ColombiaPress ReleasesVenezuela

Colombia: The Multi-faceted Motivation of the FARC and Prospects for Peace

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

• The Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) claim to be fighting for social justice, but in the minds of most Colombians this assertion is belied by the rebel group’s use of terrorizing tactics and its extensive role in the drug trade.

• The guerrillas are not uniform in their motives; some truly seek social justice, others are looking for adventure, and some just want revenge.

• Scholars present various theories of what drives the FARC, including a self-defense ideology and a hunger for respect.

• Implications for the peace process depend on which motives dominate, but clearly the FARC must be approached as a complex, multi-faceted organization.

The Colombian government and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), the leftist Colombian guerrilla group, have recently accepted Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’ offer to mediate the negotiation of a possible “humanitarian agreement” between the two parties. The FARC is currently holding hostage three U.S. citizens, former Colombian presidential candidate and French citizen Ingrid Betancourt, and dozens of other highly visible Colombians. If negotiations are successful, the FARC will release some or all of the hostages in exchange for the Colombian government releasing some or all of the guerrilla members it is detaining. A meeting between the FARC and Chávez was scheduled for October 8th, but this was postponed due to security concerns.

It is distinctly possible that such a humanitarian agreement, if successful, will be the first step towards full-blown peace talks. What are the prospects for such talks, and, ultimately, for the resolution of the conflict? Gaining deeper understanding of the FARC, and especially what motivates its cadres to continue fighting, is an important first step towards answering these questions.


The FARC originated from an alliance of miscellaneous leftist guerrilla and neighborhood gangs, which rose out of the period of La Violencia, a time of violent civil war between armed militants of the Liberal and Conservative parties which began in 1948 and lasted about a decade. Formally founded in 1964, the FARC was the military wing of the Colombian Communist Party (CCP). Since then, it has had a long and tumultuous history of fighting against the Colombian military and right-wing paramilitary groups. The paramilitaries, which were originally formed to protect landowners from guerrilla kidnappings and the destruction of their homes and ranches, later merged into an ultra-right umbrella group and sponsor of death squads called the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC) in 1997.

Since Colombian strife substantially escalated in the early 1980s, the FARC has engaged in a series of negotiations with Bogotá. In 1985, as a result of peace talks with Colombian President Belisario Betancur, the FARC formed the Unión Patriótica political party and partially demobilized back to civilian life. Initially, the party achieved some limited electoral success, but it was soon decimated by assassinations committed by drug lords, paramilitaries, and elements of the Colombian military. The most recent effort at peace talks began in 1999, when then-Colombian President Andrés Pastrana granted the FARC a very extensive de facto demilitarized zone in which it would be largely safe from any government military offensive. The talks accomplished little and were terminated by 2002.

The FARC’s stated aim is to overthrow the Colombian state and replace it with a Marxist-style government. More specifically, its leaders advocate various economic changes in Colombia, including land reform and other measures to directly benefit the poor. Other FARC demands include an opening of the political process, the halt of neoliberal reforms that hurt the poor, and an end to U.S. intervention in Colombian affairs. Recently, the guerrilla group has moved away from issuing Marxist propaganda and started promoting a species of “Bolivarian” populism. The relationship between FARC propaganda and its actual political goals is not entirely clear; as Dr. Alexandra Guáqueta notes, there is a “lack of adequate empirical evidence about combatants’ ultimate political and economic aims.”

Most, or at least a significant percentage, of the FARC’s income is believed to come from the drug trade, in which it became involved during the 1980s. The FARC collects a tax from coca farmers, and also hits traffickers with a “war tax” and a protection fee. It is unknown to what degree the rebel group is directly involved in trafficking, but there is significant evidence that it has at least some presence in the international drug trade. Estimates of the FARC’s drug revenues are wide-ranging, and experts suspect that Colombian government estimates are highly inflated. Perhaps the most accurate estimate comes from a review of several studies in the 2003 United Nations Development Program National Development Report of Colombia, according to which the FARC earns about $204 million per year from drugs, out of a total income of approximately $342 million.

Despite the FARC’s claim that it fights for the people of Colombia—especially the poor— its support from peasants is quite limited. It is even less popular in urban areas. National polls consistently show that less than 5 percent of Colombians support the FARC. This is not all that surprising, as its detractors say that the FARC is extremely out of touch and unconcerned with the interests of the Colombian public today, including the rural populace.

Perhaps more importantly, the populace itself is often the target of guerrilla violence. The FARC is not Colombia’s worst offender; human rights groups estimate that the paramilitaries are responsible for over three-quarters of all human rights violations which have taken place in the last few years. But the FARC’s record is far from clean. Most prominently, the organization terrorizes Colombians with abductions for ransom, probably its second-most important source of income, after drugs. The FARC kidnaps hundreds of victims every year, and while the guerrillas used to target only the rich, members of the middle class are increasingly becoming its victims as well. FARC forces have also attacked rural populations on numerous occasions, including members of the San José de Apartadó Peace Community. For these reasons, the guerrillas, certainly together with the paramilitaries, are generally seen by Colombians as violent criminals rather than as saviors of the country or benefactors of the poor.

Greed or Grievance?
Is desire for social and economic change really what the FARC stands for? According to Colombian scholar Francisco Gutiérrez Sanín, “very few people with knowledge of the country would describe the guerrillas as altruistic, or as carriers of genuine grievances.” Indeed, the extreme lack of support for the guerrillas suggests that they are not significantly involved in a popular struggle for a more just or equitable society. Many suggest that the FARC is little more than a criminal enterprise bent on maximizing profits from drug-related activities. Studies by Paul Collier, a researcher at the World Bank, have indicated that the existence of internal conflict is more contingent on whether there are resources which potential rebels can use to finance their rebellion, rather than the presence of heightened grievances over the status quo. In his paper “Greed and Grievance in Civil War,” Collier suggests that material greed is more important than any particular grievance that the rebels may have about political, economic, or social conditions. The significance of these findings is highly debated, but nevertheless, they do lend credence to the view of the FARC as a criminal group more than anything else.

At least on certain occasions, the FARC’s drug interests seem to have overcome its putative ideological objectives. A 2005 International Crisis Group report cites strong evidence of drug-related cooperation on numerous occasions between the FARC and the AUC. For example, in 2003 coca paste was transported from FARC-controlled coca fields in the hills of Serranía de San Lucas down the AUC-controlled Magdalena River, and chemicals needed to create the paste were transported up the river into FARC territory. If such an arrangement really existed between the FARC and the AUC, this could question the FARC’s commitment to its ideology, which calls for an overturning of the very economic order which the AUC brutally defends. This suggests that at least some elements of the FARC are willing to put profits above ideology, but given the lack of evidence that such arrangements have been sanctioned by senior commanders, these incidents do not necessarily imply anything about the organization as a whole.

For all their trouble, however, members of the FARC seem to gain minimal material benefits from their endeavors. Despite the hardships and dangers of guerrilla life, there is strong evidence that the FARC pays no regular salary, but simply provides its cadres with food and shelter. Not even senior members of the FARC seem to benefit personally from the inflow of wealth. According to the abovementioned Crisis Group report, drug profits are used to further the goals of the organization, not benefit of commanders or members of the secretariat. The display of wealth is rare among FARC commanders, with the exception of expensive guns. An account of Commander-in-Chief Manuel Marulanda Vélez’s life by journalist María Jimena Duzán depicts an existence as simple as that of a peasant. Reporter Garry Leech says even the leadership of the FARC live “a hard life spent sleeping on wooden planks, bathing in rivers, fighting off tropical diseases, and constantly moving from camp to camp to avoid U.S. intelligence gathering efforts and the Colombian army.” Indeed, if commanders were allowed material luxuries, military discipline might be undermined, and FARC supporters might question the organization’s devotion to an egalitarian ideology. These observations suggest that the FARC is in many ways a grassroots-motivated organization, certainly much more than the AUC.

Mixed Motives
This picture of the FARC’s lifestyle directly challenges the “greedy rebels” hypothesis. On the other hand, while there are definitely social problems which need to be addressed, it is hard to see the rebel group as primarily interested in social change. Rather, the FARC seems to have become caught up by external events in which its ideological underpinnings seem to have fallen by the wayside in the struggle to survive. It has devoted its energy to maximizing its drug profits, and is relatively cavalier about the lives of those it claims to represent. If neither “greed” nor “grievance” seems to adequately describe the motivations of the FARC, has anyone come up with a better explanation?

Part of the difficulty in understanding the motivations of the FARC is that it is made up of many different but powerful voices, and at least professes to be governed on the basis of democratic principles. Even a single individual may have multiple motivations. Undoubtedly, some of the members of the FARC still believe in the organization’s original Marxist-Leninist ideology. According to author Alfredo Rangel Suárez, Commander-in-Chief Marulanda is a devout believer in this creed. Ideological commitment among newer FARC members may be much weaker, however, as the rapid recruitment rate since 1996 may have precluded full ideological indoctrination of new recruits. This could mean an even less ideological FARC will continue to emerge, as this generation of recruits moves up the ranks.

If most guerrillas are not necessarily socialists, why do they fight for the FARC? The 2003 Colombian National Development Report provides a list of different motivations people give for fighting in the FARC, based on a number of first-hand interviews. Aside from true ideological believers, guerrillas report being motivated by desire for belonging, camaraderie, respect, or even adventure. They may want revenge, or at least defend themselves and their communities. Others have joined because it is the family tradition, and many stay because fighting for the FARC is the only life they know. Some simply feel they have no other options. Some fighters have been forcibly recruited, but seem to be a minority.

Which of these objectives is most important? Can we narrow the motivations of the FARC down to one or two essential factors? Gutiérrez Sanín suggests that the main motivating factor of the FARC is an ideology of self-defense. Colombia is a country wracked by violence and crime, which until recently had the highest kidnapping and murder rates in the world. “Recruits indeed speak of lack of opportunities,” writes Gutiérrez, “but also about killed and maimed relatives, and below that, about family conflicts, collisions with their neighbors, petty aggressions from state officials, and so on.”

The FARC is in a special position to recruit peasants seeking to defend themselves or their perceived interests in their communities. Many of the groups which merged to become the FARC were self-defense groups from “Independent Republics,” or autonomous communist communities formed by landless peasants in the south of the country. These groups frequently had to defend the communities from paramilitary and government raids. The FARC has continued to serve as a protector, most recently defending drug growers from aggressive eradication efforts by the U.S. and Colombian technicians. Its occasional savage tactics, kidnappings, and taxes on revenues from drugs and other sectors have helped to negate much of the popular support it might receive from such a role, but nevertheless some see the FARC as a way to participate in self-defense.

Another interesting thesis about what drives the FARC is proposed by Colombian scholar Herbert “Tico” Braun, who suggests that the motivation of many of the guerrillas may be a feeling of social exclusion. This is not simply a desire for better material standards, or even a sense that they have been unjustly relegated to poverty, although these elements may be part of the picture. Rather, Braun suggests that many guerrillas, including Commander-in-Chief Marulanda, feel that they are not properly respected by the urban elite, and that they have not been sufficiently included in the social and political life of the country. By waging a successful insurgency, guerrillas are able to show that they are important players in Colombian affairs, and to be ignored only at great costs. One Colombian’s explanation of why some support the guerrillas, from an interview in The Heart of War in Colombia by Constanza Ardila Galvis, gives a concrete face to this view: “Who doesn’t warm to being told that you deserve respect, that you should be the owners of the land, that your children deserve an education?”

One important motivation which this discussion has hinted at, but which needs to be explicitly acknowledged, is the desire for power. The lower ranks of the FARC might have their own reasons for following their leaders, as described above, but it is likely that many of the leaders of the organization simply enjoy their power. This could also help explain how FARC leaders might be motivated by drug profits. While FARC commanders, on the whole, apparently do not gain personal riches from drug wealth, being leaders of a wealthy organization gives them both influence and prestige. The FARC is one of the wealthiest insurgencies in the world, and one of the most powerful as well. Senior commanders of the FARC are able to directly gain more influence as they control more wealth, and local commanders are promoted largely on the basis of how much money they are able to earn for the organization.

Implications for the Peace Process

What does the foregoing discussion suggest about prospects for peace in Colombia? Might it be possible to persuade the guerrillas to disarm through a negotiated deal, and if so, how? To the degree that the FARC is motivated by wealth or power, weakening the FARC militarily and economically is an important part of any successful strategy for peace. If commanders have little wealth and power to lose, they will have fewer qualms about giving up their arms. Even if the FARC is mostly motivated by grievance or ideology, reducing its drug revenues is important to undermining its military capabilities. On the other hand, to the degree that a self-defense ideology dominates, forcible drug eradication campaigns and military incursions into guerrilla-controlled territories will strengthen the FARC’s resolve. Indeed, if this is the FARC’s most important motivation it will be very difficult for the Colombian government to please the guerrillas, as the aims of extending the authority of the state and ending the drug trade are antithetical to such an ideology.

Experience suggests that while military pressure on the FARC is necessary, a strategy to end FARC violence needs to be significantly broader. President Uribe has been pursuing a hard-lined policy of no negotiations and getting tough with the guerrillas since he came into office in 2002. This policy, called “Democratic Security,” has succeeded in extending state control and weakening the FARC, but it is far from completely defeating the guerrillas. Indeed, the Colombian state has been fighting the FARC, more or less aggressively, for decades, and they remain not only undefeated, but strong and surprisingly resolute.

Braun’s theory directly addresses the question of the FARC’s attitude towards negotiations. He suggests that because members of the FARC want to feel respected and included, peace talks with the government are very important to the guerrillas, especially to leaders like Marulanda. These negotiations give the guerrillas a role in determining the shape of Colombian society, and implicitly recognize the FARC as a germane actor.

Braun’s theory is of mixed significance for the likely outcome of peace talks. On the one hand, it means that the FARC wants to contribute something, and be perceived as helping the nation. If the FARC can be seen as forcing the government to make important societal changes, it might be willing to give something up in return, and possibly even begin disarming.

On the other hand, the guerrillas want to retain their importance in Colombia, and a demobilized FARC would patently be on a fast track to irrelevance, and likely extinction. According to Colombian scholar Javier Guerrero Barón, the FARC “have no great political capital to defend, except for a revolutionary tradition that now has several decades to take pride in and a military whose control of territory is the result only of military conquest,” not of popular support. If the guerrillas demobilize, they would lose their military power and gain little political leverage because they most likely would fare poorly in elections. Thus, even if the demands of the FARC are met, it might still be reluctant to lay down its arms. This is even more likely to be the case if its leadership turns out to be mainly motivated by personal power.

The failure of past peace talks does not encourage optimism for the future. During the talks with President Betancur in the 1980s, for example, the FARC made a list of almost impossible demands that has been compared to a grandiose Christmas list for Santa Claus, and the talks proceeded to collapse. The FARC acted similarly during the failed Pastrana peace talks during the 1990s. According to Colombian scholar Jesus Enrique Mendoza, it is possible that the FARC did not really strive for peace because they profited economically from the war, but in order to preserve their image as fighters for social justice, they made a show of engaging in peace talks. Again, however, the history of assassinations might be the real reason the FARC is reluctant to make a peace deal. Indeed, while he was in the process of negotiating with the guerrillas, then-President Pastrana acknowledged in an interview with COHA that if he was a FARC guerrilla, he most likely would not lay down his arms for fear of being assassinated by his alleged protectors. Whatever the reason, the FARC has been an intrinsically difficult group with which to negotiate.

It would be a mistake, though, to see the leaders of the FARC as united in their attitude towards talks. There are some who insist that a division exists within the FARC between moderates who favor a political solution, led by Marulanda, and those who favor a military solution, headed by Jorge Briceño, commander of the FARC’s Eastern Bloc. Marulanda, now an old man, may want to be remembered as someone who brought peace to Colombia, knowing that a successful overthrow of the government could not happen during his lifetime. If true, this would be encouraging for any prospects of peace talks, at least in the near-term.

If Marulanda dies in arms or is usurped, however, the hardliners may take control. Adam Isacson of the Center for International Policy notes that “the guerrillas lost most of their best political cadres when the Patriotic Union party was systematically exterminated,” leaving behind mainly a military-minded leadership.

Whatever theory best describes the FARC’s motivations, it is clear that there can be no simple explanation of what drives the guerrillas. According to Julia Sweig, Director for Latin America Studies at the Council of Foreign Relations, “it would be a mistake to regard Colombia’s conflict as only a terrorist or drug problem. Nor should it be considered a classic Marxist insurgency or counterinsurgency. It is, rather, a mix of all these elements.” Undoubtedly, some of the motivations explored above describe some elements of the FARC to some degree. In looking for solutions to the Colombian conflict, we might need to take a multi-pronged approach. While it may be important to continue applying pressure on the FARC, refusing to compromise in negotiations is unlikely to be a winning strategy. While an end to the violence does not look near, a deeper understanding of the conflict’s dynamics might help all those concerned move closer toward that day.