The FARC, the War and the Crisis of the State

September 25, 2007

Over the past two years, the FARC has consolidated its presence in 622 of Colombia's 1,071 municipalities. This resurgence of the guerrilla is the direct result of the deep institutional crisis facing Colombian politics today. On June 15, 1997, Colombia's oldest and most powerful guerrilla army, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), handed over some 70 prisoners of war to the Colombian military. The soldiers had been captured in two large-scale military operations the previous year and the FARC conditioned Ricardo Vargas Meza is a sociologist and philosopher He is a researcher at the Center for Research and Popular Education (CINEP), a nongovernmental organization based in Bogoti. Vargas is co-author of Drogas, Poder y Regi6n en Colombia (CINEP 1995). Translated from the Spanish by NACLA. their release on the government's agreement to withdraw the army from 5,000 square miles of territory in the southern part of the country. The government ultimately agreed to the FARC's demands. The A FARC guerrilla escorts one of 70 soldiers released on June 22, 1997, fol- lowing months of negotiations with the government. much-publicized release of the sol- diers-the outcome of complex negotiations mediated by the Church-sponsored National Conciliation Commission (CNC) and the International Red Cross- gave witness to the growing political strength of the FARC and reaffirmed its territorial control in southern Colombia. The current strength of the FARC is reflected in the high number of municipalities in which it main- tains a strong presence-622 of the 1,071 municipalities in Colombia. 1 The FARC's political and military control is strongest in southern departments like CaquetA, Guaviare and Putumayo and in the Amazon region. Many of its recent military operations have occurred in the cen- tral and northern departments of Antioquia (20%), Santander (14%), North Santander (6%), Meta (5%), Cundinamarca (5%) and Bolivar (4%), reflecting the guerrilla's efforts to expand its influence. (See Table 1.) While the FARC retains hegemony in the south, para- military groups have sought to consolidate their presence in the cattle-ranching and banana-growing regions of the NACLIA REPORT ON THE AMERICAS 22REPORT ON CHIAPAS & COLOMBIA northern Caribbean coast, which are also traditional zones of FARC influence. The paramilitaries have under- mined the FARC's presence in these areas by terrorizing civilians thought to be guerrilla supporters. This is part of a larger strategy through which the state is privatizing its war against the guerrillas by delegating its counterin- surgency operations to paramilitary groups. This has proven quite favorable to the new class of narco- landowners, who have used the counterinsurgency war to impose an agrarian counter-reform in vast areas of the Colombian countryside. Utilizing newly created private armies to "cleanse" the countryside, the narco-landown- ers have accumulated some eight million acres of land. The intensification of guerrilla operations and para- military violence has radically militarized the conflict in Colombia, making political alternatives to the violence increasingly less feasible. The situation has been com- pounded by the existence of a thoroughly corrupt polit- ical class which has proven itself both militarily and politically incapable of resolving the conflict. In fact, many observers blame the government and Colombian armed forces for the guerrilla's recent resurgence. Rather than pursuing a strategy of limited warfare to slowly undermine the regional power of the FARC, these ana- lysts suggest, the military has adopted a strategy that has sought the total annihilation of the insurgents. 2 This has served to justify the indiscriminate use of violence on the part of the armed forces and the paramilitaries, which has in turn increased local support for the guerrillas. While this strategy has clearly contributed to the strengthening of the guerrilla's presence in the provinces, the FARC's resurgence cannot be thoroughly explained without looking at the deep institutional crisis facing the current regime. This crisis is the result of revelations of corruption within the current administration of President Ernesto Samper and its ensuing loss of legitimacy. Nor can the growth of the guerrilla be explained simply as the result of its increasing capacity to amass economic resources through extortion, kidnappings and threats. Rather, the FARC's current upsurge must be understood as a product of its ability to take advantage of the fissures in a highly deteriorated regime both politically and militarily. he origins of the FARC lie in the peasant struggles of the 1920s and 1930s. The harsh working and living conditions imposed on peasants by owners of large coffee-producing estates as well as disputes over property rights led to a process of peasant and indige- nous organizing around labor demands and broader polit- ical concerns. This process first took hold in the rural areas of southern Tolima, a department in central Colombia. It soon spread to ViotA, in the heart of the cof- fee-producing Cundinamarca department, and then to the rest of that region. These organizing efforts were met with brutal army repression, setting the stage for the emergence of armed self-defense strategies within the peasant movement by the end of the 1940s. Such self- defense strategies sought to protect peasant interests and prevent external forces from disrupting social and eco- nomic life. In the ten-year period known as La Violencia, which began in 1948 with the assassination of populist leader Jorge E. Gaitin and quickly enveloped the Colombian countryside, strategies of peasant resistance were strongly influenced by socialist and communist ideas. Peasant self-defense and guerrilla groups became the central focus of the Colombian Communist Peasants who Party (PC) during this were violently period, particularly as a result of the dismantling expelled from of the workers' move- ment and the proscription their lands settled of the PC. "At that into new juncture," in the words of Colombian sociologist communities with Eduardo Pizarro, "the the assistance of the Communist Party. These settlements later became bastions of support for the FARC. peasantry showed stronger revolutionary resolve than the working class." 3 From that moment on, peasant resistance combined self-defense strategies with guerrilla warfare. Over time, this dual strategy created an accu- mulation of historical experience which led to an important strategic shift-armed struggle became part of a broader political strategy to capture state power. It was in this context that the FARC emerged in 1964. Between the years of La Violencia and the forma- tion of the FARC, government attacks on peasant self- defense organizations as well as the violent removal of peasants from certain rural areas prompted a massive process of internal migration. Displaced peasants, driven by the promise of land and an escape from the violence, travelled upriver into the jungle, where they resettled in isolated and less productive areas in the foothills of the Amazon regions of Caquetd, Guaviare, Meta and Putumayo. Others resettled in the plains regions just north of Meta like Sumapaz in Cundinamarca. Those who were fleeing state violence travelled in large groups protected by armed self-defense units, a process known as "armed colonization." The new settle- VOL XXXI, No 5 MARCH/APRIL 1998 23REPORT ON CHIAPAS & COLOMBIA ments would become the most Table 1: Recent important rural zones of influence for the Communist Party, which Type of Action was instrumental in the migration process. The PC was in many ways Attack on a military b responsible for transforming these to protect Ecopetrol new settlements into cohesive Ambush in Perres (Na communities. These areas later Attack on Las Delicias became bastions of support for the (Putumayo) armed insurgency, and historical sites of legitimacy for the FARC. Attack on La Carpa M The consolidation of the (Guaviare) Colombian state-achieved Assault on a mobile b through the creation of a radically San Juanito (Meta) exclusionary political system con- Assault on army patrol trolled by the Liberal and Conservative parties-also con- Attack on transport h tributed to the strengthening of the Attack on river convo armed opposition. The political River (Caquet6) hegemony established by the two Attack on Patascoy M traditional parties resulted in the proscription of the popular move- Total ment and of all forms of dissent Sour and legal opposition. This alliance, known as the National Front, formally existed between 1958 and 1974, but the Liberal and Conservative parties continue to dominate the political landscape today. Until the promulgation of a new Constitution in 1991, these two parties ruled under a permanent state of siege in order to control rebellion, social protest and political opposition. A series of other factors also contributed to the emer- gence of guerrilla activity. The dramatic urbanization of the 1960s and 1970s contributed to the emergence of a middle class, but all avenues of political participation outside the traditional parties were closed for these groups. As a result, a number of guerrilla groups soon emerged, including the National Liberation Army (ELN) which was formed in 1964, the Popular Liberation Army (EPL), formed in 1964-1965, and the April 19th Movement (M-19), formed in 1973. There were also several small urban militias that captured the attention of young activists at that time. By dismantling the possibil- ities for the existence of a democratic left, the state cre- ated conditions for the emergence of an opposition that was almost entirely extraparliamentary in nature. 4 y the late 1970s, the FARC's military presence was marginal, with only nine fronts and great dis- parities within its organization in different parts of the country. The group had five fronts in the south (in the departments of CaquetA, Putumayo, Huila, Cauca and Tolima), two in central Colombia (in the Magdalena Medio region and the department of Santander) and one Guerrilla Attacks in Colombia Soldiers killed Prisoners taken Date ase assigned 22 0 7/15/94 riio) 35 0 4115/96 Military Base 29 60 8/31/96 ilitary Base 18 0 914/96 rigade in 18 0 2/11/97 l in Jurado (Choc6) 8 10 1/16/97 elicopter in Arauca 241 0 6/7/97 y on the Orteguaza 9 0 6/29/97 ilitary Base (Narifo) 11 18 12/21/97 - : ~i ~~~- ~ ~ ------ ~ -- - -- ~B~------- ------- :i - - -- 174 88 "ce: Elaborated by the author based on statistics provided by CINER in the north (on the border between Antioquia and C6rdoba). 5 But in the early 1980s, the FARC grew rapidly as a result of a government crackdown on the legal oppo- sition. The FARC's strategy prior to this had been pre- dominantly a political one. The organization had articulated the seizure of power as its principal goal, but it was not until this period of renewed growth that the FARC began to see itself as the military vanguard of the revolutionary process. During this period, the FARC acquired the organizational structure of an army and strengthened its strategic autonomy from the Communist Party. By 1983, it had expanded its activities to 18 fronts. This process of growth, however, was marked by a persistent tension between political considerations and military exigencies. Such tensions were at the heart of the peace process initiated in January 1983, when the government of Belisario Betancur (1982-1986) and the Military High Command of the FARC jointly declared a cease-fire, paving the way for the accords of La Uribe, which were signed 14 months later. By incorporating some of the FARC's socio-economic demands and extending the cease-fire, the accords opened the possi- bility of a political resolution to the conflict. Betancur's position was a radical departure from that of his prede- cessors, for he recognized that guerrilla violence was the product of real social conditions and he understood the relationship between those conditions and the demands of the insurgents. In the context of the negotiations, the FARC formed the Patriotic Union (UP), a political front in which the Communist Party played a substantial role. 24 NACIA REPORT ON THE AMERICASREPORT ON CHIAPAS & COLOMBIA The UP sought to establish its presence in national poli- tics by taking part in elections at the local, regional and national levels. During the Betancur period, the FARC fully embraced the possibility of a political solution to the conflict, but it did not dismantle its military capabilities. Betancur's initiatives were met with serious opposi- tion. The Congress adamantly rejected the reforms pro- posed in the accords. According to historian Jacobo Arenas, "Legislators from the parties in power who rep- resented the interests of the oligarchy opposed the reforms and-as was to be expected-looked for sup- port from the military." 6 The newly elected government of Virgilio Barco (1986-1990), moreover, quickly reversed Betancur's initiatives, reinstating policies which framed the insurgency as a perverse and isolated distor- tion of Colombian politics. Betancur's recognition of the structural causes of the violence was withdrawn as was the official recognition of the guerrillas as a legitimate political actor. Once again, the state's discourse reduced the guerrillas to a symptom of dysfunctions at the local- level. In this context, the state unleashed a dirty war, primarily against the Patriotic Union. During 1988 alone, close to 200 leaders of the Patriotic Union were assassinated. A decade later, nearly 3,000 UP members, including mayors, municipal council members and senators have been killed. With this level of violence, it is little wonder that the organization has been virtually exterminated. Four days before C6sar Gaviria (1990-1994) took office, the FARC made a public declaration claiming that the Barco Administration had "damaged a solid peace process initiated by President Belisario Betancur." 7 It also demanded participation in the Constitutional Assembly and a direct and open dialogue with the new administration in the context of a bilateral cease-fire. On the day of the elections for a Constitutional Assembly in December 1990, the armed forces violently occupied Casa Verde, the town where the directorate of the FARC was located-a declaration of war that effectively destroyed all possibilities for peace. Although the gov- ernment and the insurgents had launched a new round of talks in Caracas in mid-1991, there was a marked inten- sification of the military conflict during the second half of that year. The army's offensive against the FARC leadership and the guerrilla's sabo- tage of economic infrastructure resulted in a growing militarization of the conflict. The FARC blamed Gaviria for rejecting a peace- ful solution and for "wasting the great opportunity the country had to make the National Constitutional Assembly the basis for a peace process." 8 ith the Samper Adminstration, the country's political crisis has only intensified. The dramatic deterio- ration of state power, the political and mili- tary resurgence of the guerrilla, and the emergence of the paramilitaries as an armed force with political aspirations have raised serious doubts about the ability of the cur- rent government to resolve the conflict, either politically or militarily. Revelations of Samper's ties to the drug barons and the decertification of Colombia by the United States have further intensified the crisis of his administration. The flagrant violation of human rights, directed primarily against noncombatant civilians, has eroded the legit- imacy of the armed forces. In order to clean up its image, the army has increasingly turned to the paramilitaries to do its dirty work. As a result of this "privatization" of the war against the FARC, the state has lost its monopoly over the use of violence. This VOL XXXI, No 5 MARCH/APRIL 1998 25REPORT ON CHIAPAS & COLOMBIA has further damaged the credibility of both the army and the state. The escalating conflict and the government's dirty war have had immense social costs in terms of lives and property, and have led to a general deterioration of the social fabric. In this context, the FARC has adopted strategies to strengthen its presence at the local level that play upon the weak mechanisms of accountability that exist in local and regional government. For example, by kidnapping or threatening municipal authorities, the group has sought to establish "armed oversight" over the use of municipal funds. The group also engages in elaborate forms of information gathering about the handling of departmental funds. Based on this information, the insur- gents have targeted corrupt politicians in their kidnap- ping and extortion campaigns, though they often utilize public funds to finance their own activities. Local resi- dents support these measures because corruption is wide- spread in municipal and departmental government. But the FARC's strategy of armed oversight does not create avenues for local participation that would allow the peas- ants themselves to exercise such oversight. In these mat- ters, the insurgents simply act on behalf of those they claim to represent. The ongoing crisis of agriculture-the result of the liberalization of the Colombian economy--has also con- tributed to the resurgence of the guerrilla. With the excep- tion of 1995, when the sector's total output grew by 4.4%, the past decade has been characterized by eco- nomic decline, with a negative growth rate of 2.6% in 1996.9 This recession has had a notable impact on rural employment, with the number of jobs decreasing from 2,285,000 in 1990 to 2,127,462 in 1996. Between 1990 and 1992, the poverty rate jumped from 26% to 31%. The FARC has been astute in building support among those sectors hardest hit by the crisis in agriculture. The group has successfully attracted unemployed youth from the poorest areas of the Colombian countryside and espe- cially from the colonization areas, which constitute approximately one-third of the nation's territory and have historically been abandoned by the state. This is partic- ularly the case in communities that produce raw materi- als like coca leaves and poppies, which are used in the production of cocaine and heroin. The taxes imposed on coca growers by the FARC as well as those imposed on laboratories, roads and drug shipments, have become important sources of income for the insurgents. The state's mishandling of this problem has contributed to a situation in which the peasants see the guerrilla as the only safeguard against government aggression and eradication campaigns. In effect, coca and poppy pro- duction have become an alternative to the crisis in rural Colombia. By treating coca and poppy production almost exclusively as an issue of the guerrilla's finances, the state is failing to deal with the socio-economic In coca-growing roots of the problem and regions, peasants is fomenting social polarization. The highly see the FARC militarized tone of as the only Washington and Bogoti's approach to the so-called safeguard against "war on drugs" also feeds into this logic of government polarization and ulti- aggression and mately generates more support for the guerrillas. eradication At the same time, how- ever, the FARC lacks campaigns. specific proposals and has been incapable of implementing alternative development programs in these areas. The group's presence is based largely on a pragmatic alliance in which they collect "taxes" from campesinos in exchange for protection. n contrast to the success of the FARC's ongoing mil- itary activity, its political strategies have been prob- lematic and at times contradictory, thus resulting in more ambivalent outcomes. Its call to boycott last October's local elections is a case in point. The boycott built upon the massive protests of coca growers against eradication programs that erupted in southern Colombia in late 1996. The coca growers' demands were simply ignored by government authorities, generating wide- spread discontent in a region where the FARC's presence was already well established. As a result, the FARC's boycott was much more effective in this region than in other parts of the country. The guerrillas effectively obstructed elections in Caqueti, Guaviare and Putumayo, where mayors were elected with as little as seven votes. Local communities have since organized popular assem- blies to legitimize the rule of those elected under these circumstances, or to choose new leaders. While such grassroots initiatives echo the FARC's call for "popular power," they do so in a way which gives a measure of legitimacy to the very state institutions which the insurgents seek to undermine. The paramilitaries, meanwhile, have been successful in neutralizing previ- ous attempts at the direct exercise of power on the part of campesinos by implementing a brutal dirty war in areas considered "red zones." This campaign was inau- gurated last July with the massacre of some 30 peasants in Mapiripdn, a coca-growing town located in the cen- tral department of Meta, for which Carlos Castafio's United Self-Defense Units claimed responsibility. For the paramilitaries, there is already sufficent reason to NACIA REPORT ON THE AMERICAS 26REPORT ON CHIAPAS & COLOMBIA declare these areas "red zones," and there is a danger that new grassroots political initiatives, regardless of their relationship to the FARC, will only intensify an already brutal dirty war against campesinos and the local-level officials who chose to participate in them. Indeed, recent months have seen an intensification of the dirty war in southern Colombia. Paramilitary strate- gies first implemented in the northern provinces are now being extended into other regions. Reflecting the lethal combination of the so-called "war on drugs" and counterinsurgency, an economic and military blockade has been imposed on the region of Cagudn in Caquetd. While the FARC's recent military operations have been primarily concentrated in the central region of the coun- try, paramilitary forces have been making regular incur- sions into FARC strongholds in the south. They have been active in Solita, Curillo and Valparaiso in Caqueti, and there has been sporadic paramilitary activity in Putumayo. Within this scenario, the prospects for polit- ical initiatives like the FARC's Bolivarian Movement for a New Colombia--a clandestine political front mod- eled along the lines of the Patriotic Union-will remain tied to the context of a deteriorating conflict in which guns and massacres predominate over any prospects for a peaceful solution. As the war in the Colombian Two FARC countryside expands, even small guerrillas sit spaces within which political dia- at a road block logue could take place are rapidly with a young girl in the department disappearing. The armed actors are of CaquetJ in preparing themselves for a larger June 1997. confrontation that will not bring the conflict to an end-despite the opinion of some who believe that the armed forces could defeat the guerrillas if they only had more fire power. But few argue that even a military defeat of the guerrillas would allow the Colombian state to regain its monopoly over the use of force and the administration of justice, much less bring peace to Colombia. The problem goes much deeper. As long as the war is not recognized as an expression of the structural crisis of Colombian society and of the vir- tually nonexistent legitimacy of the Colombian state, it will be impossible to take serious steps toward institu- tional restructuring at both the regional and national level which could in any way provide a framework for a resolution of the conflict. Until this changes, the coun- try will continue to oscillate between justifications for the war and a choreographed dance of peace, all the while ignoring the underlying problems that plague Colombian politics. The FARC, the War and the Crisis of the State 1. Jos6 No6 Rios and Daniel Garcla-Peha, Building Tomorrow's Peace: A Stategy for National Reconciliation, Report by the Peace Exploration Committee (Bogota), September 9, 1997. 2. Alfredo Rangel, "Colombia: La guerra irregular en el fin de siglo," Anblisis Politico, No. 28 (May-August 1996). 3. For an historical account see Eduardo Pizarro, "Los origenes del movimiento armado comunista en Colombia," Anblisis Politico, No. 7 (May-August 1989). 4. Eduardo Pizarro, "Los origenes del movimiento armado," p. 24. 5. See Eduardo Pizarro, "La insurgencia armada: ralces y perspecti- vas," in Gonzalo Sanchez and Ricardo Peharanda, eds., Pasado y presente de la violencia en Colombia (Bogota: CEREC, 1991). 6. Jacobo Arenas, Las vicisitudes del proceso de paz (Bogota: Editorial Oveja Negra, 1990), p. 23. 7. El Tiempo (Bogota), August 3, 1990. 8. William Ramirez, "Las nuevas ceremonias de la paz," in Gonzalo SAnchez and Ricardo Peharanda, eds., Pasado y pre- sente de la violencia en Colombia (Bogota: CEREC, 1991), p. 463; and Mauricio Garcia, "Tranc6n en Caracas," Cien Dias, Vol. 4, No. 16 (October-December 1991). 9. Coyuntura Colombiana, Vol. 4, No. 1 (1997).

Tags: Colombia, FARC, civil war, guerrillas, politics

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