Colombia: The end for guerrilla warfare?

FARC guerillas.

[For more discussion on Colombia, click HERE.]

By Anthony Boynton, Bogotá, Colombia

March 25, 2012 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- As long as there are sleepy, oppressed, oppressive and isolated villages connected to a city somewhere over the hill by an unpaved road with bridges that might wash out in the next storm, guerrilla warfare will be possible. But those villages are fast disappearing into memory as the extension of electric grids and networks of paved roads extend into every corner of what used to be called the Third World.

In Colombia such villages still exist in valleys in the mist-covered Andes, and far out in the tropical plains east of the Andes, and dotted here and there in the Amazon jungle, but they are clearly an endangered species. While the Catholic Church still dominates the plaza of every town, and landlords still have their hired guns, they have been joined by an evangelical church around the corner and a real estate agency just down the street. The town internet cafe most likely has more visitors than does the confessional in the church, and the priest in the confessional may be texting his boyfriend while the old lady on the other side of the screen recites her favourite sins.

Cell phones are everywhere.

An era of guerrilla warfare in Latin America is coming to an end. Exactly how the end game will be played out remains to be seen.

Even where conditions favourable to guerrilla warfare still exist, the military advantages guerrilla armies once had are also disappearing. A Colombian military operation earlier this week in Aguas Claras, a location in the municipality of Arauquita in the department of Arauca, an area where the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia-Ejército del Pueblo (FARC-EP, Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia– Army of the People) continues to have a strong presence, illustrates the point.

A FARC unit was destroyed by night-time aerial bombardment. Thirty two FARC fighters were reported to have been killed, two wounded and five captured. Among those reported killed were the second in command of Frente 10 and the unit’s financial officer.

The operation had been planned long in advance. The Colombian military combines electronic surveillance of FARC cell phone and internet traffic with long-term infiltration of FARC unit supply lines, plus offers of large cash rewards for information to gain as much intelligence about FARC units as possible before attacking. In advance, the military tries to identify the unit’s exact movements, locations and base camps, the unit’s exact numbers, and even the names and biographies of the FARC militants in the unit. Then an encampment of the unit is chosen for night-time bombing, which is carried out only after military intelligence verifies that the camp is occupied on the night of the scheduled attack. Bombardment, carried out by a combination of helicopters and fixed-wing gunships, is followed within minutes by helicopter landing of airborne soldiers.

The bombing of Aguas Claras was a repeat of the formula used to kill FARC leaders such as Raul Reyes, Mono Jojoy and Alfonso Cano.

Although the FARC-EP, the Ejercito de Liberación Nacional (ELN, National Liberation Army) and even the Ejército Popular de Liberación (EPL, Popular Liberation Army) continue to fight in Colombia, their numbers are dwindling, their areas of influence are shrinking and their popular support has nearly vanished.

They themselves have been transformed into very different organisations from those that arose decades ago in the era spanning the Cuban and Sandinista revolutions.

Political offensive

Recent events seem to indicate that the FARC-EP is once again looking for negotiations with the government of Colombia. Both the FARC and President Manuel Santos have said they want to negotiate. The FARC has said that it will release the last 10 soldiers and police officers it holds hostage on March 30, and the FARC has announced that it will no longer enforce Law 2, through which it captures and ransoms civilians who do not pay taxes to the FARC.

The FARC has also launched a military offensive of sorts in areas where it still has enough armed strength to make a show of force: Choco in the north-western corner of the country bordering the Pacific Ocean and Panama, the north-eastern range of the Andes and the Llanos Orientales (eastern tropical plains), the southern border of the country north of Ecuador, and the mountains surrounding the valley of the Rio Cauca south of the city of Cali.

Whether or not this military offensive is coordinated with the FARC’s political offensive remains to be seen: the military offensive could be an effort to enter negotiations with a stronger bargaining position or, as some observers believe, it could be a sign that the FARC is divided between a core sector around its central leadership and regional units that are no longer following the orders of the central leadership.

In either case, the FARC’s political and military offensives have been met with counteroffensives by the government and military. The government has said it will not provide any demilitarised zone for negotiations and the military has said there will be no ceasefire during any negotiations that might take place. The military’s counteroffensive has effectively defeated the FARC´s “armed strike” in Choco, and has caused the FARC serious losses of leadership cadre and fighters everywhere else in the country.

Time to take stock

Whether or not negotiations do occur in the near future, it is a good time to take a step back and take stock of the long guerrilla war in Colombia.

First, it should be clear that Colombia has always been very different from countries like China, Vietnam, Korea and Yugoslavia, which fought national liberation struggles against occupying armies of imperialist invaders. Colombia has never been occupied by a foreign army since the struggle for independence from Spain. The Colombian state was formed out of the independence struggle and maintains its legitimacy as an expression of Colombian nationalism in the eyes of most of the people in Colombia and Latin America.

Second, but perhaps not as obvious, Colombia has always been a very different case from Nicaragua and Cuba. In terms of state regimes, the pre-revolutionary regimes in both of these countries had been installed by US military interventions. In addition, Fulgencio Batista in Cuba and Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua were dictators who ruled without even the figleaf of contested elections or constitutional regimes. Despite corruption, election fraud, civil wars and the use of terror against its political opponents, the Colombian ruling class has maintained a pretence of a constitutional electoral system throughout its history.

In terms of the larger societies, in 1979 Nicaragua was the size of one Colombian department and had no large cities. In 1959 Cuba was the size of two or three Colombian departments, and had one large city.

In contrast, Colombia is an urban country with increasingly strong interconnections between every city and town. Colombia has been a predominantly urban country since before the founding of the modern guerrilla movements. In 1951, 38.7 per cent of the 11.5 million people lived in urban areas, and there were six cities with populations of over 100,000. By 1985 the urbanised percentage had grown to 67.2 per cent, and there were nearly two dozen cities of over 100,000 and four cities with populations of over 1,000,000. Today about 18 million of the country’s more than 46 million people live in six urban areas of over 1,000,000 people, and there are more than 50 cities with populations between 100,000 and 1,000,000.


The real social basis for the rise and continuation of guerrillerismo in Colombia is the struggle for land between poor farmers and large landlords and adventurers. In particular, guerrilla struggle took the form of rural self-defence against the predatory armed bands of the terratenientes, and against the armed forces of the state which was controlled by these same large landowners.

The struggle for land in Colombia has always been at its most acute in the ever-moving agricultural frontier. These are the areas where intensive agriculture, both large scale and small, meet the enormous areas which are farmed extensively or not at all by indigenous groups. Movements of small farmers into these zones has always been based primarily on subsistence agriculture, but as the population of a new area increases and market towns are formed, subsistence farming turns into cultivation of cash crops for sale in local markets.

In contrast, large-scale farming moves into the agricultural frontier to produce market crops and cattle for Colombia’s cities and for export markets. Migration of small-scale subsistence farmers into a new region requires little or no investment in roads or other infrastructure, but large-scale agriculture production for the cities inevitability means road construction, road improvement and other large scale infrastructure projects.

The agricultural frontier has spread out in concentric figures around the populated areas concentrated in the plateaus and valleys of the Andes cordilleras, in the valleys of the Magdalena and Cauca rivers, and in the northern coastal lowlands. From these areas it has jumped over mountains to the tropical coastal plains of the Pacific coast and to the vast plains east of the Andes in the Orinoco basin and the Colombian Amazon.

These frontier areas have been the strongholds of the guerrilla organisations, the areas in which illicit drugs have been cultivated, processed and shipped, and the areas in which most of the armed conflict has occurred.

Population growth has been a contradictory process which has fuelled both the migration of small-scale farmers to the agricultural frontier and the growth of the cities. Urban growth has in turn spurred on the movement of large scale capitalist farmers into the agricultural frontiers where they immediately come into conflict with the expansion of small scale farming.

Historically, the result of this process was the extremely bloody period of Colombian history known as La Violencia. Conventional estimates put the death toll from 1948 to 1958 at more than 200,000 people or somewhere between 1 and 2 per cent of the total population of the country.

Not paradoxically, the terror in the countryside led to mass migrations to the cities, and to increased growth of the urban economy and markets adding additional incentives to increased incursions of large scale capitalist farming into the agricultural frontier. This was a classic case of what Marx called the primitive accumulation of capital.

La Violencia never really ended, although its political form changed.

What began as a civil war between the Liberal and Conservative parties became more and more clearly a war of the large landowners against the small landowners, especially those led by Liberal Party and communist self-defence forces in what came to be called the “independent republic”.

By 1967 three important guerrilla groups had come into existence: the FARC, the ELN and the EPL. The latter two, unlike the Communist Party-led rural militias that formed FARC at the outset, drew their members largely from the youth, especially university students.

In 1974 another guerrilla organisation was formed. Dissidents from the FARC who believed that the cities rather than the countryside were the key battleground joined together with the socialist wing of ANAPO (Alianza Nacional Popular, National Popular Alliance), the political party which supported former military dictator Rojas Pinilla, to form the Movimiento 19 de Abril (M-19, 19th of April Movement).

Following a fraudulent election in 1970, a decade of radicalisation began in Colombia. It was centred in the rapidly growing student and trade union movements. M-19 was only one of the products of that radicalisation. All the old left parties grew, and new ones were formed.

Out of the mass movement of millions, thousands of radicalised youth joined the FARC, the ELN, the EPL, M-19 and smaller guerrilla groups. Most of the generation of guerrilleros who now lead the surviving organisations came from among that generation of youth.

Nevertheless, the general radicalisation of the country did not automatically translate into greater popular support in the countryside for the guerrilla organisations. The guerrilla organisations found themselves on the horns of a dilemma: increased numbers of fighters drawn from the urban radicalisation required arms, housing, clothing, food, medical care and training, but the resources to do all of these things were not readily available in the rural areas where these organisations were operating.

Support from outside of the country also proved to be inadequate as ripples from the crisis in the Soviet Union spread outward to affect Cuba, the African revolutions, the Sandinistas and the left in Europe, Asia and North America.

Cocaine changes the game

When the cocaine boom began at the end of the 1970s the stakes were raised in the struggle for land. Land that was not suitable for coffee, rice, sugar, bananas or the industrial greenhouses of the flower industry was more than suitable for growing coca. A renewed scramble to appropriate land in isolated areas began. Small farmers were often murdered, frequently expropriated under threat of death, or sometimes began to grow coca themselves as a cash crop supplement to subsistence.

The cocaine boom intersected with the existing guerrilla movements and with the clandestine paramilitary war against them.

At first all the guerrilla organisations were strongly against any relation to the drug dealers and to coca growers, although some of the drug dealers recognised common interests with the guerrilla organisations. Both were outside of the law and were armed, and the guerrilla organisations were in need of money and arms from the black markets. Nevertheless, early commercial relations between the guerrilla organisations and drug gangs went from bad to worse after M-19 kidnapped Martha Nieves Ochoa, the daughter of a member of the traditional landowning oligarchy and sister of the Ochoa brothers, who were founders of the Medellín Cartel. A meeting of 223 major drug dealers was held soon after, which established a new organisation called Muerte a Secuestradores (MAS, Death to Kidnappers).

The MAS became the seed bed for the formation of the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), which worked closely with the Colombian army to spread a reign of terror throughout the regions in which the guerrillas operated. Within a decade the AUC had moved into the cities and within two decades it had become a powerful force within the ruling class political parties from which point it shared state power during the recent two-term administration of President Alvaro Uribe Velez (paramilitaries claimed to have controlled 35% of the country’s members of Congress and the Senate).

According to confessions of “demobilised” members of this organisation to La Fiscalía General de la Nación (the Colombian attorney-general’s office), the AUC murdered 173,183 people, committed 597 massacres, forcibly recruited nearly 4000 children, caused 34,467 cases of “forced disappearances”, caused mass displacements of whole communities totalling 75,000 people, kidnapped 3527 people and committed 3532 acts of extortion.

Peace processes

Beginning in the early 1980s, and parallel to the rise of the paramilitary terror, numerous “peace processes” have occurred. From 1982 to 1984, the Belisario Betancur administration and the FARC negotiated the Uribe Accords. The FARC moved to enter the electoral arena through the formation of the Union Patriotica (UP) in alliance with the Communist Party. Simultaneously, the Betancur government’s negotiations with M-19 and the EPL resulted in the Corinto agreements, which were signed in August 1984. They established a bilateral ceasefire and the protocol for further negotiations which the army almost immediately broke with an ambush of top M-19 commanders.

Government perfidy was answered with an offensive by the M-19, leading to the seizure of the Palace of Justice, which was then destroyed in the subsequent attack by the Colombian army.

The UP participated in the elections of 1986 with modest results, but soon after its candidates and activists began to be attacked and assassinated. Presidential candidate Jaime Pardo Leal was assassinated on October 11, 1987, signalling all-out war on the militants and sympathisers of the UP. The exact number of the victims may never be known; the FARC has claimed 5000 were killed, the Communist Party says more than 4000 were killed. Many of these people were trade unionists and Communist Party militants whose public positions left them in more vulnerable positions than FARC militants who worked in clandestinity.

After the Palace of Justice fiasco the M-19 continued its military offensive but also began to reassess its strategy. Renewed negotiations led not only to the M-19’s demobilisation, but also played a key role in bringing about the election of a constitutional assembly to rewrite the country’s 100-year-old constitution. The three presidents of the assembly were Conservative Party leader Alvaro Gomez, Liberal Party leader Horacio Serpa and the M-19’s Antonio Navarro Wolff. The new constitution became the law of the land in 1991.

Although the FARC chose not to enter this peace process, several smaller guerrilla organisations did.

As in every other peace process, the government used the process to assassinate guerrilla leaders. M-19’s central leader and presidential candidate Carlos Pizarro was assassinated on a plane while supposedly protected by a security team from the DAS (Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad, Administrative Security Department, Colombia’s domestic and foreign intelligence agency).

The M-19 did not return to armed struggle, but instead launched itself on the path of electoralism. That path led to the formation of a broad left electoral alliance that included the Communist Party, the MOIR (Movimiento Obrero Independiente y Revolucionario, Independent and Revolutionary Workers Movement, the largest Maoist organisation in Colombia), ANAPO and many smaller organisations.

In Uraba, military and paramilitary operations against the EPL decimated its ranks and left only a shell of the organisation. One surviving splinter formed a political party, also named EPL (Esperanza, Paz y Libertad), which became a pawn of the paramilitaries. The UP, which had strong support in the region, was all but wiped out in bloodshed in which the AUC established complete dominance in a region in where the left had been extremely strong.


Six years after the new constitution had gone into effect, the FARC began new peace negotiations, this time with the government of President Andres Pastrana. Although the FARC did not agree to a ceasefire, Pastrana agreed to remove the Colombian armed forces from a 42,000 km² area in El Caguán in south-eastern Colombia. This demilitarised zone became known as the despeje.

Pastrana’s strategy, coordinated with administration of US President Bill Clinton through “Plan Colombia”, was aimed at winning a political victory over the FARC. The FARC’s strategy aimed at using negotiations to gain military advantages that would enable it to launch a final offensive to take the capital city of Bogotá.

During the nearly four years of the despeje the FARC governed the territory as if it were an independent country. Peace negotiations and FARC military offensives were televised and widely reported in the print media. FARC military strategy was to attack long-distance high-voltage transmission towers and police stations in small towns, while also setting up roadblocks to charge travellers a tax. The FARC stepped up its policy of taxation and arrests to the point that by the end of the period, it held over 450 people captive. The majority were owners of medium-sized farms and small businesses, many were soldiers and police officers, and the most famous were political figures. These included 12 deputies of the departmental legislature of Valle de Cauca, the governor of the Department of Antioquia and presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt.

By the end of the period, the FARC was more politically isolated than it had ever been before, and the ruling class of the country was more united than ever before in its determination to defeat the FARC. The Pastrana government had won the political victory it sought at the beginning of the negotiations.

The long offensive against the FARC

The 2002 election of Alvaro Uribe to succeed Pastrana expressed the consensus within the Colombian ruling class that they finally had achieved sufficient political support within the cities, especially from the country’s diverse middle classes, to launch an all-out offensive against the FARC.

The military offensive was based on the decades-long build-up following the lines suggested by United States military advisors during the Cold War: military intelligence, ranger units, paramilitary war, economic development.

Military intelligence was both human and electronic. The Colombian military had spent decades infiltrating the FARC and surrounding it with observers. In addition it offered rewards of up to US$2 million for information leading to the capture or death of important FARC leaders. Electronic intelligence was controlled by the United States using over flights by spy planes, spy satellites and surveillance of civilian communication networks.

The paramilitary-orchestrated terrorism offensive by the AUC was aimed at trade unionists and civilians who the government believed might be sympathetic to the guerrillas. This element of the offensive aimed at “drying up the sea” in which the FARC swam. Within regions where the FARC had some real popular support, the paramilitary terror led to mass displacement of the rural and small town populations to the cities.

Although some efforts were made to decrease levels of corruption and increase combat readiness of the army, only a small portion of Colombia’s soldiers were really needed to fight the outnumbered FARC. Previous ranger units were reorganised into the airborne rapid deployment force (Fuerza de Despliegue Rápido, FUDRA) under Plan Colombia during the Pastrana government. This force was expanded to five brigades during the Uribe administration. It was used to retake the despeje and for almost all subsequent offensive actions against the FARC including the attacks that have killed many of the FARC’s main commanders.

The offensive against the FARC also included an international component with three major goals: reducing sympathy for the FARC among the broad left in other countries, eliminating safe havens for FARC operations outside of Colombia and reducing FARC income from cocaine trading.

The Uribe government’s great success in this diplomatic offensive was getting the FARC placed on all the major international lists of terrorist organisations. Nevertheless, most Latin American countries did not follow suit.

The strategy was almost completely derailed when Colombia bombed the camp of FARC commander Raul Reyes in Ecuador in 2010. The incident led to a complete rupture of relations between Colombia and its two most important neighbours, Venezuela and Ecuador.

Uribe’s replacement as president, Juan Manuel Santos, made restoration of ties with Venezuela and Ecuador a top priority when he took office in 2010. Commercial and diplomatic relations have been fully restored, and the Venezuelan government has begun to cooperate with the Colombian military and DAS to arrest and extradite FARC leaders.

Perhaps symbolically, on March 21, the same day the news media announced the bombing of Frente 10 in Aguas Claras, it also announced the arrest of William Alberto Chitiva Asprilla, whose noms de guerre in the FARC were “Fernando Bustos” and “Marquetaliano”. Chitiva Asprilla was one of the last remaining founders of the FARC still living. He was arrested in Venezuela by Venezuelan authorities working in a joint operation with the Colombian military and secret police.

End game

Although the FARC still leads thousands of armed fighters and has the financial resources to continue fighting, the decimation of its leadership combined with its political isolation has brought it to the point of no return. It may enter into a new peace process with the government of Juan Manuel Santos, although it has little to bargain with. On the other hand, if it does not, the continued offensive against it by the Colombian military could result in its complete disintegration as an organised force.