FARC, ELN: Colombia's Left-Wing Guerrillas

Author: Danielle Renwick, Copy Editor/Writer
Updated: July 8, 2016

Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters
Introduction

Civil conflict in Colombia, one of the closest U.S. allies in Latin America, has left as many as 220,000 dead (PDF), 25,000 disappeared, and 5.7 million displaced over the last half century. By the early 2000s, fighting among the military, left-wing guerrillas, and right-wing paramilitaries had left the country on the brink of becoming a failed state.

But that chapter in Colombia's history may be coming to a close. In June 2016, the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (known by its Spanish acronym, FARC), the country's largest insurgent group, agreed to a bilateral cease-fire, with the rebel group agreeing to lay down its arms. The peace agreement is expected go before a popular vote later in 2016, and, if approved, the truce could end the region's longest-lasting conflict. But questions about implementation remain, and many critics argue that the terms of the truce amount to amnesty for perpetrators of violence. The government must fulfill ambitious promises on rural development as it continues to grapple with criminal organizations and a smaller insurgency group, the National Liberation Army (ELN). 

History and Ideology

The FARC and ELN were founded in the 1960s in the wake of a decade of political violence in Colombia known as la Violencia (1948–58). Excluded from a power-sharing agreement that ended the fighting, communist guerrillas took up arms against the government. The FARC was composed of militant communists and peasant self-defense groups, while the ELN’s ranks were dominated by students, Catholic radicals, and left-wing intellectuals who hoped to replicate Fidel Castro’s communist revolution in Cuba. The U.S. State Department has designated both groups as foreign terrorist organizations.

Although some say the ELN is more ideological than the FARC, the two groups have similar programs. Both oppose the privatization of natural resources and claim to represent the rural poor against Colombia’s wealthy. Historically they have cooperated in some parts of the country and clashed in others.

Right-wing paramilitary groups emerged in the 1980s as landowners organized to protect themselves from the guerrilla groups. The largest paramilitary group, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), was on the U.S. State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations until July 2014. The group formally disbanded in 2006, but splinter groups, known as bacrim (short, in Spanish, for criminal gangs) remain.

Kidnappings and Acts of Terror

The FARC and ELN long used violence, kidnappings, and extortion as sources of leverage and income. In one of its most high-profile kidnappings, the FARC abducted presidential candidate Íngrid Betancourt in 2002. The group held her and three U.S. military contractors until 2008, when Colombian forces rescued them and twelve other hostages. Other notable incidents include the FARC's assassination of a former culture minister in 2001 and its hijacking of a domestic commercial flight in 2002, during which rebels kidnapped a senator aboard. Colombia's National Center for Historical Memory estimates that guerrilla groups kidnapped twenty-five thousand people (PDF) between 1970 and 2010. More than ten thousand people, including nearly four thousand civilians, have been killed or maimed in landmine explosions, most of which were planted by the FARC, according the Colombian government.

Drug Trafficking

In the early 2000s Colombia supplied as much as 90 percent (PDF) of the world's cocaine, and the production, taxation, and trafficking of illicit narcotics provided the FARC with much of its revenue. Right-wing paramilitary groups were also involved in the trade, fueling conflict as the groups competed for territory. In 2009, the U.S. government reported that the FARC was responsible for (PDF) 60 percent of Colombian cocaine exported to the United States, and the U.S. Treasury Department has frozen the assets of several FARC members it identified as significant narcotics traffickers.

Estimates of the income the FARC derives from the sale of narcotics vary. In 2012, InSight Crime, an online publication that specializes in organized crime in Latin America and the Caribbean, estimated the figure at $200 million; that year Colombia's defense minister, Juan Carlos Pinzón, said it could be as high as $3.5 billion.

The ELN, after shunning drug trafficking for many years as "antirevolutionary," has recently turned to the trade. In late 2015, authorities found a massive cocaine processing complex run by the rebel group in western Colombia. Rebel groups have also reportedly turned to illegal resource extraction, including gold mining, for additional income.

Coca cultivation fell by more than half between 2007 and 2012, and Peru surpassed Colombia as the world's leading cocaine producer from 2010 to 2014, according to U.S. White House figures. However coca production is again on the rise in Colombia, with 2015 production levels nearly on par with 2007 figures. Experts attribute this to the Colombian government's decision to halt aerial spraying of coca crops, citing health concerns, as well as moves by the FARC to encourage coca cultivation in hopes that greater cultivation would give them more leverage in rural development programs.

“The government programs will be in areas where there is coca, so one interpretation is that those who grow the most coca will get the most government benefits,” Jorgan Andrews, director of the narcotics section at the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá told the Washington Post.

Plan Colombia and Uribe's Crackdown

In 2000 U.S. lawmakers approved Plan Colombia, an aid package that aimed to help the country combat guerrilla violence, strengthen its institutions, and stem drug production and trafficking. The United States has spent more than $10 billion in the sixteen years since. The United States is also Colombia’s largest trading partner, and a bilateral free trade agreement between the two entered into force in 2012.

Colombians elected Álvaro Uribe to the presidency in 2002. Campaigning on the heels of President Andrés Pastrana's failed efforts to broker peace, Uribe pledged to take a hard-line stance against the guerrillas. As his administration cracked down on the leftist rebel groups, violence fell dramatically: the homicide rate fell by 40 percent and kidnappings by 80 percent during Uribe's first term. But international rights groups have accused Uribe's administration of human rights violations. Colombian courts have also investigated allegations that Uribe has links to right-wing paramilitary groups. No evidence of direct links have been found.

By the time the FARC agreed to negotiations in 2012, their ranks had fallen to around seven thousand members, down from sixteen thousand in 2001, according to government estimates.

During Uribe's crackdown, both the FARC and ELN sought refuge in rural areas bordering Venezuela and Ecuador, and Colombian military incursions across those borders have sparked tensions with its neighbors. In 2008 the Colombian military claimed to have found evidence that Venezuela and Ecuador provided material support to the FARC, a charge both governments denied. Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez did, however, facilitate communication between the Colombian government and the FARC, particularly between 2007 and his death in 2013.

Many experts say that the Uribe administration's crackdown laid the foundation for the current peace talks. By the time the FARC agreed to negotiations in 2012, their ranks had fallen to around seven thousand members, down from sixteen thousand in 2001, according to government estimates. The group's founder and leader, Manuel Marulanda, reportedly died of a heart attack in 2008, and military raids have claimed other high-ranking officials in recent years.

The ELN, which operates mainly in northeastern Colombia, is estimated to have about two thousand members, down from as many as five thousand (PDF) in the late 1990s. The ELN began formal talks with the government in March 2016. Still, many experts question the group's commitment to reaching a truce—in May ELN members kidnapped a group of journalists. (They were released less than a week later.)

Prospects for Peace

Juan Manuel Santos, who had served as defense minister under Uribe, was elected president in 2010, and his administration began formal peace talks (PDF) with the FARC in 2012. The governments of Chile, Cuba, Norway, and Venezuela acted as hosts, mediators, and observers to the Havana-based process, which became the fourth round of talks between the government and the rebel group in thirty years. In 2012 the FARC renounced kidnapping, and in July 2015 the group declared a unilateral cease-fire.

Negotiations centered on six principles (PDF):

  • Rural development and land reform,
  • the FARC's political participation,
  • rebels' reintegration into civilian life,
  • illegal crop eradication,
  • transitional justice and reparations, and
  • rebel disarmament and implementation of the peace deal.

Questions of transitional justice proved particularly difficult to negotiate. In September 2015, government and FARC leaders agreed to establish a special tribunal made up of Colombian and international judges to collect testimony and evidence, oversee reparations, and mete out punishments to those found guilty of serious crimes. The court, which is set to begin with more than 32,000 open cases, is slated to start operating once a peace accord is reached.

Some critics say the peace agreement would amount to amnesty for human-rights violators. Among the talks' most vocal critics is Uribe, the former president, who has said the deal is tantamount to "surrender" to the FARC. Likewise, the U.S.-based monitoring group Human Rights Watch says the preliminary agreement on transitional justice "will ensure that those responsible for atrocities on both sides of the conflict escape meaningful punishment."

In June 2016, after four years of negotiations, the Colombian government and the FARC reached agreements on all six principles and agreed to a bilateral cease-fire after. In the month's leading up to the accord, negotiators focused on how to implement the peace deal, including when and where rebels would turn over their weapons, as well as measures that would be taken to protect former combatants from retribution. In January 2016, the UN Security Council agreed to set up a mission to oversee disarmament following the culmination of talks, and in May 2016, the UN Children's Fund, UNICEF, agreed to help reintegrate hundreds of former child soldiers. After four years of negotiations, the bilateral cease-fire was significant because it was something "the government would never do unless the end was really in sight," says Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin America program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

"One of the biggest challenges for the Colombian state will be to occupy the spaces left by the FARC's demobilization." — Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin America program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Government and FARC representatives are expected to sign a formal agreement in Bogotá as early as July 20, Colombia's independence day. Once an agreement is signed, it is expected to go before a popular vote (recent polls indicate 57.2 percent of Colombians would vote in favor of the peace agreement), after which rebels would gather in "concentration zones" to hand in their weapons to UN officials. The plebiscite, which is now being drafted by Colombia's Constitutional Court, is expected to take place after the signing of a deal and before the FARC demobilizes.

The post-conflict rebuilding process will be costly. Postwar rural development may cost between $80 and $90 billion over the next ten years, says Arnson. "One of the biggest challenges for the Colombian state will be to occupy the spaces left by the FARC's demobilization," she writes. Bogotá has pledged to invest in rural infrastructure projects and boost alternatives to the drug trade; the country's military must also clear landmines scattered throughout the countryside that have killed or injured 11,000 people over the last twenty-five years. Santos has appealed for international support to finance development, public services, and justice institutions in former conflict areas.

After meeting with Santos in Washington in February, U.S. President Barack Obama requested that Congress appropriate $450 million in assistance for fiscal year 2017, and in late June 2016, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs approved roughly $490 million (PDF). An estimated $191 million of that is contingent on the government and rebels reaching a peace accord.

Stephanie Hanson contributed to this report.

Additional Resources

This Congressional Research Service paper (PDF) outlines Colombia's peace negotiations.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos outlines his peace plan in this September 2014 address.

This Washington Post article explains how the Colombian government weakened the FARC.

The National Center for Historic Memory's report ¡Basta Ya! (PDF) (Enough Already!) chronicles Colombia's decades of civil conflict. (In Spanish.)

Bogotá-based journalist John Otis assesses the FARC’s current role in illegal drug production, taxation, and trafficking in this Wilson Center report (PDF).

More on this topic from CFR

View more from Colombia, Terrorist Organizations and Networks