On June 23, 2016, while most of the world was awaiting the outcome of the Brexit vote, another major historical event was taking place in Havana, Cuba. At a meeting hosted by President Raúl Castro and overseen by UN General Secretary Ban-Ki Moon, Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos and the supreme commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC, Fuerzas Armada Revolucionarios de Colombia), Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri (a.k.a. Timochenko), signed an accord for a ceasefire in a multi-decade armed conflict.

While not the final act in the peace process, the pact was essential to guarantee the success of the negotiations. The government and the guerrillas are now poised to sign the entire agreement on September 26, 2016, in Cartagena that will then be voted on in a national plebiscite.

The FARC is the largest guerrilla group in Colombia and one of the longest continuously active such groups in the world. It is part of long-term political violence in the second most populous country in South America. Its demobilization constitutes a major shift in the political history of that republic.

Colombians marching against FARC kidnappings in 2008.

It was founded in 1964 and has been in continuous operation. Numerous attempts at a negotiated peace have come and gone, but none has ever come as far as the current process. While there are significant obstacles to a lasting peace, it does appear that Colombia is approaching a new era.

Political Violence and Violent Politics: Colombia’s History

Political violence has been a mainstay of Colombian historical and political development.

The nineteenth century was one of civil wars over the basic rules of political activity in Colombia, such as whether the country should be ruled in a unitary or federal fashion, as well as over such issues as the role of the Catholic Church and the appropriate economic development model.

Three child soldiers during the War of a Thousand Days (1898-1902).

Between 1821 and 1886, Colombia had eight constitutions, each born via violence (usually a full-blown civil war). The 1886 constitution, however, ended the cycle and remained in force until 1991.

That constitution, though, did not end the political violence. There would still be the War of a Thousand Days (1899-1902), various peasant uprisings in the 1920s and 1930s, and the infamous La Violencia (1948-1953 or later, depending on how one marks that conflict).

Periods of protracted peace are the aberration in Colombia’s history, not the other way around. Political activity and establishment of the rule of law have long been associated with violence in Colombia. One factor that led to the War of a Thousand Days was the question of how to structure electoral rules. And until the late 1950s, the most violent clashes were between the traditional political parties (Liberals and Conservatives).

The aftermath of a riot in Santa Fe de Bogotá in 1948.

It is also in this context that an odd paradox of Colombian political development should be noted: despite the significant levels of political violence that the country has experienced over time, it has not suffered the military governments that most of its Latin American neighbors have endured. Indeed, coups have been rare in Colombia and the only military government of the twentieth century was the relatively brief rule of Gustavo Rojas Pinilla from 1953-1957.

Peasant violence in the 1920s and 1930s over issues of land distribution and La Violencia in the 1940s and 1950s are most significant to understanding the origins of the FARC and appreciating the significance of a final peace deal with that group.

From the early 1920s to the mid-1930s, there were a number of peasant protests, notably in the coffee producing regions of Sumapaz and Tequendama. There, the Communist Party of Colombia played an active role. Factions of the party would later contribute to the creation of the FARC.

An even clearer antecedent to the formation of the FARC are the events of the later 1940s. On April 9, 1948, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, a lawyer, progressive politician, and likely future president of Colombia, was murdered on the streets of Bogotá in front of his law offices. The murder itself was likely apolitical (indeed, no clear motive has ever been discerned and the alleged murderer was killed by a mob). However, the widespread perception that Gaitán had been assassinated by political rivals sparked the urban riot known as the bogotazo, which helped accelerate and deepen existing rural violence.

The popular leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán on a banknote. The quotations from Gaitán read: “I am not a man, I am the people” and “The people are superior to their leaders.”

This conflagration would blossom into a full-blown civil war called La Violencia that would lead to 200,000 deaths (estimates range from 80,000-400,000). The lines in this conflict were drawn between Conservative and Liberal Party adherents, a division that had driven the civil wars of the previous century.

Supporters of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán gather at a rally. The sign reads "Liberalism calls for peace and justice.”

Conflict between the parties is relevant to the formation of the FARC in several ways. First, some of the Liberal insurgents in this era had connections with the Communist Party of Colombia. Second, and more specifically, one of these peasant fighters was a man named Pedro Antonio Marín, who would earn the nickname tirofijo (“sure shot”) and later adopt the nom de guerre Manuel Marulanda Vélez, founder and longtime leader of the FARC.

Riots in Bogotá in April 1948 engulf a trolley car in Bolívar Square.

Third, when La Violencia led to the Rojas coup in 1953, the military regime offered amnesty to Liberal and Conservative insurgents but banned the Communist Party. This led to military actions against segments of the peasantry, which formed self-defense groups.

Finally, the peace accord that the Liberals and Conservatives would eventually strike, a power-sharing agreement called the National Front, would serve as a raison d’être for guerrilla activity by many anti-government groups in Colombia in the 1960s.

The Liberal and Conservative parties were able to settle their differences via negotiations, which prompted the ouster of Rojas and the restoration of civilian rule. A 1957 referendum installed the National Front power-sharing agreement that would last until 1974. It created an alternation of the presidency between the Liberal and Conservative parties and effectively split governance in half: each party would get half the seats in congress, departmental assemblies, and municipal councils.

This parity provision extended to appointed positions, such as the cabinet, governors, and mayors (local executives were not popularly elected at the time). This system was seen as exclusionary by the Colombian left and a continuation of the long-term oligarchic tendencies of Colombian economics and politics. While the system was more open to political competition than a brief description can provide, there is no doubt that the system favored existing parties in numerous ways.

In the wake of the successful Cuban revolution and the general global movement toward radicalization of the left in the developing world, it is not surprising that numerous Marxist guerrilla groups emerged in this era, and that the rules favoring the traditional parties were one of numerous justifications laid out to explain their activities.

It is in this context that the FARC was born in the 1960s.

The National Liberation Army flag at the National University of Colombia. The flag reads: “Neither Surrender, nor Deliverance.”

It was one among several rural guerrilla groups, including the ELN (Ejército de Liberación Nacional/National Liberation Army), and the EPL (Ejército Popular de Liberación/Popular Liberation Army). Others would also emerge, but these were the most significant over the next several decades, along with the urban group the M-19 (Movimiento 19 de Abril/Movement of April the 19th), which would emerge after allegations of electoral fraud in the 1970 presidential elections.

The FARC, then, was one group among many, and in the 1970s and into the 1980s, the M-19 would arguably be the most significant. M-19 and EPL would demobilize in conjunction with the process of writing the 1991 constitution. The ELN persists to this day alongside the FARC and they are in the early stages of a peace process with the Colombian government.

A History of Failed Peace Initiatives, Persistence, and Growth

FARC’s areas of operation c. early 2000s.

The FARC’s stated goal was to defeat the oligarchy that it saw as formed by the Conservative and Liberal Parties and to overthrow the state they controlled. They operated primarily in the rural zones, often fulfilling local governing functions that the Colombian state was failing to accomplish.

They would attack military installations as well as state and economic infrastructure. Landowners and other elites were often the focus of extortion and robbery. Over time, the FARC became heavily reliant on kidnapping as both a source of revenue as well as a means of making political statements. In the later decades, they often also staged urban attacks, such as car bombings and mortar attacks on police and military locations.

The 1970s was a period of growth for the FARC from roughly 500 fighters to an estimated 3,000 by the early 1980s. In 1982, the group’s Seventh Conference led to a name change, with the group officially becoming the FARC-EP (EP for Ejército Popular, or People’s Army).

Kidnapping statistics compiled by the National Center for Historic Memory (CNMH) and the elite military unit, The Unified Action Group for Personal Liberty (GAULA). (Chart from InSight Crime)

The group also decided that taxing the cocaine trade was a legitimate method of funding its activities. They began levying “taxes” on coca producers and drug trafficking routes and eventually became active participants in the drug trade itself. 

The 1980s also saw the first significant attempt at a negotiated peace. Talks with the Belasario Betancur administration (1982-1986) led to the La Uribe agreement in 1984 that included a ceasefire. That agreement contributed to the formation of a new political party, the Patriotic Union (UP/Unión Patriótica), which became an electoral vehicle for the Colombian left that had been excluded in the Liberal-Conservative power sharing arrangements.

The UP successfully found a niche in Colombian politics, albeit a small one. It was able to win a number of mayoralties (an office that became popularly elected in 1988) as well as seats in Congress. However, right-wing paramilitary violence soon was systematically aimed at the party and its allies.

The flag of the Patriotic Union (UP). Right-wing paramilitary violence against the UP left thousands of supporters dead (Left).  A FARC car bomb attack at the Caracol Radio headquarters in 2010 (Right).

In 1987, early in the party’s existence, 450 adherents were murdered by various paramilitary actors in a pattern that would continue for years. Drive-by assassins on motorcycles gunned down individuals in front of their homes or in their offices or cars, attacks that continued successfully even with heightened security.

By 2004, the estimated number of UP affiliates killed by paramilitary violence was over 3,000. This experience made further peace talks more difficult and is relevant even now as the FARC negotiates to return to civilian politics given that many of the armed combatants left have not forgotten what happened the last time peace talks promised a transition to peaceful, civilian politics.

Indeed, while many Colombians oppose the peace talks on the grounds that the Colombian state is offering impunity to the guerrillas, many in the FARC see the state and its allies likewise escaping justice for past crimes. Additionally, Colombia’s history of violence means that many in a demobilized FARC will believe themselves vulnerable to attacks by those who oppose the peace accords.

Over the long haul, the experience of the UP has been a stumbling block for peace as many fighters have preferred to take their chances armed and in the countryside rather than in a more vulnerable civilian context.

FARC soldiers with a kidnapped member of Congress in 2002. (Photo by InSight Crime).

By 1995, the FARC was estimated to have as many as 20,000 troops. Their annual income by the end of the 1990s had grown to a remarkable $900 million primarily through narcotrafficking and kidnapping for ransom. Obtaining hard numbers of this type is always difficult, but the Colombian government estimated roughly $400 million from the drug trade and another $500 million from extortion, kidnapping, and other criminal activities by 1999.

The most significant attempt at peace prior to the current process came during the administration of Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002). Pastrana’s government ceded to the FARC an area of the Colombian countryside roughly the size of Switzerland as a means of drawing the FARC into a demilitarized zone for peace talks. Pastrana himself even held direct talks with Marín.

FARC soldiers during peace talks from 1998 to 2002.

However, this process halted in 2002 after the FARC hijacked a plane carrying Senator Jorge Gechen Turbay, president of the Senate’s peace commission. Pastrana sent in the military to retake the demilitarized zone and the peace process ended in dramatic fashion after over three years of talks.

Álvaro Uribe ran for the presidency in 2002 on an explicitly anti-FARC platform and promised to increase the fight against the guerrillas in the countryside. Uribe’s father had been killed in 1983 as part of a kidnapping attempt. He himself was the target of an assassination attempt during the 2002 campaign, and his August 2002 inauguration was greeted with a nearby mortar attack by the FARC that killed 14 people.

The 2007 arrest of Luis Hernando Gomez-Bustamante,  a leader of the Norte Valle Colombian drug cartel (Left). Secretary of State Colin Powell visiting Colombia in 2003 (Right).

While there were some attempts at peace talks early in the Uribe administration, government interactions with the FARC during his two terms in office were marked by military campaigns such as Plan Patriota and his general “democratic security” policies that focused on the military defeat of the FARC.

It should be noted that Uribe’s approach to the FARC was rooted in the post-9/11 War on Terror paradigm established by the George W. Bush administration. Indeed, U.S. policy in this period redefined the Colombian state’s fight against the guerrillas as fitting under the umbrella of fighting terrorism, a shift from previous administrations.

This change in approach is well illustrated by the juxtaposition of ambassadorial statements made in 1997 with those just a few years later in 2002. In a 1997 cable, Ambassador Myles Frechette categorically stated that there would be “no U.S. government assistance for fighting the guerrillas,” while Ambassador Anne Patterson stated in 2002 that the “fight against narcotrafficking and terrorism … have become one.”

Presidents George W. Bush and Álvaro Uribe at the White House in 2007.

Frechette’s position reflected a longstanding pre-9/11 view by U.S. policy-makers that the Colombian state’s fight with various guerrilla groups was an internal political matter, but that the war on drugs was about international crime. After 9/11, however, it became far more common for President Uribe to refer to the FARC and other violent actors as “terrorists” (and for U.S. attitudes to reflect this description).