Colombia: Origins of the FARC

by Jan Bauman, MITF Board

MITF Report, April 4, 2001


Rooted in centuries of economic inequality and political oppression, Colombia's civil wars, including the present one, have pitted landowning and business elites against those who have fought for land and social reforms. It is from that long and tumultuous history that Colombia's present day guerrilla movement has sprung.

The modern period of Colombia has been a bloody one marked by almost continuous political violence. By 1850 an ideological split between the ruling elites resulted in the formation of two major political parties. The Conservative Party, formed by wealthy landowners, wanted to preserve an authoritarian society, maintain slavery, and have a strong alliance between Church and State while the Liberal Party was reform oriented, based on the separation of Church and State and the end of slavery. These two parties have been in opposition every since.

The 20th century began in violence as landless peasants, joined by their reformist allies, battled the landowning oligarchies who were backed by the conservative hierarchy of the Catholic Church. These early struggles form the backdrop to today's civil war in Colombia.

The peasant struggles bore fruit when from 1930 to 1946 a series of Liberal Party administrations initiated land reform that triggered furious political opposition from the Conservatives. When the internally divided Liberal Party was defeated in 1946, the new Conservative government resorted to political violence to regain the lands of the oligarchy. In 1948 a charismatic progressive Liberal and land reform leader, Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, was gunned down in Bogota. His assassination set off a popular insurrection in the capital and in almost every city where the Liberals were strong. In response brutal gangs funded by leaders among the elitist wing of the Liberals and Conservatives roamed the countryside committing atrocities against civilians. During the decade La Violencia claimed the lives of between 200,000 to 300,000 Colombians.

La Violencia came to an official end in 1958 with a National Front that allowed the Liberal and Conservative elites to share public office and alternate the presidency. Nothing in the agreement addressed the plight of Colombia's landless peasantry. In 1964, the army unleashed a major land and air attack against Marquetalia, a rural resistance community that had been established as an independent republic during the violent decade. Under attack, 48 guerrillas fled to the mountains in the southwest state of Cauca where, later that year, the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) was founded. In the same period other guerrilla groups, the ELN (National Liberation Army) and the EPL (People's Liberation Army) were established.

Based on Marxist ideology, the FARC was organized by Manuel Marulanda Velez and other members of Colombia's Comrnunist Party. Non-Communist peasants, many of whom had been active during La Violencia, joined them Marulandu, whose nom de guerre is Tirofijo or Sureshot," is now in his 70s and is still in charge.

Throughout the 1970s, in response to a government rural "free market" development model that adversely affected the lives of the already marginalized campesinos and massive repression of the peasant movement, the FARC grew from a movement of only about 500 to a more formidable group of 3,000. From its inception, the FARC has called for equality of opportunities and an equitable distribution of wealth. This program appealed not only to peasants made landless by the government's new "reforms" but also to students, intellectuals and workers.

Forced off their lands, many of the campesinos fled to some of the mountainous areas where the FARC had their strongholds and began to cultivate coca, a plant that needs no pesticides or fertilizers. At first the FARC resisted the cultivation of coca but the leadership realized that banning of the crop would alienate peasant support. Thus began the gramaje, a coca-trade tax, a tax levied by the FARC on coca growers and drug-traffickers. The US government has often alleged that the FARC are narco-trafficker but in a recent meeting Colombian President Andres Pastrana and Mexican President Vicente Fox agreed that, for the moment, no proof or evidence exists that the FARC is a drug cartel.

Through the mid-1980s the FARC was active in staging raids against government forces while also kidnapping wealthy Colombians and holding them for ransom. In 1984 the FARC declared a truce with the government and attempted to enter the political arena through the establishment of a legal party, the Union Patriotica (UP).

The cease-fire with the government was short lived. In early 1987, after having an estimated 3,500 of the UP members killed or disappeared by the government or paramilitary forces, the FARC once again took up arms. According to Rafael Pardo, president of the Bogota based Milenio Foundation and former civilian minister of defense, the UP killings "not only increased rebel suspicions but lowered the prospects for the eventual creation of a democratic leftist political party."

Although continuing to battle the Colombian army and their allied paramilitaries, the FARC has also called for negotiations. In a May 2000 communique from the mountains of Colombia, the FARC Central General Staff stated that the war " is an option that has been imposed upon the Colombian people by the ruling class which follows the orientation of the government of the United States of America. We do not wage war for its own sake. Everything has been put in the service of a political solution that would open the course toward reconciliation and reconstruction and establish the basis of the New Colombia. But invariably we have come up against the stubbornness and intransigence of a ruling class that only thinks of making use of these spaces to get us to submit."

There are no "good guys" in this civil war. Although human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch assign 80 percent of the blame for human rights violations to Colombia's military and right-wing paramilitary groups, they are still highly critical of the FARC and other guerrilla groups who have been accused of murdering political opponents, civic officials and people suspected of being sympathetic to government and paramilitary forces.

The US, by continuing to arm the Colombian military and destroying both coca and food crops through aerial fumigation, feeds the flames of Colombia's civil war.


Source: NACLA Report on the Americas, Sept./Oct. 2000, CNN Special Report; E-Conflict World Encyclopedia; Human Rights Watch; Colombia Human Rights Network; Amnesty International; Univasidad de los Andes.


Marin Interfaith Task Force on Central America . P.O. Box 2481, Mill Valley, CA 94942 415-924-3227 · 4 April 2001

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