As the biggest irregular army in Colombia, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) have long operated in various regions of the country in search of resources to fund their insurgency. They agreed to end their 52-year war against the government in August 2016, as part of a peace process that began in 2012.
The FARC are the oldest and most important guerrilla group in the Western Hemisphere. They have long financed their political and military battle against the Colombian government through kidnapping, extortion and participating in the drug trade on various levels.
In spite of a concerted effort by the Colombian government, with over $10 billion in US assistance over the past 15 years, the rebel group still operated in a large proportion of Colombia’s 32 departments and is currently estimated to have approximately 8,000 guerrillas in its ranks. Over the decades, the FARC have frequently adapted their tactics in order to survive, from their 1982 decision to begin taxing coca growers and cocaine laboratories, to their failed attempt at establishing a political party, the Patriotic Union (Union Patriótica – UP), in 1984. Following the military defeats suffered during Álvaro Uribe’s presidency (2002-2010), and the 2008 death of the FARC’s longtime spiritual and military commander, Pedro Antonio Marín, alias “Manuel Marulanda, the rebel group has focused less on controlling territory and more on guerrilla warfare tactics combined with building up its urban networks and increasing its political outreach.
The FARC’s roots can be traced back to the outbreaks of violence that afflicted rural Colombia following the assassination of the populist leader of the Liberal Party, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, in Bogotá on April 9, 1948. The assassination touched off a sectarian struggle, first in Bogota and later in the countryside, which started out as a battle between the country’s two chief parties, the Liberals and Conservatives. Entire villages were targeted for their political affiliations, among them the village of Ceilán, in the Valle del Cauca department, where the Liberal Party recruited young men like Manuel Marulanda, then known by the alias “Tirofijo,” to fight off the Conservative paramilitary onslaught. The violence between the Liberal and Conservative parties, which became known as “La Violencia,” would leave close to 200,000 dead during the following 15 years. Hundreds of thousands more fled their hometowns for larger cities or more remote rural areas.
Among those who fled was a small faction under the control of the Communist Party of Colombia (Partido Comunista de Colombia). These colonists survived during their marches by organizing militias, or what were known as “self-defense” units (autodefensas). The Communist Party “autodefensas” were part of a larger Colombian communist strategy of “combining all forms of struggle,” which also included developing unions and student organizations and vying for political posts. The organization’s unity and strategy attracted some members of the Liberal Party’s militias, among them Manuel Marulanda, who joined the party some time in the 1950s. The Communist Party’s rural factions were tiny but represented an ideological threat to the government, which launched an offensive against their stronghold, the village of Marquetalia, Tolima, in 1964. The offensive cleared the rebels out but provided the spark for the party to formalize its armed group: the Southern Tolima Bloc (Bloque Sur de Tolima).
Principal Criminal Groups
The rebel group adopted the name Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia in 1966, and began a slow, steady rise. The growth of the illegal drug market helped. In the mid-1970s, the guerrillas changed their bylaws and began collecting taxes from the numerous marijuana growers in the south of the country. They later expanded that mandate to include coca leaf plantations. During the same period the FARC began kidnapping en masse and extorting large and small businesses. In the early 1980s, the FARC began taxing cocaine laboratories that operated in their areas of influence.
The new revenue streams meant better equipment and more troops, but they came with a very high cost. Large cocaine traffickers began balking at the “taxes;” they also bought land and began to exert influence on local politics. When leftist rebels from another guerrilla faction kidnapped the daughter of a large drug trafficking organization, several traffickers organized a paramilitary organization, Death to Kidnappers (Muerte a Secuestradores – MAS). There was also fighting between drug traffickers and the FARC over the rebels’ alleged theft of a large stash of cash in the Eastern Plains. Farmers, businessmen and small shop owners began to turn on the rebels because of their excessive extortion and kidnapping.
In 1984, the FARC tried another tactic and launched a political party while negotiating a peace settlement with the government. The Patriotic Union (Union Patriótica – UP) was small but gained momentum as the country shifted to greater local government control of funds and projects. In its first elections in 1986, the UP won several seats in Congress and its presidential candidate garnered over 300,000 votes, a record for a leftist candidate. In the country’s first municipal elections in 1988, the party won 16 mayoral campaigns and another 247 city council posts. The reaction from those who opposed the party was swift. Paramilitary groups and drug traffickers, at times working closely with the Colombian government, assassinated UP members en masse. Over 3,000 were killed in a six-year period, and the FARC returned to the mountains, where they continued their meteoric rise.
The guerrillas’ growth during this period caused concern, and many questioned the FARC’s intentions regarding the UP, wondering whether the rebels had used the party as a means to strengthen themselves militarily even while they negotiated for peace and talked about turning in their weapons. Between 1984 and 1988, the period during which the UP was the strongest, the FARC doubled the size of their forces. This growth was due to many factors, among them the attacks on the UP, which pushed many to give up on the democratic process, as well as the FARC’s strategy, which drew from the Communist Party’s idea of “combining all forms of struggle.”
This expansion continued apace in the 1990s. After the government launched an aerial assault on the guerrillas’ headquarters in 1991, the FARC began spreading their forces throughout the countryside and developed their offensive tactics. In the mid-1990s, the rebels perpetrated a series of spectacular and debilitating assaults on government forces, capturing hundreds of Colombian soldiers and policemen who quickly became bargaining chips in a new round of negotiations with the government. Not long after a prisoner swap between the two sides, the government ceded to the rebels a swath of territory the size of Switzerland in the southern departments of Caquetá and Meta, opening the door to more peace talks.
The talks, however, were in trouble from the start when Tirofijo, who had since taken on the formal nom de guerre of “Manuel Marulanda,” did not appear at the inauguration. The years that followed included some advances but mostly difficulties. The FARC used the territory to regroup, recruit, train and launch attacks on nearby towns. When the army gave chase, the rebels would retreat to the demilitarized zone. The FARC also held kidnapping victims in the region and oversaw large plantations of coca, the raw material used to make cocaine. In what many saw as a sign of the rebels’ real intentions, they built roads and tunnels, as if preparing for the type of prolonged war that Mao Tse-tung had fought in China, or the Vietcong in Vietnam.
Those talks ended in 2002 when the FARC hijacked an airplane and landed it along a highway, taking several passengers captive. Fighting broke out immediately as the government sought to retake the land it had ceded for the negotiations. Shortly thereafter, the guerrillas kidnapped Green Party presidential candidate Íngrid Betancourt and her campaign manager, Clara Rojas. In February 2003, an airplane carrying four US government contractors and a Colombian pilot who were doing surveillance over the FARC-controlled region in the south crashed. Three of the contractors were taken captive.
These events coincided with the 2002 election of President Álvaro Uribe who, unlike his predecessor Andrés Pastrana, had campaigned on a platform of defeating the guerrillas militarily. The FARC greeted him by launching mortars at the presidential palace during the August, 2002 inauguration.
Undeterred, Uribe reinforced the army, strengthened police intelligence, placed security forces in nearly every municipality and created incentive programs for rebels to turn themselves in to the authorities. This effort got a boost from the United States, which had begun an ambitious assistance program in 2000 called “Plan Colombia.” Following the kidnapping of the three contractors, the US intelligence services upped their training, equipment and assistance to the Colombians, accelerating an already fast-track professionalization program.
In 2012, the group entered peace talks with the government of Juan Manuel Santos, and the negotiators announced a bilateral ceasefire deal in June 2016. A final agreement was reached between the two parties in August 2016. The FARC are currently demobilizing in select “concentration zones” across Colombia, after which many will be reintegrated into society while those responsible for grave crimes will serve reduced sentences outside of prisons. The points of the accord include tackling drug trafficking and criminal groups, the participation of the FARC in national politics, land reform and victims’ rights.
Although the FARC have officially withdrawn from their strongholds, not all members complied with the agreement and have instead continued their criminal activities.
The FARC are a complex group with a well-defined structure and line of command. Their organizational structure has evolved throughout the years as a result of a process of adaptation to the main challenges of the internal conflict. Ostensibly hierarchical, the geography and size of Colombia has made it nearly impossible for the central command, known as the Secretariat, to exercise control over the whole organization, which is broken up into fronts. The FARC have a vast support network of logistical experts in bombing, transportation, kidnapping, arms trafficking, food storage, etc., and manages militia groups in the cities. The relative autonomy of the fronts can make them lethal criminal organizations. Indeed, these units, of which there are over 70, have an incentive to thieve, kidnap, extort and plunder, since their growth depends, in part, on how much money they can collect.
On the political front, the FARC are connected to the Communist Party of Colombia. Each rebel unit has a political operative, and each soldier has political as well as military duties. These include paying attention to and analyzing the daily news, and spreading the gospel of the FARC to family and friends. For all intents and purposes, the FARC have broken from the Communist Party and, after their own political project with the UP, failed, they have been running two clandestine structures, the Bolivarian Movement and the Clandestine Communist Party of Colombia.
In recent years, the Colombian government has dealt several major blows to the guerrilla group’s leadership. In September 2007, the Colombian Air Force bombed a FARC camp in the eastern departments of Guaviare, killing the rebel leader Tomás Medina Caracas, alias “Negro Acacio.” In March 2008, the government bombed a FARC camp located near the Putumayo River, a couple of kilometers inside Ecuador, killing Luis Édgar Devia Silva, alias “Raúl Reyes” and several other guerrillas. That same month, Manuel Marulanda died of natural causes.
The new leadership of the FARC, Guillermo León Sáenz Vargas, alias “Alfonso Cano,” and Víctor Julio Suárez, alias “Mono Jojoy,” had been trying to implement a new strategy, but government forces’ constant offensives strangled their attempts. Mono Jojoy was killed in September 2010 and Alfonso Cano in November 2011. Several other FARC leaders have taken refuge in Venezuela and other neighboring states. The FARC‘s maximum leader is currently Rodrigo Londoño Echeverry, alias “Timochenko,” a battle-hardened commander whose ideological views were forged not only in Colombia but also in communist Moscow, Tito’s Yugoslavia and Cuba.
The FARC have a particularly strong presence in the country’s Eastern Plains region near the border with Venezuela and in the southwestern departments of Cauca, Valle del Cauca, and Nariño. The FARC are also present in the western departments of Chocó and Antioquia, among others.
Allies and Enemies
Between 2005 and 2009, the FARC were engaged in a bitter struggle with the smaller guerrilla group National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN). In December 2009, however, guerrilla leaders negotiated a ceasefire and nationwide alliance, and there has since been evidence to suggest the rebel groups have carried out joint attacks and even worked together to extort companies.
Similarly, some FARC fronts also collaborate with criminal groups known as BACRIM (from the Spanish for “criminal bands”) in the drug trade, selling them coca base and cocaine.
In recent years, thousands of guerrillas have voluntarily demobilized, weakening the FARC and building up the state’s intelligence on the rebels. The victory that for many seemed within the FARC’s grasp at the turn of the century receded into the distance.
While the current peace deal has essentially put an end to the FARC’s insurgency, its internal conflict is far from over. The guerrillas’ exit has led to the criminalization of some dissident elements, spawning groups similar to the BACRIM: the criminal organizations that formed following the demobilization of the country’s paramilitary forces.
These guerrilla splinter groups have been clashing violently both between themselves and with other armed actors for control over the lucrative criminal economies that the FARC are leaving behind, such as coca cultivations and illegal mining.
Some of these former FARC fighters are also transferring to the ELN, bringing weapons, resources and criminal economies with them. This could significantly strengthen the country’s second biggest insurgency at a time when it is attempting to forge a peace deal of its own with the Colombian government.