The FARC: The Longest Insurgency, by Garry Leech (2011, Zed Press, 178 pp., $19.95 PB)
The FARC (the Spanish-language acronym for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) are considered terrorists by the US, Colombia, and the European Union, and narco-terrorists at that because of their participation in Colombia's extremely profitable coca and cocaine trades. They are criticized for their penchant for kidnapping members of the upper and middle classes, for their sometimes indiscriminate use of weaponry, and other human rights violations.
In another coup, the Colombian military rescued a group of long-held, high-profile FARC captives, including abducted presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and three American contractor pilots. And the FARC was on the defensive militarily, being pushed back into its strongest rural redoubts by a Colombian military and law enforcement apparatus pumped up on billions of dollars of US anti-drug and, after 9/11, anti-terrorism (counter-insurgency) assistance.
Plan Colombia has also managed to put a dent -- the size of which is debatable -- into the country's coca and cocaine trade, but it remains substantial and hasn't gone away. The FARC hasn't gone away, either. In fact, it is killing more Colombian soldiers and police than ever, more than it did when the guerrillas were at the peak of their strength around the turn of the century.
In its recently-released "Country Reports on Terrorism," the State Department reported that FARC attacks against security forces were up substantially last year, and there's been no sign of a let up this year. And despite the killing of the FARC's top leader, Alfonso Cano, last November, the FARC and Colombia's other leftist guerrilla army, the ELN (Army of National Liberation), "continue to pose a serious threat to Colombia's security," the State Department said.
In his eponymously-titled primer on the FARC, longtime and on-the-ground observer of Colombian affairs journalist Garry Leech paints a far more nuanced picture of the world's longest-running insurgency than the caricature described in the opening paragraphs. He provides the historical context of political violence and extreme -- and still-growing -- inequality out of which emerged peasant self-defense militias in the wake of La Violencia in the 1950s, militias that in 1964 would become a Marxist-Leninist politico-military organization whose aim was to overthrow the Colombian capitalist state and replacement it with a communist one.
That's right, these guys were old school. And, Leech shows, they still are. As passé and outré as it may seem to North American readers, those AK-47-toting bearded guerrillas in fatigues in the jungle are still out there and they still want to make the revolution. Unlike other actors in the illicit drug trade, for the FARC, the profits of prohibition are a means to an end -- financing the revolution -- not an end in themselves. FARC leaders live in camps in the jungle, not in fancy mansions. Their drug money goes for war materiel, not fast cars and exotic animals.
For parts of the FARC's peasant base -- and it is very much, almost exclusively, peasant-based -- Leech shows, coca growing is the means of making a living, often the only means of making a living. As Marxist revolutionaries, who tend toward the dour and puritanical, the guerrillas don't really approve of drug crop production, but they argue that their base needs it, and they are happy to tax and regulate it.
"They work with marijuana and coca leaf because they don't have any work," says FARC commander Simon Trinidad. "This problem is caused by the economic model of the Colombian state, and the Colombian state has to fix that problem. We are the state's enemy, not their anti-narcotics police."
They may also dabble in cocaine production and facilitate distribution within Colombia, always claiming their cut in taxes, but despite repeated efforts, the US has been hard-pressed to make any international drug trafficking charges stick against high-ranking FARC members. Trinidad himself was captured and taken to the US, where the Justice Department twice failed to convict him of drug trafficking, although it did manage to convict him on kidnapping charges and he now sits in a federal prison.
Interestingly, Leech shows how the drug trade has been a two-edged sword for the FARC. On the one hand, drug profits allowed the FARC to expand dramatically, especially in the 1990s, when it grew to its greatest size, sent hundreds of fighters at a time on offensive attacks against the Colombian police and military, seized effective control of vast swathes of national territory, and appeared poised for a final push toward overthrowing Colombian capitalism.
On the other hand, the FARC's rapid, coca profits-based expansion in the 1990s led to a lessening of ideological rigor in the ranks, and its success at territorial expansion meant that in newly-controlled areas, the organic links with the peasant base forged over decades of communal struggle were not present. And make no mistake about it: In its core areas, where it has been in control for years, the FARC has been putting its socialist vision into action in concert with its base. The FARC provides core functions of the state that the Colombian state never has in these remote areas: a justice system, a health care system (whose facilities the government bombs), infrastructure (whose bridges the government bombs), municipal services through taxes on commodities like beer, and schools.
But it wasn't like that in the areas newly under FARC control. There, the guerrillas had no organic political presence, only a military one, and in the eyes of locals, they were just another of too many groups of men with guns. And their expansion was ringing alarm bells in Washington, as well as Bogota. Thus, Plan Colombia.
The US had done it before, and not so long ago. In the 1980s, $4 billion in US assistance managed to blunt the rise of the FMLN in El Salvador, and a 1989 truce defanged the leftist revolutionary movement, turning it into a player in El Salvador's liberal -- the FARC would say bourgeois -- democracy. The Salvadoran left won the chance to participate, but only at the price of giving up its dream of a real social revolution. (Leech notes that since the end of the Central American civil wars on the 1980s, the violence generated there by social inequality hasn't gone away; it has only been displaced from the sphere of politics to that of criminality.)
As in Central America in the 1980s, so in Colombia in the last decade. The US has thrown billions of dollars at stopping a social revolution in Colombia -- overtly aiming at the FARC (and not just the drug trade) since 2002 -- and it has worked. Historically, we will probably look back and say the FARC hit its high water mark at the turn of the century, but a decade later, it's still going strong. That's because, Leech argues convincingly, the Colombian state has been unwilling to entertain reforms necessary to alleviate the inequality, suffering, and lack of access to opportunity of millions of its poorest citizens.
Rather than address the nation's economic model and its role in the global economic system as part of a negotiated settlement, successive Colombian governments have instead demanded the demobilization of the FARC as a precondition to any negotiations. The FARC has made it clear that is not going to happen. The FARC has been around for nearly a half-century now; will it be around for another? Quite possibly.
[Update: In late August, President Santos announced that his government had begun preliminary discussions with the FARC about restarting peace talks. Time will tell whether either side will be willing to make the concessions necessary for the process to move forward.]
In the context of the Colombian civil war, it's probably a good thing for drug reformers to think for a moment about Colombian President Santos. He wins kudos on the cocktail circuit for his talk about talking about drug legalization or alternatives to prohibition -- he's even received them here. But he is also the hand-picked successor to the hard-line Alvaro Uribe, the leader of a government that sprays pesticides on poor peasants to eradicate their crops, while providing no effective alternatives, and which continues to prosecute the drug war full speed ahead -- a government that was in bed with the rightist paramilitaries responsible for atrocities that make the FARC look mild-mannered (the "para-politics" scandal currently ensnaring member after member of the Colombian congress. This is a government whose policies have created one of the largest internally displaced populations on the planet.
The FARC is a most excellent corrective for what passes for coverage of the FARC in most North American media sources, and a serious study of the group's origins, politics, problems, and prospects. Leech is sympathetic, but he's no apologist. If you're serious about learning about what's going on in Colombia, you need to read him. Mao's ghost still stalks the land there.