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June 10th, 2008
An Honest Citizen
Colombia's Civil Warriors: FARC Guerillas

The FARC has its origins in the small peasant groups that sought agrarian reform during the 1920s and 30s. Later, during La Violencia, the country’s civil war of 1948-58, peasants attempted to acquire previously uncolonized land by resettling and declaring “independent republics.” The most prominent of these republics was Marquetalia, which FARC claims was led by Pedro Antonio Marín, (better known today by his nom de guerre, Manuel Marulanda Vélez) who came to lead the armed group and, at an age well beyond 70, still leads it to this day.

In the years after La Violencia, conflict with the army gradually brought these newly settled areas under government control and into the hands of large landowners, pushing the peasants further into the jungle. They became more organized and militarized in the mid-1960s; issued an agrarian reform program in 1964; and, in 1966, officially become the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), or FARC. In the following decades, the FARC grew in size and capacity, extracting “war taxes” from the regions under its control and establishing its own schools, healthcare and other services of a parallel state.

The Urban Left

While the FARC has been, since its inception, largely composed of rural peasant recruits, other Colombian guerilla groups have been formed and led largely by urban intellectuals, inspired by international communist and other revolutionary movements.

The ELN: Ejército de Liberacíon Nacional / Army for National Liberation

The ELN was formed in the mid-1960s by university students returning from Cuba, schooled in Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s theories and techniques of rural guerilla insurrection. It is the second largest guerrilla group in Colombia, numbering roughly 3,500 and operating mostly in the central and northern regions of the country. Particularly after Cuban and Soviet aid declined in the late-1980s, the ELN came to rely on kidnapping and extortion for its income, avoiding ties to the drug trade due to the group’s strong Catholic influence. By the 1980s and 90s, the ELN became known for its attacks on the energy industry, and in particular sabotage of oil pipeline and electricity infrastructure. All told, it has cost the state-owned oil company, Ecopetrol, some $1.5 billion. For decades, other guerrilla groups opposed this tactic, but the FARC began oil pipeline attacks in the late 1990s. The ELN has recently re-committed to peace talks with the Colombian government, but has not yet begun them.

M-19: Movimiento 19 de Abril / April 19 Movement

Toward the end of the years of the National Front, an opposition candidate was narrowly defeated in an election that many felt was fraudulent. In response, more radical members and supports of the losing candidate formed the M-19 guerrilla movement, named for the day of the election in 1970. This group was known for its raids and occupations, particularly of prominent national buildings such as the Dominican Embassy in Bogotá and the Palace of Justice, the latter of which resulted in the deaths of 11 Supreme Court Justices. In 1989, the group agreed to demilitarize in exchange for a full governmental pardon. Former M-19 members formed a political party called the Democratic Alliance M-19.


Initially the guerilla group collaborated with narco-traffickers, but this cooperation eroded as the increasingly wealthy drug lords purchased massive estates, which infringed on the territory occupied by the peasant farmers the FARC claimed as their primary constituents. The traffickers became targets of FARC kidnappings, and in response hired their own militias. As the conflict evolved, these militias joined with existing right-wing militias and eventually grew into the paramilitary groups that would become the FARC’s fearsome enemy.

In 1984, under terms of a ceasefire with the government, the FARC formed the Union Patriótica (UP), its political wing led by Manuel Marulanda’s longtime friend and FARC second-in-command, Jacobo Arenas. But this route to legitimate political participation would be cut off by a “dirty war” waged by paramilitaries who assassinated thousands of UP members, including two UP presidential candidates.

Following the death of Arenas in 1990, the FARC placed an even greater emphasis on revenues from cocaine cultivation and expanded its political philosophy to include the legalization of the drug as a means for the country to profit from America’s habit. With this revenue, by the mid-to-late 1990s the FARC had greatly improved its fighting forces and weapons and had begun seeing significant successes against the Colombian government and military. These successes have come, in part, through brutal techniques that rival those of their paramilitary opponents, such as conscription of local residents, and sometimes torture and extrajudicial executions.

As the FARC advanced, President Andrés Pastrana sought a cease-fire by offering a territory roughly the size of Switzerland to the guerilla group, to serve as a semi-autonomous zone in its stronghold in the south of Colombia. Yet the FARC complained of military and paramilitary attacks in its areas, and it continued to commit violent acts and kidnappings, culminating in the abduction of several prominent politicians in 2001, including a presidential candidate, Ingrid Betancourt. Peace talks were finally abandoned by the Colombian government in February 2002, as the FARC — who accused the government of failing to rein in paramilitary attacks on their territories — stepped up its bombing, kidnapping, and terror campaign, culminating in the hijacking of a civilian airliner on February 20th.

The FARC consists of between 15,000 and 20,000 recruits, mostly young peasants, both men and women. According to military analysts, it has become one of the richest insurgent groups in the world, relying upon approximately 250 to 300 million dollars annually, mostly obtained through “taxes” on every stage of the cocaine and heroin trades. Abduction and ransom is also a preferred tactic, and although the group was once known as being discerning in its targets, recent reports are that it has become much more indiscriminate, taking victims from all classes and backgrounds.

Álvaro Uribe Vélez was elected in 2002 on a mandate to bring the FARC, the drug trade, and the Colombian conflict generally, under control. With substantial support from the United States in the form of aid and military assistance, the Uribe government’s crackdown may be showing significant disruptions of guerilla activities. Government officials claim that rates of murder, kidnapping, internal displacement of peasants, and acts of sabotage, particularly against oil infrastructure, are dramatically down. However, government actions have brought criticism from many who claim that cooperation with paramilitary death squads has led to massacres, imprisonment, and intimidation of people who have no connection to the guerilla groups.

Other important recent developments include the arrest of Ricardo Palmera, a leading FARC figure, in January 2004. In August 2004, President Uribe offered to negotiate with FARC members over an exchange between hostages and jailed rebel insurgents. Since then, the Colombian government has been negotiating with the FARC leaders over where, when, and how talks between them should proceed, with each side presenting strict demands. On July 27, 2005, Colombian government officials offered to meet unconditionally with the FARC rebels to discuss the prisoner swap — at a time and place of their choosing. The FARC rejected the meeting, insisting the government grant a safe haven for the talks to be held.

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