September 1, 2008  

Flashpoint: FARC’s fading fortunes

In one of the most daring rescues in recent history, in early July Colombian armed forces freed 15 hostages, including a former presidential candidate, from the grips of the narco-terrorist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)—all without firing a single shot.

Indeed, the Colombian military’s operation was so adept (enhanced by acting classes for the participating commandos) that not even the hostages knew they were, in fact, being rescued by the Colombian government rather than being transferred from one FARC jungle camp to another.

The humiliating rescue was only the latest in a slew of serious setbacks for the FARC, leaving analysts to wonder if Latin America’s once most-powerful insurgency is finally gasping its last breaths.


The infamous Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia—or FARC—is “Latin America’s oldest, largest, most capable, and best-equipped insurgency,” according to the State Department’s most recent annual report on terrorism.

It was established in the early 1960s as a peasant-rights group by the mythical rebel, Pedro Marin–best known by the nom de guerre: “Manuel Marulanda.” (Most FARC commanders go by aliases.)

Inspired by the Cuban Revolution, the FARC later embraced Marxism-Leninism, which remains central to its ideology today. Its main goal is overthrowing the central government in Bogota and running the nation of 43 million people under the banner of socialism.

Operating in the jungles of southern and eastern Colombia, the FARC is structured like a military organization. While figures are murky, it is currently thought to number about 8,000 fighters, down from an estimated high of 17,000 rebels just a few years ago.

The FARC can also rely on an untold number of supporters, including militias. It uses the 1,300-mile long Venezuelan and 400-mile long Ecuadorian border areas as safe haven for staging operations into Colombia, a country twice the size of Texas.

The terrorist group carries out “bombings, murder, mortar attacks, kidnapping, extortion, and hijacking, as well as guerrilla and conventional military action against Colombian political, military, and economic targets,” according to the State Department.

Foreignersare also often targeted for abduction for the purposes of gaining ransom for FARC operations and subsistence as well as exercising political leverage over Bogota and other foreign capitals. the FARC is believed to still hold as many as 700 hostages, mostly members of the Colombian army.

But while South Americans may know FARC best for their insurgency and terrorism activities, for Americans, the FARC is identified most notoriously with narco-trafficking, especially cocaine.

While Colombia is responsible for 80 percent of the world’s cocaine supply—and 90 percent of the U.S. market—the FARC is responsible for at least half of the total trade. (The remainder of Colombia’s cocaine business falls into the hands of assorted drug syndicates.)

The UN estimates the group earns $200-300 million a year from the drug trafficking, including taxation on local peasant coca production. Some analysts have estimated that in the past narcotics reaped the FARC as much as $500 million a year.

As a result, in addition to its own important reform efforts, Bogota has received over $5 billion in aid from Washington under Plan Colombia, a counter-narcotic/counterinsurgency program begun in 2000, aimed at rescuing Colombia from the abyss.

Washington’s effort in Colombia is so large that it comprises the biggest U.S. aid program outside Iraq and Afghanistan, according to experts. The FARC’s folding would be a big victory for Plan Colombia, a program likely to get a good scrub after the fall’s U.S. elections.

Fortunately, despite the possibility of Plan Colombia becoming a political football in Washington, the FARC’s immediate prospects are quite dim due in part to their own fumbles in recent months.


The recent hostage raid, codenamed Operation Check (as in chess) was much more than a crushing blow to the collective egos of the FARC’s Secretariat, the seven-person inner leadership circle.

Not only was the group duped by faux FARC and humanitarian workers, some wearing Che Guevara t-shirts, but among the hostages were their most valuable bargaining chips: A former Colombian presidential candidate and three U.S. civilian counter-drug contractors.

The raid also led to the apprehension of two senior FARC guerillas, who boarded the two Russian-built Mi-17 helicopters (painted white to look like they belonged to a humanitarian organization) with the hostages to ensure their transfer to the other FARC camp.

The FARC Secretariat has condemned the two rebels as traitors, and in an added bonus, the Colombian military’s penetration of the FARC (through a co-opted courier) has undoubtedly injected significant suspicion into the organization, as members wonder who among them can now be trusted.

The FARC’s kidnapping capers have led to a plummeting in domestic support, especially in urban areas, among a populace now fed-up with years of insecurity, arising from the ever-present possibility of abduction, extortion or violence associated with the drug trade by the FARC and other narcotraficantes.

Several, recent large, anti-FARC street demonstrations in Colombia–some as large as five million participants—are ample proof of its waning allure. A number of overseas protests against the group have also taken place.

But the July raid is not the only issue that has made 2008 one of the worst years in the FARC’s 44-year history.


Just this spring, the FARC lost three of its top seven commanders, most to Colombian military operations. In March, the Colombian army crossed the Ecuadorian border to kill Raul Reyes, the FARC’s No.2 and spokesman—and the first-ever Secretariat member bagged by Bogota.

The raid against Reyes not only led to a big border brouhaha with Venezuela and Ecuador, in which both states sent troops to the border and broke off diplomatic relations, but it also led to a treasure trove of explosive intelligence found on a rebel laptop.

A week later, the FARC’s money-man, Ivan Rios, was done in by his own bodyguard, who served up the rebel’s hand as proof (for identification purposes and a handsome bounty)—and another laptop—to the Colombian military. (Rios was the youngest member of the Secretariat and considered by many to be a symbol of the next generation of FARC leadership.)

But perhaps the biggest body blow to the FARC’s leadership did not come through martial means: FARC founder and ideological firebrand, the nearly 80-year old Marulanda, died of a heart attack in his jungle camp in late March. The FARC kept his death secret for two months.

In addition to the large leadership losses, the FARC has also suffered a rash of defections this year to the government of Colombian president Alvaro Uribe, undermining not only the group’s military might, but its morale. (Uribe has no love for the FARC: They killed his father and mortared central Bogota during his 2002 inauguration, killing over a dozen people.)

According to the Colombian government, nearly 1,700 FARC have defected this year alone, choosing reintegration into society over revolution. Interestingly, a number of the turncoats served for more than 20 years with the group, perhaps an indication that–in their minds–the handwriting is on the wall for the FARC. Experts also note the defector’s bedraggled appearance: Many are sickly or malnourished and are often absent uniforms, instead wearing sweats.

To make matters worse, there are also reports of discipline problems among the remaining cadre, such as stealing money from Secretariat tills—no small offense considering the FARC often executes wayward or ideologically under-zealous members.

In addition to these internal problems, the FARC has good reason to worry about external support, too.


It has long been suspected the FARC receives financial and security assistance from outside Colombia, but the evidence has been limited and circumstantial; there was no smoking gun—at least until this year.

In March, Colombian authorities seized a FARC laptop, containing damning emails amongst senior FARC commanders which discussed dealings with the Venezuelan government, including President Hugo Chavez.

The revelation of the information on the laptop, whose authenticity was verified by INTERPOL, caused a firestorm of embarrassment for Chavez, who has long been suspected of providing aid and comfort to the FARC. The emails indicated Venezuela provided the FARC with a range of support, including safe haven, training and weapons. Discussions even took place over $300 million in aid and the provision of MANPADs for use against Colombian military helicopters.

Perhaps not surprisingly, shortly after the release of this indicting information–though never admitting or denying involvement with the group– Chavez called for the end to all Latin American rebel movements, saying: “The guerilla war is history.”

This is a significant turnabout, especially considering Chavez’s public affinity for the FARC cause. He had even called upon other governments to give the group “belligerent status,” which would allow the FARC diplomatic representation in international institutions, among other benefits.

(Chavez may also believe the FARC’s fall could lead to a reduced U.S. influence and presence in neighboring Colombia, increasing the prospects for Venezuelan regional hegemony.)

Indeed, while few believe Chavez is sincere about ending support for socialist rebel movements that advance his Bolivarian revolution, he has been facing mounting problems at home, which could limit his meddling activities elsewhere.

Chavez has suffered a string of political defeats recently, especially his efforts to “reform” the 1999 constitution, which would have ended presidential term limits, politicized the armed forces, recentralized political authority, and controlled education.

Moreover, Venezuelans are none too happy with ongoing food shortages, high inflation, rampant crime, and continuing government corruption, especially considering the revenues being generated by Venezuela’s significant oil wealth.

While it is certainly Bogota’s right to bring the matter of Caracas’ support for the FARC to the UN Security Council, as well as Washington’s to place Venezuela on the State-Sponsor of Terrorism list, neither action is likely.

For Colombia, there is value in keeping Venezuela in a box for the moment for the stake of stability since the emails speak for themselves. There is little benefit for Washington in provoking Chavez, who relishes any fight with the United States to burnish his populist, anti-American image. In addition, placing Caracas on the State-Sponsor of Terrorism list would require economic sanctions, affecting Venezuelan oil sales, currently running 10-15 percent of U.S. imports.

So, is the FARC headed for the dustbin of history?

It is probably too early to tell for sure, but there are reasons for cautious optimism. The FARC has certainly been weakened. In the near term, its hopes for a Marxist-Leninist state in this democratic Andean country have been dashed.

But, as experts will point out, the FARC has shown a remarkable ability over its forty-plus year history to regroup: Forming and flourishing in the 1960s, it was severely weakened in the 1970s, only to regain its strength in the 1980s-1990s, especially when it took up the drug trade.

While the group is not holding major towns nor poised on the outskirts of Bogota for an assault like it was in the late 1990s and into the early 2000s, the FARC has a long-term vision. It is patient, a characteristic derived from its rural origins.

Indeed, the Colombian army reported that it recently seized a ton of explosives the FARC intended to use for attacks in and around Bogota as retaliation for the July hostage rescue raid and as a show of force.

The FARC still has the lucrative drug-trade to provide it with hundreds of millions of dollars annually, which will remain a significant problem for Colombia—and others–even if it is capable of quashing the insurgency.

Fortunately, the FARC may no longer be able to rely on state-sponsorship from the likes of Venezuela—or even Ecuador. Some Colombian officials assess this as one of the key factors in bringing about the group’s end.

Reforms under Uribe have also undermined the FARC’s position and attractiveness among Colombians. While poverty is still a major challenge, Colombia now has a strong economy and more open, democratic political system.

In addition, as a result of the training and aid received to the Colombian military and police under Plan Colombia, Bogota is able to gather actionable intelligence and apply significant military and law enforcement pressure on the FARC.

Internationally, encouraging more countries to denounce and punitively sanction the FARC will help bring about its ultimate down-fall, especially in Europe where the group has historically had supporters, sympathizers and operatives. (The laptops revealed contacts in no less than 10 countries, including the US.)

But the most critical element will be continued broad American support. A victory by America’s democratic ally, Colombia, over the FARC would be a both a blow against international terrorism and narcotics-trafficking and one for regional stability.

PETER BROOKES is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense who also served in the Navy, with the CIA and on Capitol Hill.