In the jungles of Colombia, hidden from the eyes of the first world, the class struggle rages on a scale unknown to many 21st Century political activists.
It is a struggle of the disenfranchised and downtrodden against the ruling elites of their native land and the United States. I’m talking, of course, about the old, hardened, and ongoing guerrilla struggle of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army, or FARC-EP (sometimes they’re simply called FARC).
Formed on May 27, 1964, the FARC-EP succeeded the rural self-defense groups originally formed by the Colombian Communist Party (PCC) to protect peasant communities from attacks by liberal and conservative government forces. Since then, the USA has backed military operations against the communist forces and continues to do so today (Brittain, 8). The mainstream media attacks on the FARC-EP are well known. We have all heard the stories about how they are a “narco-terrorist” organization void of any political and ideological content. In recent years we have even heard that the guerrillas are on the verge of defeat. We must wonder, as any informed citizen should, if these claims are true. Starting with the accusations of being big, bad drug dealers, moving on to accusations of terrorism, popular support, supposed military weakening, and finally politics and culture I will examine whether or not what we have been told about the FARC-EP is true.
Donnie Marshall, a former Administrator of the American Drug Enforcement Agency, and James Milford, a former Deputy Administrator, both said that there is no evidence that the FARC guerrillas are taking part in the drug trade through selling, producing, or smuggling (Brittain, 94). Marshall himself testified to the US House Committee that no conclusion could be made regarding the claim that the guerrillas take part in the narcotics industry. He also testified that there is no proof that FARC is laundering, smuggling, or trafficking drug money. Former US Ambassador to Colombia Myles Frechette also said that there is no clear evidence of FARC being involved in the drug trade. According to known writer Robin Kirk, both Frechette and Rosso Jose Serrano would say that the tales of FARC being highly involved with narcotics is a lie used by the military in order to get more money from the US for counter-insurgency operations (Brittain, 95).
Former US Special Forces officer Stan Goff said:
“My own personal experience as a military advisor in Colombia in 1992 leads me to conclude that the ‘war on drugs’ is simply a propaganda ploy, a legitimizing story for the American public. We were briefed by Public Affairs Officers that counter-narcotics was a cover story…” (ibid).
Andres Pastrana Arango, former Colombian president and ambassador to the US, said that the state couldn’t find “any evidence that they’re [the FARC] involved directly in drugs.” It has been widely noted that FARC has worked to prevent coca from completely taking over entire rural sectors of the country. They began to work with the United Nations in the 1980’s on projects involving crop substitution, replacing coca, in areas they controlled (ibid).
Klaus Nyholm, former director of the UN International Drug Control Programme in Colombia, said:
“The guerrillas are something different than the traffickers, the local fronts are quite autonomous. But in some areas, they’re not involved at all. And in others, they actively tell farmers not to grow coca” (Brittain, 96).
During the 1990’s and 2000’s the FARC successfully supported the transition from coca to legitimate crops in the mayoralty of Micoahumado in the Morales municipality of the Bolivar department. The guerrillas implemented similar programs in the Casanare department of the central northeast (ibid). FARC-EP independently started a program of replacing illegal crops with normal ones in Caqueta during 2000. This program had the full support of the European Union and United Nations. After several months, the guerrillas held a conference open to the international community and Colombian peasants regarding this program (Brittain, 97).
However, many farmers in FARC territory have to grow illegal crops because it is hard for them to make a living from normal crops and subsistence farming due to the land centralization programs that were carried out by the Colombian state and the neo-liberal foreign trade policies for food that Colombia and the US take part in. Understanding the economic hardships faced by farm workers, FARC allows them to grow coca, but a class-based tax system is used for those involved with coca. FARC has similar tax systems in place for other things such as coffee and oil. Landless and subsistence peasant farmers aren’t taxed, but drug merchants and multi-national corporations (MNC’s) are. The tax money is then forwarded to a local democratic body and used for local schools, health services, and other infrastructure (Brittain, 98-101, 109 also see Dudley, 52). Basically, FARC only taxes coca but doesn’t involve itself in the growing, selling, or transportation of it.
FARC also protected the civilians from aggressive drug traffickers and didn’t allow the use of dangerously addictive coca derivatives (Dudley, 52). Drug traffickers once planned an attack against the FARC’s Casa Verde (headquarters) involving paramilitaries led by British and South African mercenaries, but the attack never happened. As a matter of fact, late FARC leader Jacobo Arenas was afraid drug traffickers were out to assassinate him (Dudley, 57).
Guerrillas don’t get paid and receive three meals a day and medical treatment if they need it, but sometimes even those are scarce. They live in camps in the forest, sleep on wooden planks, bathe in rivers, and fight with diseases. It isn’t a life of luxury, which lead journalist Garry Leech, who once spent time in a FARC camp, to say:
“And if guerrilla leaders like Reyes are little more than the heads of a criminal organization, then they must be considered miserable failures. After all, other Colombian criminals live in luxury. The leader of the former Medellín cocaine cartel, Pablo Escobar, lived lavishly in magnificent mansions, as have many other Colombian drug traffickers over the past thirty years. Paramilitary leaders have also lived well on their vast cattle ranches in northern Colombia, enjoying the riches wrought from their criminal activities” (Leech).
Colombia’s first paramilitary group was formed by drug traffickers (Dudley, 73). The Colombian government would disproportionately target coca areas by exterminating coca in the FARC regions but seldom target areas under AUC (paramilitary) control. Antioquia, an area long under AUC control, saw coca increase by 71 percent, but FARC-controlled Putumayo saw a decrease in the plant by 68 percent between 2002 and 2004 (Brittain, 147).
In the 1980’s, the FARC-EP sought to join the political process and build support and change peacefully after decades of fighting. This came in the form of the political party called the Patriotic Union, or UP going by its Spanish acronym. In less than two years, the UP became a major player in Colombian politics (Dudley, 88). As UP support grew, so did the number of FARC recruits. When this began to happen in areas under the influence of drug lords, their interests conflicted with each other. And so the drug cartels had serious issues with the FARC that they’d take out by killing UP members (Dudley, 98). In 1986, Jaime Pardo Leal, a UP candidate, got more votes than any leftist candidate in the election (Dudley, 91). The number of UP members killed in 1987 is 111. In 1988, it was 276. The real estimates are thought to be much higher (Dudley, 130).
The FARC-EP practices something called “retention,” but the media calls this kidnapping. What FARC does is study an individual’s political activity and class background to decide if this person is worth capturing. FARC most often retains prominent right-wing ideologues, military personnel, and rich politicians. These people are held as prisoners of war until a humane exchange is worked out or a fee is paid (Brittain, 118-9). Retention is also aimed at multi-national corporations because some small merchants support FARC, but MNC’s pay paramilitaries to attack and scare off small businesses in order to hold a monopoly (Brittain, 264). FARC arresting politicians, in the author’s opinion, is no different than when the British arrested Rudolf Hess. Politicians work within the Colombian state to make it better, including in its attacks on FARC and the poor. It’s war, it’s necessary to retain such people.
As far as abuse of prisoners goes, FARC doesn’t do that. For example, former detainee Ingrid Betancourt was reported to be in good health after leaving the custody of the guerrillas. She was even in good mental health. If she was abused, then she wouldn’t have talked about writing a play about her detention only one day after being released. Any talk from her about abuse is propaganda from the mouth of a bourgeois princess. In fact, 80 percent of attributable atrocities, such as extrajudicial executions, were committed by government forces (Whitney). In 1980, Amnesty International said that the Colombian state had over 33 torture centers (Dudley, 25).
Out of all abuses against non-combatants from 1993-2007, abuses from all guerrilla groups in Colombia combined (not just the FARC) don’t even reach 40% at any time. In 2007, guerrillas committed less than 10% of the violations. This information comes from a chart in the book by James Brittain that is being used as one of the sources. He gets the information from many Colombian sources such as the Colombian Coalition Against Torture (Brittain, 133).
Often the government and media carry out attacks and blame them on the FARC. In 1998, Maria O’Grady once wrote a news article about how the FARC-EP had booby trapped a truck to explode and kill state forces, but it went off early and killed civilians. Luis Alberto Galvis Mujica, a survivor and witness from said attack, wrote a letter to her and the Wall Street Journal saying he saw the attack being carried out by state and paramilitary forces, not the FARC-EP. In another incident, a bomb went off in Bogota and killed one civilian and 26 soldiers. It was immediately blamed on the FARC, but then an army commander came out and said the army had planted the bombs (Brittain, 172-3). Unlike the guerrillas, the government encourages the killing of civilians. The Uribe administration would encourage the military to kill civilians without strong family connections, such as drug addicts and homeless people, then dress the dead in guerrilla uniforms to create fake military victories (Brittain, 244).
It’s important to keep in mind that during any war, both reactionary and revolutionary forces will make mistakes and civilians will get caught in the crossfire and sometimes innocent people will suffer. This can’t be helped, only minimized. The important thing to keep in mind is that things will be significantly better in Colombia after the revolutionary victory. If we on the revolutionary left stop supporting groups and individuals because of a few bad things they did, without even looking at their reasoning and the situation, then we will run out of allies and become isolated and weak politically.
Despite it’s mistakes, the FARC has tons of support. During the peace negotiations of 1998-2002, tens of thousands of peasants, small and medium producers, Afro-Colombians, and indigenous Colombians migrated to FARC-EP territory, especially San Vicente del Caguan. Before the negotiations, that region only had 100,000 residents, but after the negotiations ended it was discovered that roughly 740,000 people had migrated to that part of FARC-EP territory. Known journalist Gary Leech said that many peasants like living in rebel territory because it provides security and the chance to build new, community-based projects (Brittain, 31).
Meredith Aby, an American who traveled through Colombia, had this to say about life in FARC territory:
“At FARC checkpoints, I was welcomed and never threatened. …average Colombian people openly welcome the FARC fighters. Talking politics with campesinos and FARC soldiers, I experienced freedom of speech at a level I don’t even feel in my own country. In addition, campesinos reported that they felt safer in rebel-held territory” (Brittain, 32).
A 43-year old campesino from Caqueta once told James J. Brittain, an author who spent time in FARC-EP territory, that, “The guerrillas are a necessity. The insurgency lives with the people and has allowed the community to sustain its way of life” (Brittain, 33).
A banana worker in Uraba once told the Washington Post, “In meeting with us, the FARC presents itself cordially, discusses things, and is willing to compromise” (Dudley, 81).
Although there was a major anti-FARC protest in 2008, it first began organizing on the internet. However, less than 5% of Colombians have internet access. The protest was also promoted by pro-government media. Bosses pressured their employees to take part, and schools did the same with students. At the head of the marching protest were leaders of paramilitary death-squads and right-wing politicians. This protest was mostly urban-based as well. We must call into question how many people actually wanted to take part, and also how representative the protesters are of Colombian society as a whole. Clearly this was a protest of middle and upper class people and not representative of all Colombians, and anyone who has taken a statistics class will agree (Brittain, 38).
Polls are also taken to see how many Colombians support the state. However, these polls are mostly done by phone via landline. Most Colombians don’t have landlines because they are either too poor or can’t use them due to geographical reasons. Another problem with these polls is that almost all participants called are from specific sections of the major cities. Finally, interviewees can be easily located if someone traced the call through the landline. So the polls aren’t truly anonymous and may intimidate many (Brittain, 41). Therefore, they don’t represent all of Colombian. They don’t represent the poor in the urban areas and especially not in the rural areas.
Unlike government psywar statistics, the FARC-EP is truly representative of the masses. This is proven by the diversity of those that make up the FARC guerrillas. 65 percent of its members are from the countryside (of which 13 percent are from indigenous groups) and 35 percent is from urban areas. 50 percent of FARC-EP members are women, and anywhere from 30 to 55 percent of the women are comandantes. Subsistence peasants and small producers make up the majority of these guerrillas, but FARC-EP has grown to include people from the urban workforce, indigenous people, Afro-Colombians, intellectuals, doctors, lawyers, priests, teachers, and unionists (Brittain, 28).
FARC-EP recruitment expanded in the mid to late 2000’s. For every 100 subversives that were killed or deserted, the guerrillas were able to recruit 84 new combatants from 2002-2007. The number of guerrillas in Colombia is over 42,500, and FARC-EP makes up the vast majority of that number. In the mid 2000s, FARC-EP had between 40,000 and 50,000 soldiers according to research carried out by scholarly author James J. Brittain. Ecuadorian intelligence has stated that insurgent encampments doubled by 2008. Alan Jara, former governor of Meta, said in 2009 that the FARC rebels’ ability to obtain immediate material solidarity from local populations hasn’t been weakened. The state claims the FARC-EP has been severely weakened due to its decrease in guerrilla fronts, but in reality the FARC has only reconsolidated and relocated its members from weaker fronts into stronger ones in order to better maintain its positions. Other “proof” of the demise of the FARC is the fact that some of its top leaders have been killed (Raul Reyes, for example). However, the majority of these leaders were members of the political wing of the rebels. The military wing is still intact (Brittain, 19-21). As a matter of fact, the Colombian government manipulates statistics regarding guerrillas in order to make Colombia seem safer in order to encourage foreign investment and discourage support for the rebels, and former director of Colombia’s National Administrative Department of Statistics, Cesar Caballero, even said so himself (Brittain, 24).
The mid-2000’s saw the FARC increase in strength to the point that is was able to launch assaults on Bogota (the capital of Colombia) through support networks. In 2008, General Oscar Naranjo and Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said that very little had changed since the latest operations against FARC and that the guerrillas still had the ability to target the capital. FARC had an estimated 12,000 members in urban areas around the year 2005 (Brittain, 29). In 2008, FARC was able to destabilize the most important oil infrastructure facility in Colombia, destroy major oil and military transportation routes, and eliminate an entire battalion of the Colombian military, and that is just one example (Brittain, 23).
While in a FARC-EP camp, Garry Leech discovered how the guerrillas put their philosophy of equality into practice. He was told that everyone in the camp must take turns cooking, both men and women. He noted how the male guerrillas would treat their female counterparts with respect and had a lack of machismo. The gender equality in the camp was so deep that the men and women trusted each other enough to bathe together. Leech also witnessed a mock beauty pageant while in the camp, which he found to be very funny and described it as “a parody on the sexist nature of beauty pageants and the objectification of the female body” (Leech).
“Culture occupies a very large space and plays an important role in the life of each guerrillero in the FARC-EP,” late rebel leader Jacobo Arenas once said. Leech stated that guerrillas would read poetry inspired by revolutionary Marxist beliefs during the camp “cultural hour” (Leech). The cultural hours are also open to the public so that all may learn about the revolutionary struggle (Brittain, 200).
The FARC also has a solidarity and support structure that involves the Clandestine Colombian Communist Party and Bolivarian Cells which carry out underground political work for the FARC-EP in urban areas (Brittain, 35).
In communities across Colombia, FARC-EP has also set up communalized judicial bodies. FARC has called for the transformation of the legal apparatus and stated that “inequalities between humans” must be eradicated if crime is to stop (Brittain, 215). FARC-EP also builds schools and provides medical services to poor people in their territory (Brittain, 103).
If we are to believe that the FARC-EP has lost all of its political ambitions and has been corrupted by the drug trade, then one must wonder why they would feel the need to take care of the people, promote revolutionary culture, and practice gender equality. Nor would they pay so much attention to various crops and international organizations. This essay has shown that government claims about FARC-EP and its strength are quite shady, and that the rebels must be stronger than is claimed. With the continued and long-standing support of the working masses, guided by revolutionary Marxist ideology, the FARC-EP will eventually illuminate the path towards revolutionary society in 21st Century Latin America.
Brittain, James. Revolutionary Social Change in Colombia: The Origin and Direction of the FARC-EP. London: Pluto Press, 2010. Print.
Dudley, Steven. Walking Ghosts: Murder and Guerrilla Politics in Colombia. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.
Leech, Garry. “Life in a FARC Camp.” Dissident Voice (2007): n. pag. Web. 15 Jul 2010. <http://dissidentvoice.org/2007/09/life-in-a-farc-camp/>.
Whitney, Mike. “A Few Words from the FARC.” Information Clearing House (2008): n. pag. Web. 15 Jul 2010. <http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article20256.htm
reprinted from The Partisan