FARC, Guerrillas, and Paramilitaries in Colombia

I’ve recently finished Economist writer Michael Reid‘s Forgotten Continent. The book looks at democracy and capitalism in Latin America with a focus on economic policies (read ‘mishaps’). It’s required reading for gringos living in Latin America.

Reid devotes many pages to Colombia’s security situation. I’d been contemplating writing a brief history piece about Colombia, but he did it better than I can. This is Part 2 of 2. To start at the beginning, see Cocaine Cartels and Economics in Colombia.

Democratic security in Colombia

At first glance, San Vicente del Caguán looked like any other small cattle town on the fringes of the Amazon basin. On its stiflingly hot, bustling streets, lined with half-finished houses of concrete and brick, Japanese pick-ups and motorbikes jostled with horse-drawn carts. From early afternoon, Mexican rancheras blared out from the loudspeakers of the numerous brothels. What made San Vicente unusual in 2001 was the presence in the main square of a small office of the FARC – the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the largest and longest-lasting leftist guerrilla army in Latin America. For three years, the government of Andrés Pastrana allowed the FARC to control a Switzerland-sized swathe of mountains, jungle and grassland around San Vicente. The FARC had demanded this ‘demilitarised zone’ as a condition for getting peace talks going. But the talks made little progress. The FARC used them for propaganda purposes. They held public hearings on how to reduce unemployment, while carrying on their war with increasing savagery.

That war began in the 1960s, but has undergone several changes in character. The FARC’s origins lie in peasant self-defence groups organised by the pro-Moscow Communist Party during the conflict between Liberal and Conservative supporters known as la violencia. They were driven to what became the ‘demilitarised zone’ by the army. Even today, most of the FARC’s guerrillas are of peasant origin, according to Alfonso Cano, who himself is not but who is in charge of political affairs in its ruling secretariat. Sociologically, the FARC can be seen as representing the interests of two particular groups of Colombian peasants: some among small-scale farmers who colonised ‘internal frontiers’ and whose farms were threatened by cattle barons; and farmers and day-labourers in the coca industry. The FARC combines peasant stubbornness with narrow dogmatism. Its lifelong leader, Manuel Marulanda (known as Tirofijo or ‘Sureshot’) is in his 70s; he is not known to have visited a city larger than Neiva (population: 250,000) in southern Colombia. Though the FARC was nominally the military wing of the Colombian Communist Party it quickly came to dominate the party: it imposed its doctrines of ‘prolonged popular war’ (learned from the Vietnamese) and the ‘combination of all forms of struggle’ (i.e. military action plus legal politics) on the party, which has shrivelled into insignificance. It also began to espouse ‘Bolivarianism‘, a gaseous populist nationalism.

The FARC’s original justifications for its armed struggle were land and opposition to the power-sharing pact between Liberals and Conservatives known as the National Front, which ended la violencia. Yet Colombia has long since become mainly urban, the power-sharing pact ended formally in 1974 (and in practice in 1986) and the country’s democracy has been the subject of almost continuous political reform. Peace agreements saw three small guerrilla groups lay down their arms in 1990 to 1991 – but not the FARC or the ELN, its smaller rival of originally guevarist inspiration.A new constitution followed in 1991, designed to open up politics to new parties and to decentralize power. The FARC had taken part in peace talks launched by President Belisario Betancur (1982-6) and set up a political party called the Unión Patriótica. This won 4.5 per cent of the vote in the 1986 presidential election. But over the next five years more than a thousand of its members were murdered, including two of its presidential candidates. Most were killed by the right-wing paramilitaries, who at the time had close links with some army commanders. The FARC cited this as proof that it was excluded from democracy. But its opponents noted that while appearing to accept democracy, it had carried on building up its army during the truce under Betancur with the aim of seizing power militarily. For that reason some military commanders opposed Betancur’s orders for a ceasefire and the release of guerrilla prisoners and began to work with the paramilitaries. The FARC had also go into the drug business in a big way, as well as extortion and kidnapping. By 2001, the best estimates were that it was making $250 million to $300 million a year from drugs (while its paramilitary foes were making perhaps $200 million). In a lengthy interview, Cano admitted that the FARC received money from retenciones (kidnappings). When asked about drug income he said this was ‘everywhere in the world economy’.

By the 1990s, the FARC’s actions had much more to do with plunder and a self-sustaining militarism than with any residual social grievances. Drug money helped the FARC to expand greatly, from perhaps 5,000 fighters in the early 1980s to a peak of around 20,000 in 2002. (The ELN, which engaged in kidnapping and later drugs, had around 5,000 at its peak.) In the mid 1990s the FARC began to operate in larger units. It inflicted several humiliating defeats on the armed forces, in which small detachments were overrun by forces of several hundred guerrillas and some 500 police and troops were taken prisoner. The guerrillas also launched devastatingly inaccurate and bloody home-made mortar attacks on police posts in small towns, as well as frequent sabotage attacks against infrastructure. They would erect roadblocks on main highways, abducting motorists for ransom. The armed forces were far too small and too immobile to respond effectively: commanders noted that the security forces would have to expand some thirtyfold to achieve the same ratio of troops to territory that El Salvador‘s army enjoyed during that small country’s civil war of the 1980s.

The drug-fuelled growth of the FARC exposed the weakness of the security forces and of the state – the flip side of Colombia’s aversion to militarism and its tradition of civilian government. The relative impotence of the army prompted an expansion in the guerrillas’ polar opposite, the AUC paramilitaries.  ‘The AUC exists because (the) armed forces have not done their institutional duty of guaranteeing lives, property, and honour,’ Carlos Castaño, one of its leaders, told the Washington Post. The paramilitaries counted on the complicity of some politicians and army officers. They proceeded to act with even greater savagery than the FARC. They used terror to control territory, massacring groups of villagers whom they held to be collaborating with the guerrillas. Trade union leaders were targeted, partly because of the past enthusiasm of some of them for armed struggle. So were human-rights workers. Journalists and social scientists were the targets of both the AUC and the FARC. By the late 1990s, the government’s writ ran over only about half of a vast country, although that half included the cities where most Colombians lived. Indeed, hundreds of thousands of Colombians fled to the cities to escape a conflict that had become a self-sustaining war for territory to plunder. Insecurity began to affect the hitherto vigorous economy: combined with the new constitution’s fiscal liberality, that triggered a sharp recession in 1999 and unemployment climbed to 20 per cent. A million or so Colombians moved abroad in the late 1990s. There were widespread fears that Colombia was on the way to becoming a failed state.

When Andrés Pastrana, a personable former television news anchor from a prominent Conservative family, succeeded Samper in 1998 he took two important decisions. One was to open peace talks with the FARC. And the other was to seek a strategic alliance with the United States. He was more successful in the second of these. Under Plan Colombia, drawn up jointly by Colombian and American officials, the United States granted Colombia some $500 million to $700 million a year in mainly military aid between 1999 and 2006. Most of this went on some seventy helicopters and the training and equipping of new army battalions. The aim was to fight the guerrillas (and the paramilitaries) by fighting drugs, and so squeeze their finances. Pastrana also began the task of expanding the armed forces, and of turning a conscript force into a professional army.

While the state was strengthening its defences, so was the FARC. Its politics were remarkably intransigent. Not for it the compromises with democracy made by the Central American guerrillas of the 1970s and 1980s. ‘Our struggle is to do away with the state as now it exists in Colombia, preferably by political means, but if they don’t let us then we have to carry on shooting,’ said Cano. The FARC would not demobilise in return for ‘houses, cars, and scholarships’ or a few seats in Congress. ‘This country will be saved when we have the chance to run the state.’ To that end, even as it supposedly talked peace, the FARC carried on its war. According to the armed forces commander, General Fernando Tapias, it used the ‘demilitarised zone’ as a logistical base: ‘They are supplying, equipping and training with no action by the state to hinder them.’ With the talks going nowhere and the FARC continuing to stage brazen kidnappings of politicians and others, Colombians became disillusioned with a ‘peace process’ that wasn’t. In 2002, with an election looming, Pastrana called off the talks and sent the army back to San Vicente and its environs. The ‘demilitarised zone’ did serve one purpose: ‘It has allowed the country and the world to see the government’s willingness to seek a negotiated settlement, and the opposition to democracy of the insurgents,’ as General Tapias put it.

The presidential election saw a crushing victory for Álvaro Uribe Vélez. A lawyer and Liberal former governor of Antioquia, the economically important area around Medellín, Uribe was an austere, intense figure. His father, a cattle farmer, had been kidnapped and murdered by the FARC. He campaigned on the slogan of mano firme, corazón grande (‘firm hand, big heart’). He seemed to believe that he was a man of destiny: he promised that he would be ‘the first soldier of Colombia’ and would double the size of the security forces. In normal times, this uncompromising message would have been electorally unattractive in Colombia, a country whose mainstream politics were moderate, consensual and mistrustful of a powerful state. But these were not normal times. Uribe, running as an independent against his own party’s official candidates but with the support of the Conservatives, captured the national mood.

Uribe’s ‘democratic security’ policy involved a big military build-up. In his first four years he expanded the security forces by a third, adding more than 60,000 troops and 30,000 extra police. He continued Pastrana’s work of turning the army into a salaried, professional force. He extended the state’s control over more of Colombia’s vast territory, placing permanent police detachments in 150 municipalities (of a total of 1,100) which had lacked them. He created a force of some 20,000 part-time ‘peasant soldiers’ (later renamed ‘popular soldiers’) for local guard duties. Six new mountain battalions of the army occupied the high Andean massifs which had served as transit corridors and strategic refuges for the FARC. He also turned the army into an offensive force, creating nine new mobile brigades. All this was micro-managed by the president himself. He recounted with glee to visitors that his Friday-night relaxation was to stay at his desk until two a.m., ringing police and army commanders across the country to quiz them about security in their areas. Each weekend he would set off to remote towns or villages and hold public meetings to discuss local problems. All this changed the strategic balance in the war. The FARC were driven from much of central Colombia, forced back to remote jungles and to operating in smaller groups. Several thousand guerrillas deserted, individually or in small groups. Officials reckoned that the FARC’s fighting strength had been cut to around 12,000 by the end of 2006.

The weakening of the FARC enabled Uribe’s government to persuade paramilitaries to demobilise. The terms on which they did so were controversial. Under the Justice and Peace Law approved in 2005, those of their leaders who were accused of crimes against humanity were required to give a voluntary account of their actions and, if convicted in the courts, would face a reduced sentence of no more than eight years’ confinement in a special facility (perhaps a prison farm). The government also had a powerful lever over those of the AUC leaders who were wanted on drugs charges in the United States: it would suspend extradition only while they co-operated. Officials argued that the law was a reasonable compromise between peace and justice, given that the paramilitaries had not been militarily defeated. Uribe insisted that the AUC chiefs would not be able to get away with intentional omissions in their statements because the government ‘has made visible those involved in atrocities’. But human-rights groups complained that the law was too lenient in not requiring a binding confession and in not ensuring that the paramilitaries dismantled their criminal networks. Colombia’s Constitutional Court agreed: it put more teeth into the law, requiring full confessions on pain of forfeiting reduced sentences. Whatever its imperfections, the process quickly appeared to acquire momentum. In late 2006, 57 paramilitary leaders were jailed pending court hearings. No fewer than 25,000 people registered as victims of the paramilitaries. Mario Iguarán, the attorney-general, said that charges might eventually be brought against 300 – 400 paramilitary leaders. The government’s intention was to apply the same terms to the guerrillas – something that the FARC might well find hard to swallow.

Uribe took the same approach to the drug issue as he did to security. With American support, he unleashed a massive programme of aerial spraying of coca fields. According to the measurements by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, by 2004, the area under coca had fallen to half its 1999 peak before drifting up again thereafter. But there was no discernible effect on the supply price of cocaine in world markets. The spraying was controversial; in 2006 the government switched tactics and put more emphasis on mutual eradication and on the development of alternative economic activities. Predictably, Plan Colombia proved to be far more effective as a counter-insurgency plan than as an anti-drug plan, though it had been sold to the American public as the latter.

Uribe’s democratic security policy certainly made Colombia a safer place. According to official figures, the murder rate fell steadily: whereas 28,837 people were killed in 2002, the figure for 2006 was 17,277 (or 41 per 100,000). The number of kidnappings fell over the same period from 2,883 to 687. Critics disputed the figures, but there was little doubting the overall trend. The main roads became safe to travel again. Greater security brought a boom in investment. Economic growth reached 6 per cent in 2006. Uribe’s supporters saw him as the saviour of his country. Most Colombians tended to that view. In opinion polls, respondents regularly gave the president an approval rating of 60-75 per cent. His popularity and political success allowed him to persuade Congress to change the constitution to allow him to stand for a second consecutive term. In a country that historically had been deeply suspicious of an over-mighty executive, this was perhaps his most surprising achievement. In 2006, he was duly elected by a landslide for a second term: he won a thumping 62 per cent of the vote. That was almost three times as much as his nearest challenger, Carlos Gaviria, who represented a coalition of the peaceful, democratic left – a novelty for Colombia. But it was soon clear that Uribe’s second term was going to be far more difficult than the first.

Some high-ranking army officers had long been guilty of collusion with – or at least turning a blind eye to – the paramilitaries. Several of the most important paramilitary leaders were former army officers. These links undermined the legitimacy of the state. Support for the paramilitaries was not the policy of the armed forces as an institution, nor of the government, and such cases became increasingly rare. But thanks to investigations by journalists and prosecutors the penetration of politics and state institutions by the paramilitaries began to be laid bare, becoming a political scandal (dubbed parapolítica or ‘parapolitics’ by Colombians). The former head of the civilian intelligence agency from 2002 to 2005 was accused of collaborating with the AUC. The Supreme Court ordered the arrest of a dozen legislators for the same reason; nearly all were supporters of the president. The investigations revealed that in some areas of the Caribbean coast in particular, the paramilitaries had seized control of local politics, murdering, intimidating or bribing those who stood in their way. They used that control to extort commissions from public contracts. They also controlled much of the drug trade in the area. These developments seemed to echo the claim made by some of Uribe’s critics on the left that the president was himself in league with the paramilitaries. There was no evidence of any personal link. However, he was sometimes guilty of poor judgement in his choice of friends and collaborators. Uribe insisted that the scandals were only coming out because of the climate of greater security and because of the demobilisation of the paramilitaries and the investigations under the Justice and Peace Law. There was some truth in that. Parapolítica had little effect on Uribe’s popularity at home. But it did severe damage to his standing abroad, especially in the United States. The Democrats, who had won control of the US Congress, had become increasingly hostile to Plan Colombia. They made it clear that they would not quickly ratify a free-trade agreement with Colombia. That was potentially a big setback for Uribe and for his country.

Colombia’s transformation was remarkable but remained fragile. The FARC was not defeated. Some Colombian officials claimed that its leaders were receiving succour in Chávez’s Venezuela and in Ecuador. After Rafael Correa‘s victory in Ecuador they felt surrounded by hostile governments. The security forces needed further strengthening if new criminal groups were not to spring up where paramilitary demobilisation had left a vacuum of territorial control. Between 1.5 million and 2.5 million Colombians had been uprooted by conflict, and many of them were surviving in poverty in the cities. There was a strong case for a land reform which would have settled some of the displaced people on land bought or grabbed by drug traffickers and paramilitaries. But Uribe showed little interest in this. Partly because of the strength of its democratic institutions, such as the courts and the independent attorney-general, Colombia had stumbled into an effort to bring war criminals to justice on a massive scale and with almost no outside support. The man of destiny had strengthened the authority of the democratic state. But by seeking a second term he had vested that authority in himself. He had not groomed a political heir, not institutionalised many of the changes he had wrought. Much hung on who came after him. But the main barrier between Colombia and normality was the continuing failure of cocaine prohibition in consuming countries around the world. Politicians in the United States and Europe cavilled at granting aid to Colombia’s embattled democracy, or at helping its legal economy to expand through trade. Meanwhile, their countries’ cocaine consumers continued to pump money into Colombia’s illegal armies.

Read my narcoterrorism article.



  1. Nice concise history on the Colombian conflict. Thanks for sharing that. I actually know a political asylee from Colombia who used to be a former human rights activist. He had hopes of returning to Colombia but decided to stay here and get residency. What is your take on the current presidential campaign? I’ve heard of Mockus before, as his stint as mayor of Bogota and his famous mooning of university students in the early 90s, but that doesn’t give much information on how he’s going to tackle the FARC conflict.


  2. @ Dan – This recent El Tiempo piece cites that Colombians lead Latin American countries in receiving political asylum in the United States.

    The election is down to former Universidad Nacional rector Mockus and Uribe’s defense minister Santos. All my liberal capitalist professional friends in Bogota want Mockus for education and social reform. My life exists in Chapinero, Chico, and La Candelaria – all strong Mockus territory. So my view is skewed due to my strictly urban life. Santos’ support is in the pueblos where people suffered the worst from guerrillas and paramilitaries. It’s supposed to be a close election which will have to be decided in a runoff. Mockus has a short lead in the polls. Personally, I think the country will be fine with either candidate, but I’m inclined to like Mockus because all my professional friends like him.


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