Understanding the FARC
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Fri May 12 12:10:09 MDT 2000
Le Monde diplomatique
THE ENDLESS UNDECLARED CIVIL WAR
Why Colombia's guerrillas haven't made peace
The long, entrenched struggle between the guerrillas and the
authorities rolls on. Yet neither side wants to be seen as
intransigent, the obstacle to peace.
by our special correspondent MAURICE LEMOINE
Popayán, in Cauca department, has its colonial centre, its
Colgate-Palmolive recreational park, and its graffiti - "Yes to
globalisation ... of the people's struggle" and "USA nos USA" (The US is
Using us) to show the visitor. If you go a bit further, and leave the
prestigious Pan-American Highway, you find earth roads and dilapidated
villages, and you hear the resigned complaints of the campesinos (those in
the countryside, the campo). "I remember when my dad would buy a weaner for
$10 and sell it as a porker for $160 (1). Today, the young pig costs $40,
and when you've fattened it, it sells for $100". Cattle are the same - a
cow worth $250 five years ago is still worth $250, but everything needed
for rearing it costs more.
Everyone lives alongside the road, on a pocket-handkerchief of ground with
a building crammed on it. The fertile, rolling slopes of the fincas
(farmland, owned by a finquero) belong to people from somewhere else. A
peasant, talking as he stares into his cup of coffee, sells them his
labour. "They pay me the minimum wage, $118 a month. Just enough to get by
on." Another has the luck to own a scrap of land: "I don't have very exact
figures, but each month I must make around $90".
This is everyday Colombia, the one that never makes the headlines, with its
squabbles over field boundaries, village vendettas, and stories of land
wrested from the powerful at the end of, inevitably, bloody struggle. The
group that is organising itself to escape its miserable fate, and that
others want to break up. "As in any community, there are some who make
trouble. We've given them time, we've explained things to them. Some
improved, others didn't." Age-old peasant canniness means that things are
muttered, without being put in plain words. "It gets to the ears of other
people. And then what was bound to happen happens. Driven out, some of them
clear off, others end up dead. As for knowing who killed them, well...
forces from outside. Some people may have seen them, but no-one knows who
they are. Forces that turn up to sort out the problems, now and then."
Even among themselves, the armed conflict is seldom spoken of. People say
that there are lawless killers roaming about "up there", in the pay of the
army or the big landowners. "If anyone plans to denounce the injustices,
then some time or other the paramilitaries will come and get him." As for
the guerrillas, there is silence - suddenly broken by an outburst from a
peasant saying, "When they attack a pueblo, they destroy it, they kill
civilians, and when they blow up pylons the cost of electricity goes up.
And who pays for all of it? We do." He has spilt out his feelings, trying
to get rid of the bitterness; his companions fall silent again. A
sturdily-built young man won't have it: "Well, I say the guerrillas are the
army of the poor." The man next to him nods discreetly, while a fourth
looks uncomfortable and changes the subject.
In this area, from 1-25 November, more than 50,000 peasants, teachers and
locals blocked the Pan-American Highway (here, it links Colombia with
Ecuador). They were protesting at the savage cuts the conservative
president, Andrés Pastrana, was making in the social programmes taken over
from previous governments. Five army battalions, the military police and
two generals moved in. "An incredible show of force, you'd have thought you
were in Vietnam!" As the first wounded were being counted, local workers'
movements announced that Popayán was about to be occupied. During the night
of the 25th, a government committee negotiated, made a grant of $50m, and
at the very last minute defused the impending explosion.
Since then the movement's leaders, in fear of their lives, have taken to
the countryside and never sleep in the same house two nights running. But
they still carry on the struggle.
In a little village in Cauca, lashed by driving rain, a woman shivers,
wrapped in her shawl: "With this cold weather, there'll be more babies on
the way! Oh, what a headache it all is". Two trade unionists are doing the
rounds. In a tiny meeting room, the locals complain how hard life is: the
price of milk (dictated by the multinational company), teachers' posts
(being scrapped by the government), mothers (up from four in the morning).
After listening for a long time, the trade union man gets up to speak.
Here, in the back of beyond, he talks to them about the International
Monetary Fund and the G7 and foreign debt. "And what's Pastrana doing? He's
obeying orders! Organise yourselves, compañeros, or things will get worse
still. Six years ago," he goes on, "the M-19 guerrillas laid down their
weapons. Did that solve the people's problems?"
The question is not a empty one at a time when the whole country is crying
out for peace, so it is said. The answer comes as a unanimous grunt: "No!
Of course it didn't!" The conclusion seems so fraught with tension that a
woman shows her embarrassment and asks: "Is it true that the unions are
tied up with the guerrillas?" "Listen," she is told, "there are different
ways of being with the guerrillas. By being involved, by collaborating, or
by sympathising. They've chosen their way of doing things, we have ours.
But they're not upsetting the workers' movement. They're supporting it." A
far from oracular answer, that everyone can make their mind up about. And
minds seem made up. There are congratulations, friendly hugs, and as they
split up, a date is fixed for the next meeting because, as someone slips
into the conversation, "we need the union to give us guidance".
The flight from Bogotá (with its 4 million inhabitants) to San Vicente del
Caguán (with 21,000), the capital of Caquetá department and of the
Revolutionary Armed Forces-People's Army (FARC-EP), takes only an hour on
the Dornier-328 belonging to Satena, "the airline that unites Colombia".
The slogan has never been more to the point. Satena is run by the military.
At San Vicente, the air force crew and their civilian passengers are
greeted by guerrillas. And yet, they are at war. The military do not hang
about, but take off again at once.
The army had been suffering great setbacks - the offensive capabilities of
the guerrilla groups have grown spectacularly over recent years (2). As
soon as Pastrana was elected president on 21 June 1998, he decided to
negotiate with the most powerful of the groups, the FARC-EP and met their
leader Manuel Marulanda (3) face-to-face. Despite virulent criticism from
the defence minister, the generals and the United States, the president
implicitly recognised that the revolutionaries had taken up arms in a just
cause, so he set up the machinery for dialogue, and to facilitate this,
demilitarised five municipios - San Vicente del Caguán, La Macarena, Vista
Hermosa, Mesetas and Uribe - an area covering 42,000 sq km (as big as
Switzerland, or El Salvador) from which the army reluctantly dragged its
feet on 7 November 1998. The FARC-EP, present everywhere in the surrounding
countryside, peacefully took over the towns and made San Vicente their
Inside the township, there is (so far as one can see) no tension. It is a
biggish place, rather cleaner than others like it, with vans, yellow taxis
and swarms of two-wheelers, noisy and crowded cantinas, and a few guerrilla
soldiers standing guard in front of the cultural centre building, their
daytime headquarters (they pull out when night falls).
As San Vicente still sleeps, our vehicle leaves town and heads out into the
misty darkness. At the back, a woman endlessly tells the story of her life.
She was born in 1951, and remembers a man being beheaded, yes, as if it
were yesterday. She remembers the finca, too. You had to go and fetch
water, and collect wood, and you worked, and worked, and worked. As the
bumps in the road are not really a problem, the driver steers with one
hand: "The government never did a thing. The road's been done up by the
guerrillas." "And it's quiet now," the señora sighs contentedly. "Before,
at this time of night, you'd get your throat cut by the yobs." Her only
other comment is that the guerrillas are very young; and that there are
many women among them, who are really very smartly dressed. "You've seen
them - elegantisimas." A little further on, she gets out by a small,
isolated farmhouse, and the vehicle carries on for another hundred
kilometres, to a "meeting place".
Hidden deep in the forest, the guerrilla camp lives its daily life, a
mixture of discipline and relaxation. The uniforms of the rebel soldiers
moving to and fro along the paths between the rows of cambuches (individual
huts) are, while smartly pressed, somewhat varied, ranging from olive drab
to camouflaged to black. Here they are still, come what may,
Marxist-Leninist. Between themselves, they do not call each other
compañero, as in all other armed movements in Latin America, but camarada.
Wearing his eternal black tee-shirt with the face of Che Guevara, and a
wide smile that splits his greying beard, Comandante Raúl Reyes - number
one in the FARC-EP delegation at the negotiating table - explains: "No
matter how socialism has chopped and changed, neither Colombia or the world
has got rid of poverty. Capitalism hasn't solved anything. Now more than
ever, there's every reason to carry on the struggle. Latin America is being
smothered by the neo-liberal model. Globalisation is affecting all of us."
To say that all these fighters can carry on a sophisticated Marxist
dialectic would not be telling the truth - they are too young. Born into
peasant families with ten barefoot children, they start helping their
parents work the land on their tiny smallholding. And though they learn to
read and write at primary school, there are no jobs to go to. At 16 they
find a wife, have ten kids, and in turn raise them in the same penury. In
Caquetá where he was born, the young Manuel saw the guerrilla groups
passing by. "I was excited by them. With the situation the country was in,
my pals and I had often played at fighting the war; I was always one of the
guerrillas." Of course the army, too, were everywhere in the countryside.
"But them, they were something different. The military knew my mum belonged
to the opposition; that's why they beat her up." At 14 Manuel joined the
FARC. "Here, at 14 you're not a child any more. You've already got a very
clear picture of what's what."
That is how it is, confirms Camarada Olga Marín, a member of the political
and diplomatic mission, though she does not try to dress things up. "Among
the less politically-aware population, they obviously don't know anything
about Marxism-Leninism. They see our fighters, well-armed and well-fed, who
organise meetings with the people and tell them what the struggle is for.
They've got little in the way of prospects, life in a guerrilla group is
better than in the campo, so they join us." Most of those they find there
are other peasants who have come to get away from the landowners. But there
are townsfolk and professionals too, whose lives have been ruined by the
social situation, and militants and trade unionists who have had to give up
legal opposition to escape being murdered.
Argeni, a slim, long-haired peasant girl, says she is 22. In the campo,
machismo rules, and women are exploited on all fronts. Not to mention
sexual exploitation - when men are rock-bottom poor and illiterate, they
seldom have nice manners. When a guerrilla group was passing through her
area, Argeni, with no future but a lifetime of breeding ahead of her, saw
women who could fight for themselves and say what they thought, women who
were treated as equals by the others. She was only 16. By the time her
parents realised she had gone, she was already far away (4); and she has
not been parted from her weapon since.
Accused of drug dealing
In off-duty hours, in the camp where couples wander hand-in-hand, but with
a gun slung over their shoulder (and a contraceptive in their pocket),
Argeni goes about her activities wearing a bra and a Kalashnikov. "If
trouble blows up and your rifle's a hundred metres away, you'll be dead
before you can get to it." She is not keen on the idea of dying. She dreams
of one day seeing a Colombia where there is social justice and women will
be treated with dignity: "Here, there's equality. There are even women
comandantes. A guerrilla who discriminates against women gets disciplined."
Over the past two years a huge number of young women (now 30% to 35% of the
force) have joined this "implacable" guerrilla group with its evil reputation.
The vans and 4-wheel-drives bear witness to the fact that the FARC-EP are
not on the poverty line. There is plenty to eat on their tables. In the
"information HQ" tent, amid the quiet hum of power generators, the
keyboards of a row of computers connected to the internet clatter all day
long. For the military high command and its US mentors, there is only one
way to explain this wealth of facilities - drug trafficking.
Though San Vicente del Caguán is in Caquetá, the four other municipios in
the demilitarised zone belong to the neighbouring department, Metá. A
region as large as France, with 1_ million inhabitants, it has one airport,
and one road! No-one chooses to live there for pleasure; they end up there
driven by poverty. A peasant in the middle of Metá is five days' walk from
the nearest village. "His only choice is between joining a guerrilla group
and growing illegal crops. The armed conflict is an option for people who
have nothing. As for coca, it's not like two crates of bananas, you can
carry it out on foot." The classic argument, some will object, that you
hear from rebels anxious to find an excuse for themselves; the only thing
is, we heard this from Alan Jara Urzola, the governor of Metá.
The guerrillas watched the coca industry spread in the days (the 1980s)
when the military, political and economic élite were doing well out of the
trade in cocaine. Since then, the state and its politicians have parted
company with their old mafia allies (5). But the peasants have stayed just
as poor. "They are our grass-roots support," the FARC-EP leaders protest,
furious at the accusations that seek to makes them the commanders of a
narcotics army. "It's not up to us to force them into starvation by
eradicating illegal crops. Anyway, the mafia are helping the army finance
the paramilitaries. Why should we be the only ones to look at this scourge
from an ethical viewpoint? It's first and foremost an economic and social
Where there is neither development nor an adequate food supply, it is
simply the neo-liberal philosophy of comparative benefit that is leading
the country both to war and to the narcotics economy. The FARC-EP,
regularly accused of being no more than a gang of bandoleros who have
forsaken all ideology, do not hide the fact that they levy a tax on coca -
sometimes on the base paste (the initial, cottage-industry stage of
transforming coca into cocaine), and on the raspachinas (middlemen), who
carry on their business undisturbed; but never on the peasants. In the
opinion of all the experts, however, they have neither the networks for
importing the raw materials and exporting the finished product, nor the
laboratory infrastructure needed. Even less do they have a system for
money-laundering (6). "If we had the fortune that's wished on us," jeer the
comandantes, "the revolution would have been over long ago!"
When, at the end of 1998, the army moved out of the demilitarised zone,
this generated next to no excitement in the countryside. The guerrillas
had, as an invisible but omnipresent authority, been in charge there for a
long time. But when the FARC-EP's crack troops burst in on the villages,
and in particular at San Vicente del Caguán, there was a wave of panic
among some of the population. Abandoned by the authorities, with their
mayors unable to function if they have not discussed matters with this
state within a state, more than 700 pueblos all over the country had
already discovered what guerrilla rule was like. Now it was the turn of the
villages. When the FARC-EP says there must be no fishing with sticks of
dynamite, and that the forest must not be hacked down, those who break the
rules suffer the consequences.
Murderers are sentenced to death. Anyone striking another has to pay a fine
(of $25-50). Thieves do two or three months of labour for the community.
The bazuqueros (drug addicts) and dealers, like rapists, are told to mend
their ways or clear out (they get two warnings before the ultimate
penalty). Minors are banned from drinking alcohol, and from hanging around
the streets after midnight. At San Vicente, where there used to be six
deaths a month (through settling of scores, or brawls, or general
lawlessness), there have been only six in a whole year since the FARC-EP
took over (helped, for the jobs needing a less "heavy" approach, by a civil
police newly formed from civilian volunteers in the region).
As a result, two funeral parlours have had to close down. "On the other
hand, we haven't stopped our 'sex-worker comrades' from earning a living:
they've simply been told to be discreet on the street." Even when applied
flexibly, the method is a tough one. But many of the inhabitants (though
not all, and least of all the mayor who has seen his authority seriously
eroded) like it that way. "Now, you can live with your door open!" In a
Colombia torn by everyday violence (with 25,000 killed each year), the
return to having a state to protect you is beyond price.
Part of the population - only part - has come to terms with the situation.
When the guerrillas arrived, there were only five made-up roads in the
whole place. Using communal labour, which was for the most part happily
accepted, they undertook to sort out the mess, supplying the asphalt and
tools. To be sure, they knew how to take charge and give orders; in this
cattle-rearing region, trucks taking animals to market were told not to
return empty, but to take on a load of asphalt they were given on the way
Individual liberty has taken a knock, but the town has been transformed -
60 streets are now made up - to the obvious satisfaction of its
inhabitants. Not of the local priest, however. Padre Miguel thunders from
the pulpit: "No-one asked them to pave the streets! This 'work for the
community' of theirs is forced labour, and they're doing the same here as
they did in Siberia!" It makes Comandante Jairo Martinez smile: "Of course.
Before we came, there were six deaths a week at $65 for each burial, plus
the collection at the end of the mass. He's had a nice little business
spoiled. That's what our dissidents are about."
Not entirely. That would be too good to be true. During the first months,
there was growing condemnation of the guerrillas' excesses - belongings
ransacked, civilians arrested, selective murders. "Today, things are
better," Comandante Reyes assures us, though without trying to deny the
facts. They had had to manage, in the full sense of the word, a territory
the size of El Salvador. "What was on trial was our credibility. What
wouldn't people have said if we had let chaos develop, or continue?" A
matter of keeping order, and stopping crime.
And then there is the war, the real one. Before it was demilitarised, San
Vicente had housed the Cazadores battalion. Over years, its soldiers had
gained a psychological hold on the population. When the army went, it left
behind not only sympathisers, but agents as well. Their job was to create
more and more obstacles so that the peace talks would break down. "We had
intelligence on them, and we had to take serious measures. The problem is
that agents who've been infiltrated into a population don't wear uniforms.
This led to objections from those who didn't understand that these
apparently harmless people were gathering information, pinpointing who our
officers were and who sympathised with us, and preparing sabotage and
There have been around 15 "disappearances" in the area, according to
Amnesty International. And that goes right to the heart of the tragedy that
few dare to call by its proper name - a civil war (7). The same thinking is
found among the paramilitaries, though with one important difference. The
paramilitaries came into being in the late 1960s, as part of a policy
recommended by US advisors for stamping out any stirrings for social
change. From 1985 on, they were the muscle-men for the drugs traffickers,
and gave back-up to the army by doing its dirty jobs for it (8).
Reorganised since April 1998 as the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia
(AUC), they wreak havoc among the grass-roots supporters - real or assumed
- of the guerrilla groups. "A lot of civilians do die in this war," admits
their chief Carlos Castaño. "You know why? It's because two-thirds of the
guerrillas' actual forces don't carry arms, and act like members of the
On 28 May 1984, when a ceasefire was signed between Belisario Betancur's
government and the FARC-EP, the authorities undertook to launch a series of
political, economic and social reforms. A deadline of a year was set for
the armed resistance to organise itself politically. In November 1985, the
FARC-EP set up a new, broad-based movement known as the Patriotic Union
(UP), which was successful in the 1986 elections, with 350 local
councillors and 23 deputies and six senators elected to Congress. There was
an unprecedented wave of assassinations that killed more than 4,000 of the
UP's (and Communist Party's) leaders, organisers and militants. The
guerrillas vowed not to make the same mistake again, and said that even if
peace agreements were signed, they were going to keep their weapons.
Since then, in a socially-divided Colombia where both the liberal and the
conservative parties protect the economic interests of an oligarchy, the
war has resumed and spread. An exact (and terrible) count of the victims
can't on its own tell the story, putting all the parties to the conflict on
the same level. Though, the guerrillas do not shrink from the harshest
tactics, impose the vacuna (tax for the revolution), snatch hostages to
ransom (which loses them the sympathy of the middle classes), and get
mayors and councillors of their own choice elected by intimidation. And,
when they decide to take over a pueblo, they use gas canisters wrapped in
sticks of dynamite - weapons that inevitably kill civilians.
This is the only point on which the guerrillas are on the defensive. In a
leaflet entitled "Recommendations to the civilian population", they urge:
"Do not allow barracks and military bases to be built close to your homes,
because we are at war". But how does an ordinary citizen stop the army from
setting up camp right in the middle of the population?
The army fumes with rage: in the protection of the demilitarised zone, the
FARC-EP are stocking weapons, and recruiting and training their fighters.
Camarada Marín shrugs her shoulders: "The troops who are inside the zone
today have always been there. We've always recruited, and always trained.
What's happening is they never realised before there were so many of us
here." The military top brass, shuttling constantly to and fro between
Bogotá and Washington, drive home another point: demilitarising this
strategic zone is allowing the guerrillas' crack troops to launch attacks
into nearby combat theatres, and then retreat to shelter in their sanctuary.
The pressure is such that President Pastrana has been making the
accusations himself. The reaction has been swift. "We have told the head of
state that if he can't continue the dialogue because the gringos
(Americans) won't allow him to, or because the army and business groups are
preventing him, then we'll hand back the towns, break off the talks, and
the conflict will start again in these five municipios just as it's going
on in the rest of Colombia." To make their point clear, the FARC-EP
launched violent attacks, roughing up the army all over the country,
hundreds of kilometres away from the demilitarised zone.
Last September Pastrana returned from Washington with the promise of S1.6bn
of aid over three years to fight the drugs trade - meaning, in fact, the
guerrillas. Using the flexible pretext of the war against drugs, the US has
between 300 and 400 civilian and military advisors in Colombia. The first
"anti-narcotics battalion", trained by 67 gringo instructors, has been
formed. Two more are to follow, with the real aim of taking back the
territory controlled by the FARC-EP. Despite the negotiations, war is,
irremediably, on the way, in a Colombia that is more divided than it appears.
All anyone wanted to hear about over recent months is the mass
demonstration on 24 October that brought millions of Colombians onto the
streets, wearing a little green ribbon on their lapel and shouting "No
mas!" (Enough). It is no reflection on those who demonstrated in good faith
to mention - as few have - that this longing for peace has been
orchestrated by an establishment eager to have done with the guerrilla
groups so as to carry on enjoying the old order in safety. An unprecedented
media campaign called people out to demonstrate; it was led by the daily
papers El Tiempo and El Espectador and the radio and television stations,
all owned by an élite that is, in fact, financing and feeding the conflict.
Few thought to ask the opinion of the other half of society that, ignored
by the middle classes, lives in the daily grind of poverty.
In a poor quarter of Popayán an old woman who for the whole of her life has
struggled to survive, snorts with laughter: "That? That's rich people's
peace! No, I didn't go on the demo." The head of a non-governmental
organisation says: "People are tired of the war, but they're tired of being
hungry, too. You can't make peace just a matter of stopping the guns."
There are many heads of workers' organisations who, secretly, are in
constant contact with the guerrillas.
The leader of a big trade union organisation says: "If you were to organise
a demonstration calling for social justice, you'd get far more impressive
crowds out on the streets. But that's something you can't do." During the
last general strike last September, two of his colleagues were killed, and
more than 200 others imprisoned (27 trade union leaders were murdered last
year; 3,000 since 1986). While voicing some misgivings about the armed
resistance ("too vertically organised ... sometimes a brutal hold on the
population"), he still approves of it when he says that peace cannot be
reduced to just a signature on a piece of paper or the handing-in of
weapons; it has to lead to real changes in the country. "In the situation
we're in, the guerrillas need to keep up the pressure."
Deep in the forest, in December 1999, Comandante Reyes mused:
"Marxism-Leninism has to be updated, and adapted to new realities in the
world. We can't go on aiming to build a Soviet, or Chinese, or Vietnamese
or Cuban-style socialism. We're at a different time in history, in the
cyberspace and internet age. The tools of science and technology have to be
put to use for economic and political and social ends." At the beginning of
February, Reyes changed his combat uniform for a three-piece suit and,
together with a government delegation and representatives of the Colombian
private sector, travelled to Stockholm (and then other European capitals)
to study "the political and economic models of the Scandinavian countries,
and how they might be applied in a South American country".
Are both sides looking for a new path to take? Perhaps. There is more to it
than that. As the winds blowing from Washington rekindle the embers of the
war, it is a matter of not appearing, in the eyes of the country, to be the
one who is perpetuating the conflict through intransigence or a closed
mind. And, by raising European awareness of the problem, escaping a
stifling twosome with the US.
(1) $1 = approximately 2,000 Colombian pesos.
(2) Land in agricultural production, owned by a finquero.
(3) Besides the FARC-EP with between 15,000 and 18,000 combat troops
(and possibly more), the 5,000-strong National Liberation Army (ELN)
is also operating in the country, as well as a few hundred fighters of
the People's Liberation Army (FPL).
(4) Manuel Marulanda, alias "Tirofijo" (Sure-Shot), a young peasant
hunted by the conservatives during the period known as The Violence
(in which 300,000 died), formed the first guerrilla group in 1948, in
the Quindio region. Adopting a classic Marxist stance, the peasants'
self-defence movements became the FARC in 1966.
(5) The general rule (respected to varying degrees, as we see here) is
that there has to be a parent's permission for minors to join a
(6) There have, however, been many cases that prove the links between
the drugs trade and the army, paramilitary and economic and political
establishment - right up to the US embassy.
(7) Though, given the geographical extent of the conflict, one cannot
rule out a few fronts not being under the control of the central
command (the fighters of the FARC-EP, found in over 40% of Colombian
communes, operate on 60 fronts with at least 100 personnel each).
(8) The 12 million persons displaced from their home areas by the war
between 1985 and 1998 were joined by a further 200,000 over the period
June-August 1999 (Unicef and Codhes [Information Bureau for Human
Rights and Displacement], Bogotá, 1999).
(9) See the explosive report by Human Rights Watch on collusion
between the paramilitaries and the army, "Colombia's Military linked
to Paramilitary Atrocities", New York, 23 February 2000.
(10) Carlos Castaño, interviewed by Castro Caycedo in En secreto,
Editorial Planeta, Bogotá, 1996.
Translated by Derry Cook-Radmore
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