Both of the major insurgent groups that have been active in Colombia during the twenty-first century, the FARC-EP and the ELN, were founded in the mid-1960s as the Cold War was heating up throughout Latin America.
By Daniel Edgar
Published on SouthFront, Sept 15, 2019
Both of the major insurgent groups that have been active in Colombia during the twenty-first century, the FARC-EP and the ELN, were founded in the mid-1960s as the Cold War was heating up throughout Latin America. The success of the Cuban Revolution was an important catalyst in this sense, lending greater urgency to both the formation and expansion of revolutionary groups throughout the continent and the elaboration and intensification of counter-insurgency warfare by the traditional ruling elites (usually under the leadership and direction of the United States).
Colombia had already been in a state of civil war and armed conflict for most of its existence. From the mid-nineteenth century until the late 1950s the principal polarizing forces around which the belligerent parties coalesced were the ‘Liberals’ and the ‘Conservatives’, which between them exercised control over the State throughout this period.
From 1948 until the mid-1950s Colombia experienced an extremely destructive intensification of the simmering hostility between the two traditional rivals and enemies known as ‘La Violencia’ – The Violence, which eventually subsided in the late 1950s as the leadership of the two political parties signed a pact in which they agreed to share power between them for sixteen years, taking turns appointing the president for 4 year terms and dividing the membership of the national Congress and other important political and administrative posts among themselves. All other political and social forces were excluded from this arrangement.
In this context, the early 1960s were relatively less violent, although scattered remnants of community-based self-defence groups, rebels and bandits continued to roam the countryside. Many of these groups had identified as ‘Liberals’ and remained under arms as they didn’t trust the at the time Conservative-dominated government, military and police to respect the amnesty it had proclaimed for groups that voluntarily demobilized and disarmed.
It was the final military push to finish off these rebel groups that led to the modern phase of the armed conflict in Colombia. Some of the survivors of the military campaign against the last of the ‘Independent Republics’, Marquetalia, later regrouped and the FARC-EP and the ELN were founded. The military campaign was conducted under the supervision of, and with weapons provided by, the United States.
The dominance of the Liberals and Conservatives over the State and society more generally lasted until early in the twenty-first century, when the two traditional all-powerful political parties began to fracture along the lines of competing factions and personalities and several new political parties were founded. One of the new political entities, ‘Centro Democrático’ (Democratic Centre) was founded by Álvaro Uribe, president from 2002-2010 and currently a senator in the national Congress. He is probably the single most influential political figure in Colombia today and is widely perceived as exercising strong influence over the current president who is also a member of Centro Democrático (Ivan Marquez); the party’s policies and ideology are extreme right-wing, and it has bitterly opposed the negotiations and subsequently the implementation of the Peace Accord with the FARC-EP. Ivan Marquez is young and politically inexperienced, having spent much of his life in the United States.
Álvaro Uribe’s successor as president (from 2010 until 2018), Juan Manuel Santos, founded ‘la U’, another political party that emerged from the fragmentation of the Liberal party (which continues to exist as a significant albeit much reduced political force). Juan Manuel Santos had been Minister of Defence under Uribe for several years, and Uribe considered his decision to commence negotiations with the FARC-EP (and subsequently with the ELN) as a betrayal of his legacy and patronage. ‘La U’ and ‘Cambio Radical’ (Radical Change), another political party that emerged from the Liberal party, as well as those that remain in the Liberal party, have formed a loose coalition to support the continued implementation of the Peace Accord with the FARC-EP and the resumption of negotiations with the ELN (which were abruptly broken off by Ivan Duque when he assumed the presidency in 2018).
Since the day it was signed in late 2016 the implementation of the Peace Accord by the government (in particular the presidency) and the State (of which the Congress and the Armed Forces are the most immediately relevant protagonists) has been subjected to unilateral modifications, delays and non-implementation of many of the most important mutually agreed and accepted provisions and measures of the Accord. These include the functions and powers of the ‘JEP’ (transitional justice system, a kind of war crimes tribunal), the commitment to elaborate substantive agrarian reform in favour of poor and dispossessed Colombians, and the elaboration of a program to assist farmers and rural communities with the substitution of illicit crops.
The special territorial electorates to provide direct representation in the Congress from regions most affected by the armed conflict have not been activated. Nor has the special investigation unit that was to be established to investigate, dismantle and prosecute the paramilitary structures and their financers, collaborators and accomplices responsible for widespread terror and political and economic assassinations.
At the same time, the demobilized and disarmed members of the FARC (Fuerza Alternativa Revolucionaria del Común – the political party formed by the demobilized members of the FARC-EP) have been the victim of a succession of assassinations (approximately 150 as of late August this year), part of a broader pattern of systematic assassinations and terror against many communities and sectors of Colombian society which has also taken a heavy toll against social leaders and others seen as opponents or obstacles to maintaining the status quo.
All of these elements formed part of the reasoning and arguments in a video statement released by several former commanders of the FARC-EP announcing their decision to return to the path of armed insurgency. The group includes several of the highest level commanders of the FARC-EP prior to their demobilization – including the second in command at the time, Ivan Marquez, who was selected to lead the FARC-EP delegation to the peace dialogues in Cuba, alias ‘Jesus Santrich’ and Hernán Darío ‘El Paisa’ Velázquez, as well as numerous other former high- and mid-level commanders. In the statement the dissidents argued that:
“Since the signing of the Peace Accord in Havana and the naïve disarming of the guerrilla group in return for nothing, the slaughter has not ceased. In two years, more than 500 leaders of social movements have been assassinated to which can be added the deaths of 150 ex-guerrillas in the midst of the indolence and indifference of the State… All of this, the traps, the betrayal and the perfidy, the unilateral modification of the text of the Accord, the failure to implement the commitments made by the State, the judicial frame-ups and the lack of security oblige us to return to the mountains…”
The announcement, although not entirely unexpected, still took many people by surprise. Just as there are differences of opinion within and among the members of the demobilized insurgent group, there are also differences among the most powerful political sectors and factions of Colombian society. Among other social sectors, some have strongly criticized the return to arms claiming that there is no justification for violating the Peace Accord (and that no circumstances could justify such a decision). Others have expressed understanding of the decision given the unilateral modifications and violations of many of the most fundamental terms of the Peace Accord, but nonetheless declaring that the return to arms is a terrible mistake. In many cases such differences have been aggravated by the latest developments and what had previously been private disputes and grievances have surfaced in public discourse and debate.
Two lines of response capture the core dilemma of the protagonists: the first argument, that they knew that many powerful sectors within the Government, the Congress, the Public Security Forces and other State and private sector institutions would try to block and sabotage the peace process at every opportunity. They had discussed this prior to their demobilization, and agreed to assume the risk understanding the importance of trying to make a definitive break with the cycle of violence and armed conflict in Colombia. Not everyone within the FARC-EP was comfortable with this decision, some strongly opposed it arguing that they should not disarm without some substantive concessions and reciprocal action from the State, but in the end they agreed for the sake of unity to give it a try.
According to this argument (that the FARC-EP as a whole ultimately agreed to sign the Peace Accord, and that all members must therefore renounce arms forever no matter what happens), the dissidents that have decided to take up arms again have been criticized for their change of course; at times the criticism has however expressed understanding of their difficult if not impossible position due to the flagrant modifications to and violations of many of the most important terms of the Peace Accord by the Congress and the Executive, at the same time noting that the decision is catastrophic for the peace process.
The second line of argument is that it was not possible to anticipate just how powerful and destructive the opposition to the implementation of the peace process would be, much less that the sectors of society and politics most determined to prevent the implementation of the terms of the Peace Accord (centred around the political party Centro Democrático) would win the presidency and basically declare open season on the now unarmed and extremely vulnerable former guerrilla fighters. How many more of their companions must be slaughtered in conditions in which they have no way to defend themselves – at the same time as the provisions of the Peace Accord are being treated with utter contempt – before they are entitled to fight back?
Some of the most vehement critics of the decision to return to arms have been their former comrades-in-arms who have decided to continue to abide by the terms of the Peace Accord (now grouped in the FARC political party under the leadership of Rodrigo Londoño – ‘Timochenko’). At the time of the announcement it was described by the FARC leadership as a ‘delirious’ decision. The different opinions within the FARC on the key point of whether to continue with the peace process despite the heavy losses and violations of the Peace Accord or to return to arms, both of which could be considered understandable given the conditions that have prevailed since their demobilization, have led to bitter recriminations against the revolutionary credentials, commitment or aptitude of their former comrades.
The bitterness and intensity of the invective that followed in the immediate aftermath of the announcement may be the result of COINTELPRO-like scheming by their enemies to infiltrate the movement and generate dissent and infighting, or it may simply be the result of personal differences and antagonism that the tense conditions and high stakes have brought to the surface and amplified.
The response of the government, the Centro Democrático members of Congress and their allies and associates (who altogether account for approximately a third of the Congress) was an immediate condemnation of the ‘narco-terrorists’ and a promise that they will be rapidly annihilated. They opposed the decision to initiate dialogues with the FARC-EP in 2012 and the terms of the Peace Accord that was signed in 2016, and they have attempted to prevent or substantially modify implementation of the measures agreed to at every opportunity. They accuse the FARC-EP of not acting in good faith, and claim that they are ‘narco-terrorists’ with no political or social motives or objectives who only entered into negotiations as they had been defeated militarily and considered this to be the only way to avoid complete obliteration. The occasion has also been utilized by these sectors to accuse the Venezuelan government of orchestrating the return to armed struggle and providing refuge and moral and material support to the insurgent groups (the revived FARC-EP as well as the ELN).
Another group of political parties and factions that also constitute a part of the Establishment and the traditional ruling elites but that have generally supported the Peace Accord, consisting of Cambio Radical, la U, and the Liberals in particular (referred to earlier as ‘moderates’), have condemned the decision to return to armed struggle but have also strongly defended the peace process.
Another group of Opposition parties, comprising a loose alliance between the members of the FARC political party, Polo, Decentes and Alianza Verde (Green Alliance) – together accounting for approximately 10% of the House of Representatives and 20% of the Senate – declared that they will remain vigilant to prevent the Peace Accord from being obstructed or modified. In a press conference (headed by Rodrigo Londoño, the head of the FARC), the group stated:
“The Opposition parties are uniting with the national clamour that rejects the decision taken by this group of people; that it constitutes a violation of the commitments pacted in the Peace Accord. The proven violations of the Peace Accord by the State cannot be responded to with other violations…”
It remains to be seen how many of their former comrades in-arms from the FARC-EP will attempt to join the dissidents, and what will become of the peace process for those that remain committed to the fulfilment of the terms of the Peace Accord.
It is also far from certain how the weight of Colombian society will react to the latest developments: will they support the far right-wing elements in their exhortations to abandon the Peace Accord and the resumption of negotiations with the ELN, or will they support the ‘moderates’ from right-, centre and left-wing tendencies who urge Colombians to rally around defence of the Peace Accord and attempts to reach a negotiated settlement with the remaining armed insurgent group(s)?
The response of the ELN is another aspect that will be crucial to the course future developments take. They have not always had good relations with the FARC-EP, despite supposedly being committed to very similar goals and objectives. Moreover, they are also likely to be riven by factions that support continuing trying to persuade the Government to resume negotiations or abandoning the now long defunct negotiation process and returning to armed struggle respectively.
The future attitude of the government and the most powerful factions of the Congress will also be critical in this respect: once the immediate barrage of polemic, accusations and recriminations subsides, will they use the return to arms by some of the FARC-EP as a justification to terminate the Peace Accord and other measures associated with the peace process completely, and demand that all remaining insurgents surrender unconditionally or be exterminated? If not, to what extent will they be open to the possibility of future dialogues with the remaining insurgent group(s) to try and persuade them to return to the peace process.