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FARC, ELN: Colombia's Left-Wing Guerrillas

Author: Stephanie Hanson
Updated: August 19, 2009

Introduction

Colombia, one of the closest U.S. allies in Latin America, has been ravaged for decades by a civil war pitting left-wing guerrilla groups against right-wing paramilitary organizations. The two predominant rebel groups--the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (known by its Spanish acronym, FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN)--are included on the U.S. State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations. Under Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, who took office in 2002 and has been boosted by large inflows of U.S. funding, both groups have been depleted in numbers and resources. Yet peace talks between each group and the government remain dogged by difficulties. Allegations in March 2008 and August 2009 by the Colombian government that the FARC is receiving support from the Venezuelan government have further complicated prospects for peace.

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History and Ideology

FARC and ELN were both founded in the 1960s, after Colombia’s two main political parties ended more than a decade of political violence and agreed to share power. In 1963, students, Catholic radicals, and left-wing intellectuals hoping to emulate Fidel Castro’s communist revolution in Cuba founded ELN. FARC formed in 1965, bringing together communist militants and peasant self-defense groups.

Although ELN is more ideological than FARC, the two groups have similar programs: Both say they represent the rural poor against Colombia’s wealthy classes and oppose U.S. influence in Colombia, the privatization of natural resources, multinational corporations, and rightist violence. In 2006, the ELN decided to shift its political strategy to urban areas. There are indications it would like official political recognition, but it has not stated clearly what such recognition would entail.

The two groups have an ambiguous relationship; in some parts of the country they cooperate, while in others they have clashed directly.

Strength and Extent of Operations

FARC is Colombia’s largest and best-equipped rebel group. According to the Colombian government, the group had roughly sixteen-thousand members in 2001. The head of the U.S. Southern Command testified in March 2008 that the FARC has now been reduced to about nine thousand fighters (PDF). It operates in roughly one-third of the country, mostly in the jungles of the south and east. In 1999, during peace negotiations with the group, then-president Andres Pastrana ceded control of a 42,000-square-mile area (roughly the size of Switzerland) to the FARC. After three years of fruitless negotiations and a series of high-profile terrorist acts, Pastrana ended peace talks in February 2002 and ordered Colombian forces to start retaking the FARC-controlled zone. When Uribe took office in 2002, he launched an aggressive security campaign against the FARC and ELN, bolstered by U.S. funding from Plan Colombia, a multibillion dollar counternarcotics aid package. In 2007, members of the FARC’s leadership were killed and several of the group’s hostages were murdered under murky circumstances. In 2008, the chief spokesman in the FARC’s secretariat, Raul Reyes, was killed during a Colombian incursion into Ecuador. “These episodes show an insurgent group in a state of strategic crisis,” writes Adam Isacson on his blog for the Center for International Policy. He adds that the FARC can no longer depend on local populations for support, as many have turned against the group due to its violent methods.

The smaller ELN , which operates mainly in northeastern Colombia, is estimated to have between 2,200 and 3,000 members, which marks a significant reduction in military capability since the late 1990s. Advances by AUC paramilitaries, competition with the FARC, and more aggressive government security forces all contribute to the ELN ’s weakening. Several ELN units are trained for special operations, however, and are skilled in explosive weapons manufacturing.

The FARC and ELN cooperate in some parts of the country, but armed clashes have occurred between the two groups in other areas.

Funding

Experts estimate that FARC takes in between $500 million and $600 million annually from the illegal drug trade. The FARC also profits from kidnappings, extortion schemes, and an unofficial "tax" it levies in the countryside for "protection" and social services. About sixty-five of the FARC's 110 operational units are involved in some aspect of the drug trade, according to a 2005 International Crisis Group report, but evidence from that period indicates they primarily managed local production. A 2008 International Crisis Group report notes that the nature of the FARC's drug involvement varies from region to region, and that the group's control of population and territory in rural areas "has allowed it to dictate terms for coca growth, harvest, and processing." The U.S. government alleges the FARC's role in the drug trade is more significant. According to a 2006 U.S. Department of Justice indictment, the FARC supplies more than 50 percent of the world's cocaine. A 2009 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office says the FARC accounts for 60 percent of the total cocaine exported from Colombia to the United States. The U.S. Treasury Department has frozen the assets of several individuals it asserts are significant foreign narcotics traffickers within the FARC. However, other evidence suggests the FARC's involvement with the drug trade remains local. According to the 2007 UN World Drug report, the bulk of drug trafficking in Colombia is controlled by professional drug smuggling groups, while the FARC is focused on the cultivation and processing of coca (PDF).

The ELN 's primary income source is also drug trafficking, a shift from the ransom or "protection" payments that accounted for much of its funding in the 1980s, and the kidnappings that produced revenue in the 1990s. Colombian government sources believe this latest shift occurred between 2005 and 2007, which coincides with increased ELN activity on the Pacific coast and Venezuelan border, coca-growing regions, and drug-trafficking zones.

Terrorist Acts

The FARC is responsible for most of the ransom kidnappings in Colombia; the group targets wealthy landowners, foreign tourists, and prominent international and domestic officials. Notable FARC operations include:

  • the November 2005 kidnapping of sixty people, many of whom are being held hostage by the FARC until the government decides to release hundreds of their comrades serving prison sentences;
  • the February 2002 hijacking of a domestic commercial flight and the kidnapping of a Colombian senator on board;
  • the February 2002 kidnapping of a Colombian presidential candidate, Ingrid Betancourt, who was traveling in guerrilla territory. Betancourt is the most prominent member of a group of hostages held by the FARC;
  • the October 2001 kidnapping and assassination of a former Colombian minister of culture;
  • the March 1999 murder of three U.S. missionaries working in Colombia, which resulted in a U.S. indictment of the FARC and six of its members in April 2002.

The ELN, which is also known for kidnapping wealthy Colombians for ransom, uses bombing campaigns and extortion against multinational and domestic oil companies. ELN attacks on oil pipelines have killed civilians and drawn the attention of the Bush administration, which has suggested training the Colombian armed forces to protect oil facilities.

There is evidence the FARC and the ELN are also involved in kidnappings across the border in Venezuela (WashPost). According to the Venezuelan government, 382 people were taken hostage in 2007, up from 232 the previous year.

Ties to Other Governments

When President Uribe launched his crackdown on the two guerrilla groups in 2003, both sought refuge in the areas bordering Ecuador and Venezuela. These border regions are hotbeds of illegal activity such as drug trafficking and arms dealings. Both rebel groups frequently cross into neighboring territory to avoid Colombian military sweeps.

Following the death of Raul Reyes in March 2008, the Colombian government claimed to have found documents on a rebel laptop that indicated Venezuela and Ecuador were providing material support to the FARC. According to these documents, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez gave the group $250 million (Time). The Venezuelan government denies the allegations, and says the funds were to negotiate the release of hostages held by the group.

Tensions between Chavez and the Colombian government rose to new heights when Bogotá accused the Venezuelan government of providing three Swedish-made anti-tank weapons to the FARC. As a result of the accusations, Chavez briefly froze diplomatic relations with Colombia in July 2008. In August 2009, the New York Times reported on new evidence of Venezuelan material aid to the FARC. The evidence, again taken from captured computer material, indicated continued contact between the rebel group and high ranking officials in the Venezuelan military and intelligence services.

Since mid-2007, Chavez has been acting as an unofficial negotiator between the Colombian government and the FARC. He engineered the release of several hostages, but Uribe does not accept him as an official negotiator. Experts say the hostage release process could be seriously damaged by the death of Reyes, who was an interlocutor in the negotiations. In January 2008, Chavez publicly rejected the U.S. and EU classification of the FARC and ELN as terrorist groups and later called on the Colombian government to recognize the groups as "belligerent forces" subject to the Geneva Conventions. Chavez has also expressed concern over plans to increase U.S. military presence on Colombian bases, claiming it would lead to a destabilization of the region.

Prospects for Peace

The FARC has been involved in peace talks with the Colombian government since the 1980s. Some experts suggest the rebels continues to enter talks because it legitimizes their social justice cause. In October 2006, the FARC issued a letter that clarified the conditions under which they would agree to a bilateral cease-fire and prisoner exchange. Since then, there has been some forward movement on the exchange of imprisoned FARC members for hostages, but no negotiations on a cease-fire or demobilization. The Center for International Policy summarizes the uneven progress of peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC. A March 2009 report by the International Crisis Group argues that the Uribe government should continue with its hard-line military approach against the FARC, but such an approach should ultimately gear towards drawing the group into peace talks.

The Colombian government has been engaged in a peace process with the ELN since May 2004, but as of October 2007, eight rounds of talks had yet to produce any results. The two parties disagree on the terms of a cease-fire, whether the ELN should end kidnappings, and the ELN's use of anti-personnel mines. Because of the ELN's weakened military position, some Colombians believe the group is no longer a threat. But an October 2007 International Crisis Group briefing cautions that the group "has shown a capacity to survive and revive after coming close to demise."

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