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.
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.