Newsmaker: Farc

The Colombian guerrilla faction had terrorised the South American country for 52 years until peace talks led to a ceasefire in August. But a referendum this week rejected the deal.

Kagan McLeod for The National
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Most of the headline events of 1964 have long passed into the history books. This was the year that Nelson Mandela began his imprisonment in Robben Island; The Beatles recorded their first No 1 album in the American charts; and American involvement in the Vietnam War was in full bloody swing.

But in May 1964, a United States-backed assault by government troops on a remote rural community in Colombia triggered the birth of a left-wing guerrilla group that has been terrorising the South American country ever since, in the process earning itself the dubious distinction of becoming one of the world’s longest insurgencies.

To most outside observers, the fact that the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) has been in operation for the past 52 years, ostensibly in the cause of a political ideology that crumbled along with the Berlin Wall in 1989, is astonishing enough.

Even more extraordinary, however, is the fact that in a referendum on Sunday, the Colombian electorate may have sabotaged the best chance yet to end a conflict that has cost a quarter of a million lives and hobbled the nation’s economic and social development for half a century.

The referendum, on a peace deal that was struck between the Colombian government and Farc after four years of negotiations, was decided by a tiny majority – 50.2 per cent of voters rejected the agreement, against 49.8 per cent who voted for it. Many of those who cast their vote would not have been alive when Farc emerged, and perhaps few remembered – or cared – that the peasant movement grew out of resistance to what at the time was undoubtedly widespread social injustice.

It isn’t the first time in the past half-century that Colombia has flirted with reconciling with its rebels. What remains uncertain now is whether, as has happened before, the country is once again about to snatch renewed conflict from the jaws of peace.

It all began with La Violencia, the decade-long civil war that erupted in 1948 after the assassination of popular liberal presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán. By 1958, it had left 200,000 Colombians dead. Passing through in 1952 while touring South America by motorbike, the 24-year-old Che Guevara, yet to earn international fame as a guerrilla leader in the Cuban revolution, noted in his diary that in Colombia there was “more repression of individual freedom here than in any country we’ve been to ... a revolution may be brewing”.

He was right. La Violencia ended only when the country’s warring liberal and conservative parties joined forces in 1958 to form The National Front, a power-sharing coalition, but the peace that followed was only temporary. After the years of oppression, groups of communist activists, distrustful of the new government and its rolling programme of agricultural reforms, in which tens of thousands of poor farmers were evicted from their land in favour of large commercial farming interests, retreated to self-contained enclaves deep in rural Colombia.

Part of the blame for what happened next can be laid at the door of the US, spooked by the Cuban revolution and determined to stamp out any further outbreaks of communism on its doorstep. Since 1961, the US military and the CIA had been covertly training Colombian forces to clamp down on the country’s dissidents. In May 1964, thousands of government troops attacked the so-called Marquetalia Republic, a small enclave of communists in a remote mountainous region about 250 kilometres south-west of the capital, Bogotá. They stirred up a hornet’s nest that’s still buzzing today.

Fewer than 50 survivors escaped, but they were soon joined by other disgruntled militant campesinos, and within months, their ranks had swollen to about 350. At a meeting in July 1964, they declared themselves to be a guerrilla group, vowing to defend rural communities. At its “Second Guerrilla Conference” in May 1966, the group christened itself the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), and went on the offensive.

For more than four decades, Farc was led by Pedro Antonio Marín, the son of a peasant family. He had started out as a liberal, but driven into the mountains as a teenager to battle right-wing paramilitaries during the years of La Violencia, he had become disillusioned with what passed for Colombia’s “mainstream” politics, and turned to communism. Adopting the nom de guerre Manuel Marulanda, he defied all attempts to kill or capture him for 44 years, until his death in 2008.

The Farc he left behind bore little resemblance to the idealistic force he helped to create. When Tirofijo, or "Sureshot", as he was known, succumbed to heart disease in his late 70s, Time declared that although Farc had become known for its "cynical thuggery ... Marulanda's original struggle was heartfelt".

From its small beginnings, Farc grew and grew, transforming itself from “ragged rebellion to military machine”, in the words of InSight Crime, a foundation dedicated to studying organised crime in Latin America. By the time of the group’s seventh conference, in 1982, it had become a 3,000-strong guerrilla army with an eight-year plan to seize power in Colombia that suddenly didn’t seem all that far-fetched.

The plan agreed in 1982 included “a military strategy to slowly surround the cities by advancing throughout the countryside”. Farc announced its guerrillas would “no longer wait for the enemy to ambush them, but instead will pursue them to locate, attack and eliminate them”.

But “the most critical move ... was a minor reform to fiscal policy”. For the first time, reported InSight Crime, Farc was to tax coca production, because “the rebels’ need to fund their expansion overcame their moral concerns about the ‘counter-revolutionary’ drug trade that had exploded in the country”.

The escalation in chaos and bloodshed that was about to be unleashed was almost halted in 1982, when a new Colombian president, Belisario Betancur, came to office on a ticket promising peace and offering talks. In 1985, Farc even launched a political party, the Patriotic Union, which won hundreds of seats in elections the following year.

But right-wing paramilitary groups, working covertly in league with elements of the security forces, launched a campaign of assassinations that killed thousands of members of the Patriotic Union. Unsurprisingly, Farc turned its back on politics and returned to violence.

Peace reared its head again a decade later. In October 1998, by which time Farc could field 10,000 fighters, it attacked and seized the town of Mitú. That was enough to persuade another newly elected president, Andrés Pastrana Arango, to propose peace talks. As a precondition, Farc demanded it be given control of a 42,000-square-kilometre demilitarised zone.

The areas that became known as “Farclandia” lasted four years before peace collapsed again, in a welter of right-wing paramilitary violence, but Farc, having used the hiatus to recruit, reform and develop its drugs business, emerged stronger and wealthier.

The apparently endless cycle of killings, kidnappings and retributions continued until 2012, when months of rumours of informal negotiations in Havana crystallised into peace talks between Farc and yet another new president, Juan Manuel Santos.

At the end of August, after four years of negotiations, Santos and the current leader of Farc, Rodrigo “Timochenko” Londoño – once on the US State Department’s Most Wanted list, with a US$5 million price on his head – signed a peace agreement before a large crowd in Cartagena. To wild applause, Timochenko asked for “forgiveness ... for all the pain we may have caused in this war”. Santos said: “The horrible night has ceased.”

Farc agreed that its remaining 7,000 fighters would hand over their arms to UN representatives within five months, and it would cut links with the drugs trade and reinvent itself as a political party. In return, those who admitted kidnapping and killing would receive an amnesty – but this condition led Colombian voters to reject the deal.

Farc isn’t the only organisation responsible for the bloodshed. In 2013, a report by the National Centre for Historical Memory, set up as part of the peace process, concluded that of 23,161 people assassinated between 1981 and 2012, 16.8 per cent were killed by guerrillas; 49 per cent were killed by paramilitary groups and security forces.

Uncertainty now hangs over Colombia’s future. On Monday, Santos vowed he “will not give up”, and in a video statement from Havana, Timochenko insisted that “peace is here to stay”, but on Wednesday the president announced that the ceasefire both sides had agreed on August 29 would end on October 31. Farc leaders responded by ordering their troops to take up defensive positions, and Timochenko said the group expected the government to honour its deal.

The ball, and quite possibly Colombia’s hope for a future free from fear, is now in the government’s court. Unfortunately, as María Ángela Holguín, foreign minister and part of the government’s negotiating team, told journalists after Sunday’s shock vote, “there was no Plan B. We believed the country wanted peace.”

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