FARC: Narco-Terrorists or Marxist Revolutionaries?

9781848134928 The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, better known by its Spanish initials FARC (or the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarios de Colombia), has been called various names. Depending on who you’re asking, they’re either narco-terrorists, criminal kidnappers, child-soldier recruiters, non-state actor human rights violators, or Marxist revolutionaries.

The Colombian government, its United States imperialist masters, and the corporate media machine conveniently labels FARC a spent force of bandits that dropped the ideological foundation of its early years to embrace the drug business. Under the banner of the US “War on Drugs” a brutal war has been waged against FARC and its rural mass bases.

Why is FARC perennially at the receiving end of such relentless demonization? Is the FARC as its detractors profess, the root of Colombian underdevelopment that has to be stamped out in order to achieve national progress? Or is the FARC as its spokesmen proudly proclaim, an organization of revolutionary freedom fighters? These are some of the questions that Garry Leech’s FARC: The Longest Insurgency, recently published by radical international publisher Zed Books, seek to answer.

gabriel-garcia-marquez-one-hundred-years-of-solitude-04A Hundred Years of Struggle

Gabriel Garcia Marquez described Colombian history in what is perhaps his most popular novel as One Hundred Years of Solitude. Without the surreal magic that Marquez weaves into the turbulent social realities of Colombia, it would perhaps be more appropriate to describe this history as a hundred years of struggle.

It is in the context of this history of civil war between the ruling Liberal and Conservative parties in the 1950s called La Violencia, armed coup d’etats, and the coming and going of dictatorships, that peasants began forming armed self-defense groups to protect themselves from landlord rule and government repression.

Rural communities began to, Leech quotes from FARC documents, “share the land among the residents and created mechanisms for collective work and assistance to the individual exploitation of parcels of land.” Peasants communities decided the distribution of the fruits of their labor and dispense justice collectively. This were the seeds from which the FARC would later on emerge.

At the outset, the Colombian Communist Party (PCC) led the organizing of peasant militias. But influenced by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) 20th Congress’s revisionist call for a peaceful transition to socialism in 1956, the PCC publicly denounced the peasant struggle and supported the armed self-defense groups in secrecy. This PCC policy would change in its 9th Congress in 1961, said Leech, as brutal repression campaigns by the Colombian government intensifies. However, the PCC’s being tied to the modern revisionist CPSU would increasingly put a wedge between the predominantly urban-based party cadres and its rural-based armed peasant constituencies in the years to come.

May 27, 1964 marks the beginning of Operation Marquetalia, a 16,000-strong Colombian military operation against a tiny village of the same name hosting 48 peasant guerrillas. Fearing a repeat of the victorious Cuban revolution of 1959 in Colombia, the US gave full support to the brutal military offensives and supplied B-26 bombers for this particular operation. Yet all 48 guerrillas from Marquetalia would escape unscathed, proving the superiority of guerrilla tactics by letting a stronger enemy punch in the air.

This band of guerrillas would spearhead the First Guerrilla Conference, a meeting of peasant self-defense groups from different communities that would henceforth unite themselves into a coalition called the Southern Block. In 1966 the Southern Block convened the Second Guerrilla Conference to unite themselves on an agrarian reform programme and approve the following of a military strategy that effectively transformed their self-defense groups into a mobile guerrilla force. Thus FARC was born, the name by which the Southern Block would henceforth call itself.

farcSocial Revolution, Not Drug Business

The FARC armed struggle is thus anchored on the need for genuine agrarian reform that would, according to FARC papers, “change the social structure of the Colombian countryside, providing land completely free to the peasants who work it or want to work it on the basis of confiscation of landholdings for the benefit of the working people.”

Agrarian reform is thus seen by the group as “the indispensable conditions to raise the standard of material and cultural life of the whole peasantry, free it from unemployment, hunger, illiteracy, and the endemic illness that limit its ability to work.” It is ultimately, said Leech, the cornerstone of FARC’s revolutionary program.

Contrary to popular notions, FARC does not at all engage in drug production or trafficking. What FARC does, in line with its revolutionary agrarian program is to tax the drug traders and ensure that the peasant gets a higher share from the sale of coca. This is the reason why drug traders are ironically supportive of the Colombian anti-drug war against FARC. “We know that campesinos grow illicit crops out of necessity. It is specifically a socio-economic situation. They are obligated to cultivate illicit crops because of a government that has neglected them for many years,” said FARC commander Simon Trinidad in an interview with Leech.

FARC collects taxes in areas it controls. It also taxes companies regardless of location. The poor peasants are exempted while, Leech said, “an elected committee from the locality decides on the disbursement and allocation of the taxes collected.” The money collected are used to fund social services such as health, education, electricity, water, and road construction in FARC areas. Businessmen who do not pay these taxes are arrested by FARC: “If these persons give money to the state to carry on the war against the people, they also must give it to the people for its defense against the aggressors.” It is these arrests that are inaccurately “kidnappings” by the Colombian government and corporate media.

In the long run, FARC “sets out on a prolonged struggle to take power in unity with the working class and all working people.” It attempts to win over the peasantry through agrarian revolution, build organs of political power, and defeat the reactionary forces in military offensives step by step in preparation for the future nationwide seizure of state power from the ruling classes.

regis debrayFocoist Politico-Military Struggle

Leech’s account of FARC military strategy is, however, sketchy. It is rather obvious that FARC utilizes guerrilla warfare. Leech briefly mentions how FARC evolved from a strategy of armed self-defense into a focoist politico-military struggle. But there are no details as to how a foquista framework is applied to the specific conditions of Colombian society. In the same way, there is no discussion of FARC’s analysis of the Colombian social formation as the basis of any such strategy.

We do not see how a focoist band independent from the peasantry grew from small to big through constant military operations against the army. Or how this politico-military foco aimed to spark an armed uprising of the people in general.

What we do know is that FARC as the guerrilla army, following foco theory, is itself the politico-military center. There is no vanguard party commanding the people’s army. There is no distinction between the military and political leadership. Leading the FARC hierarchy is a Secretariat composed of 7 members including the Supreme Commander. Under the Secretariat is a Central High Command consisting of 30 leading commanders and directly under them are 7 regional blocs.

In May 1982, the FARC Seventh Conference laid down a more offensive-oriented military strategy that sought large-sale confrontations with government forces. By this period, Leech noted, FARC has established consolidated guerrilla bases and expansive zones of operations in the southern and eastern Colombia where the guerrillas have become the de facto government.

In the same decade, the FARC leadership also led the formation of the legal left-wing party Union Patriotica which presented itself as the alternative to the two traditional political parties. FARC saw the Union Patriotica as a platform to propagate the revolutionary line in the urban areas through open recruitment, open political rallies, and participation in the elections. At its height, the Union Patriotica secured the seats of 24 provincial deputies, 275 municipal representatives, 4 senators, and 4 congressional representatives. The reactionary response was brutal with paramilitary groups decimating the Union Patriotica membership. According to Leech, the party’s demise would seriously undermine FARC’s influence in the urban areas.

During this very same period, the collapse of the modern revisionist regimes in Eastern Europe led some some quarters in the urban leftist community to question the validity of FARC and its Marxist-Leninist foundations. But the fall of the Berlin Wall did not deter FARC from persisting in the struggle. In its 8th Conference in April 1993, FARC officially severed ties with the Colombian Communist Party (PCC) which has by then, like many of its fraternal parties in Eastern Europe, become a social-democratic outfit. In this same conference, FARC reiterated the relevance of armed revolution especially in the context of the onslaught of foreign-imposed neoliberal policies in Colombia.

FARC fighters in formation.

Non-State Actor Human Rights Violators?

The FARC struggle continued into the 1990s and reached a high point when they were able to hold major towns by the end of the decade. The US-instigated “War on Drugs” and vilification of FARC as “narco-terrorists” is part of a desperate effort to push back the guerrilla advance. In the ensuing public relations war, human rights issues were also thrown against FARC.

In particular, FARC is occasionally accused of forcibly recruiting child-soldiers to its forces. FARC admitted recruiting people aged between 15-18 years old but denied these youths are forced into its ranks. In an interview with Leech, FARC commander Raul Reyes explains that forcible recruitment violates security regulations: “Why should I give a weapon to someone that has been forced to join?”

FARC’s use of landmines is also called into question by government forces and international human rights organizations. FARC defends this by highlighting the lopsided fight between the two sides of the armed conflict, saying that “when the government stops using bombs, planes, and satellites, then they will stop using mines.”

On the other hand, Leech is also critical of FARC excesses and zeroes in on incidents that highlight the dangers of purely-militarist actions that undermine political considerations. He also criticizes FARC policies like the high-profile arrests of those who do not pay revolutionary taxes because the immediate benefit is outweighed by negative public perception.

However, Leech does not join the chorus of international human rights organizations that have shifted their traditional focus on violations by the state to the alleged abuses of non-state actors, particularly revolutionary movements like FARC. This only aids Colombian authorities in deflecting scrutiny of state violations. By lumping together the state forces and the revolutionary forces, Leech points out that these groups are leaving the impression that all 3 equally share responsible for human rights abuses when in fact it is the government forces and paramilitaries that committed the most number and worst violations of human rights. Colombian authorities routinely rehash accusations of abuses allegedly perpetrated by FARC guerrillas. The human rights bogey is raised to serve as further justification for massive US military support to a brutal regime.

Continuing Relevance of the “Longest Insurgency”

Motorcyclists drive past a mural with the portraits of dead FARC leaders in El Palo, Colombia, May 30, 2010. (Luis RobayoAFPGetty Images)
Motorcyclists drive past a mural with the portraits of dead FARC leaders in El Palo, Colombia, May 30, 2010. (Luis RobayoAFPGetty Images)

In conclusion, despite the book’s silence on some crucial questions regarding FARC, it still provides an accessible account on the revolutionary struggles of the Colombian people that steers clear of all the propaganda weighing down much of the dominant discourse on FARC. By relying mainly on field research conducted in actual FARC guerrilla zones and base areas and various sources from news agencies, non-government organizations, and state reports, Leech paints a fairly objective picture of the longest existing armed revolutionary movement in Latin America.

A mere two decades after a triumphant West declared the “End of History” and the ultimate triumph of the global capitalist order, the world is up in arms. The world financial crisis that exploded in 2008 has precipitated a larger crisis of the world capitalist system itself that persists to the present. The worse effects of the biggest economic collapse since the Great Depression of the 1930s are today being passed on by the world’s leading governments, multinational corporations, and financial institutions to the ordinary people the world over.

The worsening inequality, soaring prices, unemployment, and social services cutbacks are compelling more and more people to rise up in protest. From the Arab Spring in 2011 to the recent protests in Turkey and Brazil, a long series of spectacular mass struggles has taken the world like a storm. But some of the most potent resistance against the global capitalist order that have largely been kept out of the public eye are those armed movements leading popular struggles for national liberation such as those in India and the Philippines. In a time when several revolutionary movements in the Latin American region have either laid down their arms or got co-opted by the ruling system, FARC stands out for continuing to fight a guerrilla war with the aim of ultimately seizing state power for the oppressed and exploited classes.

The continuing relevance of FARC’s revolutionary struggle is underlined by the recent deployment by the Colombian authorities of 50,000 troops to quell massive protests by tens of thousands of farmers, workers, and students in the capital Bogota. Meanwhile peace talks are ending up as nothing more than a ploy to force FARC to lay down their arms without instituting radical social changes. Leech’s concluding remarks in FARC: The Longest Insurgency are prophetic: “Unless far-reaching structural changes are implemented that address Columbia’s gross social and economic inequalities, the violence in one form or another will likely continue deep into the twenty-first century.”


  1. The United States government spends untold billions of dollars in destroying coca crops in Latin America and combating distribution networks (although much of this is a cover for crushing liberation and autonomous movements) at the same time the CIA spends who knows how much money facilitating the importing into the U.S. of the same drugs. The logic of capital is insane.

    1. Indeed, that the “War on Drugs” is used to rationalize increasing US involvement in counterinsurgency operations is quite ironic given that the rise of drug production in Colombia is a consequence of its predominantly agrarian economy’s subordination to the whims of imperialist powers like the United States. This is what FARC Commander Ivan Rios has to say: “Narco-trafficking is an international problem that originates in the big consuming centers. It is big business; it is immense. The second-biggest business in the capitalist world; it is bigger than the petroleum business. And it isn’t Colombians who are enjoying the fruits of this business.” Ultimately, the domestic economy is kept backward to serve as a source of cheap raw resources and a dumping ground of surplus capital. This is the background of the peculiar Colombian phenomenon of a reverse migration from urban to rural areas to cater to burgeoning coca production in the countryside!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.