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FARC – A Perilous Future; A Grim Recent Past

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  • The FARC experienced a number of crushing setbacks in 2008, varying from external threats to internal deterioration
  • The rebel group’s violent acts against ordinary Colombians threatens its already eroding base of support
  • Arguably, FARC would be best off renouncing its violent means and re-entering Colombian society by reviving something akin to the long defunct Patriotic Union (UP), if the personal security of its members would be guaranteed
  • But, President Uribe would have to guarantee the personal security of demobilizing FARC combatants
  • FARC’s fiat far from certain.
  • March 1 marked the first anniversary of the Colombian attack on the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia’s (FARC) encampment on Ecuadorian soil. While the rebel group undoubtedly has high hopes that their often ill-conceived and sometimes deviant strategies will be more effective than they have been in the past, multiple factors are making it increasingly unrealistic for the guerrillas to achieve their long-sought objective of transforming Colombia into a Marxist-Leninist state. The stability, as well as the basically authoritarian nature of the Álvaro Uribe administration, coupled with FARC’s various internal struggles, has forced the group to reintroduce some of the hard-line tactics that has characterized the guerrilla organization from time to time. In spite of the resurgence of its militant model –coined Plan Rebirth– FARC’s influence on the Latin American political outreach is being increasingly compromised.

    A Decisive Birthing
    The FARC was founded in 1964 in conjunction with the Colombian Communist Party (PCC). The bloodstained civil war between Liberals and Conservatives, aptly named La Violencia, lasted eighteen years and claimed the lives of over 200,000 Colombians, predominantly civilians. When the brutality finally subsided and civilian rule was reestablished, the FARC’s founders were dissatisfied with the subsequent political atmosphere. The newly-formed ruling coalition, the National Front, failed to include PCC representation in its political formation. Consequently, the FARC adamantly refused to disband and since has persisted as a fighting force targeting the central government to this day. Over the last five decades, the group has been the primary security challenge to Bogotá policymakers.

    A Triumphant Uribe
    The suspected association between the FARC and regional narco trafficking is complex and requires careful analysis. According to Time Magazine, “at least half of the $500 million to $1 billion the FARC is believed to earn each year is derived from protecting Colombian cocaine trafficking.”1 Although the group historically mainly has offered no more than protection to the drug producers from a variety of dangers in exchange for monetary allowances, the FARC’s involvement with the cartels has undoubtedly increased a considerable amount in recent years. To some degree, the FARC now has a sizeable quantity of control over the activities dealing with the growth and export of coca. As a result of the organization’s participation in the criminal activities surrounding the drug trade, the FARC has become a target of policies emanating from Washington and Bogotá attempting to break FARC’s back by neutralizing its activities.

    Its mixed history and often ineffective track record has been the product of a number of measures that have been taken over the years to decrease the rebels’ influence in the region. These have included Plan Colombia initiated in 2000, Plan Patriota in 2004, and Uribe’s more recent and very aggressive Democratic Security Doctrine.

    Initially, the fundamental function of the U.S.-backed Plan Colombia was to curb drug production and export. However, over the years, the course of the strategy has evolved into an anti-FARC regime that has had relatively mixed overall impact on the drug trade. Under President Pastrana, who authored the program, Plan Colombia was principally aimed at coping with the problem of displaced refugees and earning the support and loyalty of everyday Colombians in the future of their society by improving the terms of their living conditions. While the plan has failed to effectively answer all drug related issues and profoundly stem all drug production, increased military pressure has negatively affected the FARC’s power structure. Michael Reed, author of Forgotten Continent, asserts that, “Plan Colombia [has] proved to be far more effective as a counter-insurgency plan than as an anti-drug plan, though it [has] been sold to the American public as the latter.”2 With considerable support from Washington in the form of training military personnel and unilateral artillery transfers (noticeably Black Hawk Helicopters), Colombia has increasingly been able to boost its military operations against the FARC.

    Despite a recent statement by Colombia’s vice president, Francisco Santos, that Plan Colombia had “helped a lot and was very important at a critical moment, but its cost in terms of the dignity of the country was too much,” President Uribe quickly dismissed Santos’ comment by declaring that the plan was still vital to the security of the region at large in order to wage war against drug production as well as counter terrorism.

    Álvaro Uribe’s general strategy in combating guerrilla groups in Colombia is euphemistically known as the “Democratic Security Doctrine.” This so-called security policy has a number of objectives, most notably, to “destroy the illegal drug trade in Colombia and eliminate the revenues which finance terrorism and generate corruption and all crime,” as well as to “consolidate state control to deny sanctuary to terrorists and perpetrators of violence.”3

    According to the Uribe administration, the president’s strategy has been extremely effective in decreasing the FARC and other guerrilla elements present in Colombia. An estimated 3,600 FARC fighters were demobilized in 2003 alone, primarily under the terms of an amnesty program that is aimed at rehabilitating, and then reintegrating former guerrillas back into society. Moreover, the Los Angeles Times maintains that this program has helped 40,000 former insurgents of all political persuasions by providing job training, psychological counseling, and financial aid. In 2004, then Colombian ambassador to the United States, Luis Alberto Moreno, explained that, “since 2002, homicides have declined by 25 percent; kidnappings have been reduced by 45 percent; and incidents of terrorism have declined by 37 percent.”4 Despite recent decreases in violence, Colombia maintains the highest murder rate per capita in South America.

    Without a doubt, Uribe’s proactive approach to the issue has achieved some success but at a heavy price in terms of human rights abuses. It should come as no surprise that despite this, the drug problem continues to be a growing threat to the region. In addition, demobilizing the FARC and other rebel groups has been no easy task. Innumerable alleged human rights derelictions have been associated with these government-sponsored campaigns. Such charges also routinely include civilian victims who have been caught in the cross fire between the two warring factions. The FARC has become increasingly unpopular in recent years, with a poll taken as early as 2002 already demonstrating that only 5 percent of Colombians supported the rebels at that time.5

    Even within its ranks, it is doubtful that many FARC members fully supported the organization’s credal beliefs. Rather, much of the FARC’s rank-and-file is composed of nationals, many of whom feel abandoned by the state due to its failure to effectively employ economic and social programs which it had pledged. Colombia’s inability to close the inequality gap has driven the nation’s poor to pursue avenues that address their bread and butter issues, including sympathizing with the FARC.

    Internal Strife
    In the past year, the FARC has faced a number of serious intra-organizational challenges, such as declining morale, loss of leadership, bad press resulting from attacks on civilians, and a significant drop in funding sources. As a result, many of the FARC’s once loyal supporters have abandoned its cause altogether.

    On March 1, 2008, the Colombian military ambushed a FARC outpost on Ecuadorian territory, killing 16 rebels, including second-in-command, Raul Reyes. In the last year alone, four senior officials of the FARC have died, including Reyes, Ivan Ríos, Jóse de Jesús Guzmán, and founder Manuel Marulanda.6 Each fallen commander had played an integral role in the organization, as Reyes, Ríos, and Marulanda were members of FARC’s seven person decision making secretariat, and Guzman headed up FARC’s urban militia unit. A number of the vigilante group’s clandestine refuges have been exposed in recent months. On March 1, Colombian soldiers found a series of extensive underground caves that served as a hideout for top guerrilla commanders, after being tipped off by a FARC deserter.7

    Loss of morale from within the group has proven to be the most serious problem facing the rebels. With one estimate projecting that the FARC had at one time as many as 16,000 members under arms at the beginning of the year 2000, today, many experts estimate the organization’s manpower to be half that figure. Not only are FARC members abandoning their organization, many are revealing valuable information after “being thoroughly debriefed by the Israeli-trained Colombian military, resulting in a gold mine of intelligence for the security forces.”8 Although the Israeli role may be an exaggeration and meant to be a political statement rather than verifiable facts, the FARC today is not what it was in the past.

    While advancements in military technology in the past certainly have aided the group logistically, FARC’s tune seems to have deteriorated markedly in recent years. During last year’s cross-border skirmish, Colombian troops discovered a plethora of information on confiscated FARC computers. Amongst the confiscated hard-drives were found detailed information on thousands of FARC’s members as well as vital information pertaining to other illegal organizations in Colombia and around the world. Here, too, these charges may be exaggerated.

    Government authorities may have been able to act on this information supplied by guerrilla turncoats and shut down many of the organizations, at least partially halting the flow of support and supplies to FARC forces operating in the field. Additional, although contested, evidence illustrates that Venezuelan and Ecuadorian officials have had some ties to the FARC, including a former interior and justice minister in Caracas, Rámon Rodríguez Chacín, and a former deputy minister in Ecuador who admitted to meeting Raul Reyes at least seven times.9 After revelations that several associated neighboring governments had ties with the FARC rebels, both President of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, and President of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, have distanced themselves from the group and professed a strong desire to cooperate for the peaceful resolution of the ongoing conflict.

    Failing Public Relations
    The FARC has long prided itself as a grassroots organization with a powerful connection to poor, powerless Colombians. In recent months, however, the FARC has been the recipient of such unremittingly negative publicity and such damage to its structure and institutional plan that it has become a real question whether the organization will be able to survive in its present form. In response, the guerrilla force has regularly been in the news due to its stepped-up attacks on rank-and-file Colombians. Several weeks ago, the FARC claimed responsibility for killing eight indigenous Awa, with other claims going as high as almost thirty such casualties. In another harrowing event, two civilians were killed after rebels bombed a video store in central Bogotá. According to a recent BBC report, these attacks are part of a new FARC initiative known as Plan Rebirth that is aimed at putting additional pressure on the Uribe government to grant them concessions as well as increasing their visibility. It could also be that the FARC may be trying to save face after a humiliating year in which several thousand rebels may have simply dropped out, or more dramatically, deserted the mission in favor of government amnesty. It could be a real possibility that the FARC may fully collapse if they continue to alienate Colombia’s poorest classes which once formed the foundation of support for the group, but who now feel alienated by some of the extreme violent tactics resorted to by the leftist force.

    Paper Tiger
    Last October, Colombian vice president, Francisco Santos, claimed that the FARC are a “paper tiger.” In other words, the group may appear threatening, but much of their talk is posturing, with no real heft behind it. It is certainly difficult to call an organization that kidnaps, murders, and extorts simply a toothless entity, but in today’s society, the FARC certainly faces a decreasing significance and impact on Colombia’s balance of forces. The Colombian military’s discovery of the electronic files has further cost the rebel group crucial support and prestige. Additionally, the global financial crisis will likely decrease drug demand and prices, hurting the FARC’s overall revenue sources.

    Without a doubt, Colombia remains as politically divided with deep social inequalities as ever. The Uribe government must be careful to not let the military stray too far, or the Colombians may be motivated to accept monetary compensation for their allegiance to the FARC. There have been countless serious allegations against the Colombian military and associated paramilitary groups. According to the Colombian Commission of Jurists, the Colombian military was involved in 329 extrajudicial killings in 2008 alone. In addition to halting military infractions, it is essential that the government prove itself by stepping up its sustainable economic development initiatives for the nation’s lowest economic classes so that they are not forced to turn their back on the established but woefully neglected system. This would involve such matters as fixing failing rural schools, allocating additional money to improve the country’s dismal social infrastructure, and expanding the pace of implementation of the government’s microfinance programs.

    On the other hand, the FARC does retain a distant ability to revive its waning influence in Colombia and the elusive Andean region. First, the group must halt its hard-line attitude, including renouncing violent acts of terror as a means to achieve its worthier goals. Additionally, the FARC would be well served if it relinquished all participation in drug production and trafficking. As long as drug production continues in the region, and the FARC insists on being engaged in such trafficking, the FARC will continue to be challenged by the United States, which has given billions of dollars of financial and military support to the Colombian government. Thus, while illicit drugs may give the FARC a preponderance of its revenue, it is costing the group in the long run. One could argue that what was once an honorable guerrilla movement with legitimate concerns for the nation’s underrepresented campesinos is now a mere shadow of its former self. In order to stem this completely negative public image, the FARC must purge the controversial scope of its demands and sanitize its modus operandi if it wants to prove acceptable.

    The FARC, by its continued request for regional autonomy, appears to be fishing for an unreasonably large catch, especially under the draconian diktats of Uribe rule. If FARC members remain determined to fulfill the goals set out during the group’s inception in 1964, FARC leaders would be well advised to do so through political methods rather than Wild West tactics that even such a sympathetic figure like Hugo Chávez seems to have repudiated. Revitalizing the now defunct Patriotic Union (UP) party or strengthening ties with the Alternative Democratic Pole (PDA) would appear to be two possible operational channels which FARC members could realistically work with at this stage of their situation. The PDA is a political alliance that is composed of former communists, and members of armed insurgents such as M-19, and the National Liberation Army (ELN). The PDA has already achieved some success during the 2006 legislative election, during which the group won 11 out of 100 Senate seats. By increasing their political efforts, FARC members could be reintroduced into the governmental process through the PDA format and generate proposals that would help implement and execute their leftist ideals. As seen in Nicaragua with the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), and the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN)’s recently achieved election victory in El Salvador, demobilized guerrilla movements have found success in politics before.

    However, as long as the FARC continues to rely on naked violence to achieve its ends, the group will find it increasingly difficult to attract the support it needs to truly be relevant to Colombia’s poorest citizens. At the same time the government is in no position to protect the personal security of demobilizing FARC fighters, who need to be protected from the vindication of the Colombian military and its rightwing allies.

    1. Padgett, Tim. “Fallen Rebel: The U.S. Connection.” Time Magazine 02 Mar. 2008. .

    2. Reid, Michael. Forgotten Continent The Battle for Latin America’s Soul. New York: Yale UP, 2008.

    3. Presidencia de la Republica. Rep. Embassy of Colombia. .

    4. Moreno, Luis A. “After a Dark Period, A Better Colombia.” The Boston Globe [Boston] 19 Aug. 2004.

    5. McDermott, Jeremy. “FARC: Rebels without a cause?” BBC NEWS | News Front Page. 21 May 2002. 09 Mar. 2009 .

    6. McDermott, Jeremy. “FARC rallies its battered troops.” BBC NEWS | News Front Page. 02 Mar. 2009. .

    7. “Colombia discovers FARC hideouts.” BBC NEWS. 01 Mar. 2009. .

    8. McDermott, Jeremy. “Colombia’s rebels: A fading force?” BBC NEWS | News Front Page. 01 Feb. 2008. BBC News. .

    9. “An unmended fence.” The Economist 05 Mar. 2009. .