FARC (Las Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarios de Colombia; Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), founded between 1964 and 1966, originally began as the military wing of the Colombian Communist Party. In 2013, the group had a membership of about eight thousand, according to the most recent Colombian government estimates, down from four hundred thousand in 1969. The group has been led by Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri (1959–), alias "Timochenko," since 2011. FARC has been actively fighting against the Colombian national government for over fifty years, using kidnappings, paramilitary action, and violence. In 2016, however, the group forged a peace agreement with the Colombian government that would—if carried out—see it laying down its arms at long last. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos (1951–) was awarded the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize for the peace agreement; the FARC and its leaders were specifically excluded from receiving any of the credit. However, just after the agreement was reached, Colombian voters rejected the terms, with many complaining that the amnesty offered to FARC rebels was too generous. The two sides forged a revised deal that was ratified in December 2016.
FARC began as a small peasant rebel group. By the 1980s, it had gained popular support and grown to become one of the largest Marxist-Leninist groups in Colombia. Right-wing paramilitary groups (groups organized in a way similar to a national army, but without direct government authority) formed for the purpose of opposing the left-wing rebel groups such as FARC. During the 1980s and 1990s, Colombia's drug trade soared, and with it came large and powerful drug cartels out for money, weapons, and power. Both the paramilitary groups and the rebel groups became enmeshed in the drug trade, funding their activities through illegal, and often violent, means.
There are many reports of FARC's brutality. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch reports document FARC's violence against citizens, the use of child soldiers for paramilitary operations, and killings of farmers engaged in coca growing and the drug trade. For years, the group has carried out kidnappings and ransoming of wealthy individuals, political figures, or executives from multinational companies to raise money and to gain international attention for its cause. In 1999, FARC kidnapped three U.S. citizens working in Colombia and killed all three hostages. The incident provoked international outrage.
The War Against FARC
In 2002, Colombia's newly elected conservative President Alvaro Uribe committed his administration to the goal of eradicating FARC. Uribe's policies included adding more than 150 municipal police stations, shoring up military forces, and creating highly trained counterterrorist forces, funded in part by U.S. foreign aid. Perhaps because of FARC's leftist and anti–United States positions, until early 2008, FARC had support from leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez (1954–). In 2004, a bounty hunter paid by the Colombian government captured a FARC leader in Venezuela, turning him over to Colombia, causing diplomatic friction between Venezuela and Colombia.
Between 2002 and 2008, FARC was relatively inactive; this inactivity coincided with a decline in membership, revenue, and support. In June and July of 2004, FARC was implicated in execution-style killings of peasants. The United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights condemned FARC's actions, calling it a violation of the Geneva Protocol. FARC had been considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. government since 1997, and on 15 October 2001, in the wake of the 11 September terrorist attacks, the United States listed FARC as a serious terrorist threat, claiming FARC was training terrorists in FARC-controlled areas of Colombia. In 2008, Chávez withdrew his support of the group, publicly requesting that FARC release kidnapped captives it had been holding for many years.
In 2002, FARC kidnapped Ingrid Betancourt (1961–), a French-Colombian politician who was running for President, holding her for six years with its many other kidnapped captives. In early July 2008, soldiers, posing as humanitarian aid workers and journalists, tricked FARC rebels, securing the release of Betancourt, three U.S. military contractors, and eleven members of Colombia's security forces. The hostages' release was a huge blow to FARC; Betancourt was their most high-profile hostage and a major bargaining chip. FARC issued a statement that two members had betrayed the group, allowing for the hostages' release.
The capture challenged FARC's already-weakened organization. FARC's revenues from kidnappings and narcotics trafficking had already declined nearly 40 percent since 2002 according to Colombian government estimates, further straining the organization. The death of longtime FARC leader Manuel Marulanda Vélez, nicknamed "Tirofijo" ("Sureshot"), in March 2008 weakened FARC further. He died of a heart attack.
While news of the release of fifteen hostages was met with great relief and celebration worldwide, FARC continued to hold hundreds more hostage, many having been in captivity for years like Betancourt. Upon her release Betancourt called for better negotiations with FARC to release more hostages.
FARC announced "Plan Rebirth" in May 2009, vowing to adapt and rebuild after years of setbacks. The plan was the work of Guillermo Leon Saenz Vargas, better known by the nom de guerre (battle name) Alfonso Cano, FARC's new leader. It involved stricter indoctrination of its fighters to prevent the kind of widespread desertions that had weakened FARC since the turn of the century. There was an increase in violence between FARC and government troops in the first part of 2009, with a reported 488 clashes that left two dozen Colombian soldiers and policemen dead. Despite this renewed activity, however, government intelligence officials maintained that FARC lacked a central leadership structure and was far weaker than it was a decade earlier.
Tensions between the governments of Venezuela and Colombia erupted in July 2010, when Uribe, whose term as President was ending in a matter of days, charged that Venezuela was harboring Colombian rebel groups. In response, Chávez promptly cut off diplomatic relations with Colombia, warned that war was imminent, and blamed the United States for pushing Colombia into war with Venezuela. There was strong evidence, however, that Uribe's assertion was true. Satellite surveillance photos and documents seized from rebel groups indicated that FARC in particular had some operations based within Venezuela. The evidence also suggested that the Venezuelan government provided material support to FARC.
Chávez and newly sworn-in Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos agreed to restore diplomatic relations on 12 August 2010, after the successful mediation of Nestor Kirchner (1950–2010), former President of Argentina.
A car bomb claimed the lives of five police officers in the Colombian state of Caqueta on 2 September 2010. Three other officers were wounded. The state's governor, Edilberto Endo, blamed FARC for the attack. Just three weeks later, Colombia's government announced a major blow against FARC: a military airstrike in the Macarena region killed Jorge Briceño, also known as Mono Jojoy. Twenty other rebels were also killed in the attack. Jojoy, FARC's military commander, was one of the most-wanted rebel leaders. The United States government had offered $5 million for information that led to his arrest. President Santos hailed the death of Jojoy as the "hardest blow" in the history of Colombia's struggle against FARC.
Colombian forces struck another major blow against FARC on 4 November 2011, killing the group's leader, Alfonso Cano, in a military raid on a jungle camp in the southwest of the country. FARC announced on 15 November that it had named Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri, also known as Timochenko, its new leader. The Timochenko-led FARC lost little time resuming its destructive activities. On 21 January 2012, Colombian officials reported that about one hundred FARC guerillas had destroyed a mountaintop radar station.
FARC hit Colombian officials again in early May 2012, with a deadly ambush that killed seven police officers near the Venezuelan border. Fourteen other police officers were injured in the attack. FARC continued to show signs of renewed commitment to violence in late May. On 21 May, FARC operatives reportedly killed twelve Colombian soldiers along the border with Venezuela. Just ten days later, however, FARC released a French journalist, Romeo Langlois, who had been seized in a raid in April while shooting video footage of the destruction of cocaine processing facilities in Colombia. Langlois said that he was treated relatively well by FARC fighters, given the harsh conditions under which they all operated.
A New Chance for Peace
On 18 October 2012, in a hotel in Norway, Colombian negotiators and FARC representatives commenced peace talks aimed at ending fifty years of violent clashes and conflict. Violence persisted on both sides, however. A ceasefire called in November 2012 expired in January 2013. Peace talks continued intermittently.
In late May 2013, Colombia and FARC rebels reached an agreement regarding land reform, one of the most contentious issues between the two groups. The government agreed to pursue economic and social development of rural areas and provide land to poor farmers. The government and FARC rebels resumed peace talks in Cuba on 11 June. The two sides stated they would focus on transitioning FARC into a viable political group. Negotiator Andres Paris said that FARC would also work on "a broadening of the political scene for the opposition."
On 6 November 2013, the negotiators reached an agreement on a peaceful political future for FARC. Under the draft agreement, the rebel group would renounce violence following a comprehensive peace accord and be allowed to form one or more political parties. Temporary special legislative districts would be created in several zones currently controlled by the rebel group. Both sides said the agreement represented another significant step toward an overall deal.
President Santos, running for re-election in May 2014, told an interviewer in March that peace talks with FARC were making progress and that he hoped to obtain a deal by the end of the year. Analysts said the two sides appeared close to agreement on the topic of drug trafficking, but the most difficult issues in the negotiations concerned restorative justice, reparations for victims of the conflict, and the future legal status of militants accused of violent crimes. On 7 August, Santos was sworn in for his second term.
In mid-August, Colombian government representatives and FARC leaders met in Havana, Cuba, to start a new round of peace talks. Even while negotiators made progress on key issues, violence continued in Colombia.
On 16 November, FARC rebels abducted Colombian General Ruben Dario Alzate and two others, prompting the Colombian government to suspend all peace talks with the group and demand Alzate's return. On 19 November, FARC representatives agreed to release General Alzate and four others after striking a deal with the Colombian government; however, the terms of the deal were not released. It was later revealed that Alzate was in civilian clothes at the time of his capture, despite the fact that he was in known hostile territory abundant with FARC rebels, in violation of military security protocols. Alzate and his two companions were released on 30 November; the following day, Alzate acknowledged that he had not followed correct security measures and resigned from his position as military commander.
On 13 December 2014, rallies across Colombia drew thousands of people critical of government plans to offer amnesty to FARC rebels in an attempt to end the conflict with the group. The ongoing talks between the government and FARC rebels in Havana had, at that point, led to agreements on a number of issues; the two remaining points of contention were whether amnesty should be granted to the rebels and how the rebels would disarm. On 17 December, FARC made the surprise move of announcing a unilateral ceasefire as peace negotiations with government officials continued. The government had previously refused to engage in a mutual ceasefire agreement, arguing that the rebels would take the time to regroup and strengthen. FARC representatives stated that although they would not initiate any violence during the ceasefire, the peace would end if government forces fired upon them.
FARC announced on 12 February 2015 that it would no longer recruit fighters under the age of seventeen; its previous age requirement was reportedly fifteen. Although it has been accused of forcing children into its ranks, FARC insists that young prospective fighters seek out the group willingly. The Colombian government said it had rescued some six thousand FARC child soldiers since 2000. FARC said that the Colombian government used child soldiers as spies to infiltrate its ranks.
Santos announced on 10 March that the government would halt bombing raids against FARC for one month to give peace negotiations a chance to move forward. Part of Santos's announcement was an acknowledgment that FARC has adhered to its own ceasefire pledge.
The Colombian Defense Ministry confirmed on 15 April 2015 that eleven soldiers had been killed by FARC fighters, a serious breach of the December 2014 ceasefire. A FARC spokesman blamed the government for provoking the deadly confrontation.
Santos and FARC negotiators announced a major breakthrough on 24 September 2015: the formation of special courts to try those accused of crimes committed during the long conflict. Negotiators also announced plans for a truth and reconciliation commission and an amnesty agreement, the details of which were not made public. On 1 October, FARC announced it would end its military training operations. On 29 October, Santos offered to enter into a bilateral truce with FARC beginning on 1 January 2016.
Both sides agreed to a bilateral ceasefire in June 2016 that was hailed by both sides as a "definitive ceasefire and end to hostilities." The deal laid out specifics of demobilization of the remaining FARC troops. While not yet ratified, the deal was already being hailed as effectively ending the five-decade-long conflict. One FARC unit in the border region near Brazil released a pamphlet declaring that its members would not demobilize; FARC commanders stated that they would disavow any unit that refused to accept demobilization once a peace deal was finalized.
The ceasefire between the two sides officially went into effect on 29 August 2016. Timochenko told the press, "Never again will parents be burying their sons and daughters killed in the war." Although the government agreed to cease all hostilities against FARC troops, President Santos stated that he would allow voters to decide whether the government should accept the peace agreement with the group. Santos called for a plebiscite, or public vote, on the issue, to take place on 2 October. In late September, the two sides signed a peace deal ahead of the vote, fully expecting the public to approve. At the signing, the leader of FARC apologized for the decades of violence the insurgency caused. Many analysts were shocked when, on 2 October, a very slim majority of voters (50.22 percent) voted to reject the FARC peace deal. Some voters expressed concern that the peace deal allowed members of FARC to escape punishment for decades of violence. In spite of the setback, President Santos vowed to continue the peace process. On 7 October 2016, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded Santos the Nobel Peace Prize, citing "his resolute efforts to bring the country's more than 50-year-long civil war to an end. . . ." The Committee explained that Colombian voters' rejection of the peace accord "does not necessarily mean that the peace process is dead. The referendum was not a vote for or against peace. What the 'No' side rejected was not the desire for peace, but a specific peace agreement."
Indeed, the Colombian government and FARC immediately went to work crafting a revised peace accord. The new agreement required FARC to forfeit assets to be used as compensation for victims of the decades-long violence, but critics argued that it did not go far enough in holding FARC leaders accountable. The new accord was not put up for a referendum by voters; instead, it was ratified by Parliament on 1 December 2016.
After the peace accord was approved, FARC rebels across the country began making their way to twenty-six designated demobilization zones. In February 2017, President Santos announced that the demobilization was complete, with nearly seven thousand rebels entering the zones to begin the next step: disarmament. The plan calls for the rebels to surrender all weapons by June.