The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia — FARC) were Colombia’s largest irregular army. They operated in various regions of the country in search of resources to finance their nearly 50-year war against the State.
The FARC was the oldest and most important guerrilla group in the Western Hemisphere, and for a long time, they financed their political and military battle against the Colombian government through kidnapping, extortion, and participating in the drug trade on various levels.
Following an open war against the Colombian State and after several military defeats during the government of Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010), the FARC began to weaken. After the 2008 death of Pedro Antonio Marín, alias “Manuel Marulanda,” its longest-serving ideological and military commander, the group focused less on controlling territory and more on using guerrilla warfare tactics, combined with strengthening its urban networks and increasing its political reach.
In 2012, the group began peace negotiations with the government of then-President Juan Manuel Santos, which culminated in 2016 with the signing of a peace agreement between the guerrilla group and the Colombian government, marking the end of the organization.However, following their demobilization, several FARC commanders formed dissident groups collectively known as the ex-FARC mafia.
The FARC’s roots can be traced back to the outbreaks of violence that afflicted rural Colombia following the assassination of the populist leader of the Liberal Party, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, in Bogotá on April 9, 1948. The assassination set off a sectarian struggle, first in Bogotá and later in the countryside, which started out as a battle between the country’s two chief parties, the Liberals and Conservatives. Entire villages were targeted for their political affiliations, among them the village of Ceilán, in the Valle del Cauca department, where the Liberal Party recruited young men like Manuel Marulanda, then known by the alias “Tirofijo,” to fight off the Conservative paramilitary onslaught. The violence between the Liberal and Conservative parties, which became known as “La Violencia,” would leave close to 200,000 dead during the following 15 years. Hundreds of thousands more fled their hometowns for larger cities or more remote rural areas.
Among those who fled was a small faction under the control of the Communist Party of Colombia (Partido Comunista de Colombia). These colonists survived during their marches by organizing militias, or what were known as “self-defense” units known as “autodefensas.” The Communist Party autodefensas were part of a larger Colombian communist strategy of “combining all forms of struggle,” which also included developing unions and student organizations, and vying for political posts. The organization’s unity and strategy attracted some members of the Liberal Party’s militias, among them Manuel Marulanda, who joined the party some time in the 1950s. The Communist Party’s rural factions were tiny but represented an ideological threat to the government, which launched an offensive against their stronghold, the village of Marquetalia in the Tolima department, in 1964. The offensive cleared the rebels out but provided the spark for the party to formalize its armed group: the Southern Tolima Bloc (Bloque Sur de Tolima).
The rebel group adopted the name Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 1966, and began a slow, steady rise. The growth of the illegal drug market helped. In the mid-1970s, the guerrillas changed their bylaws and began collecting taxes from the numerous marijuana growers in the south of the country. They later expanded that mandate to include coca leaf plantations. During the same period, the FARC began kidnapping en masse and extorting large and small businesses. In the early 1980s, the FARC began taxing cocaine laboratories that operated in their areas of influence.
The new revenue streams meant better equipment and more troops, but they came with a very high cost. Large cocaine traffickers began balking at the “taxes;” they also bought land and began to exert influence on local politics. When leftist rebels from another guerrilla faction kidnapped the daughter of a large drug trafficking organization, several traffickers organized a paramilitary organization, Death to Kidnappers (Muerte a Secuestradores – MAS). There was also fighting between drug traffickers and the FARC over the rebels’ alleged theft of a large stash of cash in the Eastern Plains. Farmers, businessmen, and small shop owners began to turn on the rebels because of their excessive extortion and kidnapping.
In 1984, the FARC tried another tactic and launched a political party while negotiating a peace settlement with the government. The Patriotic Union (Union Patriótica – UP) was small but gained momentum as the country shifted to greater local government control of funds and projects. In its first elections in 1986, the UP won several seats in Congress and its presidential candidate garnered over 300,000 votes, a record for a leftist candidate. In the country’s first municipal elections in 1988, the party won 16 mayoral campaigns and another 247 city council posts. The reaction from those who opposed the party was swift. Paramilitary groups and drug traffickers, at times working closely with the Colombian government, assassinated UP members en masse. Over 3,000 were killed in a six-year period, and the FARC returned to the mountains, where they continued their meteoric rise.
This expansion continued apace in the 1990s. After the government launched an aerial assault on the guerrillas’ headquarters in 1991, the FARC began spreading their forces throughout the countryside and developed their offensive tactics. In the mid-1990s, the rebels perpetrated a series of spectacular and debilitating assaults on government forces, capturing hundreds of Colombian soldiers and policemen who quickly became bargaining chips in a new round of negotiations with the government. Not long after a prisoner swap between the two sides, the government ceded to the rebels a swath of territory the size of Switzerland in the southern departments of Caquetá and Meta, opening the door to more peace talks.
The talks, however, were in trouble from the start when Tirofijo, who had since taken on the formal nom de guerre of “Manuel Marulanda,” did not appear at the inauguration. The years that followed included some advances but mostly difficulties. The FARC used the territory to regroup, recruit, train, and launch attacks on nearby towns. When the army gave chase, the rebels would retreat to the demilitarized zone. The FARC also held kidnapping victims in the region and oversaw large plantations of coca, the plant used to make cocaine
Those talks ended in 2002 when the FARC hijacked an airplane and landed it along a highway, taking several passengers captive. Fighting broke out immediately as the government sought to retake the land it had ceded for the negotiations. Shortly thereafter, the guerrillas kidnapped Green Party presidential candidate Íngrid Betancourt and her campaign manager, Clara Rojas. In February 2003, an airplane carrying four US government contractors and a Colombian pilot who were doing surveillance over the FARC-controlled region in the south crashed. Three of the contractors were taken captive.
These events coincided with the 2002 election of President Álvaro Uribe, who, unlike his predecessor Andrés Pastrana, had campaigned on a platform of defeating the guerrillas militarily. The FARC greeted him by launching mortars at the presidential palace during the August 2002 inauguration.
Undeterred, Uribe reinforced the army, strengthened police intelligence, placed security forces in nearly every municipality and created incentive programs for rebels to turn themselves in to the authorities. This effort got a boost from the United States, which had begun an ambitious assistance program in 2000 called “Plan Colombia.” Following the kidnapping of the three contractors, the US intelligence services upped their training, equipment, and financial assistance to the Colombians, accelerating an already fast-track professionalization program.
In 2012, the group entered peace talks with the government of Juan Manuel Santos, and the negotiators announced a bilateral ceasefire deal in June 2016. A final agreement was reached between the two parties in August 2016. Subsequently, the FARC demobilized in “concentration zones” throughout Colombia known as Temporary Normalization Zones (Zonas Veredales Transitorias de Normalización — ZVTN). These zones later became Territorial Spaces for Training and Reincorporation (Espacios Territoriales de Capacitación y Reincorporación — ETCR), places where former combatants hoped to develop productive projects and reincorporate into civilian life.However, due to pressure from criminal groups such as the Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia — AGC), the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional — ELN) or even the FARC dissidents themselves, many of the former combatants concentrated in the ETCRs were forced to move or rejoin these criminal organizations. For their part, the remnants of the FARC’s political movement are concentrated in the Comunes party, led and formed by former guerrilla members.
The FARC were a complex group with a well-defined structure and line of command. Their organizational structure has evolved throughout the years as a result of a process of adaptation to the main challenges of the internal conflict. Ostensibly hierarchical, the geography and size of Colombia made it nearly impossible for the central command, known as the Secretariat, to exercise control over the whole organization, which was broken up into fronts. The FARC had a vast support network of logistical experts in bombing, transportation, kidnapping, arms trafficking, food storage, etc., and managed militia groups in the cities.
The relative autonomy of the fronts could make them lethal criminal organizations. Indeed, these units, of which there were over 70, had an incentive to thieve, kidnap, extort, and plunder since their growth depended, in part, on how much money they could collect.
On the political front, the FARC were connected to the Communist Party of Colombia. Each rebel unit had a political operative, and each soldier had political as well as military duties. These included paying attention to and analyzing the daily news, and spreading the gospel of the FARC to family and friends. For all intents and purposes, the FARC had broken from the Communist Party, and after their own political project with the UP failed, they ran two clandestine structures, the Bolivarian Movement and the Clandestine Communist Party of Colombia.
During the FARC’s final years, the Colombian government dealt several major blows to the guerrilla group’s leadership. In September 2007, the Colombian Air Force bombed a FARC camp in the eastern departments of Guaviare, killing the rebel leader Tomás Medina Caracas, alias “Negro Acacio.” In March 2008, the government bombed a FARC camp located near the Putumayo River, a couple of kilometers inside Ecuador, killing Luis Édgar Devia Silva, alias “Raúl Reyes” and several other guerrillas. That same month, Manuel Marulanda died of natural causes.
In that context, the new leadership of the FARC was composed of Guillermo León Sáenz Vargas, alias “Alfonso Cano,” and Víctor Julio Suárez, alias “Mono Jojoy.” Mono Jojoy was killed in September 2010 and Alfonso Cano in November 2011. Several other FARC leaders took refuge in Venezuela and other neighboring states. The FARC’s last commander was Rodrigo Londoño Echeverry, alias “Timochenko,” current member of the Comunes party, the political bid of the guerrilla leaders after the signing of the peace agreement.
The FARC had a widespread presence throughout Colombia, especially in the southern part of the country and in the Eastern Plains, near the Venezuelan border. They also had a presence in the southwestern departments of Cauca, Valle del Cauca, and Nariño. The FARC also had a presence in the western departments of Chocó and Antioquia, among others.
Allies and Enemies
In addition to their war against the Colombian government, the FARC had one of their longest-running enemies in the paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia – AUC). After their formation in the early 1990s, the AUC fought the FARC for control of strategic drug trafficking areas and targeted communities they considered loyal to the FARC, perpetrating massacres and other atrocities.
Between 2005 and 2009, the FARC fought a bloody battle against the ELN, itself a smaller guerrilla group. However, in December 2009, the guerrilla leaders negotiated a ceasefire and a nationwide alliance, after which evidence emerged that the guerrilla groups carried out joint attacks and even worked hand in hand to extort money from several companies.
Similarly, some FARC fronts also collaborated with criminal groups known as BACRIM (an acronym for “bandas criminales,” or criminal gangs) in drug trafficking, selling them coca base and cocaine.
Although the signing of the peace agreement put an end to the FARC guerrillas, Colombia’s internal conflict is far from over. The departure of the guerrillas has resulted in the criminalization of some of their dissidents, which has generated groups similar to the BACRIM: criminal organizations that formed after the demobilization of the country’s paramilitary forces.
These dissident groups have fought each other and other armed actors to gain control over the criminal economies left behind by the FARC, such as coca cultivation and illegal mining.
Some of these former guerrillas also transferred to the ELN, taking with them weapons, resources and criminal economies. Today, the ex-FARC Mafia have reoccupied several areas of Colombian territory, carrying out a sort of new criminal governance.
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