In order to understand the FARC – its longevity as well as its successes and failures – it is important to recognize the historical context out of which this guerrilla group emerged. While Colombia’s history resembles that of other Latin American nations in many ways, there are some unique aspects to the country that have impacted it politically, socially and economically. For instance, unlike in any other Latin American country, Colombia’s principal cities – Bogotá, Medellín, Cali and Baranquilla – are separated from each other by vast expanses of towering mountain peaks and dense, lowland tropical jungles. Many of Colombia’s provincial regions developed in relative isolation from the capital, Bogotá. Prior to the twentieth century, it took less time to travel from the Caribbean port city of Cartagena across the Atlantic Ocean to Paris than to the nation’s capital – seated on a savannah 8,600 feet up in the Andes mountains. Those rare occasions on which rural Colombians had to deal with the national government usually involved confrontations with military forces operating in the interests of Bogotá’s political and economic elite. This geographic isolation for many Colombians bred a distrust of central government that still persists in rural Colombia. To this day, despite frequent claims made by mainstream analysts that Colombia is Latin America’s oldest democracy, the government in Bogotá has never effectively controlled all of the national territory.
Following independence from Spain in 1810, local landed elites, primarily white descendants of Spanish colonial rulers, held political and economic sway throughout Colombia and retained control of the country’s prime agricultural land. In essence, independence merely transferred rule from Spanish colonial administrators to an oligarchy comprising Spanish-descended Colombians serving their own political and economic interests. By the mid-nineteenth century, Colombia’s new ruling elite had formed two political parties – the Liberals and Conservatives – which would dominate Colombian politics until the end of the twentieth century. Initially, the Liberals favoured a federalist system of government, separation of church and state, and laissez-faire economics, while the Conservatives preferred a strong central government, close ties between church and state, and a government actively involved in economic policymaking. But by the mid-twentieth century, there was little difference between the two parties, particularly regarding economic policy.
Despite the country’s formidable geographic barriers, the two parties eventually managed to infiltrate many of Colombia’s settled regions, although constituents usually displayed a greater allegiance to regional party officials than to national leaders. Political differences between the Liberal and Conservative elite, both locally and nationally, frequently resulted in outbreaks of violence, pitting party loyalists from each faction against each other. While peasants routinely took part in Colombia’s many civil wars, these conflicts were fundamentally between the interests of the ruling elites and were not class-based liberation struggles. Peasants often fought to protect the interests of their Liberal or Conservative patrón, or local landowner, in return for moderate reforms that improved their own lot in life.
The turbulence of the nineteenth century culminated with the War of the Thousand Days (1899–1902). With Colombia’s economy suffering from a decline in world coffee prices and Conservatives having held power since 1886, Liberals disputed the 1898 election that brought Conservative candidate Manuel A. Sanclamente to power, and took up arms against the government. The war proved to be the bloodiest of Colombia’s many civil conflicts, with as many as 100,000 killed. By the end of 1902, the country’s economy was virtually paralysed and government forces held the military advantage, causing the Liberals to agree to lay down their arms in return for amnesty.
The same year saw the Conservative government agree to the Hay–Herrán Treaty that gave the United States the rights to build a transoceanic canal across the Colombian province of Panama. But in 1903, the Colombian Senate unanimously refused to ratify the treaty on the grounds that US control over the canal was incompatible with Colombian sovereignty. In November of that year, Washington was presented with another opportunity to obtain the rights to build the canal when Panamanian secessionists revolted against Bogotá. President Theodore Roosevelt responded to the uprising on the isthmus by dispatching US warships and troops to prevent Colombian forces sent to quell the revolt from reaching Panama City.
Three days later Washington officially recognized Panamanian independence and signed a new treaty with Philip Buneau-Varilla – the former chief engineer of the Panama Canal Company – before legitimate representatives of the new Panamanian government could reach Washington. Roosevelt ignored Panama’s protests over plans to establish a canal zone that would effectively cut the new country in half. Colombia also lodged official protests with Washington for supporting Panamanian independence, but was powerless to do anything about the situation.
While the loss of Panama caused many Colombians to resent and distrust the United States, some of the country’s economic elite continued to push for expanded ties with their powerful northern neighbour. Political tensions were partially alleviated in 1922 when the US Senate ratified the Urrutia–Thompson Treaty that called for Washington to pay a $ 25 million indemnity to Colombia for the US role in Panama’s secession.
The ensuing years became known as the ‘Dance of the Millions’, partly due to the $25 million payment, but primarily because Colombia’s coffee production expanded dramatically and its banana, petroleum and manufacturing sectors experienced significant growth. But the huge majority of Colombians were not benefiting from the country’s booming economy, and rural and urban workers, often organized by the Colombian Communist Party (Partido Comunista Colombiano, PCC), began demanding social and economic reforms.
In the late 1920s, the emergence on the political scene of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, a dissident Liberal Party member, offered hope to millions of impoverished and downtrodden Colombians. Gaitán first gained prominence with his public denunciations of the Conservative government’s role in the Colombian army’s 1928 massacre of striking banana workers in the northern town of Ciénaga, accusing the government and the army of being in the pocket of the Boston-based United Fruit Company. Gaitán was also instrumental in the labour and agrarian reform movements that resulted in the introduction of Colombia’s first modern agrarian reform law in 1936.
Gaitán’s populist rhetoric gained him a substantial following and, by the late 1940s, following a short stint as mayor of Bogotá, he was the presumed favourite to win the 1950 presidential election. Meanwhile, in 1946, the newly elected Conservative government began using violence to reverse some of the moderate reforms that had been implemented by reform-minded Liberals over the previous sixteen years. On 9 April 1948, however, the low-intensity violence exploded when Gaitán was assassinated on a Bogotá street. The Liberal leader’s death triggered the Bogotazo, a popular uprising by the Liberal lower classes that resulted in massive destruction and looting in the capital.
Many US officials, including Secretary of State George C. Marshall, who was attending the Ninth International Conference of American States in Bogotá when the violence broke out, believed the Bogotazo was a communist conspiracy to undermine the conference. According to Robert W. Drexler, who served as a US diplomat in Colombia during the 1950s and again in the 1970s,
The rapidly growing obsession of the United States government with the Communist threat to Latin America can be dated from the Bogotazo, and it was a cruel irony of fate for Colombia that riots there arising from grave social ills led the United States to adopt militaristic anti-Communist policies in the area which generally ignored and sometimes even worsened those domestic problems.
The rioting in Bogotá led to Liberal uprisings throughout the country in what became known as La Violencia, or The Violence. Fearing that the violence might coalesce into a peasant-based social revolution, the national Liberal leadership backed the bloody repression used by the Conservative government to quell it. Despite this loose alliance between the two parties, alleged Conservatives assassinated two high-ranking Liberals in 1949. The Liberal Party responded by boycotting the 1950 presidential election, which was won uncontested by Conservative candidate Laureano Gómez.
Although rebellion had been effectively suppressed in Bogotá, armed peasant uprisings continued throughout the countryside. The increasingly authoritarian Gómez regime – supported by the Catholic Church, a popular target of rebellious Liberal peasants during the uprisings due to its traditional alliance with the Conservatives – elevated the military crackdown to new heights, which only further fuelled the violence. The chaotic conflict included battles not only between Liberal and Conservative peasants, but also between the oligarchy and land-starved peasants, leading many large landowners to abandon their properties for the relative safety of the cities. The United States viewed the Colombian Communist Party’s support for the peasants through a Cold War lens and rushed weapons and training to the Colombian military. Close military cooperation between the two countries had already been established when Colombia became the only Latin American country to send combat troops to aid the US war effort in Korea.
In 1952, a 23-year-old Argentine doctor named Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara arrived in Colombia after travelling throughout much of South America. During his brief stay, the man who would later inspire many Colombian revolutionaries noted, ‘There is more repression of individual freedom here than in any other country we’ve been to… The atmosphere is tense and a revolution may be brewing.’ High-ranking military officials also recognized the possible political and social implications of the rural violence and the inability of Gómez to quell it. And so, in 1953, the Conservative president was ousted by a military coup that brought General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla to power.
Rojas Pinilla, the former commander of a Colombian infantry battalion in Korea, issued an amnesty to all armed peasants in an attempt to bring an end to La Violencia. Many armed Liberal peasants accepted the offer. But shortly afterwards, the government began targeting demobilized Liberal guerrillas. And then, in 1954, Rojas Pinilla launched a major military offensive against communist peasants who had refused to lay down their arms, particularly those in the Villarica region of central Colombia. Thousands of peasants were displaced by the military offensive and, once resettled elsewhere, began forming self-defence groups at the urging of the Colombian Communist Party. The self-defence groups sought to protect themselves from the actions of both the military and large landowners who sought the newly settled lands in the peasant enclaves, or what some analysts have labelled ‘independent republics’.
Meanwhile, the Conservative and Liberal elite, concerned about Rojas Pinilla’s desire to retain power, organized widespread street protests that toppled the dictator. The two parties then implemented a power-sharing agreement called the National Front. Beginning in 1958, the Conservative and Liberal parties alternated four-year terms in the presidency and divided all government positions evenly between themselves. The National Front marked the end of the factional sparring between elites that had characterized Colombia’s political violence from the nineteenth century through La Violencia; however, the new unity government had to contend with armed communist peasants that still sought to address the gross social inequalities so prevalent in Colombia.
The Role of the Communist Party
During the 1930s, the Colombian Communist Party (PCC) had proven effective at organizing – and politicizing – peasants in rural central Colombia, particularly in the department, or province, of Tolima and the south-western part of the department of Cundinamarca. Unlike most other communist parties in Latin America at the time, the PCC made organizing the rural population a priority. Not surprisingly then, during La Violencia, it was the armed communist peasants in Tolima and surrounding regions that posed the greatest threat to the hegemony of the Conservative and Liberal elite. Most armed Liberal peasants, who, like their communist counterparts, had taken up arms to defend themselves against the repressive actions of the Conservative government in the early years of La Violencia, remained loyal to the Liberal elites following the formation of the National Front government.
The PCC was instrumental in organizing the peasant self-defence movement. The peasant leaders of many of the armed groups were members of the PCC, including Pedro Antonio Marín in Tolima, who would later change his name to Manuel Marulanda Vélez and become the supreme commander of the FARC. Marulanda had grown up in a traditional Liberal family in the department of Quindío in central Colombia, but in his teen years he became a Marxist–Leninist. He began working with the PCC in the late 1940s and became a member in 1952 at the age of 24. Eight years later, Marulanda was elected to the PCC’s Central Committee.
During the 1950s, Marulanda was a leading organizer for the PCC in Tolima, becoming instrumental in the establishment of armed peasant groups that sought to defend communities from government repression. According to Marulanda,
The resistance groups went through the logical and natural process of formation, strengthening and consolidation. It was a process of the emergence of a form of struggle that had no immediate predecessor, rising spontaneously, imprecisely, in which the peasants themselves were protagonists of their own history.
In the enclaves, the communist peasants sought to establish alternative political, social and economic structures to the capitalist model imposed on the rural population by the country’s dominant political parties. By the early 1950s, notes historian Gonzalo Sánchez, the communist revolutionaries ‘regulated the use of expropriations and the proceeds from them, subordinating individual appetites to the collective good of the resistance.… In some regions of greatest control, production and distribution priorities were set for the civilian population.’ According to the FARC’s telling of its origins, both the PCC and the leaders of the self-defence groups
encouraged the peasant communities to share the land among the residents and created mechanisms for collective work and assistance to the individual exploitation of parcels of land and applied the movement’s justice by collective decision of assemblies of the populace. These became areas with a new mentality and social and political proposals different from those offered by the regime. The decisive factor was the presence in power of the people themselves.
Father Camilo Torres, Colombia’s famous revolutionary priest and one of the early proponents of liberation theology, also acknowledged the escalating level of organizing by the armed peasants:
Among the peasants, the emergence of violence creates circumstances which force them to abandon their individualism. Joint migrations, defense of the rural communities, organization of production, etc., encouraged a mentality of co-operation, initiative, and class consciousness. A new situation has transformed Colombian rural communities into social units with internal cohesion, initiative, and their own dynamics.
And while there are differing accounts regarding the degree to which peasants succeeded in establishing collective political, social and economic projects, it is clear that the very existence of these radicalized communities posed a threat to the country’s ruling elite. This threat led to a shift in the nature of the conflict during the second half of La Violencia, away from a sectarian struggle along party lines to one along class lines. As Torres noted, La Violencia
started a social process that the ruling classes did not foresee. It has awakened the class consciousness of the peasant, given him group solidarity and a feeling of superiority and confidence to act.… This will have the effect of constituting a social pressure group – economically and even politically capable of changing the social structure in the way least expected and least desired by the ruling class. It is very possible that, due to violence, political sectarianism will be changed into class sectarianism, as has already occurred in many rural areas.
The Rojas Pinilla government responded to the emerging class conflict by banning the PCC and launching military offensives against the peasant enclaves. The US-backed military offensives initially targeted the Sumapaz region just south of Bogotá, forcibly displacing peasants from their homes and lands. These displaced peasants would resettle in the eastern departments of Meta and Caquetá as well as in southern Tolima. These regions would later become the traditional strongholds of the FARC.
In response to the government’s offensive, the PCC engaged in a delicate, and contradictory, balancing act with regard to its relations to the armed peasants and the Soviet Union. In 1956, a resolution passed at the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union had called on its party affiliates around the world to seek a non-violent road to revolution. As a result, the PCC publicly denounced the armed struggle being waged by peasants, while covertly supporting the self-defence groups in the countryside. In 1961, however, at its Ninth Congress, the PCC adopted the call for various forms of struggle, including armed struggle.
By the early 1960s, and in light of the revolution in Cuba, the United States and Colombia’s ruling elites sought to ensure that the peasant enclaves were eradicated once and for all. In February 1962, a team from the Special Warfare Center at Fort Bragg, headed by Brigadier General William P. Yarborough, visited Colombia to evaluate the internal security situation and the Colombian army’s counter-insurgency strategies. The team’s final report recommended that Colombia develop the military and civilian structures necessary to engage in the ‘clandestine execution of plans developed by the United States Government toward defined objectives in the political, economic, and military fields’, including undertaking ‘paramilitary, sabotage and/or terrorist activities against known communist proponents. It should be backed by the United States’.
The report’s recommendations were incorporated into the Latin American Security Operation, known as Plan LASO, a US-backed initiative to combat the growing communist influence in Colombia. Utilizing aircraft and weaponry supplied by the United States, the Colombian military intensified its targeting of the peasant enclaves. On 27 May 1964, the Colombian military launched Operation Marquetalia, utilizing 16,000 Colombian troops supported by US-supplied B-26 bombers, to target the small village of the same name. There were forty-eight armed peasant guerrillas in Marquetalia commanded by Marulanda, who had earned the nickname ‘Sureshot’ due to his sharpshooting prowess, and another member of the PCC named Jacobo Arenas, who would later become the political leader of the FARC. Despite the massive offensive launched against them, all forty-eight guerrillas managed to evade capture or death. Furthermore, in the midst of the offensive, a public assembly was held on 20 July in which the participating peasants approved utilizing a guerrilla strategy and formulated an agrarian reform programme.
The following year, the First Guerrilla Conference took place and the armed peasants from Marquetalia joined with groups from other enclaves and formed the Southern Bloc (Bloqué Sur). They also became mobile and, along with their families and others, expanded their sphere of operations from the Andean highlands in central Colombia to the Amazon rainforest in the eastern part of the country, primarily in the departments of Meta and Caquetá. The peasants colonized the region by establishing small farms, while the Southern Bloc defended the communities from both the military and the encroachment of large landowners who sought to expropriate their new landholdings. Father Torres, who would later join the leftist National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN) guerrilla group and be killed in his first combat experience, highlighted the organic and radicalizing nature of the relationship between the peasants and the guerrillas:
Through the guerrillas the rural communities have become integrated within a process of urbanization, with the full range of implications: division of labor, specialization, socio-cultural contact with other groups, socialization, a mental orientation toward change, awakening of social expectations, and the use of methods of action to realize social mobility through channels which the power structure had not foreseen. Furthermore, violence has established the systems necessary for the establishment of a rural sub-culture, a peasant social class, and a revolutionary pressure group constituted by this same class.
In 1966, the Second Guerrilla Conference was convened and the armed peasant groups belonging to the Southern Bloc officially became the FARC, although the guerrilla group considers 27 May 1964, the date of the launching of Operation Marquetalia, to be its actual date of origin. At the second conference, according to the FARC:
A new national military plan and a more ambitious plan for mass organization, education, publicity and finances were produced.… For the first time it was stated that the FARC guerrilla movement was setting out on a prolonged struggle to take power in unity with the working class and all working people.… It was established clearly that the tactic of mobile guerrilla warfare was adequate and just but that it was necessary to extend activity to new areas of the country.
And so the peasant self-defence groups were transformed into a revolutionary guerrilla force that sought to expand operations throughout the country in order to overthrow the government. According to Marulanda, ‘We were building a new type of general staff as the supreme political and military authority, taking care that militarism did not overwhelm everything.’ He went on to note that it was vital that the guerrillas were not only trained militarily, but that they were also educated politically and that it was crucial they responded respectfully to the fundamental demands of the peasantry. Perhaps one of the most essential components of surviving as a guerrilla force is the ability to self-analyse. As Marulanda stated, ‘We maintain a critical and self-critical attitude in the face of our own political and military errors’, which led the guerrillas attending the FARC’s Constitutive Conference in 1966 to
examine our faults, of which there were naturally more than a few. We were still not achieving the necessary synchronization and coherence in our military work and political activities. There were still remnants of indiscipline, displays of caudillismo and blatant contempt for criticism. We were not adequately challenging the political work of the reactionary sectors. We were showing deficiencies in the political-military capabilities of our cadres and rank-and-file combatants. Some cases of bad behaviour toward the peasants and friendly political organizations had come up. All this needed to be corrected.
The FARC established its military structures, which would eventually consist of a Secretariat containing seven members including the group’s supreme commander. Next in the chain of command is the Central High Command, which consists of approximately thirty guerrillas and below that are the seven blocs of the FARC, each of which operate in different regions of the country. Within each bloc are fronts, columns, platoons and the smallest unit, squads, which consist of twelve fighters. Upon its forming, the undisputed leaders of the FARC were Marulanda and Arenas. As the US Army’s Major Jon-Paul Maddaloni would later note in his analysis of the FARC, ‘Marulanda’s abilities were as a strong guerrilla fighter and charismatic leader, while Arenas was the intellectual Marxist ideologue. Together they formed a formidable team and attracted the disenfranchised agrarian poor and socialist leaning rebels to their cause.’
Historian Marco Palacios suggests that the FARC’s ‘collective level of organization, discipline, and cultivation of local support networks far exceeded anything the Colombian military had seen in its successful extermination of Liberal and Conservative guerrilla holdouts from the Violencia’.Palacios also argues that the successes of the FARC during its early years proved beneficial to the PCC:
With the growth of the FARC the Communist Party won some degree of prestige, or at least notoriety at home and abroad, as its ‘armed wing’ was both stronger and more peasant-dominated than any of its rivals at home or comrade organizations in the region.
Several other guerrilla groups influenced by the Cuban Revolution also emerged in the mid-1960s with the same objective of overthrowing the National Front government. Foremost among them were the aforementioned ELN and the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación, EPL). These groups, according to Palacios, ‘sought to build on two exclusions. First, the social exclusion of the rural poor, which the agrarian reform of the 1960s did nothing to address; second, the political exclusion represented by the two-party National Front.’
The ELN and EPL were led by urban middle-class intellectuals, whereas the FARC’s leadership, with the exception of the urban working-class Arenas, consisted of peasants. As sociologist Eduardo Pizarro has noted, unlike these other guerrilla groups, the FARC did not arise from a ‘strictly voluntarist decision or as a mechanical effort to transplant the Cuban Revolution.… the FARC emerged as a people’s response to official violence and militarist aggression.’ Initially, argue economist Frank Safford and Palacios, the peasants had taken up arms simply to defend themselves from armed groups that served the interests of large landowners, but ‘government attacks transformed the peasant self-defense organizations into revolutionary guerrillas’. Meanwhile, Robert Drexler noted that ‘guerrilla forces operated in isolated parts of rural Colombia where they sought to exploit appalling local poverty and the inability or unwillingness of the National Front governments to address the basic needs of a long-suffering population.’
The Agrarian Crisis
In 1961, the Colombian Congress had passed the Agrarian Social Reform Law (Law 135), which was supposed to ‘address the basic needs of a long-suffering population’ by helping peasants obtain legal title to their land and gain access to credit. It was also intended to be a mechanism for addressing the grossly unequal distribution of arable land through expropriation and redistribution. In 1960, a mere 1.7 per cent of landowners owned 55 per cent of Colombia’s arable land, while 62.5 per cent of the country’s farmers subsisted on less than 1 per cent of the national territory suitable for agriculture. The stated objective of Law 135 was to address this gross inequality in land distribution. In essence, Law 135 was intended as the ‘carrot’ that complemented the Plan LASO counter-insurgency ‘stick’.
Ten years after its enactment, however, Law 135 had resulted in less than 1 per cent of the land that qualified for expropriation being redistributed, and the majority of that was state-owned land. For the most part, the latifundios, or large estates, owned by the country’s major landowners were exempted from the agrarian reform law. Furthermore, the legal hoops that peasants were forced to jump through in order to obtain title and credit often prevented them from achieving the desired security over their property. In fact, during the decade that Law 135 was in effect, land ownership became even more concentrated in the hands of large landowners. Many peasants that were forced from their lands contributed to the urbanization process that Colombia was undergoing as they relocated to the cities in search of employment. However, an economic recession in the mid-1960s saw urban unemployment levels jump from 4.9 per cent in 1964 to 13 per cent three years later.
Many peasants responded to the triple threat of state repression, failed agrarian reform policies and growing urban unemployment by instigating their own agrarian reform through the colonization of the Amazon region in eastern and southern Colombia. In 1964, some 375,000 peasants migrated to the colonized zones, where they laid claim to land and proceeded to cut down the rainforest in order to farm. Among these colonos were the armed peasants that founded the FARC. Many of the colonos soon became affiliated with the guerrillas in order to defend themselves against aggression by the state and large landowners. In fact, the FARC became the most effective form of defence for many peasants. According to author Alfredo Molano, ‘In the zones where the FARC had no influence in the 1960s, the process of dismantling peasant colonization and transferring land to large landowning interests proceeded without interference.’
Armed peasants belonging to the FARC did more than simply defend their land since, as previously mentioned, they also formulated their own agrarian reform programme, in July 1964. According to the FARC,
we put forward an effective revolutionary agrarian policy that would change the social structure of the Colombian countryside, providing land completely free to the peasants who work it or want to work it on the basis of confiscation of large landholdings for the benefit of all working people.
The FARC’s Agrarian Reform Programme of the Guerrillas states:
The Revolutionary Agrarian Policy is the indispensible condition to raise the standard of material and cultural life of the whole peasantry, free it from unemployment, hunger, illiteracy and the endemic illnesses that limit its ability to work, to eliminate the fetters of the large landholding system.
It declares that peasants will receive title to the land they work and that the size of landholding will be determined in accordance with the fertility and location of the property.
The Programme also states that ‘Indigenous communities shall be protected, providing them sufficient land for their development… At the same time, an autonomous organization of these communities shall be established, respecting their councils, way of life, culture, languages and internal organization.’ In the ensuing decades, the FARC’s relationship with Colombia’s indigenous peoples would vary dramatically from region to region. In some areas, the guerrillas and indigenous would coexist in relative harmony. In other regions, particularly where the indigenous demanded that FARC fighters not enter their traditional lands, the guerrillas often failed to respect the rights of the communities.
The FARC’s Early Strategy
Given the FARC’s peasant roots, it is not surprising that its first important programme related to agrarian reform. However, the vision of the guerrillas extended beyond the countryside and was influenced by more than their existential reality at the repressive hands of the state.
The FARC’s approach is intrinsically linked to its roots in the peasant self-defence organizations during La Violencia. Those roots pre-date the Cuban Revolution and, in contrast to most of the guerrilla groups that formed throughout Latin America during the 1960s and 1970s, the FARC did not initially adhere to Che Guevara’s foco theory. According to Guevara’s theory, small guerrilla units act as a vanguard and through armed struggle help create the conditions necessary for revolution. The masses would then follow their example and institute a popular uprising to overthrow the national government. This was the theory utilized by guerrilla movements throughout the region, including the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional, FMLN) in El Salvador, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional, FSLN) in Nicaragua, as well as by Colombia’s ELN. Each of these guerrilla groups was formed following the Cuban Revolution by leaders who were urban middle-class intellectuals. While each eventually obtained significant support and membership from the peasantry, their leadership positions remained in the hands of a university-educated vanguard from the cities.
In contrast, the FARC was founded by peasants and most of its leaders have come from the peasantry. As such, the FARC is unique among contemporary guerrilla organizations in Latin America. Rather than its founders acting as a revolutionary vanguard that sought to motivate the peasantry into engaging in armed revolutionary struggle, the FARC was formed by an already politicized peasantry responding to existing conditions and seeking to defend itself against state repression.
By the 1970s, the FARC was extending its military presence to rural regions throughout the country, particularly in Caldas, Cundinamarca, Antioquia, Cauca and the middle Magdalena, as well as expanding its existing presence in Tolima and Huila. The deployment of FARC fronts across rural Colombia, according to Molano, ‘accentuated the political component of the program and allowed the ideological orientation of the Communist party to be emphasized.… The social and economic organization of these regions developed somewhat independent of the military organization, which was always organized and efficient.’ Between 1970 and 1982, during this period of geographic expansion, the FARC grew from an estimated 500 fighters to a force of 3,000.
In the late 1970s, President Julio César Turbay responded to the growing guerrilla threat by, in the words of US diplomat Robert Drexler, who was based in Bogotá at the time, ‘implementing the most repressive regime Colombia had known since Rojas Pinilla’. According to Drexler,
President Turbay invoked a state of siege, signing a national security statute which broadened the armed forces’ powers of arrest and placed a wide range of crimes under the jurisdiction of military tribunals.… Soon, the Turbay administration faced widespread charges that the army was engaging in arbitrary arrests, using torture, and causing people to ‘disappear’ in the worst tradition of Latin American military brutality. Some of these excesses were covered up by the government’s severe censorship of the press, but international human rights agencies raised alarms which are still being heard.
Ultimately, Turbay’s repressive policies failed to diminish the growing strength of the FARC, particularly in the countryside. The US Army’s Major Maddaloni notes that not only did the Turbay administration’s policies fail, but
the Security Statute had an interesting effect on the FARC’s recruitment. Throughout this period they earned their reputation as a sort of David against the strong-arm tactics of the government Goliath. This perception increased their romantic rebel image and brought many younger volunteers to their ranks.
Marco Palacios also acknowledged that the FARC was proving successful in many rural regions, but he claimed that the failure of the guerrilla group to engage in conventional political activities on the national level ultimately left it marginalized and politically ineffective. According to Palacios,
From the beginning the guerrillas chose to isolate themselves from the cultural and political trends of the cities… Guerrilla commanders have not tried to forge stable and systematic alliances with union members, university students, or cultural workers. They have therefore always been weak and marginal in what we might call national politics; but in parts of the countryside they have successfully woven networks of support and sympathy, as have their paramilitary enemies.
Others have argued that such a state-centrist analysis fails to recognize the unique revolutionary approach of the FARC. The FARC’s ideological roots are firmly in Marxism–Leninism, while also being influenced by the shifting realities of peasant life in rural Colombia. According to sociologist James J. Brittain, analysts who examine the revolutionary struggle in Colombia through a state-centrist lens often misinterpret the reality in the countryside. The FARC has largely failed to seriously threaten or influence the centralized state based in the capital Bogotá because it has sought to change society from below. In other words, the guerrillas have largely ignored more conventional avenues to transform society, such as elections and engagement with existing national institutions, and instead have worked at the community level and outside the parameters of the nation’s traditional power structures.
As sociologist James Petras notes, the ‘FARC has built its power base patiently over time with a precise strategic plan: the accumulation of local power.’ In short, the FARC was implementing its revolutionary project on the local level without achieving regime change at the national level, although the latter remained a long-term objective of the guerrilla group’s revolution from below.