Military Capacity of the Fuerzas Revolucionarias Armadas de Colombia (FARC)

This comment is a continuation of the YIRA Winter 2016 International Trip Group’s Bogotá, Colombia Trip Summary.

Starting in the mid-1960s, several leftist guerilla groups, including the Fuerzas Revolucionarias Armadas de Colombia (FARC), the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN), the Ejército de Liberación (EPL), and the Movimiento 19 de Abril (M-19), began cropping up in both urban and rural Colombia. Rising up against an exclusionary “pacted” democracy, many of these groups sought to topple the ruling government and implement their own visions of society. Some were Marxist-Leninist, others Maoist, and still others adherents of liberation theology. During the course of following years, the govern-ment pendulum would swing back and forth between peace negotiations and large-scale repression, ultimately demobilizing both the EPL and M-19, along with a few other groups. In contrast to the EPL and M-19, however, all negotiation attempts with the FARC have failed – until now it seems. Though the peace process is likely to take longer than projected, many are hopeful about its pros-pects for closing the chapter on the struggle with Colombia’s oldest and largest guerilla. In this context, the question we must ask ourselves is: Why now? Though not an exhaustive list, below I discuss three key factors that set this peace process apart from its predecessors.

First, the military capacity of the FARC has declined precipitously since its heyday, making the FARC more likely to conclude a peace treaty. From the mid-1980s to the late 1990s, the FARC began to grow both in size and military capacity. It began to recruit voluntarily and forcibly, took over swaths of the Colombian southeast, and went on the offensive militarily. In fact, its most famous hits against the Colombian military were in 1994, 1995, and 1996. However, between 1998 and 1999, the Pastrana and Clinton administrations hatched up the anti-cocaine diplomatic and military aid package called Plan Colombia. Though the aid was meant to target drug trafficking, the Colombian government re-conceptualized the FARC as a “narcoterrorist” organization to make American dollars available for anti-guerilla operations. Thus, as Plan Colombia came into effect, the military unleashed a series of devastating attacks on the FARC, ultimately forcing it to disband its mass presence. Before, the FARC had come close to creating a situation of true dual sovereignty in Colombia, nearly matching the strength of the state. Now, though its numbers are far higher than government estimates, it pales in comparison.

In addition, the national and international political landscape has shifted away from the FARC, increasing its willingness to strike a deal with the government. As hinted above, in the past, the FARC had the support of broad sectors of Colombian society as well as of several international actors, which viewed the guerilla as a Robinhood-esque figure. As a result, the FARC tended to avoid the negotiating table, opting instead for establishing safe havens and, after the government doubled down, for taking refuge in territories that were sympathetic to their cause. The longer the conflict dragged on, the more support the FARC lost, even among its strongest constituencies. On one hand, the length of the conflict coupled with its diminishing military capacity convinced many that the FARC was no longer a viable option for governance. On the other hand, practices such as kidnapping chipped away at its political capital, making it seem less like an ideological crusader and more like an active extortion racket. Now, the FARC has little political salience in the minds of average Colombians. In fact, the conflict has shifted the entire political spectrum to the right, discrediting leftist groups and bringing unions into the line of fire.

Finally, the design of peace process itself is different. According to Professor Angelika Rettberg, the architects of the peace process read up on the literature of conflict resolution and followed the handbooks to a tee. Though the process has taken a hit on the public opinion front, its low-profile nature has helped protect the integrity of the negotiations. Both sides, for example, have been careful not to negotiate via press releases. Ultimately, even in the absence of a bilateral cease-fire, violence has been steadily declining for the past several years. Though there is still much to be discussed, the process is generally on track for success.


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