The FARC- A Historical Background

Medium Reads, Politics
Reading Time: 5 minutes

Latin America in the 19th and 20th centuries experienced successive waves of internal conflict, political instability and foreign intervention. Colombia was no exception, as its pristine, beautiful swathes of countryside and fascinating culture were marred by the actions of dictatorships, cartels and various armed groups. Out of this rose the FARC, a coalition of various Communist armed peasant guerrillas operating from the 1960s mainly in the countryside. Its war against the government based in Bogotá along with various similarly-minded smaller groups was one of, if not the, longest on-going conflict on Earth until 2016, when a peace agreement was ratified between the group and the Columbian Government. However, sectors of FARC refuse to lay down their arms and continue to fight, extending hostilities into the present and future.

To understand the FARC, it is important to first consider its roots. Colombia is a territorially large country and large portions of it are relatively cut off from Bogotá geographically by such barriers as mountains and dense, lowland jungles. After independence from Spain in 1810 the local land-owning Spanish elites retained the majority of the political power and established two parties, the Liberals and the Democrats, both remarkably similar in terms of economic policy. Often struggles between these two groups for power erupted into violence, where the peasant class was mobilised to fight for the side of their local patrón, or landowner.

The Conservatives managed to achieve long-term control after the ‘War of a Thousand Days’ from 1899 to 1902, in which over 100,000 were killed and after which Liberals were forced to lay down their arms. This began a long period of dictatorship, over which the notorious United Fruit Company exerted a large amount of influence, such as for example during the 1928 massacre of striking banana workers. In denunciation of this the Liberal politician Jorge Eliécer Gaitán rose to prominence, calling for massive labour and agrarian reforms. However, he was killed 1948 before a presumed 1950 presidential election victory by an increasingly more violent Conservative government who almost certainly ordered his assassination.

This sparked a wave of Liberal uprisings, especially in the countryside where the government could exert less control. The increasingly more vicious crackdown by the authoritarian Gomez regime fuelled conflict not only between the two political groups, but also between peasants and rural landowners, many of which fled for the relatively safety of the cities. The United States, as part of their Cold War strategy attempting to stop the spread of Communism around the world supported the Colombian military with arms and training. This did not stop after a military coup in 1953 by General Rojas Pinilla, who launched a major offensive against guerrilla peasants the following year.

At this point rural peasants began arming themselves, forming militias and self-defence groups in response to this aggression. The internal tensions within Colombia shifted from a partisan struggle between Liberals and Conservatives to a class division. As the Colombian revolutionary priest Father Camilo Torres said:'[La Violencia] started a social process that the ruling classes did not foresee. It had awakened the class consciousness of the peasant, given him group solidarity and a feeling of superiority and confidence to act…’[1] Organised in many cases by the Colombian Communist Party, the PCC(which was promptly banned), rural enclaves of Marxist guerrillas were formed, at first mainly confined to the isolated Eastern departments of Meta and Caquetá.

In the early 1960s the US began to step up its assistance to the Colombian government, providing training, arms and air support as part of Plan LASO[2]. By 1966, after two conferences, the various groups had united under one organisation- the foundation of the FARC. From this point, an official government was created over the rural territories which FARC dominated. Over the decades it attempted to usher in the structural reforms which the PCC had initially called for, such as for example the breaking up of large ranches in 2002 and 2003 in Meta in order to distribute more land to small farmers.

Meanwhile, government attempts at land redistribution were not effective: in 1960, 1.7% of Colombia’s landowners owned 55% of Colombia’s arable land, whilst 62.5% of farmers subsisted on less than 1% of national territory suitable for agriculture[3]. Law 135, devised in 1961 to try and rectify this inequality, only succeeded in redistributing less than 1% of land designated for expropriation. Furthermore, using its aid to the Colombian government as leverage, the US and multinational organisations such as the IMF in the 1990s ensured that Colombia adopted neoliberal economics and opened up its economy to Trans-National Corporations, who often were able to circumvent or ignore measures designed to protect the poor. An example of this was the widespread seizing of resource-rich land from indigenous minorities at the behest of US corporations. Overall these policies led to explosions in unemployment in the country.

Indeed, at the root of the FARC is its pledge to solve the social problems plaguing rural Colombia. One is systemic discrimination against indigenous and African minorities and attempts to deprive them of their political rights. Since the peace settlement in areas once controlled by FARC the assassinations of indigenous and minority social leaders by paramilitary groups controlled by the government have returned, with 206 murdered and 6,580 displaced since 2016[4]. However, controversially since the explosion of Colombia’s illegal drug trade in the late 1970s, FARC often worked with and profited from large drug cartels, with agricultural regions eventually forming a heavy reliance on the coca plant. The US responded by increasing its presence in the area through Plan Colombia, an initiative providing military and financial aid to the government of Colombia.

Ultimately, whilst the FARC worked with the cartels, it also created initiatives through which farmers could decrease their reliance on the coca plant and grow other crops. Not only did the US plan fail to provide other alternatives to farmers, it ignored right-wing paramilitary groups such as AUC, which also profited off the drug trade[5] by taxing and protecting drug smuggling routes. Indeed, the US and international bodies fail to recognise these government-funded groups for what they are: right-wing criminals that have made incursions in Venezuelan territory[6] and have threatened and killed union leaders[7] and FARC-friendly politicians[8].

The FARC call themselves the ‘People’s Army.’ They are no angels, in many documented cases using child soldiers and frequently kidnapping government leaders, paramilitary commanders and oil executives as well as their loved ones. However, these crimes pale in comparison to the brutality of the paramilitary groups who routinely assassinate and torture[9] left-wing politicians and union leaders. 73% of violations of international humanitarian law between 1990 and 1998 were committed by these paramilitaries or the Columbian army, with whom they worked in collaboration[10]. It is clear the US has an economic agenda when it denounces the FARC as terrorists and aids paramilitaries which push the guerrillas back from potential oilfields. The end of the conflict is welcome to the 4 million people who have been displaced from their homes[11]. But the disbanding of the majority of the FARC signals an end to resistance against more malevolent forces for Columbia.

[1] Camilo Torres, ‘Violence and Socio-Cultural Change in Rural Colombia’, 1969, p. 174


[3] Safford and Palacios, Colombia: Fragmented Land, Divided Society







[10] Adam Isacson, ‘CINEP: Colombia’s Conflict Is Far from Over’, Centre for International Policy, 10 April 2008


Leave a Reply