Possible Scenarios for the FARC’s Fragmentation

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There are three possible scenarios for the fragmentation and/or criminalization of the FARC. The first could occur during peace talks, the second once an agreement is reached, and the last once the group has demobilized and elements of the rebels stay in, or return to, the field, continuing with the same illicit activities in which the FARC currently engage.

There are those who argue that the FARC are already divided, and that elements have already criminalized. Military intelligence believes that of the 67-odd fronts of the rebel movement, only 15 still strictly follow the orders of the Secretariat.1 There may be some truth in this, although it does not mean that the other fronts have broken away from the FARC, but rather that their contact with the Secretariat is sporadic.

There are certainly many remote fronts that have not seen a member of the Secretariat for over a decade. Command and control has been greatly weakened since the end of the safe haven in February 2002 and the launching of the government’s Democratic Security Policy. The guerrillas have broken down into small units known as Tactical Combat Units (Unidades Tacticas de Combate), sometimes with as few as four fighters in each. Even in a conventional army, maintaining discipline with such small and disperse units, and such a decentralized command, would be a challenge. The inability of the FARC to concentrate in any one place for even a small period of time for fear of aerial bombardment has affected all aspects of command and control. The rebels were unable to physically gather together for their Ninth Conference in 2006, and it apparently had to be carried out virtually, using emails.2 These conferences are extremely important events for the FARC, as they are when appointments to the Central General Staff are made and replacement figures for the Secretariat designated. It is during these meetings that FARC doctrine and strategy are set out.

Levels of desertion also reveal a rebel army in crisis. The worst year for the FARC, in every sense, was 2008. During that year almost 3,500 guerrillas deserted, taking with them a treasure trove of intelligence on the organization for the intelligence services to pick through. Since 2008, desertion levels have fallen significantly, with around 1,000 cases reported in 2012.3 One of the ways the FARC have reduced the number of desertions is to pay more attention to their recruitment, falling back on their traditional areas of influence, and recruiting people from communities, or families, with close guerrilla ties.

The two-month unilateral ceasefire declared by the FARC from November 2012 to January 2013 suggests that there is still discipline, along with basic command and control of the fighters. Even the harshest critics of the ceasefire cannot deny that hostile actions by the FARC fell by more than 80 percent over the two months. The ceasefire showed that none of the seven FARC blocs or fighting divisions were openly opposed to talks and, with a few exceptions, the ceasefire was respected across the country. The department with the most violations of the ceasefire was Cauca (at least 11 major violations). This should come as no surprise. Cauca has seen the highest level of conflict over the last year, with the powerful 6th Front and the Jacobo Arenas Mobile Column carrying out sustained operations to counter the increasing deployment of Colombian security forces. Most of the “violations,” then, could be seen as defensive actions by the FARC, who were reacting to army operations. Indeed, the 6th Front released a communiqué stating that they were respecting the ceasefire, but that the army had launched “a massive military operation” against them.4

Perhaps the most worrying violations took place in Antioquia, home to the Northwestern Bloc, or Ivan Rios Bloc, where five major violations were registered during the ceasefire. Here, just two days into the truce, the 36th Front blew up two electricity pylons in a direct violation of the ceasefire, which pledged to halt attacks on infrastructure. The 36th Front later issued a communiqué admitting responsibility for the attack, but claiming that the ceasefire order had not reached the unit which carried out the action.5 Either the 36th Front was sending a message to the FARC high command (see InSight Crime’s case study of the Ivan Rios Bloc for more details on this), or communication between FARC units in the region is extremely poor. The possibility that they had not received the order seems unlikely, as the ceasefire had been announced well before it was put into effect.

A second violation by the same bloc occurred in December 2012, when elements of the 34th Front attacked the municipal police station in Murindo, Antioquia. Some reports received by InSight Crime suggest that the attack was a distraction intended to allow a drug shipment to move through Choco. Whatever the motivation, it was a direct and unprovoked violation of the ceasefire.

While there are varying tendencies and philosophies within the FARC, the command structure, organization and unified leadership of the movement has been one of its greatest strengths, and has allowed it to survive 49 years with no major divisions.

At the heart of the FARC are two structures. The Central General Staff (Estado Mayor Central), which has around 30 members, and the seven-man ruling body, the Secretariat. Even in the darkest days of the FARC, in 2008, when the movement’s founder, commander-in-chief and Secretariat member, Pedro Antonio Marin, alias “Manuel Marulanda,” died and two other Secretariat members were killed (Luis Edgar Devia Silva, alias “Raul Reyes” and Jose Juvenal Velandia, alias “Ivan Rios”), there was no interruption in the leadership or operations of the FARC. The fallen Secretariat members were quickly replaced.

The chain of command within the FARC is very strong and clearly delineated. Not only are there clearly defined command positions at every level, with detailed responsibilities, there are also designated replacements. It is this structure that has maintained discipline within the rebel army and prevented any notable fragmentation.

However, as with any large organization, there are internal divisions. One of the principal fractures has historically been between the military side of the organization and the political one. Initially, when the FARC was founded, these two sides were represented by Manuel Marulanda, as the military head, and Luis Alberto Morantes, alias “Jacobo Arenas,” as the political ideologue. However after the death, through cancer, of Jacobo Arenas in 1990, and the decimation of the FARC political party, the Patriotic Union (Union Patriotica), the military side of the organization came to dominate. Jacobo Arenas’ successor as the lead political ideologue of the FARC was Guillermo Leon Saenz Vargas, alias “Alfonso Cano”. He took over as commander-in-chief of the FARC after the death of Manuel Marulanda in 2008 and began instituting radical changes within the organization, renewing emphasis on political work and building up militias.

Cano also sought to address another of the fault lines within the FARC: the tension between its rural peasant base and the more intellectual urban guerrillas. The latter represent the potential future of the struggle, which may lie in the urban centers where the majority of the Colombian population resides. The urban element now dominates the upper echelons of the FARC, with almost the entire Secretariat made up of educated and more urban leaders. It is also worth noting that there are different political tendencies in the FARC. There are the diehard Marxist-Leninists, who still believe in a Soviet-style communist regime, and, at the other end of the spectrum, the “Bolivarian” socialists, who see the regime of former President Hugo Chavez as a more realistic form of government.6

None of these divisions have ever been publicly exposed by senior members of the FARC. Using the Central General Staff, conferences and lively internal debate, the seven-man ruling body has always managed to avoid any major schisms, and that seems to still be the case today.

However, the FARC are certainly hurting at the moment in their command and control structure. They want the opportunity to re-establish contact with the more disconnected fronts, rotate commanders, get a grip on finances, and inform and sound out all the disparate units of the movement on their attitude to talks and any possible agreement.

These needs are driving the most pressing and constant demand of the FARC in Havana: a bilateral ceasefire.

Scenario 1: Fragmentation during Peace Talks

Some argue that the government is not actually talking to the entire FARC, but rather to certain elements, citing, among other things, the profile of the negotiators in Havana. Those representing the FARC are certainly not representative of the entire rebel army. Indeed, looking solely at the members of the negotiating team in Cuba, there is little to inspire confidence, especially compared to the guerrilla negotiators in 1999. The team in Havana is an overwhelmingly political one and, apart from chief negotiator Luciano Marin Arango, alias “Ivan Marquez,” there are no military commanders or leaders who have any serious credibility with the fighting rank and file. The FARC tried to address this, in part, by sending Jorge Torres Victoria, alias “Pablo Catatumbo”, the head of the Joint Western Command, or Alfonso Cano Bloc, to Havana in April.

Observers such as former FARC hostage Sigifredo Lopez have interpreted the absence of representatives of the powerful Eastern and Southern Blocs at the negotiating table as evidence that these fighting divisions do not support the peace process. Lopez has stated that the government is in reality only negotiating with about 30 percent of the FARC.

There may be other explanations for the current composition of the FARC negotiating team in Havana. During the failed peace process conducted by then-president Andres Pastrana between 1999 and 2002, the negotiators were military commanders from the Eastern and Southern Blocs. However, little progress was made, and much of the drawing up of the agenda and the fine details were actually handled by some of the more politically astute members of the FARC. It may well have been determined that the current negotiations, mainly political and economic in nature, are better suited to the more highly educated, political wing of the FARC. As chief negotiator and head of the FARC’s International Front, Ivan Marquez has brought with him people he knows and trusts to handle the negotiations.

With the FARC’s military losses over the last decade, particularly of middle-ranking commanders, the organization needs its veteran leaders in the field, to keep up morale and discipline and to coordinate the guerrillas’ much-reduced operational and military capacity. The top military leadership cannot be spared at such a crucial moment. They are needed to maintain the military pressure that is, and will continue to be, a crucial part of the negotiations for the rebels.

It could also be that the FARC are not really negotiating in earnest, and therefore do not need their heaviest hitters sitting in Havana. Historically the FARC have used peace negotiations and ceasefires to build up their military strength, organize their finances, and plan the next phase of their struggle to overthrow the state.

The FARC have taken the allegations of internal divisions seriously enough to issue a denial. FARC commander-in-chief “Timochenko” (real name Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri) released a statement in January this year denying any such divisions existed.

“There are no divisions, or anything that even looks like that”, Timochenko told the Communist Party newspaper “Voz”.7

There is a precedent for a Colombian rebel group fragmenting during peace negotiations: that of the Popular Liberation Army (Ejercito Popular de Liberacion – EPL). Most of this group demobilized in 1991, but a faction refused to enter talks and is active to this day, even requesting a seat at the current peace talks in Havana. This EPL faction was historically led by Francisco Caraballo, who argued that the revolutionary war could never be abandoned.8 (See “The EPL and Megateo: the Future of the FARC?” for further details).

There is no hard evidence of a division within the FARC at this point in the negotiations, and the risk of any significant elements breaking off is small. However, the FARC does need to get information down to its units on the ground, as field investigation suggests that many fronts are uninformed of what is happening in Havana and that this is generating uncertainty. Many local commanders, uncertain of what may happen in the future, are beginning to look out for their own interests, building up personal war chests and hoarding cash. Should this tendency increase, the risk of fragmentation and criminalization will increase as well.

Scenario 2: Fragmentation after a Peace Agreement is Signed

In this scenario, a peace agreement is reached with the FARC leadership and most of its membership. There is, however, a risk that some of the more remote fronts, which perhaps have not been consulted about the details of the agreement, or whose particular interests have not been addressed, will decide to continue the armed struggle. They might set themselves up as a “Real FARC,” reminiscent of the dissident factions of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) – the Real and Continuity IRA – who continued their violent struggle in Northern Ireland after the Provisional IRA signed the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

The FARC still think of themselves as a principally military organization. Giving up fighting will be a very tough proposition for many. Indeed, FARC founder Marulanda told writer Arturo Alape that “a guerrilla group that does not fight has lost the reason for its existence”.9 Many FARC members live to fight. Unless one of the members of the Secretariat decides not to adhere to the agreement, it is likely that this sort of fragmentation would occur only with some of the more “disconnected” guerrilla units. The FARC are smart enough not to leave their more powerful and moneymaking fronts in the hands of commanders they cannot trust. Indeed there are cases of commanders of key fronts being removed, and even submitted to revolutionary justice and shot, after failing to obey orders or pay their dues to the Secretariat.

One such case may have involved Noe Suarez Rojas, alias “Grannobles,” who once commanded a powerful Interfrente, or mini-bloc, (10th, 45th, 28th and 38th Fronts, along with the Alfonso Castellanos Mobile Column) in Arauca. He had previously been sanctioned in 1999 by the FARC high command for killing three US indigenous rights activists. He was protected from harsher punishment by his brother, Victor Julio Suarez Rojas, alias “Mono Jojoy,” the head of the FARC’s most powerful fighting division, the Eastern Bloc. Mono Jojoy was killed in an aerial bombardment in September 2010. Upon his death, Grannobles was summoned from his lair in Venezuela in 2011, amid accusations that he was not delivering money to the Secretariat, was not leading the rebels in combat, and was living the high life in Venezuela.10 There have been reports that he was tried in one of the FARC’s “revolutionary tribunals” and executed in January 2012.11

If there is any significant opposition to a peace agreement, it is likely that Timochenko and the FARC Secretariat would refuse to sign, rather than allowing the FARC to break apart. The importance of the unity of command is such that it is unlikely that the guerrillas will even get to the point of signing an agreement unless they have the entire Secretariat and the vast majority of the Central General Staff on board.

Scenario 3: Elements of the FARC Return to their Criminal Activities after Demobilization is Complete

This is a strong possibility with a recent precedent in the AUC. The paramilitary army demobilized over 30,000 members, but the AUC went on to spawn over 30 new criminal structures that the government labelled the “BACRIM.” Many of the BACRIM, with the exception of the Rastrojos, whose roots lay in the Norte del Valle Cartel, were formed by middle-ranking paramilitary commanders, most with close ties to the areas in which they operated. These commanders had run, or been involved in, criminal activities for the AUC, and following demobilization, went into business for themselves.

When one studies the geography of the FARC, its numbers and its criminal activities, it becomes clear that the chance of some elements of the movement going into business for themselves is quite high. This would be one of the most difficult challenges the FARC would face in the post-demobilization period, assuming the movement sought to stay together and transform into a political force. Maintaining control of up to 8,000 fighters and 30,000 militia members, many used to handling large quantities of cash, with very few skills that are marketable in the legal sense, will be extremely difficult.

There is another unpromising precedent seen in the case of the AUC, regarding the demobilization legislation of the Peace and Justice Law. Even now, six years after the AUC formally demobilized, only a handful of cases have been processed by the Attorney General’s Office. The low credibility of the justice system reduces chances that it could handle the legal side of any FARC demobilization. This in itself may drive many back into the struggle, or back towards the criminal activities they once engaged in.

Another unhappy precedent is that of the Patriotic Union. The establishment of this party in the 1980s was the FARC’s one and only incursion into mainstream politics. Two presidential candidates, eight congressman, and dozens of local deputies and mayors were murdered, along with as many as 3,000 members of the political party. Should the government prove unable to protect any current members of the FARC who enter politics at a local or national level, this could prompt many to take up arms once again. The continued killings of trade union members and those pushing for land restitution have shown that there are still elements that could derail the peace process by assassinating FARC members who come out of hiding. It would be difficult to overestimate the impact that the decimation of the Patriotic Union has had on the FARC psyche.


  1. El Colombiano, “Una muy afilada Espada de Honor”, 6 January 2012. Available at: https://www.elcolombiano.com/BancoConocimiento/U/una_muy_afilada_espada_de_honor/una_muy_afilada_espada_de_honor.asp?CodSeccion=211
  2. Carlos Medina Gallego, “FARC-EP 1958-2008 – Notas para una historia política”, Universidad Nacional de Bogota, 2009, p 342.
  3. Colombian Defence Ministry, “Logros de la Política Integral de Defensa y Seguridad para la Prosperidad”, February 2013. Available at: https://www.mindefensa.gov.co/irj/portal/Mindefensa
  4. FARC-EP, “Declaración del Sexto Frente de las FARC-EP”, 19 December 2012. Available at: https://farc-ep.co/?p=2011
  5. El Tiempo, “Frente de Farc que voló torres dice que ‘no sabía del cese del fuego'”, 25 November 2012. Available at: https://www.eltiempo.com/politica/frente-de-farc-que-volo-torres-dice-que-no-sabia-del-cese-del-fuego_12399831-4
  6. Interview with member of the FARC’s Bolivarian Movement, Bogota, February 12, 2013.
  7. EFE, “Jefe máximo de las FARC desmiente que haya divisiones internas por la paz”, 13 January 13 2013. Available at: https://www.americaeconomia.com/politica-sociedad/politica/jefe-maximo-de-las-farc-desmiente-que-haya-divisiones-internas-por-la-paz
  8. A. Villarraga and N. Plazas, Para Reconstruir los Sueños, Progresar, Bogotá, 1994, p 216.
  9. A. Alape, Tirofijo: los sueños y las montañas, Planeta, Bogotá, 1994, p 159.
  10. InSight Crime interviews in Arauca (Colombia) and Venezuela, June 2011.
  11. Nuevo Arco Iris, “El fin de ‘Grannobles'”, 3 September 2012. Available at: https://www.arcoiris.com.co/2012/09/el-fin-de-grannobles/
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