By Allison Fedirka
Summary Throughout history, different actors have used terrorism to achieve their political or ideological goals. While each group has their own motives and beliefs, a closer look at the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia illustrates how geopolitical shifts and ideology contribute to the rise and fall of a terrorist organization.
Geopolitical Futures has noted that the Western Hemisphere stands out currently as a particularly stable region in the world. We’ve also highlighted that South America has not seen any major interstate warfare in over 80 years. However, most South American countries have only experienced peace domestically for the past quarter century or less. In the last half of the 20th century, Latin America saw the rise of paramilitary groups – the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Shining Path in Peru and Sandinistas in Nicaragua being some of the most notorious – that carried out formidable domestic attacks that terrorized nations. What begs further analysis is why some groups engaging in terrorism have de-escalated their activities. We will examine this question in the case of FARC.
The Evolution of Terrorism
Any mention of terrorism these days immediately conjures some association with Islamist jihadism. However, the focus on Islamist terrorism does not recognize the fact that various ideologies and beliefs – not just jihad – have inspired terrorism. Because of this, lessons learned about terrorism are often forgotten. Terrorism, or the use of violence as a means to a political or ideological end, dates back to the beginnings of civilization. As geopolitical paradigms shift over time, so do the perpetrators of terrorism. For the previous generation, the major groups waging terror across the globe were left-wing groups espousing communism and Marxist-Leninist ideologies.
Socialist and anarchist movements prior to the Russian Revolution used terrorism to bring about change. In the 1870s, groups like Land and Liberty and the People’s Will emerged in Russia. These groups sought political and economic revolutions that would result in an empowered and independent peasant class and an end to Tsarist rule. Terrorism – including targeted assassination of political leaders – was endorsed as both a means of self-defense and punishment for crimes committed against the people. Around this same period, anarchist teachings popularized the concept of “propaganda of the deed.” This concept advocates that actions speak louder than words and any action – legal or illegal – necessary to carry out political change is justified. Some subscribers did not differentiate between peaceful and violent actions.
Karl Marx addressed terrorism’s role in the class struggle, saying it can come from both the ruling class and oppressed masses. In the case of the latter, individuals or small groups may carry out terrorist acts as a tactic for destabilizing regimes and inspiring the masses to revolt. Lenin too rejected general violence but accepted terrorism as a political tool provided that it helps bring about a change of government. In the latter half of the 20th century, the Cold War helped breathe new life into communist movements, “propaganda of the deed” and the use of terrorism as a means to a political end around the globe. This included Colombia’s FARC.
Political Upheaval in Colombia
In just over 50 years, the FARC, Latin America’s oldest left-wing terrorist group, has gone from a rural guerrilla group to one of the most violent sources of domestic terrorism in the region to a shadow of its former self. FARC’s openness to using violence as a self-defense and political tool can be explained by the domestic conditions and Cold War backdrop at the time of its founding in 1964. From 1946 to 1958, Colombia found itself in the midst of political upheaval that lead to total chaos throughout the country. Today, this period is simply referred to as La Violencia. During this time the two major political forces in the country – the Liberals and the Conservatives – were at odds. The political system degenerated rapidly. Those in power adopted repressive tactics to control the population while opposition forces attempted to fight their way back into power. Disorder overflowed to the countryside and the military intervened. Eventually, the Liberals and the Conservatives agreed that a power-sharing structure was preferable to chaos and military rule. From this came the National Front, a national government whose power remained in the alternating hands of the Liberals and the Conservatives for the following 16 years.
The rural poor in particular suffered greatly as a result of La Violencia. Many people in rural Colombia found themselves displaced during the fighting and took up arms to try and defend themselves from constant aggressors. Furthermore, the government’s economic development model for the 1960s prioritized the latifundio system rather than small, family farms. Under these circumstances, the teachings of Colombia’s Communist Party – shared production responsibilities, equal distribution of wealth, etc. – became particularly appealing to rural groups. However, the Communist Party could not directly participate in the National Front because it was limited to the Conservatives and the Liberals. Smaller parties had to align themselves with these two main parties if they wanted to have any hope of participating in the government. While some Communist Party members opted to align with the Liberals, the more devoted members were not willing to lay down their arms and abandon their ideology.
All this occurred against the backdrop of the Cold War. During this period the United States supported anti-communist campaigns worldwide, and Colombia was no exception. In 1961, the commander of the U.S. Army Special Warfare Center, Gen. William Yarborough, visited Colombia to investigate the country’s security situation, specifically looking for signs of insurgency. He recommended the U.S. provide counterinsurgency support and, in particular, the immediate training and deployment of forces to eliminate future communist threats. By 1962, the Colombian government began to implement Plan Lazo, its counterinsurgency policy that was based off Yarborough’s recommendations.
Emergence of the FARC
A defining moment arrived in 1964 when Manuel Marulanda Vélez, an outspoken communist, founded the Independent Republic of Marquetalia. The Colombian government responded by sending hundreds of troops and air support to confront Marulanda and 47 other men who supported him. From this, the FARC was born.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the FARC was considered the armed branch of Colombia’s Communist Party. FARC advocated for agriculture reform and redistribution of wealth, and opposed multinational corporations and the privatization of national resources. Unlike most Latin American social revolutions at the time, which had a strong university base, Colombian peasants were directly confronting troops. During these initial years, FARC grew its ranks from a few hundred to about a thousand. Kidnapping and extortion were used to fund its activities, which included rural “outreach” programs where members would move into a small town, spread their ideology and serve as the governing force in the area. At this point, the group resisted getting involved in the budding cocaine industry as it believed the drug trade was inconsistent with the revolution.
The 1980s was a pivotal decade that laid the groundwork for FARC to become a full-fledged terrorist organization. In 1982, the organization held its Seventh Conference. At this time, FARC consisted of about 1,000 to 3,000 members and 32 fronts. Two major decisions came from this meeting. First, the military wing decided to execute attacks instead of primarily defending against ambush. These actions were also more focused on the periphery of cities rather than the countryside. Also, the group decided to create a 10 percent tax on coca production that would be used to fund FARC efforts to mount an eventual revolutionary offensive. An attempted round of peace talks in 1984 gave the group an opportunity to grow and strengthen its forces. By the 1990s, the group had tripled in size to an estimated 7,000 to 10,000 members comprising 60 fronts.
At this time, FARC came into its own as a fully functional terrorist organization. The group became entrenched in the cocaine trade, which provided vast amounts of funding. FARC’s well-established relationship with the countryside along with increased anti-narcotic efforts in Peru resulted in coca crop production flourishing in southern Colombia. Colombia’s two major drug cartels – Cali and Medellín – divided into smaller mini-cartels that required FARC protection of smuggling routes. Additionally, the group transitioned to more positional warfare, rather than guerrilla warfare. This became most evident in 1998 with the three-day seizure of Mitú, the capital city of Vaupés department. By 1997, FARC earned a place on the U.S. government’s official list of terrorist organizations. A U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency report from 1998 warned that FARC and its drug trafficking allies could be capable of defeating the Colombian government in five years.
By the turn of the 21st century, FARC developed the ability to conduct large-scale, sustained terror attacks. Its membership had risen to an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 people. Its role in the cocaine trade helped it establish business relationships with drug trafficking groups in Mexico and Brazil. The group controlled approximately one-third of Colombia’s territory and had a strong presence in major cities like Bogotá, Cali and Medellín. FARC assassinations included high-profile targets like former minsters and governors, and the group’s kidnappings included presidential candidates and senators. The group also hijacked a domestic commercial flight and anecdotal reports indicate it used children to deliver bombs. Even churches were not guaranteed safe havens.
The Demise of a Terrorist Group
However, during this same period, the seeds for FARCs undoing were also sown. The 1990s marked an ideological weakening of FARC on two fronts. First, the intellectual and political base for the Marxist-Leninist ideology was severely weakened with the fall of the Soviet Union and the death of co-founder and ideological head Jacobo Arenas. FARC commando Alfonso Cano tried to revive the group’s ideological resolve with a dose of Bolivarismo but to limited avail. Much of the new membership during this period did not see the Cold War as their war. Rather, they were motivated to join the group for financial reasons. In the 1990s, the agricultural sector suffered a recession. Poverty in rural areas rose by 4 percent from 1990 to 1992, and real employment levels in 1996 were lower than in 1990. FARC membership offered a good income for many who did not have enough education for higher paying jobs. However, in the long run, the severe weakening of ideology’s role in FARC and the use of financial incentives to attract membership made the group much more susceptible to desertion.
The intense terrorist attacks funded by drug trafficking did not succeed in overthrowing the Colombian government; rather, the government became resolved to end the group. Furthermore, FARC’s pivotal role in cocaine production, much of which was trafficked, sold or consumed in the U.S., reinvigorated Washington’s interest in seeing the demise of FARC. U.S.-sponsored programs – both public and covert – enabled Colombian forces to become more effective in their fight against FARC. According to a December 2013 Washington Post article, the U.S. provided real-time intelligence and, starting in 2006, introduced GPS guidance kits to help create smart bombs. The combination of these two elements resulted in the killing of over two dozen FARC leaders. Colombia’s military offensive also pushed FARC back toward the periphery and rural areas, significantly reducing the group’s ability to acquire, relocate and hold hostages. By the end of 2008, FARC had given up its highest-profile hostages, lost its founder, Marulanda, and seen the killing of prominent leader Raúl Reyes. At this point, the group decided to return to guerrilla tactics.
Now, FARC exists as a shadow of its former self. The group has an estimated 7,000 members and its leadership has been gutted. In recent years, FARC has renounced kidnapping for ransom and agreed to a ceasefire during peace negotiations. Some rogue cells of the group violated the ceasefire, but the attacks were very low scale – normally guerrilla-style explosive devices on remote oil pipelines with few to no casualties. The disintegration of a strong ideological motive, annihilation of leadership and use of very targeted security operations (such as those that freed hostages) that damaged morale all led to the demise of arguably the most formidable terrorist organization in Latin America at the turn of the century.
While it is easy to remember the rise and reign of terrorist groups, it is much harder to note their collapse. The FARC case illustrates an instance in which a terrorist group has essentially fallen and been defeated. This begs the question: can lessons learned from the fight against FARC and other eliminated left-wing terror groups be applied to Islamist terrorism? Both types of terrorism use similar tactics and so certain tactical moves used against FARC – targeting leadership, sources of finance, etc. – would create obstacles for the terrorists on an operational level. However, Islamist terrorism is unique in that it is based on a well-established religion, which includes a belief in holy wars, and employs suicide attacks. The collapse of the Soviet Union facilitated an end to left-wing terrorism, which was based on political ideology. Islamist terrorism, on the other hand, operates beyond the political and includes a spiritual element as well.