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The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia

Updated on August 30, 2011
Manuel "Tirofijo" Marulando, founder of FARC
Manuel "Tirofijo" Marulando, founder of FARC | Source
Alfonso Cano, current FARC leader
Alfonso Cano, current FARC leader | Source
Jorge Briceno aka Mono Jojoy, long time 2nd in command, killed Sept. 22, 2010
Jorge Briceno aka Mono Jojoy, long time 2nd in command, killed Sept. 22, 2010 | Source

FARC’s profile, including its goals and objectives

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) was only designated a foreign terrorist organization on October 8, 1997 by the Secretary of State of the United States despite having ties to a period of Colombian history know as La Violencia, The Violence, that occurred from 1948 to 1958. This period witnessed battles between the landless masses and the elite landowners. Rural, landless citizens banded together and eventually grew into the military wing of the Colombian Communist Party in 1964 when they were attacked by the government’s army. Manuel “Tirofijo” (Sure-shot) Marulanda was the original leader and continued to lead until his death. This group was originally based on Marxist ideology, though it is decidedly less so currently, and has grown into Latin America’s oldest, largest, most capable, and best equipped insurgency. According to FARC, its goals are to represent Colombia’s rural poor by seizing power through armed revolution, and establishing government. Additionally, there is opposition to U.S. influences, the privatization of natural resources, multinational corporations and rightist violence. Originally made up of peasants, students and intellectuals, today it appears that the group is largely into the drug market with followers joining in search of employment rather than to fulfill some political goal. It is unclear as to the extent that FARC is involved in the drug trade as speculation ranges from local production to control of growth, harvesting and processing. The U.S. government claims that FARC is responsible for more than 50 percent of the world’s cocaine production and more than 60 percent of the cocaine that is exported from Colombia goes to the United States. Estimated profits from the cocaine and heroin trade range from $100 million to $1 billion annually, making FARC one of the richest insurgent groups in the world. This money is then used to purchase arms, attract new recruits and fund operations. The group is organized along military lines and governed by a general secretariat and six others. Alfonso Cano is the current leader as the terrorist group has undergone a number of setbacks in recent years. Several top commanders have died; most do to raids from the Colombian government backed by U.S. military aid. Additionally, there is speculation that the morale of the group is low since the group who once numbered 16,000 fighters has dropped to half that size.

FARC’s strategic position in Colombia and in the international terrorism scenario

The southern jungles of Colombia have always been the stronghold of FARC and it appears that new leader Cano is focusing his strategy on safeguarding the group at that location. This stronghold dates back to the origins of the terrorist group. It was the banding together of rural, southern Colombians into self-dense groups that eventually led to the formation of The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia. Additionally, members often use the mountains in southern Colombia as a refuge. During a now unsuccessful peace attempt in 1998 with then Colombian President Andres Pastrana, FARC was granted a 42,000 square mile safe haven in southern Colombia known as a despeje or clearance zone. The idea was that this safe haven would help to promote peace between FARC and the Colombian government. However, FARC used the land to establish a base of operations and planed actions from this location that included kidnappings, running drug operations, recruiting young men and boys into the FARC ranks, and hijackings. Furthermore, there is evidence that this area is also used as a training ground that attracts international attention. Evidence shows that Iranians, Argentineans, Germans, Venezuelans and possibly Iraqis and Cubans have been in the despeje, demonstrating FARC’s potential global reach. These various players have come to train and by trained by FARC in such areas as combat techniques, the production of arms, and the managing of explosives. In August 2001, three suspected Irish Republican Army members were arrested leaving the despeje and since that time, Colombian officials state that FARC has been engaging in techniques that are unique to the IRA, including highly sophisticated car bombs and the use of long-range mortars. Further evidence shows that there is possible financial backing from both Cuba and Venezuela. Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez hopes to undermine Colombia’s government, while Cuba has provided medical care and political consultation. It appears that FARC is mainly limited to operations in Colombia. However, there are some operations carried out in Venezuela, Panama, and Ecuador and key figures have hidden out in other Latin American countries.

FARC’s rank in being a serious threat of international terrorism

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia does not rank significantly in being a serious international terrorism threat. The greatest international threat is the kidnapping of high-profile foreign hostages that travel to Colombia. These hostages are typically held to exchange for jailed revolutionaries. The other international threat is the export of cocaine. Fifty percent of the world’s cocaine comes from Colombia and 60 percent of all of the cocaine entering the U.S. originates in Colombia. FARC’s connections do cross over the Colombian border, however. FARC receives funding and weapons from Venezuela, under the leadership Hugo Chavez. FARC’s members are also known to cross over into Venezuela for refuge. Factions are also known to be present in Panama and Ecuador. Cuba provides medical care and political consultation and it is suspected advanced explosives training was provided by members of the Irish Republican Army in Colombia in 2001.

The possible tactics and weapons used by the group and the terrorist group’s rank based upon the level of danger their weaponry suggests

FARC’s weaponry includes low and medium range weapons. Venezuela provided rocket launchers in 2009 in response to a build-up of American troops in Colombia. Plans to buy surface-to-air missiles, sniper rifles and radios from Venezuela have also been revealed. These arms negotiations were facilitated by General Henry Rangel Silva, the director of Venezuela’s police intelligence agency. These collaborations have strained relationships between the governments of Venezuela and Colombia. FARC is organized militarily and has units that operate in rural and urban areas. The paramilitary operations of FARC include a February 2003 car bombing of a Bogota nightclub that killed more than 30 people and wounded another 160 people. A grenade attack which wounded three Americans took place in November, 2003 in Bogota. Along with conventional military action against Colombian political, military and economic targets, bombings, murder, mortar attacks, narcotics trafficking, kidnapping, extortion and hijacking are all part of FARC’s tactics to overthrow the Colombian government and replace it with communism. For example, in 2009 the following terrorist attacks occurred, 1) a police station in Nariño, Colombia was attacked by using gas cylinders killing four children and one adult, 2) a Blockbuster video store was bombed in Bogota killing two people, 3) seventeen civilians were gunned down in Nariño, 4) a bomb was detonated near a police station in Cesar killing two and injuring ten, 5) two electrical towers were bombed in Arauca, causing a blackout which effected 100,000 people, 6) a Colombian army battalion was ambushed in La Guajira, killing eight soldiers, 7) a police station was attacked in Corinto, killing two officers and injuring fifteen civilians, 8) a bomb exploded in a marketplace in San Vicente del Caguan which killed two and wounded 19 civilians, 9) a police checkpoint was attacked in Valle del Cauca, injuring two officers and a civilian, 10) a passenger bus was stopped and burned in Barbacoas, killing four adults and two children, and 11) the governor of Colombia’s state of Caquetá was kidnapped and killed. Kidnapping for ransom or political leverage of foreign citizens is a tactic frequently employed. In recent years, the number of kidnappings have fallen, but there were still 521 recorded in 2007 and 437 recorded in 2008. Their narcotics trafficking activities include cultivation, taxation and distribution which is a tactic to fund their activities. Increasingly, this activity has replaced the goal of Marxist communist government in Colombia.

Based on the types of weaponry that FARC has at its command, they would rank in the middle range of terrorist groups. However, General Oscar Naranjo, the Director of Columbian National Police released a statement on March 3, 2008 revealing that FARC was negotiating to purchase 50 kilograms of uranium. According to Charles Ferguson, a nuclear specialist with the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, this amount of uranium could possibly be used to construct a nuclear weapon as powerful as the one dropped on Hiroshima, Japan. If FARC were able to obtain all necessary ingredients and construct a bomb of this potential magnitude, their rank based upon the danger of their weaponry would be extremely high.

FARC’s threat to innocent civilians and the terrorist group’s rank as compared to other terrorist groups based upon the level of danger it brings to innocent civilians

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia’s threat to innocent civilians is very high. The factors leading to this extreme threat are the use of land mines, indiscriminate weapons, and civilian displacement and disappearances. FARC chooses the extensive planting of land mines to protect the coca fields which provide the raw ingredients for making cocaine. The mines are very cheap to make, about five U.S. dollars, and are very difficult to detect. The land mines also act as a means to demoralize the population and to increase casualties. The majority of the victims are some of Colombia’s poorest citizens, caught in the middle of armed conflicts. Compounding this problem is the low level of awareness of the rural citizenry regarding these explosives. A field study conducted by the International Committee of the Red Cross in 2007 found that nearly half of those interviewed did not know what a land mine was and 45 percent did not know how to identify a mined area. For the rural poor who suffer injuries from land mines, health care is not readily available. Medical facilities are hours away and since so much of the countryside is literally a land mine, transport is difficult and often unavailable.

The conflict between FARC and the Colombian military has effectively imprisoned thousands of people in their homes due to the illicit drug trafficking that finances FARC’s insurgency. In 2007, more than 400,000 acres of land in Colombia were being used to grow coca. Farming communities that do not willingly give their land for coca cultivation are driven from their homes which have led to an estimated three million people being displaced since the insurgency began. Colombia has the highest number of internally displaced persons in the Western hemisphere, with almost two and one-half million affected from 2002-2009. This displacement of so many after FARC land confiscation, or the rendering of the area uninhabitable because of aerial crop spraying, leaves civilians reliant on charities, friends or relatives. This meager subsistence does not allow for adequate medical care for the many that are injured and plunges them into deep poverty, as well.

FARC’s similarities and differences in behavior and pattern of strategies as compared to other terrorist groups at large

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia began as a political insurgency to overthrow the Colombian government and to replace it with Marxist communism. This revolutionary terrorism is one model of dissident terrorism and seeks to replace an existing society with a new one through armed conflict. FARC’s goal of an egalitarian society is akin to the many Marxist revolutionary movements in Latin America during the 1950’s-1980’s, for example, the Cuban Revolution led by Fidel Castro and Ernesto Guevara which began in 1956. Some of the characteristics of revolutionary dissident terrorism that are shared from group to group are that they are outnumbered and out armed by the existing establishment, the rural basis of operations, and the idea of the only option for success is by waging armed conflicts to disrupt and destabilize the existing governmental authority.

Dissident terrorist groups at large perceive themselves to be members of an elite group with a noble purpose. They share violent extremist beliefs which include intolerance of opposing ideas, the idea of moral absolute correctness of their vision, and a clear sense of mission and purpose. The concept of freedom fighting can be applied to FARC as well as many insurgent groups. The Islamic Resistance Movement, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the Provisional Irish Republican Army, as well as FARC see themselves as liberators from the forces of tyranny.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia also share left-wing behaviors and strategies of other terrorist groups. These strategies include using the Cuban Revolution as a model, basing themselves in mostly rural areas, recruiting and training young, mostly, men or boys, engaging in kidnappings, bombings, extortion, and forays into urban areas for the reason of provoking the state. Along with FARC, these behaviors have been exhibited by the National Liberation Army, also of Colombia, the Shining Path in Peru, the Red Brigade in Italy, and the Provisional Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland. Typically, the members and sympathizers of these groups are of the lower economic classes and the targets are often the government, imperialists or right-wing groups.

Though it is not uncommon for terrorist groups to be engaged in criminal activities to fund their movements, FARC has been viewed by some as having lost the zeal of their revolutionary goals for the profits of its drug trafficking. After the dismantling of the major drug cartels in Colombia in the 1990’s, the operations were taken over by the leftist rebels and FARC is seen now to be only fighting nominally in support of Marxist goals.

Unlike other revolutionary terrorist groups, FARC is losing national support and members, but continues to grow stronger financially. Their numbers have dropped and they have lost key figures in their movement. Nevertheless, because of their shrewd drug business practices they may be able to do more with less. Their coffers continue to fill with drug money and the movement’s ideologue, Alfonso Cano, is a new leader. Thus, far from being defeated, the huge profits from their drug trafficking may usher in a smaller but more intense organization once again dedicated to a Marxist communist rule.

The counterterrorist measures that can be used against this group

The consensus among terrorism experts is that there are three basic options to respond to and deter terrorism and terrorists. The first way to limit the growth of terrorists and terrorism is through the use of force. This could be through suppression campaigns where terrorist groups and strongholds could be attacked militarily. Covert operations that are involved in assassinations, sabotage and kidnapping of terrorists and their organizations can also be employed. The second option in controlling terrorism is non-combatant operations that include both repressive and conciliatory methods. Some repressive methods include covert non-violent operations that would be involved in the spreading of disinformation and cyber war. Other repressive options include information gathering, enhanced security and economic sanctions against state sponsors of terrorism. Conciliatory responses include the use of diplomacy to negotiate an acceptable resolution of the conflict, social reform to address the underlying conditions that contribute to the formation of terrorist groups and terrorists, and concessionary responses where demands are met in specific incidents. The third basic way to limit the growth of terrorism and terrorists is through legal options. This response has the objective of promoting the rules of law and its proceedings to terrorism and terrorists. One way to promote the rule of law is by using law enforcement agencies in the prosecution. Other suggestions are to adopt counterterrorism laws to formally criminalize terrorist behavior with international agreements to provide no sanctuary for terrorists.

The Colombian government has engaged, at one time or another, in all of these tactics. President Uribe launched the military operation, Patriot Plan, in 2004. 15,000 government soldiers were sent to the FARC controlled territory to try to push the terrorists out of the area and capture key leaders of the group. The plan was partially successful in that it did manage to retake some of the land; however, key leaders simply retreated deeper into hiding. Recently, the government succeeded in killing FARC’s long time second in command, Jorge Briceño, also known as Mono Jojoy, on September 22, 2010.

Peaceful resolution between FARC and the Colombian government has been attempted on several occasions with varying levels of success. The first, in 1984, established a FARC led political party that was plagued by drug cartels who assassinated the political leaders. Other attempts at peace were made in 1991, 1992, and from 1997-2002. While there have been limited successes, the majority of these attempts did not result in significant change. As recently as February 2011, talks between FARC and the Colombian government have resulted in the release of six hostages. However, even as the releases were being carried out, FARC was kidnapping two others.

To a lesser extent, the Colombian government has employed the use of legal options to combat FARC. They have cited documentation from the United Nations, created a nine-point statement and engaged, or attempted to engage, other countries in prohibiting the safe keeping of FARC members. However, Mono Jojoy stated in 1999, “We don’t give a damn about the Constitution and the laws because we are outside of that realm”. So while lawful action may help strengthen the Colombian government and its allies, it is doubtful it will directly impact FARC as they don’t appear to put much stock in laws.

Currently in Colombia, under the new leadership of President Santos who was elected to office in May 2010, there is a continuation of aggressive military campaigns against FARC. The president has stated that he plans to defeat FARC and end the nearly 50 year conflict.


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    • David Trujillo profile image

      David Trujillo Uribe 

      5 years ago from Medellin, Colombia

      Wow! You certainly have a lot of research on the FARC guerrilla. This is a very throughout article, congrats!

      I have written a related article about a simple timeline understand the Colombian Conflict. It´ll certainly give readers a scope on how FARC came to be.

      Good Hubing!


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