The FARC rebels emerged from decades as minor insurgency into a major threat. But over the last ten years, a Colombian military offensive has beaten them along the war path and forced them to the negotiation table.
For nearly 50 years, a revolutionary movement has been pulsing through the heart of the Colombian Amazon. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army (FARC-EP) has grown from a loose band of peasant militias into an authority capable of challenging the sovereignty of the Colombian Government.
The tale of the FARC has many chapters. In its first two decades, the movement existed as a relatively insignificant group of no more than 1,000 combatants. Over the next two decades, through the production and smuggling of cocaine and later heroin, the organization expanded to a force of about 18,000 strong. In its most recent chapter, the FARC suffered a reversal of fate. A decade long government offensive, in conjunction with US military support, beat back the rebels, which now number fewer than 9,000 soldiers.
The Making of a Revolutionary Movement
The roots of the FARC can be traced back to years of peasant activism led by the Colombian Communist Party (PCC), combined with a horrendously violent period of civil war known as La Violencia (The Violence). Founded in the late-1920s, the PCC began its political movement in the countryside by organizing support for indigenous and peasant land rights throughout the Andean highlands.
A few decades later, from 1948-1959, rural Colombia erupted in violence, as Liberal and Conservative political factions battled each other for control of the country, killing over 300,000 people. Towards the end of the war, the peasants succeeded in establishing several independent republics, which served as havens of refuge from the relentless bloodshed that often pitted members of the same family against each other and introduced forms of torture reminiscent of the middle ages.
Concerned with the anarchic conditions in the countryside from over a decade of protracted violence, the Liberals and Conservatives finally agreed to a cease fire. In the treaty, these rival political factions established a new government known as the National Front and agreed to alternate the presidency between both parties, regardless of election results. The new government functioned as a means of sharing power among elite politicians and excluded alternative voices from the PCC.
In one of its first acts, the National Front sought to wrest control of the countryside from the peasant republics through an extensive campaign of aerial bombing. Furthermore, they instituted an aggressive economic policy to rapidly develop the countryside using an industrial agricultural model. The government auctioned off public lands settled by subsistence farmers who had fled the violence of the previous era, to wealthy landowners and investors promising productive development. Land owners often contracted private militias to remove the peasants. To protect themselves from the private militias, the peasantry formed their own self-defense forces.
The FARC emerged in this process of peasant mobilization and land conflict. Without a legal avenue to lobby for the peasants, these rural activists were forced down a violent path. In 1964, Manuel Marulanda founded the Revolutionary armed forces of Colombia to unite the embattled peasant republics and their defense forces, in their fight against the government and landowners.
The first members of the FARC came from the Colombian Communist Party and radical elements of Liberal Party and subscribed to a Marxist ideology in combination a strong sense of Bolivarianism. This later school of thought reflects the ideas of independence revolutionary Simón Bolívar who preached freedom from authoritarianism and the pursuit of social justice throughout the entire South American continent.
Guerilla Resurgence and the Cocaine Explosion
In its first decade and a half, the FARC existed as marginal guerilla movement, surviving off funds from extortion, bank robberies and random kidnappings. By 1982, its forces totaled no more than 1,000 combatants scattered across 17 fronts.
But a surge in the popularity of cocaine in the US fueled a rapid expansion in the ranks of the FARC. Due to Colombia’s location along the Caribbean coast and climatic conditions perfect for the cultivation of the coca bush, the country served as an ideal center for the production and trafficking of cocaine. Because the FARC based their operation in the countryside, they were in a good place to capitalize on the surge in coca farming among the peasantry. By levying taxes on farmers and cartels, while engaging directly in the production of cocaine for wholesale to traffickers, the FARC vastly increased their assets.
Hundreds of millions of narco-dollars provided the FARC with enough resource to recruit and train and equip a significant guerilla army. By 1989, their forces totaled 7,000 combatants – an increase of 700% in just seven years.
Concurrent with the expansion of the FARC, the Colombian government attempted to transform the guerilla cause into a peaceful political movement. In 1985, these efforts gave rise to a new political party, the Patriotic Union (UP). Upon its debut, the UP succeeded in winning 18 deputy seats in eleven departmental assemblies and 335 positions in local councils, in addition to 4.2% of the vote in the 1986 presidential election. However, progress proved to be short-lived. In its first three years, rightwing vigilantes assassinated some 550 UP members, including four UP congressmen and the 1986 presidential candidate Jaime Pardo Leal. By 1998, 4,000 members of the UP would end up dead.
Lacking confidence in a peaceful solution to their political mission, the FARC intensified their guerilla operations. In the mid-1990s their forces totaled between 15,000 and 20,000 active combatants. To expand, the FARC employed increasingly severe methods, kidnapping high profile targets within the Colombian Government, trafficking heroin and forcibly recruiting children as young as 11-years-old.
From 1996 to 2002, the FARC scored major victories in the struggle against the government. In the late 1990s, their forces overran a significant Colombian military base involved in counternarcotics operations, seized the departmental capital of Mitú, Vaupés and decimate an elite counter-guerilla commando unit.
Alarmed by the violence and lack of government control in the countryside, President Andrés Pastrana attempted to negotiate a peaceful solution to the conflict. However, the talks, which lasted from 1998 to 2002, failed to produce an agreement. After two years of stalemate, the FARC emerged with a clear advantage, winning a 42,000 sq. km demilitarized zone of operations in the heavily forested region of El Caguán. The Colombian Government agreed to suspend all military operations in the territory, with little guarantee of FARC demobilization. This concession allowed the FARC to further consolidate their control over rural Colombia.
The Government Strikes back and the FARC Seek Peace
Upon taking office in 2002, President Alvaro Uribe sought to rid rural Colombia of guerilla control. By increasing defense expenditures to over 4% of GDP and cooperating with US military advisors and equipment, the Colombian Government struck back at the rebels. Over the next eight years, the military killed or captured many key FARC commanders and crippled their base of support. A controversial new policy awarded soldiers a bounty for each rebel they killed in combat, greatly increased casualties suffered throughout the FARC brigades. However, this monetary incentive led to series of “false positive” scandals, in which soldiers assassinated civilians and then dressed them in combat fatigues to pass them off as guerillas.
At the cost of thousands of lives and tens of billions in Colombian taxpayer dollars, the government succeeded in diminishing FARC forces by over half. With a shrinking territory and fewer resources at their disposal, the guerillas finally agreed to restart the peace process.
Unlike the many dialogues of the past, in this most recent negotiation, the FARC have called a unilateral ceasefire, vowing to suspend violent operations until a lasting solution is reached. The third round of talks resumed again on December 5, following October meetings in Oslo and a November summit in Havana. The discussion seeks to resolve the problems of agrarian reform for which the FARC began, in addition to providing the rebels with a legitimate outlet for civilian political participation. Despite a few bumps along the road, both sides have expressed optimism in this most recent round of talks.
While the half-century conflict with the FARC may finally come to a close, several other violent organizations continue to threaten improvements in security throughout Colombia. The National Liberation Army (ELN), another guerilla movement continues to operate with about 1,000 fighters. Moreover, remnants of demobilized paramilitary militias, originally trained to fight the FARC, have become powerful criminal organizations involved in drug trafficking. Unlike the guerillas, the paramilitaries never possessed the same sense of ideological duty. Colombia will have to address these problems and ensure a smooth rehabilitation among the FARC rebels in order to bring lasting peace to sixty years of steady violence.
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