New Styles in Neck Wear Terror

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Tue May 23 15:02:59 MDT 2000

>What are the differences between the FARC and the ELN?

Origins of the Colombian guerrilla groups

Just like rings in a tree trunk mark off its yearly growth, so would
successive appearance of Colombia's guerrilla groups over the past
half-century indicate shifts or ruptures in the worldwide left. Every
shakeup in the revolutionary movement internationally has had the effect of
spawning a new armed group in Colombia that has taken root in the country's
fertile political soil, made so by permanent injustice. This article will
explain their various origins.


The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia is basically the rural armed
detachment of the Communist Party of Colombia.

When "La Violencia" broke out in 1948, Communist Party militants in the
countryside took up arms to protect themselves and the masses. Jenny Pearce
writes, "In El Davis, peasants organised a guerrilla enclave and a
self-sufficient community under the political leadership of the Communist
Party, which, till it had a population of 5,000 attracted people fleeing
from other areas." Even as the CP formed armed bands, it continued to
retain its ties to the Liberal Party and agreements were made with Liberal
guerrillas to carry out joint actions. This did not stop the Liberals from
betraying the CP as indicated by the willingness of the Liberal guerrilla
chiefs to begin collaborating with the army in 1953.

In the first infusion of US aid against "subversion," $160 million was
earmarked for counter-insurgency and "economic development" between 1961
and 1967. It was during this period that the anarchic, semi-bandit armed
groups that had first emerged during 1948 began to take on more and more of
a conscious anti-imperialist political character, especially those under CP

The US assistance bore fruit. Between 1963 and 1964, most of the openly
bandit-like armed groups were defeated. Then the army turned its attention
to the areas in which the CP formed a parallel state power based on peasant
support. The CP, true to form, declared that it was ready to become
re-integrated into the two-party system. A 1958 statement signed by
Marulanda ("Sureshot") declared its intention to work within the system:

"As patriots, who have struggled during the years prior to 10 May 1957
against the despotic dictatorships which sowed ruin in the countryside and
towns, we are not interested in the armed struggle and we are willing to
collaborate in any way we can, with the task of pacification which the
present government of Doctor Alberto Lleras Camargo is prepared to implement."

Camargo was the recently elected president of the National Front, a bloc
between the two major bourgeois parties in Colombia. They signed a pact
which guaranteed that they would alternate in power during a period of
sixteen years. Imagine an agreement between Clinton and George Bush Jr. on
this basis. Then imagine the CPUSA endorsing it. While this Bloc marked the
end of armed hostilities between the two political wings of the ruling
class, it at the same time marked the beginning of a new round of military
attacks on the peasants and workers.

That the Communist Party of Colombia could refer positively to
"pacification" points to the heavy hand of Stalin-era class-collaboration.
While CP militants fought bravely for reforms in the countryside and in the
trade union arena, the party was hampered by this ideological confusion
about the tasks of the revolutionary movement. In their eyes, until
Colombia had become a modern bourgeois-democratic republic, socialism would
not be on the agenda. However, as the Cuban revolution would reveal the
very next year, it was only through socialist revolution that the basic
tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution could be achieved, including
land reform which was and is the burning issue in Colombia.

Even though the CP had showed its willingness to placate the ruling class,
the ruling class would be satisfied with nothing less than the physical
elimination of the party. With US advisers, the Colombian army would
unleash one of its most infamous operations in 1964. 16,000 troops
encircled Marquetalia, a valley where fewer than 100 peasant sympathizers
of the CP were toiling, while the airforce dropped bombs. Almost all the
peasants escaped and joined up with others from around the country who had
been living in CP "liberated zones" to form mobile guerrilla groups. At a
conference in 1966, they officially launched the FARC. "La Violencia" was
officially over, but a new war along more sharply delineated class lines
was now beginning.


The ELN was a direct outgrowth of the Cuban revolution. Student radicals
decided that it was possible to replicate the success of the July 26th
Movement in Colombia. Its initial impetus came from the MOEC (Workers,
Students' and Peasants Movement), formed by student leader Antonio Larrota
who died in 1961 while trying to establish a "foco" in the northern
territory called Cauca. By 1964 MOEC had imploded due to a combination of
military reversals and factional infighting.

At that point Fabio Vásquez and a small group of student activists from the
ex-MOEC launched the ELN after receiving military training in Cuba.

The ELN made its debut on January 7, 1965 when 27 men and one woman armed
with hunting rifles took control of the small town of Simacota for two
hours and made revolutionary speeches. In a recent review one of the ELN
leaders looked back at the group's early activities with self-reproach:

"A great problem of our practice at the time was the absolutism of the
armed struggle...we married it and didn't let it go. Whatever we believed
didn't accord with that line, we cast it aside; that's why we thought that
the union movement and trade union struggles were a deviation."

To place these remarks in context, let us recall that immediately after the
success of the Cuban revolution, a schematic model was put forward by Regis
Debray in "Revolution in the Revolution." This slender book argued in favor
of "foquismo," a basically militarist approach to revolutionary politics in
which columns of guerrilla fighters ("focos") would be established in the
countryside with very little advance political preparation. Bold actions by
the guerrilla would serve to raise the fighting spirit of the masses.
Foquismo type groups sprang up all across Latin America and if they stuck
to Debray's rigid formula, they soon perished--including Che's own foco in

The relationship between the FARC and the ELN were strained from the
beginning. While Cuba never developed the kind of systematic critique of
Stalinism that the Trotskyist movement did, there was an implied criticism
through its collaborative relations with armed groups to the left of the
CP's, such as the ELN. The added complication in Colombia's case was that
the FARC was a guerrilla group itself and upon first blush seemed
indistinguishable from other so-called Castroite guerrilla groups.

The ELN made overtures to the FARC in 1966 at the time of its founding. The
ELN, based in the north, invited collaboration with the southern-based
FARC: "All efforts that make toward collaboration, knowledge, co-ordination
and unity with other guerrilla forces, however recently formed, are playing
a great part in the development of the struggle for national liberation."

The CP replied: "Comrade Marulanda has been informed by our party of your
activities, which have not pleased the party. The party, the general staff
of the FARC, and Comandante Marulanda Vélez himself, consider that such
relations as you suggest will not be possible unless you accept the policy
of the Communist Party."

And what was the policy of the Communist Party around that time? Fabio
Vásquez, founder of the ELN, explains:

"...the Cuban Revolution coincided in our country with the fall of Rojas
Pinilla's [National Front] dictatorship, and a return to traditional
representative democracy with Liberal and Conservative politicians. This
brought about conflict between those who supported stepping up the
electoral struggle and forming electoral movements, and those who advocated
the insurrectional war. After the fall of Rojas Pinilla, the only movement
with revolutionary ideas was the Communist party. But at the same time they
proposed forming broad political fronts with so-called progressive sectors
within the Liberal party, for example, the Liberal Revolutionary Movement
(MRL) which was headed by Dr. Alfonso López Michelsen. Meanwhile those who
followed the pattern of the Cuban Revolution looked for armed solutions.
They had a decisive clash with the directives, tactics and strategy of the
Communist party and the MRL, which at that time was the most representative
left-wing movement in Colombia. This was when the Workers-Peasants-Students
Movement (MOEC) appeared, headed by Antonio Larrota, a student leader, who
proposed armed struggle. From the beginning the MOEC had major difficulties
and clashes with the official leadership of the Communist party, which was
concentrating its efforts on helping to form the MRL in order to take part
in the elections which were beginning to take place after the fall of the

In 1968 the FARC defined its task as building the Patriotic Liberation
Front, which is Stalinist jargon for a multiclass government, and stated
that its policy was "guided by the policy of the [Communist] party,
expressed in the decisions of the Tenth Congress and meetings of its
Central Committee." Faced with such hard-line CP orthodoxy, the ELN had no
alternative but to proceed alone.

The most famous leader of the ELN was Camilo Torres, a Catholic priest who
died in combat and who was one of the most extraordinary figures in Latin
American revolutionary politics in recent decades. He was chaplain of the
National University in Bogotá and one of the founders of the sociology
department. Later he became dean of the School of Public Administration,
where he gave lectures on the need for agrarian reform. In 1965 he issued
an anti-capitalist "Platform for a Movement of Popular Unity," which set
off a major controversy in Colombia and led to his firing from the
university. When the church gave the unemployed Torres a job, he soon lost
it after advocating expropriation of church property through socialist

When Torres joined the ELN, it was with the understanding that he might
facilitate an urban wing of the movement under the auspices of a group he
had initiated called the People's United Front. All through 1965 he
traveled around the country drumming up support for his group, frequently
appearing with ELN bodyguards. At a certain point, Torres became frustrated
with the failure of urban-based leftists to align themselves or even
support his movement. He was attacked by Maoists, for example, for not
being radical enough--a huge surprise. Exhausted and disillusioned, Torres
put on a guerrilla uniform and went to the countryside. He was killed in
action on February 16, 1966. This tragedy cut off possibilities for the ELN
developing deeper urban ties. Torres's frustration with the pace of the
People's United Front was symptomatic of the kind of mood that prevailed in
the 1960s. Looking back with 20-20 hindsight, it is clear that he would
have proven much more useful in Bogotá than in a futile firefight in the
hills. His loss, like Che's, was a product of a deeply impatient time, when
the imperative to "Create two, three, many Vietnams" was irresistible, no
matter how poorly considered the strategy put forward in pursuit of that goal.


The EPL was formed as the armed wing of the Maoist CP-ML in December, 1965.
It was directed to carry out "prolonged popular war" on the model of the
Chinese Liberation Army or the NLF. It came close to annihilation during
numerous confrontations with the army. It was also subject to numerous
splits as characterizes sectarian groups of this nature. It spawned the
Marxist-Leninist League, the Marxist-Leninist Tendency and the urban group,
Pedro León Arboleda (PLA).

In the early 1980s, the group shifted away from the Maoist perspective and
began to orient to the unions and popular organizations. When a dialog
opened up with the government, the EPL and the M-19 proved willing to
forego the armed struggle and take part in "normal" electoral activities.


The M-19 was born in 1972. It seems to be very close in conception to the
FSLN, in particular the "Terzerista" [Third way] faction led by Daniel
Ortega. Like the "Terzeristas," the M-19 believed that bold armed
initiatives, combined with a broad alliance policy intended to exploit
divisions within the ruling class, would isolate the government and lead to
a general insurrection. The M-19, like the FARC, sought to redeem the
electoral process from corruption and return it to the status of an
instrument of the popular will. The April 19th was a reference to the
election day in 1970, when a left party was cheated out of a victory. The
implication of the M-19 approach was that armed struggle was necessary to
return the country to normal parliamentary rule, a vain hope in light of
Colombia's history. Some of the founding cadres of the M-19 indeed came
from the FARC and undoubtedly sought merely to provide a turbo-charged
version of the CP's Patriotic Liberation Front.

The M-19's first public action was to steal the sword of Simón Bolivar to
draw attention to the loss of the country's revolutionary heritage. This
was the greatest achievment of the M-19, to combine revolutionary struggle
with a country's indigenous revolutionary traditions. In doing so, they
were in keeping with the July 26th Movement's embrace of Jose Martí in
Cuba, and similar use of national revolutionary symbols such as Farabundo
Martí in El Salvador and Sandino in Nicaragua during the 1980s.


By 1985, Colombia had entered a deep political crisis. The causes were the
same as they had always been. Rapid economic development was not matched by
a representative democracy. The lack of democracy ensured that the vast
majority of the population was not offered social services such as clean
water, education and health care. When they protested in the streets, they
were attacked by right-wing paramilitaries. The guerrillas had a
complicated relationship to the mass movement. While providing armed
defense, they also gave the government an excuse to "empty the ocean" in
order to kill the fish. Colombia was the site of rural pacification
programs not that different from those that had been implemented in Vietnam
and with the same dubious results. The internal immigrants who had fled
government and private repression were far greater percentage-wise than the
number of Kosovars who had fled from NATO bombing.

President Virgilio Barco embarked on peace talks with the guerrilla
movement, so as to return a modicum of peace to the country. The cost of
repression was proving too high and the carrot might work better than the
stick in keeping the masses under control. The M-19 and the EPL agreed to
the government's proposals, while the FARC and the ELN held back.

The M-19 had high expectations for re-entry into the normal political
process. A 1985 survey found that if it ran a candidate for president, it
would receive 36.7 percent of the vote. So when a truce was signed with the
government, they went on the offensive and held rallies in slum districts
of the big cities. And as soon as they did, the army, the police and the
paramilitaries began to victimize the poor people who attended them.

Unlike the CP/FARC, which also looked forward to electoral openings but
knew from bitter experience how treacherous the ruling class could be, the
impetuous M-19 cadres took very little precautions. When their leaders in
Cali were murdered by security forces, the M-19 called off their truce and
launched one of the most disastrous actions in recent Colombian
revolutionary history. While superficially bearing a resemblance to the
sort of actions that had propelled the FSLN into the limelight, this action
would serve to destroy the M-19 and demoralize the mass movement.

In November of 1985, the M-19 stormed the Palace of Justice in Bogotá and
during a 28-hour pitched battle with the army and police, 128 people were
killed. Twelve politicians were killed in the fighting, as were 41
militants of the M-19. Leftwing journalist Ana Carrigan has written a
sympathetic but rueful account of the disastrous action. Her description of
the M-19 militants evokes the Sandinista image:

"John Agudelo Rios, the conservative lawyer who led the peace negotiations
with the M-19 for President Betancur in 1984 and '85, says that none of the
leaders he got to know ever did grow up. Agudelo Rios also says that no two
of the M-19 leaders ever shared any common political ideology. There were
right-wingers and Marxists, anarchists and a few lonely social democrats,
and they could never agree on a program. They still can't. 'I hate
programs,' says Antonio Navarro Wolf. 'There is nothing more deadly than
programs. Those sacred texts that people hang around their necks like the
doctrinaire dogmas of the Catholic Church.'

"Neither the long march through the political institutions nor years of
guerrilla warfare in the distant mountains was ever the M19 style. From the
moment they burst upon the scene in 1974 with the theft of one of the
nation's most prized possessions, the sword of Simon Bolivar, through the
high-jacking of several tons of weapons from the army's crack, XIIIth
Brigade Bogotá's headquarters over New Year's Eve in 1979, to the seizure
of the Dominican Embassy while the entire Bogotá's diplomatic corps were
celebrating the Day of Dominican Independence in 1980, their specialty was
always the 'golpe revolucionario publicitario,' designed to effect the
maximum destabilization of the system. They were children of the media age,
long on imagination and daring, short on discipline, and they believed
their own high-flown rhetoric."

The M-19 and the EPL have disappeared from the Colombian political
landscape. Those militants who were not killed have been largely absorbed
into electoral politics. This leaves the FARC and the ELN as the sole armed
opponents of the regime. In my next post, I will focus on the problem of
guerrilla ties to the cocaine trade. Since the United States is using this
as a pretext for an imperialist intervention, it is vitally important that
anti-imperialist activists have a clear understanding of the issues, even
if we don't all agree on whether connections to the cocaine industry itself
constitutes a prima facie basis for condemning the guerrilla.


Berquist-Peñarada-Sánchez, "Violence in Colombia"
Ana Carrigan, "The Palace of Justice"
Richard Gott, "Guerrilla Movements in Latin America"
Jenny Pearce, "Inside the Labyrinth"

Louis Proyect

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