the resumption of peace talks: a military withdrawal from the FARC-dominated municipality of La Uribe, in the department of Meta; the demobilization of paramilitary groups; and suspension of government rewards for identifying kidnappers—a weapon used almost exclusively against the guerrillas. Samper accepted the withdrawal, limiting it to the rural areas of La Uribe. He publicly recognized the political character of the conflict by denying that the guerrillas were simply a band of drug traffickers. And he suspended the kidnapper identification rewards.

The extreme right led an opposition to these concessions, publicizing statistics about guerrilla kidnappings and the guerrillas' links with drug traffickers. Six months later, General Bedoya, commander of the Armed Forces, threatened Samper with a military coup if the government ordered him to withdraw from La Uribe. The President, whose space for maneuvering was already sharply limited, backed down in the face of broad opposition led by the U.S. Ambassador, Colombia's Archbishop Primate, the Conservative hierarchy, retired military officers, followers of ex-President Gaviria, the business associations and even portions of the left.

The guerrillas then cancelled the rapprochement and resumed their attacks on the Armed Forces. In June and July 1996, guerrillas mobilized in the departments of Guaviare, Putumayo, Caquetá, Norte de Santander and Bolívar. At about the same time, nearly 200,000 peasants felt the effect of drug eradication policies on their illicit crops and thus their economic well-being. Recent aerial fumigations against legal and illegal crops, and government attempts to quell the circulation of inputs for processing coca leaves by declaring the so-called Special Zones of Public Order raised the peasant growers' costs of production, and therefore, of their survival as well. The protest was repressed by the Armed Forces in a highly publicized way, making conflicts in the areas of colonization visible and sensitizing the public to the reality of coca producers' lives. These events helped humanize coca farmers, especially when strike leaders told the media about the government's disregard of their precarious conditions.

Over the next year and a half, the guerrilla movement met with substantial military success, capturing many army bases and villages, and ambushing army patrols. These actions were increasingly ambitious and efficient; in August 1996 they culminated in destruction of the army base at Las Delicias in Caquetá and the capture of 60 soldiers. Immediately afterward, the FARC extended offensive actions through the territory, and Colombians began feeling that the state had lost control of public order. As the government withdrew, the vacuum was filled by the paramilitaries, who had transformed themselves into an unofficial wing of the Armed Forces.

Samper was paralyzed. The military growth of the guerrillas was public knowledge, and they proposed releasing the prisoners they held in exchange for the army's further withdrawal in Caguán. The government accepted. The soldiers were handed over in July of 1997 under the supervision of the Red Cross and international observers from 13 countries, mainly from Europe and Latin America. During this event, the FARC made several demands as a prerequisite for peace talks: that the army withdraw from five additional municipalities; that the guerrillas be treated with respect; and that popular protest be decriminalized. The government, losing prestige day by day, rejected the conditions and the army mounted a large military operation that—despite a massive propaganda effort—produced absolutely no results. In this small test of strength, the FARC did rather well. The government and the international community recognized their military strength, and the FARC's political presence in the country's interior began to seem as though it might be a decisive factor in upcoming presidential elections.

By 1998, in fact, despite furious opposition from the right and the army, the leading presidential candidates began to court the insurgents. The Conservative candidate, Andrés Pastrana, had created channels of communication with the FARC. The Liberal candidate, Horacio Serpa, had participated in previous contentious negotiations, so he was a bit more estranged. But both candidates stressed two fundamental promises: to withdraw from the five municipalities, and to deal directly with Marulanda to establish bases for negotiation. That implied visiting with the FARC leader in his military encampments. Pastrana succeeded in tilting the balance in his favor, and as soon as he won his narrow victory, he kept his word and met with Marulanda. They agreed then on the bases for negotiation: withdrawal of military authority and police forces from the five municipalities, formation of an unarmed civic corps to keep local order in the demilitarized zone, dismantling of the paramilitary groups, decriminalization of popular protest, and convening of participation by the international community. Thus they began the process of negotiation. Once again, peace talks are underway.

Alfredo Molano is a book author, journalist and a weekly columnist for the newspaper El Espectador. His writing on behalf of human rights, peasants and marginalized Colombian communities earned him death threats from the paramilitary United Self-Defense Units of Colombia (AUC). He is currently in exile in Spain but continues to write his column. Translated from Spanish by NACLA.

Tags: Colombia, FARC, guerrillas, class, land, coca

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