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
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 · firstname.lastname@example.org
4 April 2001