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FARC | Five years of solitude for the ex-guerrillas

Illustration: R. Rajesh  

Five years after a landmark peace accord that brought to end a conflict that lasted more than five decades in Colombia, the United States has finally revoked its designation of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) as a foreign terrorist organisation. FARC had disbanded from being a guerilla military organisation as part of the peace accord signed with the Colombian government in 2016, into an overground political force called the Comunes (commons in Spanish). But splinter groups that did not accede to or abide by the accord continue to be designated as foreign terrorist organisations — dissident groups such as the La Segunda Marquetalia and the FARC-EP (People’s Army). This indicates that the accord continues to retain its discontents with some former FARC combatants refusing to give up on what they term is armed struggle, but what many suggest is a strategy in “their economic self-interest” to run some of the rackets that were common during the insurgency.

The accord was difficult to achieve — FARC had taken a lot of losses in terms of combatants, leaders and control over territory in the run-up to the 2016 accord, but was still capable of continuing a war of attrition that began as a left-wing peasant struggle in the 1960s but later degenerated into a mixture of guerilla warfare and a criminal enterprise that thrived on hostage taking and later made economic gains from taxing narco-trafficking and growing narcotic plants. But FARC’s leadership managed a deal with the Colombian government, then led by the Nobel Peace Prize winning President Juan Manuel Santos, that promised not just the disbanding of FARC, but the recognition of its newly formed political group, protection to their leaders and other concessions such as agrarian reforms such as expanding land registration and redistribution to landless farmers.

In Focus
  • What began as a left-wing peasant struggle in the 1960s, FARC later transformed into a mixture of guerilla outfit and a criminal enterprise that thrived on hostage taking and taxation of narco-trade
  • As part of the 2016 peace accord with the Colombian government, FARC transformed into an overground political force called the Comunes
  • Splinter groups that do not accede to the accord such as the La Segunda Marquetalia and the FARC-EP continue to be designated as foreign terrorist organisations

A recent report by the International Crisis Group says this - “the peace accord has enabled Colombia to put the trauma of nationwide conflict and wartime atrocities behind it, but.. the plan to reintegrate thousands of fighters through cooperatives hit numerous snags. Close to 300 demobilised FARC have been killed, while authorities struggle to pin down the guilty parties”.

Mixed picture

The picture is therefore one of flux, even if there have been significant gains in maintaining the peace since the long civil war ended in 2016. FARC’s political leaders hoped to gain a peace dividend and to reap it into political prominence as a progressive organisation, but they have so far failed electorally. The Comunes still retain 10 automatic seats in Congress through the peace accord, till 2026, but merely won 0.18% and 0.36% of the popular vote in the 2018 parliamentary elections to the House of Representatives and the Senate respectively.

The former guerilla leader Rodrigo Londono Echeverri who goes by the nom de guerre Timoleon Jimenez alias Timochenco and who served as the commander-in-chief of FARC, is now the president of the Comunes. The Comunes were initially organised as the Alternative Communal Revolutionary Forces after the disarmament of FARC was complete in 2017, before members changed the name to the present Comunes. The Comunes maintains a centralised structure similar to what was present during its military past. Only one civilian has joined the party’s 15-member Political Council, which is dominated by ex-combatant leaders, and while this has lent continuity and coherence to the overground party, it has not helped it garner electoral support. A population wary with the erstwhile FARC’s activities, which included rampant hostage taking for ransom, and other atrocities that were done during the armed conflict, has refused to dissociate its leaders from their past. Following its disastrous performance in the 2018 Congressional elections, the Comunes’ candidates could not improve upon it substantially in the 2019 local elections, winning just two mayoral elections in coalition with other left wing parties.

As part of the peace agreement, the Colombian govt. agreed to recognise Comunes, FARC’s political group, protect its leaders and implement agrarian reforms

The Comunes have also had difficulty in gaining acceptance from other progressive and left-wing forces in the country. The second placed candidate in the 2018 presidential elections, Gustavo Petro (himself a former member of the urban guerilla organisation, M-19 in the 1980s) has refused to incorporate the Comunes into the progressive coalition, the Historic Pact for Colombia, even though many of the ex-combatants are expected to individually support his candidacy in the 2022 vote.

In other words, while the stigma of the activities of FARC during the later years of the civil war has meant that the political force born out of it has remained unpopular, the mainstreaming of the rural insurgency has allowed the widening of the base of supporters for the political left in Colombia. Mr. Petro had won the highest ever tally for left-wing candidates with 8 million votes but that was not enough to defeat Ivan Duque from the right-wing in 2018.

Ahead of the 2022 vote, however, Mr. Petro has channelled even more groups into a larger progressive opposition which is expected to get support from the ex-combatants from across rural Colombia.

Costs of transition

Transitioning into a political force has also not come without losses for the ex-FARC combatants. FARC, during its guerilla struggle, had been wary of mainstreaming because of experiences of an earlier period in the 1980s when it had founded a leftist political party called the Patriotic Union (UP). Formed out of peace negotiations with the then President Belisario Betancur’s government, the UP functioned as an openly communist party but was decimated and later exterminated due to systematic assassinations and oppression led by government sponsored paramilitary groups and drug organisations well into the 1990s.

Reminiscent of that violence, a number of ex-combatants have been targetted by paramilitary groups even today, but the government has promised to bring the groups to book besides offering protection to the ex-FARC combatants. So far, this promise of the peace process has had a mixed outcome and has weighed on some combatants who have refused to demobilise, fearing retribution. Worse, fear among the ex-combatants has hurt their economic and social reintegration.

In a way, the situation today has favoured the argument by observers that the peace accord has managed to achieve, by and large, the government’s objectives — the demobilisation of FARC and a relative peace that was thwarted for decades — while barely bringing the substantive reforms that FARC set out to do following the accord.

In Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s iconic book, One Hundred Years of Solitude, the character General Aureliano Buendia fights several wars, wins none and is finally disillusioned with civil war. Buendia could well have been a metaphor for FARC, which led the world’s longest running guerilla movement that began as an extension of the various rural Marxist-Leninist uprisings in Latin America and elsewhere but later degenerated into a violent movement that combined idealistic aims with criminal enterprise either as reaction to oppression or as tactics for survival.

Now, it has embarked on a new journey where it carries the weight of the past, but a return to peace has brought some succour to the people that FARC has claimed to represent. Even the notoriously sceptical U.S. government has taken note of this which explains the removal of its designation as a foreign terror organisation.

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Printable version | Jan 22, 2022 6:12:15 PM |

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