Rebel group FARC, officially called the Revolutionary Forces of Colombia – People’s Army (FARC-EP), is Colombia’s oldest and by far largest guerrilla organization.
The guerrilla organization was formed by communist farmers in central Colombia in the aftermath of “La Violencia” and in the midst of the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union. The first violent confrontation between what would later be called the FARC and the government took place in the municipality of Marquetalia, Tolima in May 1964.
The confrontation was part of a government offensive against rural communist communities that were formed throughout Colombia and refused to recognize the state’s authority and had been arming themselves to fight off Bogota-sponsored and U.S.-backed paramilitary groups since the early 1960s.
The battle of Marquetalia was indecisive; the army was able to destroy the revolting farmers’ commune, but the farmers themselves fled into the nearby jungles and mountains.
Having been expelled from their “republic,” the rebels met and agreed to form an insurgent force aimed at seizing power.
The newly formed guerrilla organization was dubbed FARC in 1966 and the group became the official military wing of the Colombian Communist Party.
The FARC originally consisted of only 48 fighters but quickly grew in size as other farmers joined the ranks to defend themselves against ongoing army offensives.
In the 15 years after its foundation, a slowly increasing amount of small rebels units fought the Colombian government forces in the rural areas in the south of Colombia. By the beginning of the 1980s, the guerrilla group had grown to have between 1,000 and 3,000 armed fighters, supported by a much larger group of unarmed militants, or supporters.
Meanwhile, the Colombian state was facing armed opposition from other armed guerrilla groups like the ELN and EPL, and later the M-19.
Enters the drug trade
When cocaine consumption in the U.S. and Europe came into fashion in the late 1970s and the early 1980s, and Colombia became one of the key countries for the production of coca, the FARC — now funded by the rapidly growing cocaine trade — was able to recruit and arm more fighters and changed its strategy. The organization even sent fighters to the Soviet Union for military training.
During the 1982 Seventh Conference, its founders “Manuel Marulanda” and “Jacobo Arenas” decided to seize the opportunity and begin a strategy to double its military capacity in order to deploy large guerrilla armies in offensives against the Colombian army, expanding and consolidating territory, gain access to the country’s natural resources and move closer to middle-sized cities.
The rebel army was divided into large blocks that in turn were divided into smaller fronts.
Marulanda and Arenas also decided to change the name of the organization into Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army, or FARC-EP in short.
First peace talks
In 1984, when Colombia’s government was led by former President Belisario Betacur, the FARC and the government held their first peace talks, the guerrillas agreed to a ceasefire and formed a political party called the Patriotic Union (UP).
However, while the FARC joined other leftist movements to strengthen the UP, upcoming paramilitary groups — funded by wealthy landowners and supported by government forces — began a violent extermination campaign, killing thousands of UP politicians and supporters.
The FARC, that didn’t demobilize while joining politics, in response intensified its military campaign against the state and the country’s elite, making the kidnapping of civilians one of its sources of income.
The FARC, this time together with the ELN, M-19 and the EPL, took part in a second attempt to negotiate peace talks in 1990. While the government succeeded in demobilizing the M-19 and the EPL, the FARC rejected a peace deal after a military attack on its headquarters and also the ELN refused to demobilize.
FARC violence really erupts
The failed peace talks led to a further intensifying of the FARC’s offensive. The guerrilla organization had grown to have between 7,000 and 10,000 armed fighters by the beginning of the 1990s and was able to deal heavy blows to the Colombian army, make massive territorial gains primarily in the south and east of the country, while killing and detaining large numbers of Colombian soldiers.
At the same time, the FARC and other groups became more deeply involved in kidnapping, not just for the political terror it imposed on both the political class and civilians, but because ransom became a significant new revenue stream.
Kidnapping in Colombia
Paramilitary anti-guerrilla offensive
In 1995, members of the military, cattle ranchers, businessmen and politicians — concerned by the rapid territorial expansion of the FARC and the inability of the Colombian army to curb the guerrilla group’s growth — supported the creation of the Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, a paramilitary organization that, with the help of the army, and also funded by drug trafficking began a counter-insurgency offensive.
The paramilitary offensive, combined with increasing guerrilla violence, caused the Colombian conflict to further spiral out of control to the extent that the country was on the verge of being declared a failed state.
In 1998, in the midst of the heaviest guerrilla and paramilitary violence since La Violencia, the government of then-President Andres Pastrana began a third attempt to seek peace with the FARC. While talking, Pastrana sought the help of the U.S. to help the Colombian state in case talks failed.
FARC fighters from 1964 to 2015
The offensive was intensified under former President Alvaro Uribe who could count on steady support from the U.S. that had declared war on terror after the 2001 Al-Qaida terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
Before the talks failed in 2002, the Colombian armed forces — now backed by the U.S. and unofficially by the AUC — began a territorial offensive to push FARC-aligned militias from cities and recover the approximately one-third of Colombian territory under control of the FARC.
The offensive proved a military success and the FARC was pushed to the periphery of the Colombian territory and even into Venezuela, Panama, Ecuador and Peru. Ongoing desertions diminished the number of guerrilla fighters and the FARC’s offensive capacity was decreased to what it was before the 1980s cocaine-fueled boom.
The FARC’s loss of territory also meant the loss of its ability to keep hostages and the rebels drastically diminished kidnapping while killing and releasing civilians and members of the military held captive. To avoid being bombed, the guerrillas dissolved large battalions into smaller units.
The rebel organization did not just change its military tactics, but also its discourse; the Cuba-inspired Marxist ideology was transformed in a militant form of “Bolivarian socialism,” a leftist ideology with strong regionalist and anti-American or “anti-imperialist” sentiments that had been made famous by Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and to a lesser extent gained support in other Latin American countries like Ecuador and Bolivia.
The FARC rejected U.S. intervention in Colombia and Latin America and supported nationalizing the country’s oil and mining sector while continuing to voice support for the redistribution of land and resources.
Change in strategy
In 2008, the FARC lost three of its top commanders; founder Manuel Marulanda died of a heart attack, the organization’s number two, “Raul Reyes,” was killed by state forces and Secretariat member “Ivan Rios” was assassinated by his own men.
In the same year, new FARC leader “Alfonso Cano” imposed a new strategy and the rebel organization returned to traditional guerrilla warfare while making alliances with fellow guerrilla organization ELN and newly formed drug trafficking organizations to secure its funding.
From their jungle and mountain hideouts small FARC units, supported by their civilian support networks, carried out hit and run attacks on the armed forces and infrastructure while its commanders publicly urged renewed peace talks.
Latest peace talks
These peace talks secretly began in late 2010 after the inauguration of President Juan Manuel Santos and the death of the FARC’s military commander “Mono Jojoy.” The talks continued despite the killing of Cano in 2011 and a sharp increase in rebel attacks.
In August 2012, Santos and the FARC announced to be moving onto formal peace talks in October. By November that year, the rebels sent a number of its top commanders to Cuba where the two warring parties would work through specifics of a general accord signed before the formal talks.
In 2016, after four years of negotiations in Havana, a peace deal was agreed to. The deal contained several provisions: agricultural reforms, political participation for the FARC, a truth and reconciliation tribunal for justice, provisions to end drug trafficking by the group, and reparations for victims.
However, on October 2 the Colombian people shocked the world by narrowly voting to reject the deal in a referendum, with 50.21% voting ‘No’. Turnout during the vote was 37.43%, even lower than during a typical presidential election.
Despite the assertions of the government and the FARC that this was the only option, both have agreed to continue to negotiate while including members who campaigned against the original agreement, led by former President Alvaro Uribe.