The Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) is a leftist Colombian guerrilla group that presents a grave threat to the Colombian government.
Between 1948 and 1958, Colombia saw its two leading political parties, the Liberals and the Conservatives, engage in a civil war that plunged the country into near anarchy. Indeed, this period is referred to as La Violencia, or “The Violence.” During that decade and continuing into early 1960s, the Colombian Communist Party began organizing peasant militias to defend villages in the rural south. After the war ended, with the two main political parties agreeing to share power exclusively between them, the government began to act against the peasant groups, considering them to be a Communist threat to their newly formed political hegemony. In 1964, in response to the army's crackdown, the peasants formed the FARC as a coalition guerrilla force.
Throughout the mid-1970s, the FARC functioned primarily as a defensive force, providing protection for the peasantry from landowners and providing services such as schools and medical facilities that the state could not. During the late 1970s, the FARC began to expand aggressively, and by 1984 it had won some concessions from the government, one of which was allowing members of the group to run for office under the FARC banner. FARC formed a political party in November 1985, but attacks by another guerrilla group, the M-19, resulted in a crackdown by the army, and by 1986 this first attempt at peace had been abandoned by all sides. The FARC the retreated to its southern jungle strongholds and began to regroup.
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Colombia became one of the world's centers for the growing of coca, the plant from which cocaine is derived. While the FARC did not actually traffic in the drug, it allowed coca to be grown in regions under its control, and it enforced a “tax” on coca growers. The organization also began providing a variety of services to drug traffickers, including protecting the jungle airstrips used by smugglers. Over the next 20 years, the FARC would see increasing profits from the drug trade. During the 1990s and 2000s, despite the dismantling of the largest drug trafficking cartels, cocaine production in Colombia skyrocketed. In 2010, the country provided more than 50 percent of the world's supply, and the FARC was thought to receive as much as $600 million annually from coca and heroin production.
Drugs are only one source of income for the group. FARC is also heavily involved in kidnapping for profit, a tactic begun by the National Liberation Army-Colombia (ELN) in the mid-1970s, but one that the FARC uses extensively. Targets are often wealthy businessmen or government officials, although almost anyone is potentially at risk. Western executives from international corporations operating in Colombia often fetch the highest ransoms, sometimes millions of dollars. FARC is also heavily involved in extortion, requiring an annual fee or “tax” from businesses operating in areas under its control.
These varied sources of income, particularly the huge drug profits, enabled the FARC to expand greatly during the 1980s and 1990s, transforming a force that in the early 1980s numbered a few thousand into one estimated as high as 16,000 at its peak in the early 2000s. The FARC's wealth, abetted by the collapse of Communism, made it one of the best-armed guerrilla groups in the world. It possesses highly sophisticated communications and surveillance equipment, surpassing that of the Colombian army, and can deploy heavy artillery and antiaircraft missiles against military helicopters. During the 1990s, the FARC vastly expanded its territory and controlled about 40 percent of the country, an area about the size of Switzerland.
The FARC has been responsible for most of the ransom kidnappings in Colombia. In 2007, 382 people were taken hostage, up from 232 the previous year. Most famously, FARC kidnapped a Colombian presidential candidate, Ingrid Betancourt, on the campaign trail in 2002. A severe critic of the FARC, Betancourt traveled—despite government warnings about safety—to San Vincente del Caguan, where she was captured. After six years as a jungle prisoner, she was rescued by Columbian forces on July 2, 2008, along with 14 other hostages. She received the Ordre National de la Légion d'Honneur (National Order of the Legion of Honor) shortly after her rescue. In July 2010, however, she was criticized for reports that she was seeking $6.8 million in damages for her time as a hostage. Betancourt claimed the suit was a “symbolic” move and countered accusations of irresponsible conduct by claiming the government had not provided her with enough security. Marc Gonsalves, one of the three U.S. hostages released, said governments prior to that of President Alvaro Uribe, who held that post from 2002 to 2010, gave land to the FARC and acted in cooperation with the rebels.
As the FARC has become more deeply involved in the drug trade, the ideological fervor that attracted earlier recruits diminished, as did popular support for the organization. Still, the desperate poverty of much of Colombia continues to draw new members to FARC. The group's leadership appears to have abandoned the idea of a Marxist-style revolution, and their political demands now center mainly on land reform. However, within the FARC itself, rigid discipline and a degree of gender equity almost unique in Colombian society are maintained. Almost 30 percent of FARC guerrillas are women, and many have moved into midlevel command positions. The group is organized into well-defended armed camps in the remote jungle, and it is able to move troops quickly on FARC-maintained trails (government forces are reluctant to use the trails, fearing ambush). The group keeps liaisons in every large town and most villages in the areas it controls, which keeps it informed of government movements.
By 1997, faced with the growing strength of the FARC and the increase in kidnappings, extortions, and murders, a peace movement was growing in Colombia. In 1998, Andrés Pastrana was elected president, promising to begin peace talks with the guerrillas. In an effort to create stable conditions for peace negotiations, Pastrana withdrew government forces from FARC-controlled southern Colombia. This withdrawal infuriated the armed forces, however, and the FARC took advantage of the new demilitarized zone to launch new attacks, placing the peace negotiations in jeopardy almost from their start. In 2001, the U.S. government authorized a $1.3 billion military aid package to the Colombian armed forces. This aid was designated to combat drug trafficking within Colombia; the FARC, however, saw the aid package as an attempt to move against it, and peace negotiations began to break down entirely.
In February 2002, Pastrana authorized the military to move against the rebels. In March 2002, the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush asked Congress to direct more military aid to Colombia, this time specifically to be used to combat the FARC and several other guerrilla groups. Eventually, such efforts seemed to bear fruit. In 2007, members of the FARC leadership were killed and Raul Reyes, the chief spokesman in the FARC's secretariat, was killed during a Colombian incursion into Ecuador in 2008. In March 2008 the head of the U.S. Southern Command testified that the FARC had been reduced to about 9,000 fighters.
When Juan Manuel Santos took over as president of Columbia in mid-2010, the FARC issued a video statement on the network al Jazeera, in which the group's leader, Alfonso Cano, offered to open up negotiations with the Santos administration. Santos rejected the offer, however, stating that no negotiations would take place until FARC had renounced violence and released the many hostages the group continued to hold. Meanwhile, an aggressive military campaign was undertaken against FARC. Three of the top FARC commanders—Sixto Cabana, Hugo Hernandez, and Mono Jojoy—were killed, along with dozens of other FARC members in a series of raids by Columbian security forces in late September 2010. Many observers argued that Jojoy was an irreplaceable member of the FARC, and that the group would be permanently crippled as a result.
National Liberation Army-Colombia, United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia
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Full text Article Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia—FARC)
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