The FARC: Still Revolutionaries?

(International Relations and Security Network, 19/07/2005)

With John Myers in Bogotá


A proliferation of recent FARC attacks targeting indigenous communities, civilians, and other peasant groups, however, gives the impression that the modern incarnation of this fighting force contradicts its roots and acts more like an invading army than a revolutionary savior. After more than 40 years of armed struggle, today's FARC is sharply divided between its ideological underpinnings and its tactical military need to secure a corridor from Panama to Ecuador in western Colombia for access to supplies and the cocaine market. It is a fighting army struggling to maintain relevance as a revolutionary force.


Domestic military tactics


Hundreds of soldiers from the FARC 6th front and the Jacobo Arenas Column attacked Toribío, a small village in Colombia's Cauca department, on 14 April. The attack lasted several days as the FARC used its notoriously inaccurate gas-cylinder bombs to destroy the town center and five houses. One 9-year-old boy was killed in the attack. According to Cristina Díaz, a research associate for Colombia's non-governmental CODHES human rights groups, the FARC targeted these houses with the intention of punishing individuals believed to be informants for the Colombian government. "This attack [on Toribío] is representative of the FARC's current strategy," Diaz told ISN Security Watch shortly after returning from an observation mission to the region. "Taking this town represents a tactical advantage for the FARC." Controlling a corridor to move arms and ammunition in and cocaine out is central to the FARC's military strategy, she said.


Much to prove


Meanwhile, the FARC has been busy implementing a strategy to prove that it is not as badly beaten as Colombian President Alvaro Uribe says it is. On 25 June, over 300 FARC soldiers from the 48th and 32nd fronts of the Teofilo Forero Column attacked the Colombian military's 11th Battalion military base at Teteye, in Colombia's Putumayo department - a targeted area for Colombia's military offensive known as Plan Patriota. According to eyewitness reports, FARC soldiers launched their attack from Ecuador, killing 22 Colombian soldiers, before retreating to Ecuadorian sovereign territory after the battle. Just over three weeks prior to this attack, Ecuadorian Foreign Minster Antonio Parra declared on 1 July that his government would maintain a neutral position in the Colombian conflict. Ensuring access to neutral Ecuador is crucial to today's FARC as it allows them to operate in a corridor of security that stretches along the Panamanian border down the Pacific coast. The attack on Toribío runs counter to the FARC's stated political ideology, and the attacks on Teteye were most likely designed to prove the FARC's military capabilities. The FARC have attacked representatives of "el pueblo" many times throughout their existence. Examples include many members of the San José de Apartadó peace community and frequent attacks on fellow left-wing guerrillas belonging to the ELN in places like Bolívar, Arauca, and Norte Santander. Toribío is just another chapter of violence.


End justifies the means


These events, together with other attacks on tactical targets within the FARC's desired security corridor in western Colombia, have led many to conclude that the FARC leaders who are more focused on military tactics rather than political ideology, such as Mono Jojoy, are still in control of the group's domestic strategy. Colombia's High Commissioner for Peace from 1995 to 1998, Dr. Daniel Garcia-Peña Jaramillo, agrees. "An 'end justifies the means' mentality permeates the [FARC]," he told ISN Security Watch. "The FARC have almost no regard for public opinion, little popular support, and use intimidation more than anything else to force civilians to live in fear," he said. "In some parts of Ecuador, [FARC rebels] are certainly more liked than they are in Colombia," said Adam Isacson, director of programs for the Washington-based Center for International Policy. "They aren't killing anyone in Ecuador," he said, adding, "The FARC do have a developed support network in Ecuador, probably in Panama, and probably in Venezuela."


Regional considerations, criminal and political


Ecuador's Foreign Ministry confirmed on 13 July that Parra met secretly with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on 9 July in Caracas. Relations between Quito and Caracas have warmed significantly since Ecuadorian President Alfredo Palacio took power in April. It is widely considered that Chavez is sympathetic to the FARC's ideological pursuits, which are rooted in the Bolivarian revolution. The lack of neighborly support for Colombian President Uribe's tough line against the FARC suggests there is a growing number of local politicians who privately, if not publicly, approve of the FARC's activities in the region. A wide variety of reports indicate the FARC currently operates in Ecuador, Venezuela, Brazil, Panama, Paraguay, Argentina, and Bolivia, yet these operations are more closely tied to criminal activities such as money laundering and cocaine trafficking, rather than to political activities. The FARC is known to have links to organized crime networks operating in Paraguay that supply the group with ammunition, medical supplies, and troop outfit requirements such as boot laces, socks, and fatigues. Brazilian drug lord Fernando Beira-Mar was captured in Colombia in 2001 while working with the FARC to solidify a pipeline for the movement of cocaine into, and guns out of, Rio de Janeiro. Fernando is known in Brazil for having pioneered the bartering of arms and ammunition for pure cocaine.


Military, mafia, and politics


With the 2002 election of Alvaro Uribe to Colombia's presidency, the FARC entered what many see as a tactical retreat. During this time, Uribe initiated a series of military offensives that effectively secured some parts of the Colombian countryside. The lack of a FARC response to the Colombian military's offensive led many to believe that the FARC had begun to move away from its military mission, transforming itself into more of a network of nodes that grow, process, and sell cocaine; spread Marxist diplomacy around the region and in Europe; and develop political ties with like-minded actors. Since the beginning of this year, however, the FARC has changed course from its alleged retreat, taking more risks to secure a military or tactical advantage and demonstrate that it has not been defeated. The FARC wants voters in Colombia to think twice before supporting the re-election of Uribe in 2006. Stephen Johnson, senior policy analyst on Latin America for the Heritage Foundation, agrees. "[The FARC] want to disrupt the 2006 election and demonstrate they are a force to be reckoned with," he said, adding that, "the FARC do have a sort of unofficial diplomatic presence in the [Western Hemisphere] and in Europe."


Cavalier with human rights


This multifaceted approach, where FARC forces act as diplomats in the region and as hard-nosed military commanders in Colombia, only overlaps in one area: crime. The lucrative trade of cocaine and money laundering in the region and domestic exports to the US and Europe have become an undeniable source of revenue for the FARC. It is clear the group is not pursuing a political agenda within Colombia. Isacson notes that the FARC's most politically minded leaders were killed in the 1980s. Domestically, the FARC is pursuing a military agenda driven by the need to secure a corridor in western Colombia to consolidate prime agricultural lands for coca production - moving equipment in, and shipping drugs out. Yet at the same time, the FARC is isolating itself from the very populace it claimed to champion in 1964. Brutality against poor Colombians will not help the FARC on a regional level. South American leaders would be more likely to embrace the FARC as a modern-day revolutionary force, fighting for the ideals of Simon Bolívar, if it were not so cavalier with human rights. Sacrificing human rights for military advantage is not a new concept, but a revolutionary army must maintain a certain balance between military might and the respect of the people it claims to be fighting for. It would behoove the FARC to pay attention to the words of Che Guevara, a man who still espouses the most quintessential element of what a Latin American revolutionary should be. "Conduct toward the civil population ought to be regulated by a large respect for all the rules and traditions of the people in order to demonstrate effectively, with deeds, the moral superiority of the guerrilla fighter over the oppressing soldier." The FARC has failed to maintain this pillar of the revolution. They are no longer heroes of the people but a threat to national and regional security.