Q+A: Fifty years on, why are Colombia’s FARC rebels still fighting?

by Anastasia Moloney | @anastasiabogota | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 7 May 2014 15:32 GMT

A Colombian police officer walks by a mural that reads "peace will exist without armies" in Toribio, in the southwestern department of Cauca February 6, 2014 REUTERS/Jaime Saldarriaga

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Colombia’s FARC, one of the world’s largest and oldest guerrilla armies, was founded 50 years ago on May 27, 1964

Colombia’s Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), one of the world’s largest and oldest guerrilla armies, was founded 50 years ago on May 27, 1964. 

The following Q+A is part of a series of articles looking at the FARC’s half-century war against the Colombian state and views on the ongoing peace process between the rebels and government in Cuba.

*What is Colombia’s FARC?

BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - What began as an uprising of 48 farmers in the mountainous valley of Marquetalia in Colombia’s central Tolima province grew to become one of the world’s longest-running guerrilla insurgencies.

The peasants of Marquetalia formed the core of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), established as the armed wing of the Communist Party in 1964 under the leadership of Manuel Marulanda to defend the rights of poor and landless farmers.

Inspired by Marxist ideology and the Cuban Revolution, the FARC has fought successive governments in Colombia, blaming them for unequal land redistribution and inequality and for serving the interests of foreign oil and mining companies at the expense of poor Colombians.

With the aim of creating a socialist state, the group briefly flirted with conventional politics, forming a political party, the Patriotic Union (UP), in 1984. But around 3,000 UP members were gunned down by right-wing paramilitaries. The killings convinced the FARC that the only route to power was by a military victory.

Run by a seven-member secretariat, the FARC has a hierarchal structure with military fronts across rural Colombia, concentrated in the country’s southern provinces and jungle border areas. The FARC also controls a network of thousands of informants in urban areas.  

From the 1980s onwards, the FARC turned to cocaine trafficking, and kidnapped politicians, landowners and business leaders for ransom to boost its war coffers and buy arms.

Over the decades, the government has accused the FARC of bombing civilian targets, forcibly recruiting children, killing civilians and attacking oil pipelines and electricity towers.

The FARC is considered a drug-running terrorist organisation by the United States and the European Union. Dozens of arrest warrants have been issued for their senior commanders who face extradition to the U.S. on drug trafficking charges. The FARC denies being a major player in the global drug trade.

A U.S.-backed military offensive and the use of air power since 2002 has weakened the guerrilla group. Rebel numbers have fallen from 20,000 at the height of the FARC’s power in the 1990s to around 7,000 fighters today, according to government estimates.

The FARC’s leader, known by his nom de guerre Timochenko, is thought to be hiding in Venezuela which borders Colombia.

*Why are the FARC and government negotiating peace?

In October 2012, the Colombian government and FARC began their fourth attempt to negotiate an end to 50 years of war.

Closed-door peace talks drag on in Havana, Cuba, centered on a five-point agenda - land reform, FARC’s political participation, disarmament, the drug trade and victims’ rights. There is no ceasefire in place.

President Juan Manuel Santos has staked his political legacy on bringing peace to Colombia, betting that the FARC had been so weakened by the decade-long offensive that its leaders would be ready to negotiate and sign a peace deal.

The FARC’s lead negotiator in Havana is Ivan Marquez, a cigar smoking rebel veteran, who represented the now defunct UP political party in Colombia’s Congress.

The two sides have so far reached two partial agreements on land reform and the FARC’s political participation.

According to recent polls, 63 percent of Colombians were ‘pessimistic’ about the peace process and 74 percent said the FARC should not be allowed to participate in politics and elections.

*Who supports the FARC?

The FARC commands little support among Colombians, especially among those living in the cities. Many believe the FARC has long ceased to be the revolutionary movement and the peoples’ army it claims to be. Many Colombians see the FARC as drug traffickers who are out of touch with society.

The use of terror tactics by the guerrillas, such as bombing civilian targets, seizing towns, and holding hostages captive in jungle camps for up to 12 years, has alienated the majority of Colombians from the FARC’s cause. It has also undermined the FARC’s political legitimacy in Colombia and on the international stage.  

Many Colombians blamed the failure of the previous 1999-2002 peace talks on the FARC, accusing the rebels of using a demilitarised zone granted by the government to regroup and continue drug trafficking.

But in some impoverished FARC strongholds in rural Colombia, where state influence is fragile, the guerrillas’ political discourse and message of ‘peace with social justice’ still resonates.

*Why has the FARC lasted so long?

The FARC has been able to expand and finance its insurgency over the decades from the cocaine trade and ransoms from hostage taking.

Kidnapping has significantly diminished as a source of income since the group announced it would end hostage taking in 2012. But the directive has not been upheld by all commanders, and the FARC still holds captives and continues to kidnap, although on a much smaller scale than in the 1990s, say local rights groups.

In recent years, the FARC has diversified its sources of revenue to include illegal mining, particularly gold mining along Colombia’s Pacific coast, where rebels are known to charge illegal taxes and extort local businesses.

The rebels have adapted and regrouped following a series of heavy defeats and losses, including the killing of several rebel chiefs in bombing raids and the death from a heart attack in 2008 of the FARC’s founding leader Marulanda.

The root causes of the rebel uprising - unequal land ownership and rural poverty - remain in Colombia, ensuring the guerrillas have a continued constituency of support.

According to a 2011 U.N. Development Programme report, more than half of Colombia’s land is owned by just over 1 percent of the population. In Colombia’s rural areas around 60 percent of people live in poverty - double that of cities - and swathes of the country still lack running water, roads, hospitals and schools.

Poverty and lack of job opportunities in rural areas have allowed the FARC to keep replenishing its ranks and recruit children - sometimes by force - in marginalised communities which feel abandoned by the state.

* Who are FARC’s victims?

Colombians of all social classes – both rich and poor - have been victims of the FARC.

From 1970 to 2010, more than 24,000 Colombians were kidnapped by the FARC, according to the government-funded National Centre for Historical Memory.

Fighting between the FARC, government forces and right-wing paramilitaries has killed more than 200,000 people and uprooted more than five million Colombians from their countryside homes, government figures show. Many displaced families have sought refuge in the slums of Colombia’s major cities.

While there are no reliable figures on sexual violence carried out by FARC fighters, is it known that the rebels have raped women and girls.

Most of the landmines and unexploded ordnance littered across rural Colombia have been planted by the rebels wounding or killing 11,000 people since 1990, the government says,

Despite the ongoing peace process, the FARC continues to forcibly recruit child soldiers to fill its ranks and children from indigenous groups are most at risk, the U.N. says.

Victims’ rights, including compensation and information about those killed and missing, is a talking point at the Havana peace talks, which both sides are set to discuss in coming months.

At the peace talks, the FARC has tentatively acknowledged its role in the suffering of generations of civilians. But local rights groups and the U.N. have urged the FARC to give information about the whereabouts of missing people, to stop laying landmines, and release all hostages.

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