It was dusk in the Amazon as the two female guerrillas stashed the canoe and camouflaged it with branches and leaves. There began an hour-long hike into the gloomy jungle, lit only by the beams from two small torches. As a camp became visible, a uniformed man toting an AK-47 appeared out of the darkness. Up ahead, a white light illuminated a man with a grey beard working on a laptop. It was Raúl Reyes, a member of the seven-person ruling secretariat of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, more commonly known by their Spanish acronym, FARC. According to many analysts, Reyes was the second-highest ranking member of FARC, a Marxist insurgent group that has been fighting in the mountains of Colombia for 50 years to overthrow the government
That was in June 2007. Reyes, a short, squat man, was well-informed about both Colombian and global politics despite having spent 26 years in the jungle. After joining the Colombian Communist Party aged 16, he worked at a Nestlé plant, eventually becoming a union leader. Disenchanted with the prospects for improving life for workers through peaceful means, he left his job and headed into the jungle. He quickly rose through the FARC ranks and became a spokesperson for the group in its struggle to achieve, in his words, “a Colombia in which there are neither exploiters nor exploited; a Colombia without social, economic or political inequalities”.
For much of its first 40 years the FARC was largely in the ascendancy militarily, amassing some 18,000 guerrillas by the end of the 1990s. Even now they have their successes: a statement on Friday said they were holding a US soldier identified as Kevin Scott, who they said had been captured in the south of the country on 20 June. But massive amounts of US military aid under the multibillion-dollar Plan Colombia have had FARC on the defensive for years. In 1997 a US Defense Intelligence Agency report had warned: “The Colombian Armed Forces could be defeated within five years unless the country’s government regains political legitimacy and its armed forces are drastically restructured.” After that US-sponsored restructuring, the government headed by President Alvaro Uribe, and an increasingly professional military, believed the FARC could be defeated.
This official optimism seemed well-founded nine months after my visit to Reyes, when a military air-strike killed him and 19 other guerrillas while they slept. It was the first time that the government had killed a member of the FARC’s secretariat. Later that month, a second member was killed by his bodyguard, and the rebel group’s supreme commander, Manuel “Sureshot” Marulanda, who had led the FARC since its inception, died of a heart attack. Three months after that, the military pulled off a daring rescue mission that liberated the former senator and presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, along with three US military contractors, who had been held captive in jungle camps for years. FARC appeared to be crumbling.
But it would take four more years of conflict before the two sides would enter into peace talks. Now, eight months into those talks in Havana, FARC’s commander and chief negotiator, Iván Márquez, has stated that Colombia’s five-decade-long armed conflict is nearing its end. The FARC has offered to release their US prisoner to an intermediary, “in the spirit of talks that are advancing in Havana”. However, millions of Colombians, who have seen their hopes dashed in three previous negotiations, will be sceptical about the chances for peace.
At the root of the FARC’s cause is the country’s grossly unequal distribution of arable land. A recent United Nations study revealed that 1 per cent of Colombians own 52 per cent of its land, one of the least equable ratios on earth. Consequently, the first FARC decree issued on its formation was that land be redistributed to poor farmers.
The FARC was born in 1964 in the Colombian countryside, its ranks mainly filled with peasants. For decades it constituted a de facto government in its strongholds to the south and east, regions long neglected by the government. The guerrillas deliver social services, including health care and education, and infrastructure in the form of roads and electricity. They also practise restorative justice through their revolutionary courts, and have implemented agrarian reform by breaking up large ranches and turning over smaller plots to landless peasants. They also collect taxes from local businesses to fund schools and clinics. For many peasants, the guerrillas are the only ones who have ever helped them.
But this is not the FARC known to urban Colombians. It has funded its military operations in part through kidnapping primarily middle- and upper-class Colombians. In the vernacular of the guerrillas, “extortion” is a war tax imposed on the wealthy; “kidnap victims” have been retained for non-payment of taxes; and the “ransom” constitutes the payment of tax arrears. As Reyes explained: “We have been charging this tax. And the people pay it because they know they have to do so. There are others who do not want to pay the tax. Because we have no jails, these people are held until they pay. They are the ones we are said to have kidnapped.”
But Colombians have come to view the kidnappings as a gross violation of human rights. Over the past decade the number of abductions declined dramatically, and last year FARC renounced the practice, thereby meeting one of the government’s conditions for peace talks.
Internationally the rebel group is portrayed as a drug-trafficking cartel, while both the US and the European Union have declared it a terrorist organisation; indeed the conflict has claimed 500,000 lives over 50 years, some the result of FARC massacres and the group’s notoriously indiscriminate home-made mortars. In the early years of the cocaine boom in the 1970s the guerrillas tried to discourage peasants from growing the coca plant, whose leaves provide the raw ingredient for cocaine. But as urban unemployment soared in the 1980s and 1990s, people flowed to FARC-controlled regions. Like the Taliban with opium, the guerrillas agreed that coca was the only viable cash crop for farmers in remote regions without the transport links to take food to market.
Initially FARC taxed large coca plantations and cocaine-processing operations in its territories. But by the beginning of the 21st century the rebels had become the middle-men, buying coca paste produced by the peasants and selling it for a profit to the drug traffickers who owned the cocaine-processing labs. The revenues from the drug trade, along with kidnapping ransoms, were used to fund military operations. When the Clinton administration launched Plan Colombia in 2000 the focus of Washington’s war on drugs shifted from the trafficking cartels to FARC and the coca-growing peasants.
In the 13 years since, US military aid has weakened FARC and forced the guerrillas to retreat from nationwide operations to defending their strongholds. Two years ago Colombian air-strikes killed two more of the FARC’s secretariat, including Alfonso Cano, who replaced Marulanda as supreme commander.
In October last year FARC entered into peace talks. The first two points on the agenda are agrarian reform and participation in politics. The fact that negotiators reached an agreement on land reform in May is a huge step towards peace, given FARC’s raison d’être. The two sides are now negotiating the guerrillas’ future role in Colombian politics, a process complicated by the intense hatred many feel for them and the question of punishment for those rebels responsible for human rights abuses.
The FARC’s greatest concern is to avoid a repeat of its last attempt to engage in electoral politics. In 1984 the guerrillas signed a ceasefire agreement and the following year launched the Patriotic Union, ahead of the 1986 elections. Its performance far surpassed expectations, and for the first time a leftist party had a presence on Colombia’s political scene. For the government, the election transformed FARC from a rural irritant to a national threat, and over the next five years right-wing paramilitaries assassinated more than 2,000 party members, including two presidential candidates and four congressmen. The assault drove FARC to retaliate on the battlefield.
Many obstacles to peace remain. One is former president Alvaro Uribe, who seems convinced that concessions are unnecessary because the FARC can be beaten by force. Yet the progress on land reform and Márquez’s bullish statement show these talks have already achieved more than the past three attempts.
Tackling Colombia’s inequality is central to a lasting peace. Back in the jungle camp six years ago, Reyes explained how the “guerrillas are strong both politically and ideologically so that they understand it is a fight for the structural changes that the country requires, and not just for the benefit of a few”.
If FARC negotiators fail to secure structural reforms, Colombia may follow El Salvador and Guatemala, where peace accords left a legacy of poverty, inequality and gang violence. The signs are not good. According to Luis Fernando Martínez, who works with the government demobilisation programme that seeks to reintegrate guerrillas into civilian society: “Because they cannot find work and have difficulty adapting to urban life, many of the demobilised are turning to crime or joining emergent criminal gangs.” In other words, the armed conflict may end, but not the violence.
This article was previously published by The Independent