FARC, ELN: Colombia's Left-Wing Guerrillas

Authors: Danielle Renwick, Copy Editor/Writer, and Stephanie Hanson
Updated: February 2, 2016

Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters
Introduction

Civil conflict in Colombia, one of the United States' closest 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. However, peace may be on the horizon. Talks between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (known by its Spanish acronym, FARC), the country's largest insurgent group, are expected to yield a truce early in 2016. The government has also entered into fledgling peace talks with the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN).

History and Ideology

The FARC and ELN were founded in 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. In some parts of the country they cooperate; in others, they have clashed.

Right-wing paramilitary groups comprising landowners who organized to protect themselves from guerrilla groups emerged in the 1980s. 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 remain.

Kidnappings and Acts of Terror

The FARC and ELN had 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 Ingrid 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, after 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. In 2012, in preparation for peace talks with the Colombian government, the FARC renounced kidnapping, and in July 2015, the group declared a unilateral cease-fire.

Drug Trafficking

In the early 2000s Colombia supplied as much as 90 percent (PDF) of the world's cocaine (the figure has reportedly fallen to about 50 percent), 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, while Colombian Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón said it could be as high as $3.5 billion.

Colombia's National Center for Historical Memory estimates that guerrilla groups kidnapped twenty-five thousand people between 1970 and 2010.

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.

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 and Colombia also have close economic ties. The United States is Colombia’s largest trading partner, and a bilateral free trade agreement 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 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, and Colombian courts have investigated his alleged links to right-wing paramilitary groups.

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). Despite reports that high-ranking Venezuelan officials helped the rebel group acquire weapons and permitted its members to travel in Venezuela, the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez facilitated 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 1,400 members, down from as many as five thousand (PDF) in the late 1990s. Weakened by paramilitary offensives, competition with the FARC, and more aggressive government security forces, the ELN has also sought peace negotiations with the government. According to Colombian officials, talks remain in a preliminary phase. 

Prospects for Peace

Juan Manuel Santos, who served as Uribe's defense minister, was elected president in 2010, and his administration began formal peace talks (PDF) with the FARC in 2012. The governments of Cuba, Norway, Venezuela, and Chile are acting as hosts, mediators, and observers to the Havana-based talks, which are the fourth peace talks in thirty years and the first in more than a decade. In early 2015, the United States appointed a special envoy, former Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Bernard Aronson, to the peace talks. "While significant obstacles remain, a negotiated peace in Colombia is absolutely worth pursuing and absolutely worth assisting if we are able to," U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters at the time.

The negotiations center on six principles (PDF):

  • Promoting rural development and land reform;
  • permitting the FARC's political participation;
  • reintegrating rebels into civilian life;
  • eradicating illegal crops and drug trafficking;
  • transitional justice and reparations; and
  • rebel disarmament and implementing the peace deal.

Questions of transitional justice have proved the most difficult to negotiate. In September 2015, government and FARC leaders agreed to establish a special tribunal made up of Colombian and international judges that would collect testimony and evidence, oversee reparations, and mete out punishments to those found guilty of serious crimes.

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, 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 January 2016, the UN Security Council agreed to set up a mission to oversee disarmament, which Santos said signaled the peace process was "increasingly irreversible." Santos, who modeled elements of the negotiations on the UK–Irish Republican Army peace negotiations in the 1990s, told the Guardian that the purpose of the talks is "not to humiliate the FARC but to persuade the guerrillas to swap their guns for votes." Some observers have cited the example of the M-19 movement, a Colombian guerrilla organization that in the late 1980s transitioned to being a nonviolent political party. (It has since disbanded and its members have joined other left-leaning political parties.)

"It would be a grave mistake to fail to invest as generously in the peace as the United States has in pursuing security and counternarcotics goals."—Cynthia Arnson, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

One of the central principles of the negotiations is that "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed"—that is, there will be no application of the accords if the parties reach agreements on some, but not all, of the six points. Once both sides reach such an agreement, its terms will go before a popular referendum.

A truce could bring about major changes in Colombia, since rural development, victim reparations, and rebel reintegration programs are expected to be part of any settlement. (With 4.6 percent growth in 2014, the country is already one of the region's fastest-growing economies. Tourism, which has risen as violence has declined, has driven some of the expansion.)  Santos has called for a "Marshall Plan for Colombia," appealing for international support to finance development, public services, and justice institutions in former conflict areas. The Economist reports that Santos is expected to request from the United States a new "Plan Colombia" worth $500 million a year over the next decade.

Testifying before a congressional panel in December 2015, Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin America program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said, "It would be a grave mistake to fail to invest as generously in the peace as the United States has in pursuing security and counternarcotics goals." She cited postconflict Central America, where violence has skyrocketed, as illustrating the consequences of U.S. failure to offer continue support in peacetime.

Stephanie Hanson contributed to this report.

Prospects for Peace

The Colombian government has held inintermittent peace talks with the FARC and ELN since the 1980s. The groups have been sufficiently weakened that they are now willing to negotiate with the government. The current talks began between the FARC rebels and the Santos administration began in secret in 2010 and were made public in 2012 in Havana. The governments of Cuba, Norway,Venezuela, and Chile are acting as hosts, mediators, and observers to the talks. The negotiations have a five-point agenda:

  • land reform,
  • political participation,
  • drug trafficking,
  • victims’ rights and reparations, and
  • disarmament of the rebels and implementation of the peace deal.

The two sides have been able to reach draft agreements on the first three points, but victims' rights and the group's disarmament have proven more complicated. "They are now involved in one of the trickiest issues, focusing on the rights of victims, which necessarily touches onto questions of transitional justice and how much impunity or prosecution [to pursue], which is one of the most emotionally difficult and visceral issues for the public," says Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin American program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Both sides have acknowledged commiting human rights violations and have agreed that victims have a right to  "truth, justice, reparations, and guarantees that violations will not be repeated (PDF)". However negotiators are struggling to define who should be considered victims (6.7 million people have registered as victims of parties to the conflict) and agree on how to bring perpetrators to justice.

The purpose of the talks is "not to humiliate the FARC but to persuade the guerrillas to swap their guns for votes."—Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos

One of the central principles of the negotiations is that "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed"; there will be no partial application of the accords. Santos has also refused to implement a cease-fire during the talks, saying that doing so would create an incentive for the insurgent group to prolong the process. If an agreement is reached, Santos has said, he will put the terms before a popular referendum.

Santos's reelection was widely seen as a vote in favor of continuing the talks. But rebel attacks on Colombia's oil infrastructure in July 2014 and the capture of army General Ruben Dario Alzate in November threatened to jeopardize progress. Public confidence in the talks dropped slightly following the infrastructure attack, and Santos suspended negotiations following Alzate's abduction. However, when FARC announced plans to release the general, Santos said he would resume negotiations.

Santos, who modeled elements of the negotiations on the UK–Irish Republican Army peace negotiations in the 1990s, told the Guardian that the purpose of the talks is "not to humiliate the FARC but to persuade the guerrillas to swap their guns for votes." Some observers have cited the example of the M-19 movement, a Colombian guerilla organization that in the late 1980s became a nonviolent political party. (It later disbanded, and its members joined other left-leaning political parties.)

A truce could bring about major changes in Colombia; rural development and reintegration programs for both victims and rebels are expected to be part of any settlement. Santos has called for a "Marshall Plan" for Colombia, appealing for international support to finance rural redevelopment, whose costs lawmakers estimate could run at least $45 million over the next ten years. Even if a peace referendum is passed, rebuilding Colombia's countryside may produce challenges of its own. Says Arnson, "I would not underestimate the difficulties in implementation—in terms of violence and in terms of implementing all the terms that have been subscribed to."

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).

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