The Colombian rebel group FARC is holding out for more concessions before releasing dozens of hostages despite the government’s release of its second-in-command Rodrigo Granda. President Alvaro Uribe released Granda, FARC’s “foreign minister” and 150 other guerrilla fighters last week in the hope of a reciprocal release of 60 hostages including Colombian Senator Ingrid Betancourt and three American contractors. But now the rebels have demanded that the government must also withdraw its troops from two southern towns in exchange for the release of its prisoners.
New French President Nicolas Sarkozy was reputedly involved in the negotiations in order to secure the release of Senator Betancourt. The senator was educated in Paris and is married to a Frenchman. There are reports that Sarkozy had requested Uribe to free Granda in order to secure her release. Granda himself has denied the connection and said his release from jail was a decision by the government and that he made no deal. Betancourt’s kidnapping in 2002 when she ran for president drew world attention to FARC’s hostage taking tactics.
FARC are responsible for most of the country’s 3,000 annual kidnappings. Alvaro Velez won a landslide victory in Colombia’s May 2002 presidential election by promising to crack down on the rebels. This year President Uribe has launched a US-backed $3 billion offensive to retake rebel-controlled territory. He also overturned a 1998 agreement which awarded FARC a 42,000 square km safe haven as a condition for attending peace talks. Uribe has personal motive too as his father was assassinated by FARC during a bungled kidnapping attempt in 1983. His unilateral release of 150 FARC fighters is surprising therefore in the context of his avowed aim to eradicate the organisation by the end of his second term in 2010.
FARC has been led for over 40 years by Manuel "Tirofijo" Marulanda (born Pedro Antonio Marin). Marulanda gained his nickname (Tirofijo means “sureshot”) because of a reputation for accuracy when using firearms during his earlier years as an insurgent. He is now approaching his 80s (his exact age is disputed) and was reported to be “acutely ill” in 2004. In March 2006, the US placed a $5 million bounty on a still very much alive Marulanda’s head.
FARC is one of two major leftist revolutionary groups currently active in Colombia. The US State Department considers both of them, FARC and the National Liberation Army (ELN) terrorist organisations. While both were founded in the 1960s counter-culture, FARC’s roots stretch further back in time. In 1948, influential populist leader Jorge Gaitan (pdf) was assassinated as he ran for presidency. His unexplained death sparked ten years of violence known as La Violencia which cost almost 300,000 lives.
During La Violencia, leftwing parties formed their own defence groups and guerrilla units which fought not only against the Conservative government but also against each other. In 1953, Gustavo Rojas seized control of Colombia in a coup and offered amnesty to all rebel groups in order to end the violence. But Communist groups were distrustful of Rojas and retreated into the mountains rather than hand over their weapons. The government mostly ignored the existence of these small Communist enclaves until it ordered the army under US pressure to disperse them in 1964.
One group known as Bloque Sur (Southern Bloc) dispersed during the height of the army assault but re-emerged after the incursion ended. Bloque Sur was led by Marulanda and Jacobo Arenas. Marulanda was the soldier to Arenas’s theoretician. In May 1964, they renamed the group Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) which means Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. Inspired by the success of Castro in Cuba, FARC’s ultimate goal was to establish a Communist state. Arenas began an education program for the early FARC guerrilla fighters, as most came from low income peasant families. Their motto was “Learn and fight for Colombia”.
But the group had little success until it realised it could finance its operation by feeding the huge Western demand for heroin. By the late 1980s, FARC controlled every aspect of the drug production process including manufacturing the chemicals that turn the coco bush to cocaine, charging taxes to the farmers that grow it and charging airport fees for the export of the finished drugs. It now makes $300 million a year from its drug enterprises. Allied to income from kidnapping and extortion, FARC is probably the wealthiest insurgency organisation in the world.
FARC is now the largest and best-equipped of Colombia’s rebel group, with a possible 18,000 members. It operates in almost half the country, mostly in the jungles of the southeast and the plains at the base of the Andes Mountains. The smaller ELN operates mainly in north-eastern Colombia and has about 4,000 members. FARC briefly tried the military route to power in the eighties with a political front called the Patriotic Union (UP).
However the government of the day had no intention of letting them take part in the political process. They sponsored death squads who killed 3,000 UP members including its 1990 presidential candidate, Bernardo Jaramillo Ossa. FARC learned their lesson and concentrated on the military route to power. They are now a formidable enemy who control a territory the size of Switzerland. And with a western taste for heroin unlikely to diminish, they will remain part of Colombia’s Realpolitik for years to come.