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Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia
The Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – Ejército del Pueblo ("Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People's Army", or FARC-EP) was established in 1964 as the paramilitary wing of the Colombian Communist Party, and is Colombia's oldest, largest, most capable, and best-equipped insurgent force. The FARC-EP is governed by a secretariat, led by septuagenarian Manuel Marulanda Vélez (Pedro Antonio Marín), a.k.a. "Tirofijo", and six others, including senior military commander Jorge Briceño , a.k.a. "Mono Jojoy". It is organized along military lines and includes several urban fronts. FARC has roughly 12,000 to 18,000 members and now maintains presence in approximately 35 to 40% of Colombia's territory, mostly in the jungles of the southeast and the plains at the base of the Andes mountains. The "-EP" (Ejército del Pueblo) was added to the group's official name in 1982 during the Seventh Guerrilla Conference, as a sign of their expected progression from guerrilla warfare into conventional military action that was outlined on that occasion.
The FARC-EP has self-proclaimed itself as a politico-military Marxist-Leninist organization of Bolivarian inspiration . It claims that it represents the rural poor against Colombia's wealthy classes and opposes United States influence in Colombia (particularly, but not limited to, Plan Colombia), the privatization of natural resources, multinational corporations, and rightwing paramilitary violence.
The FARC-EP also claims that the armed revolutionary struggle is necessary in order to do this, because of what it still perceives to be a closed political environment in Colombia and because of past politically motivated violence against its members or former members, including those that were part of the Unión Patriótica (Colombia). Existing legal leftwing and independent parties in Colombia, which are themselves not immune from threats and violent actions from rightwing extremists, tend to directly disagree with the FARC's conclusions on this matter.
Critics of the FARC-EP often characterize the group as a terrorist organization. There is strong evidence that it, like the right-wing paramilitary groups that are their sworn enemies (e.g. AUC), has attacked and kidnapped civilian targets. The FARC also frequently recruits children as soldiers and informants. The United States Department of State includes FARC on its list of foreign terrorist organizations, as does the European Union.
During the late 1940's in rural areas of the country, isolated proto-guerrilla bands, backed by the more radical members of the Colombian Liberal Party, which were the precursors for modern-day Marxist guerrillas, formed in order to violently defend land that conservative land owners were trying to reclaim. In 1948, prominent Liberal political Jorge Eliécer Gaitán was murdered, creating deep and long-lasting wounds and becaming the basis for the most violent period in Colombia’s history.
The period that followed saw the loss of some 200,000 lives and became known as La Violencia (The Violence). “Toward the end of La Violencia a new generation of young Colombians who had been socialized to think that violence was a normal way of life…increasingly took to banditry.” By 1953, the Colombian Conservative Party government of Laureano Gómez (elected 1950 in an election boycotted by the Liberal party), unable to cope with the situation, became increasingly unpopular in the eyes of both public opinion and other political figures of both parties . In what was seen as a successful effort that sought to reestablish order, the military, under the figure of General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla , seized control of the country in 1953.
The new military government offered amnesty to the bandits and guerrillas that surrendered their weapons. And most did. However, some Liberal guerrilla groups included a large number of orthodox and unorthodox communists who refused to surrender their arms, but instead retreated to isolated areas of the country where they continued to operate with impunity.
Civilian rule was restored in 1958 after moderate Conservatives and Liberals, with the support of dissident sectors of the military, agreed to unite under a bipartisan coalition known as the National Front. Meanwhile, armed self-defense groups of communists had successfully established their own government in a remote region of the country, known as the “republic” of Marquetalia. The government initially ignored the growing influence of communists until 1964 when, under pressure by Conservatives who considered such autonomous "republics" as a threat, the Colombian army was ordered to raze the communist controlled “republic.”
Following the attack the guerrillas dispersed, only to later reorganize under the banner of the "Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia" (FARC), which became the official military arm of the Communist Party. While the group officially came into existence in 1964, it continued to be led by former liberal and communist guerrillas, and therefore some analysts believe that, in several respects, it “was the continuation of the revolutionary movement that had begun in 1948.”
Other observers point out that, by the time that the 1964 movement was founded, different national and international realities, such as the successful example of armed revolution provided by the Cuban revolution, had come into being and had a more direct influence on the final creation and establishment of the FARC (and the contemporary ELN). As FARC continued to grow, it established itself throughout the country in semi-autonomous fronts.
FARC has financed itself through kidnapping ransoms, extortion, and protection of the drug trade. Many of their fronts have also overrun small communities in order to distribute propaganda and, more importantly, to pillage local banks. Businesses operating in rural areas, including agricultural, oil, and mining interests, were required to pay "vaccines" (monthly payments) which “protected” them from subsequent attacks and kidnappings. An additional, albeit less lucrative, source of revenue was highway blockades where guerrillas stopped motorists and buses in order to confiscate jewelry and money, which were especially prevalent during the presidencies of Ernesto Samper Pizano (1994-1998) and that of Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002).
Over time, fewer recruits joined the organization for ideological reasons, but rather as a means to escape poverty and unemployment. “FARC’s narcotics-related income for 1995 reportedly totaled $647 million.” Although the FARC rarely provides a regular cash pay to the majority of its members, per capita income for Colombian guerrilla fighters has at times been calculated to reach at least 40 times the national average.
By 1998, some studies showed that FARC’s ranks could have swelled to approximately some 15,000 guerrilla fighters, up from an estimated 7,500 in 1992, and effectively were in a position to control and freely operate through large rural areas of the country (the high-end estimates being about 40%-50%, according to some analysts). One observer controversially noted that, on average, they would appear to be “better armed, equipped, and trained than the Colombian armed forces.” Other observers would dispute the current applicability of this assessment in the face of increased U.S. aid and training to the Colombia state and its military.
The FARC-EP has employed bombings, killings, landmines, kidnapping, extortion, hijacking, as well as guerrilla and conventional military action against Colombian political, military, and economic targets, and attacks on those it considers a threat to its movement. It has not been uncommon for civilians to die, directly or indirectly, due to many of these actions, and civilians have also been targeted directly in most attacks, such as the April 16 and April 18 attacks on Toribío, Cauca. A February 2005 report from the United Nation's High Commissioner for Human Rights mentioned that, during 2004, "FARC-EP continued to commit grave breaches [of human rights] such as murders of protected persons, torture and hostage-taking, which affected many civilians, including women, returnees, boys and girls, and ethnic groups." 
In March 1999, the FARC-EP killed three U.S. citizens (which were claimed to have been Native American]] rights activists) on Venezuelan territory after kidnapping them in Colombia. The FARC-EP is responsible for most of the ransom kidnappings in Colombia; the group targets wealthy landowners and prominent international and domestic officials.
The FARC is believed to have ties to narcotics traffickers, principally through the provision of armed protection. During the mid- to late- 1990s, several drugwar analysts have stated that the FARC would have become increasingly involved in the drug trade, controlling farming, production and exportation of cocaine in those areas of the country under their influence.
Brazilian druglord Fernandinho Beira-Mar was captured in Colombia on April 20, 2001 while in the company of FARC-EP guerrillas. Colombian and Brazilian authorities have claimed that this constitutes proof of further cooperation between the FARC-EP and the druglord based on the exchange of weapons for cocaine, though Fernandinho himself and the FARC-EP have denied this. FARC itself has claimed that in their areas of influence the growth of coca plants (which while an enduring tradition in one form or another for centuries in the Colombian countryside for minority groups and especially by some of the indigenous communities, it had never reached its contemporary levels of plantation) by farmers would be taxed on the same basis as any other crop, even though there would be higher cash profits stemming from coca production and exportation.
The Late 1990s - Peace Feelers
In hope of negotiating a peace settlement, on November 7, 1998, President Andrés Pastrana Arango granted FARC a 42,000 km² safe haven, centered around the San Vicente del Caguan settlement, which was the FARC-EP condition for beginning peace talks. The peace process with the government continued at a slow pace for three years during which the BBC and other news organizations reported that the FARC-EP also used the safe haven to import arms, export drugs, recruit minors, and build up their military. After a series of high-profile actions, including the kidnapping of presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt (who was traveling in guerrilla territory) and other political figures, Pastrana ended the peace talks in February 2002 and ordered the armed forces to start retaking the FARC-controlled zone after a 48-hour respite that had been previously agreed to with the rebel group.
Recent history - Back to the War
For most of the period between 2002 and 2004, the FARC-EP was believed to be in a relative / temporary strategic withdrawal due to the increasing military and police actions of new hardline president Álvaro Uribe Vélez, which led to the capture or desertion of many fighters and medium-level commanders, one of the most important of which has been that of "Simón Trinidad" (Juvenal Ovidio Palmera Pineda) in January 2004, a former banker turned rebel, who had participated as a high-profile negotiator in the recent Pastrana peace talks, and who was also part of the central command of the organization.
During the first two years of the Uribe administration, the strength of several FARC fronts, mostly notably in Cundinamarca and Antioquia, was broken by the government's military operations, and several analysts reported that many of the other FARC structures, while mostly intact, reverted back to guerrilla warfare, using "hit and run" tactics against targets of opportunity and the weaker links in the military's defenses.
An article in the respected Bogotá newspaper El Tiempo on June 12, 2004 reported that Guillermo León Sánchez (aka "Alfonso Cano") had apparently been elected commander-in-chief by the estado mayor central (central command), with the blessing of Manuel Marulanda Vélez. When questioned about the matter by interviews, different FARC spokesmen have, both directly and indirectly, tended to dismiss this claim.
In June 2004, 34 coca farmers were found bound hand and foot and shot with automatic weapons. Blame was placed on the FARC-EP by the government, and after several days of uncertainty the FARC-EP publicly claimed responsibility for the massacre, saying they had killed the farmers for being supporters of right-wing paramilitaries and accusing the government of shedding "crocodile tears" for their deaths. The United Nations condemned the massacre as a war crime. After the FARC's communique was made public, other human rights organizations likewise rejected the event and called on the Colombian government to protect villagers from the guerrillas. 
Another incident occurred on July 10, 2004, when the FARC allegedly assassinated seven peasants (Francisco Giraldo, Carlos Torres, José Velásquez, Israel Velásquez, Mauricio Herrera, John Jairo Usuga and Pablo Usuga), in Samaná, near the municipality of San Carlos, Antioquia, according to the mayor of San Carlos, Colombian authorities and witnesses to the event.
The victims of the massacre were labourers who had returned to the zone after being forcefully displaced by the FARC earlier, presumably due to military or paramilitary activity in the area. They were apparently murdered because they had not received permission from the FARC to return yet, according to witnesses. The July 10 massacre provoked a further exodus of at least 80 persons from the surrounding rural area towards the urban locality of San Carlos.
On July 13, 2004, the office of the United Nations's High Commissioner for Human Rights publicly condemned this further act of violence and the ensuing displacement, accusing the FARC of violating article 17 of the additional Protocol II of the Geneva Convention and of international humanitarian law, expressing its solidarity towards the families of the victims.
The office reminded the FARC, which in the past has publicly rejected the legal applicability of the Geneva Convention to its case (though it also claims to be following most of its directives anyway), that these principles must be followed by any person or group of persons, independent of their legal condition.   
According to the AP news agency, on August 18, 2004, a Colombian arms broker, Carlos Gamarra Murillo, arrested on April 1, 2004 in Tampa, Florida, USA, was charged with attempting to buy $4 million in rocket launchers, machine guns, and other heavy weapons and ammunition for the FARC, which would have been paid for with 2 tons of cocaine (worth 60% of the total amount, according to investigators) and cash. The weapons would then have been shipped through Venezuela, according to investigators. US Attorney General John Ashcroft stated that Gamarra "attempted to provide the fuel to feed a dangerous foreign terrorist organization". Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) chief Michael Garcia signaled the indictment as "a significant achievement".
Gamarra apparently made contact with an undercover informant in Colombia in March 2003, according to an ICE agent who testified in April. Gamarra is currently held without bail after heading to Tampa in order to meet U.S. agents posing as weapons dealers. During the next year, it is alleged that he met and called the agents in order to arrange the weapons shipment and also inquired about buying surface-to-air missiles, presumably for use against Colombian military helicopters and other aircraft.
On November 27, 2004, Colombian Defense Minister Jorge Alberto Uribe told reporters that apparently the FARC leadership had secretly commanded their followers to attempt to attack visiting U.S. President George W. Bush during his visit to the city of Cartagena, according to intelligence reports. It was mentioned that any such intentions were made impractical by the presence of about 15,000 members of the Colombian security forces in the area, in addition to U.S. security personnel. No specific evidence (such as the content of the intelligence reports) that FARC actually managed to organize such an attack has been publicly released.  Interior and Justice Minister Sabas Pretelt later downplayed the comments, stating that he had no specific details about any concrete assassination plots directed against President Bush and the FARC strongly denied the accusation, blaming it on US intelligence sources. 
In early February 2005, a series of small scale military actions by the FARC, which resulted in an estimated 40 casualties (dead and wounded) for the Colombian security forces, were interpreted by many Colombian analysts as evidence of their remaining strength and as signs of a possible comeback for the group, signaling what could become the potential beginning of more offensive operations and the end of what was termed as their strategic withdrawal. It was speculated that these actions, and those that might follow later into the year, could be directed towards undermining the advances made by the policies of the Uribe administration, as a possible means to weaken Uribe's chances in the future 2006 electoral contest, where he was expected to run for reelection. 
Possibility of a prisoner exchange with the government
The FARC-EP have demanded the formalization of a mechanism for prisoner exchange, which would involve the release of between 50 and 60 jailed rebels in return for the liberation of the approximately 70 political and military hostages (not those held for extortion or economic reasons, which may number in the thousands) that the group currently holds, ever since the days of the Pastrana negotiations, when a limited exchange took place.
The newly elected Uribe administration initially ruled out any negotiation with FARC that did not include a cease-fire, and instead pushed for rescue operations, many of which have traditionally been successful when carried out by the police's GAULA anti-kidnapping group in urban settings (as opposed to the mountains and jungles where the FARC keeps most prisoners), according to official statistics.
However, relatives of most FARC kidnapping victims have come to strongly reject any potential rescue operations, in part due to the tragic death of the governor of Antioquia department, Guillermo Gaviria Correo , his peace advisor and several soldiers, kidnapped by the FARC during a peace march in 2003. The governor and the others were shot at close range by the FARC when the government launched an army (not GAULA) rescue mission into the jungle which failed as soon as the guerrillas learned of its presence in the area.
In August 2004, after several false starts and in the face of mounting pressure from relatives, former Liberal presidents Alfonso López Michelsen and Ernesto Samper Pizano and, as shown in recent Colombian polls , the growing majority popular backing in favor of a humanitarian exchange (more than 60% would consider Colombia a "better country" if the exchange took place), the Uribe government seems to have gradually flexibilized its position, announcing that it has given the FARC a formal proposal on July 23, in which it offers to free 50 to 60 jailed rebels in exchange for the political and military hostages held by the FARC (not including economic hostages as well, as the government had earlier demanded).
The government would make the first move, releasing insurgents charged or condemned for rebellion and either allowing them to leave the country or to stay and join the state's reinsertion program, and then the FARC would release the hostages in its possession, including Ingrid Betancourt. The proposal would have been carried out with the backing and support of the French and Swiss governments, which publicly supported it once it was revealed.
The move has been signaled as potentially positive by several relatives of the victims and political figures. Some critics of the president have considered that Uribe may seek to gain political prestige from such a move, though they would agree with the project in practice.  
FARC released a communique, dated August 20 but apparently published publicly by August 22, in which they denied having received the proposal earlier through the mediation of Switzerland (as the government had stated) and, while making note of the fact that a proposal had been made by Uribe's administration and that it hoped that common ground could eventually be reached, criticized it because they believe that any deal should allow them to decide how many of its jailed comrades should be freed and that they should be able to return to rebel ranks. 
On September 5, what has been considered as a sort of FARC counter proposal was revealed in the Colombian press. The FARC-EP is proposing that the government declare a "security" or "guarantee" zone for 72 hours in order for official insurgent and state negotiators to meet face to face and directly discuss a prisioner exchange. Government military forces would not have to leave the area but to concentrate in their available garrisons, in a similar move to that agreed by the Ernesto Samper Pizano administration (1994-1998) which allowed the rebel group to free some captured police and military. In addition, the Colombian government's peace commissioner would have to make an official public pronouncement regarding this proposal.
If the zone was created, the first day would be used for travelling to the chosen location, the second to discuss the matter, and the third for the guerrillas to abandon the area. The government would be able to chose as the location for the "security zone" among one of the municipalties of Peñas Coloradas, El Rosal or La Tuna, all in Caquetá department, where the FARC has clear rebel influence.
Some analysts have considered that this rebel proposal would also be seeking to reduce the pressure that recent military offensives may be exerting against the insurgents in Caquetá, Guaviare and Putumayo departments, and president Uribe stated that the "security zone" would demoralize the military, since they should free a region that has been fought fiercely. Also, the FARC has been known to change their mind easily and they seem to being using the kidnapped families' hopes of freedom to put the government under civilian pressure. It has been speculated by retired military officials that the FARC could potentially set up mines and other traps around the garrisoned troops while the zone is in place. Relatives of hostages currently in rebel hands have considered that both the FARC and government proposals may represent the biggest public advance in the last couple of years regarding their plight. 
On September 14, the FARC released an official communique in which they denied that the 72-hour proposal came from their organization, and instead asked for the demilitarization of San Vicente del Caguán and Cartagena del Chairá in Caquetá department in order to discuss the prisioner exchange, without any concrete time limit. The document also mentions that several hostages had to be moved to other locations, due to increased military activity in the south. The FARC again stated that, while they are open to discuss a prisioner exchange with the current representatives of the government, they will only consider opening peace negotiations with a different administration. 
On December 2, the government announced the pardon of 23 FARC prisoners, to encourage a reciprocal move. There was no immediate response from FARC to the latest gesture, and the 23 rebels to be released were all of low rank and had promised not to rejoin the armed struggle. The government is hoping to win the release of dozens of hostages, including three US citizens. In November, the FARC rejected a proposal to hand over 59 of its captives in exchange for 50 guerrillas imprisoned by the government. 
In a communique dated November 28 but released publicly on December 3, the FARC-EP declared that they are no longer insisting on the demilitarization of San Vicente del Caguán and Cartagena del Chairá as a pre-condition for the negotiation of the prisioner exchange, but instead that of Florida and Pradera in the Valle department.  They state that this area would lie outside the "area of influence" of both their Southern and Eastern Blocks (the FARC's strongest) and that of the military operations being carried out by the Uribe administration.
They request security guarantees both for the displacement of their negotiators and that of the guerrillas that would be freed, which are specifically stated to number as many as 500 or more, and ask the Catholic Church to coordinate the participation of the United Nations and other countries in the process.
The FARC-EP also mention in the communique that Simón Trinidad's extradition, which has been approved by the Supreme Court but still lacks the president's go-ahead, would be a serious obstacle to reaching a prisioner exchange agreement with the government. 
On December 17, 2004, the Colombian government authorized Trinidad's extradition to the United States, but stated that the measure could be revoked if the FARC released all 63 (political and military) hostages in its possession before December 30.
Most observers believe that the FARC will not accept this demand, and Trinidad himself had previously stated that he considers his future extradition and prosecution in the U.S. as an opportunity to publicly protest against the Uribe administration.
Kline, H. F., Colombia: Democracy Under Assault, Harper Collins, 1995
Osterling, J. P., Democracy in Colombia: Clientelist Politics and Guerrilla Warfare, Transaction Publishers, 1989
Drug Control: US Counternarcotics Efforts in Colombia Face Continuing Challenges, United States General Accounting Office, February 1998
Colombia: Guerrilla Economics, The Economist, January 13, 1996
The Suicide of Colombia, Foreign Policy Research Institute, September 7, 1998
Las FARC lamentan expectativas exageradas, El Nuevo Herald, April 22, 1999
- FARC website (in Spanish, English, Italian, Portuguese, Russian and German)
- BBC article: Colombia's most powerful rebels
- El Tiempo (in Spanish)
- Human Rights Watch| Humanitarian Law and its Application to the Conduct of the FARC-EP
- UN High Commissioner for Human Rights - Colombia 2005 Report (Spanish and English)
- Colombian President's Office
- Amnesty International| Press Release on FARC kidnapping and hostage-taking
- AUC website
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