The Colombian FARC: A History

The Colombian FARC



Colombia’s history of civil conflict and violence did not begin in the 1960s, as many would believe. Since 1499 Colombia has suffered from the bloody sword of colonialism, its indigenous population deliberately exterminated by Spanish armies. After many decimating wars for independence in the early 1800s, the Colombian people endured violent political discord into the early twentieth century— the 2 year civil war (1863) and the Thousand Days’ War (1899-1902) examples of such. It wasn’t until the 1921 completion of the Panama Canal, the U.S. payment of 25 million dollars to Colombia, and the end of a war with Peru that Colombia saw a period of peace. Until La Violencia in the late 1940s, political terrorism was limited to armies and their wars of warring geopolitical factions.

When the decade of civil war known as La Violencia began in 1948, a new kind of violence was engendered in Colombia. La Violencia emerged from citizen outrage when the leftist presidential candidate Jorge Gaitán was assassinated. Subsequent radio broadcasts of conservative party involvement in Gaitán’s assassination incited the Bogotazo, a 10-hour riot in the capital that inaugurated La Violencia[1]. Civil dissatisfaction reached new levels of organization during La Violencia when rural peasant groups and urban intellectuals came under the influence of Communism[2] and began to form militant guerrilla groups[3]. The government heavily suppressed these guerrilla groups but many peasant groups had formed guerrillas in self-defense, as the Colombian government violently forced leftist peasants from their land[4]. These displaced peasants were forced into inhospitable forests, a very important feature that would reemerge once the guerrillas would be hunted out of Colombian cities. Colombian Communist Party members Manuel Marulanda and Jacobo Arenas started the FARC in 1964 by recruiting peasants “who felt neglected by the Colombian government, to settle throughout the countryside and create their own communities”[5]. So Marulanda, Arenas and forty-six other guerrilla fighters moved to Marquetalia in 1964, to be later attacked by the Colombian military. The 48-man group, along with 350 other guerrillas fought the Colombian military in the town of Marquetalia, and organized the First Guerrilla Conference. During said conference, the 351 groups coalesced to form the Southern Bloc, which “called for land reform, better conditions for those in the countryside, and vowed to defend the communities of followers in the countryside from the Colombian government” [6]. The Southern Bloc then changed its name in 1966 to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and additionally changed strategy to provide “educational and medical services to local communities, training militants for combat, and carrying out attacks”[7]. But into the late sixties, the FARC was still a “relatively marginal guerrilla force, with barely nine fronts and with enormous internal divisions”[8].

In 1972 Marulanda created the first guerrilla training camps, kidnapping targeted politicians and elites to fund such projects– in addition to receiving weapons, training and financial assistance from Cuban Communist fighters[9]. The FARC leaders must have realized the necessity for monetary subsistence to centralize campaigns & ideology, fund their cause and increase membership, so during the mid-1970s, the FARC began to also traffic cocaine to fund its activities. The interest in cocaine was not just a marriage of convenience, but actually very central to the FARC cause. As the displaced peasants from La Violencia began to “colonize” the Amazon, many found it difficult to profitably produce any other plant other than the coca and marijuana plants among the dense jungle. Many began to produce the plants, and the easily marketable produce brought waves of immigration to the areas.[10] But the mass movement brought attention and the Colombian government quickly criminalized the cultivation of cocaine and marijuana–in the midst of an already bad agricultural crisis. The narcos continued to produce though, as there alternatives were scarce, and made deals with the once-agrarian-central FARC to traffic the cocaine within and out of the country.


Recruitment & Expansion

The money raked in from the cocaine and marijuana deals made with narcos brought more members to join the FARC– the guerrilla group becoming a feasible escape for the increasingly impoverished in the region. In the 60s and early 70s, the FARC was mainly composed of “militant communists and peasant self-defense groups,”[11] but the 70s and 80s cocaine profit increased their already growing membership. It created an entirely new generation of fighters; no longer were FARC members solely peasant farmers and disenfranchised Violencia fighters. Their new “freedom fighters” came from the barrios of all towns; the high number of unemployed youths from the agricultural and urban towns beginning to join at an exponential rate. These new fighters could put food on the table, physically defend their families, and support a leftist movement that called for a fairer Colombian society.

The financial and physical security that the FARC could provide was unmatched by the antiquated and corrupt Colombian government and military. The FARC began to tax marijuana growers in the mid-1970s and coca growers/laboratories in 1982, in addition to more kidnappings and business extortion[12]. With increased revenue, the FARC’s membership increased and introduced better military equipment but “they came with a high cost,”[13] as the increase in kidnapping (especially that of a another drug-trafficking organization’s daughter) and rising taxes brought the creation of Death to Kidnappers (Muerte a Secuestradores). This new paramilitary group made up of other drug traffickers would bring the downfall of the FARC’s political party, the Union Patriotica (UP), which won office in 1986. The Colombian government worked with the Death to Kidnappers organization to assassinate all UP members, which totaled to somewhere around 3000 people[14]. And yet the FARC guerrilla growth continued to rise, doubling its forces from 1984-1988[15]. The assassinations of UP members were turned into reasons why the democratic process would not work, and used the strategy of “combining all forms of struggle,” which was a common Communist slogan of the time.


Eventual Downfall

With continued attacks on FARC headquarters, the guerrilla forces transferred into the forests and jungles of Colombia’s countryside. By 1999, “the FRC’s membership and kidnapping peaked at 180000 and 3000, respectively”[16]. There was an unquestionable amount of influence and fear that the FARC brought with its terrorism tactics of kidnapping, assassinating, and drug trade enforcement. But a quarter of the population of Colombia began to protest in cities, starting the “No Mas” campaigns that would eventually bring the Colombian government to ask the U.S. for military aid. Plan Colombia was created, a $9 billion U.S. military aid programme made by President Clinton and President Arango in 1999 to end the drug trade and the terrorism in Colombia. This move motivated the FARC to attempt peace talks with the Colombian government. Peace talks began in the early 2000s but ended in 2002 when the FARC kidnapped presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and hijacked an airplane. The FARC lost the trust and support of much of Colombia by now, and Plan Colombia brought new strategy and money to fund the end of the FARC. Additionally, Colombian President Alvaro Urbie “reinforced the army, strengthened police intelligence, placed security forces in nearly every municipality, and created incentive programmes for the rebels to turn themselves in to the authorities”[17]. From 2003-2011, many of the FARC’s leaders and members and bases have been bombed, assassinated and imprisoned. In 2008, Ingrid Betancourt and the military contractors she was held hostage with were freed in a paramilitary operation. From a certain perspective, the FARC has been considerably weakened.



This change in the Colombian government drastically wounded the FARC’s abilities but did not completely decimate the organization. Though the government basically destroyed the main Cali, Bogota, and Medellin cartels, the drug trade still proves lucrative and the FARC continues to work with other groups like the BACRIM (criminal bands in Colombia) to sell cocaine. Some FARC members have moved to destabilized Venezuela and others have gotten involved in illegal mining. The guerrilla group continues to terrorize certain parts of the Colombian population with kidnappings and extortion. Peace with the FARC can logically happen with an official peace agreement, and much has been done with the FARC and the Colombian government in this regard (i.e. FARC/Secretary of State John Kerry/Colombian government Cuba talks in 2016). Yet demobilization of the FARC will just lead to the rise of other groups like the BACRIM and the Urabeños to take the FARC’s place in terrorist activity. The Urabeños themselves have had their successes and failures the past 4 years though, since consolidating power after the Rastrojos leaders defected to the DEA. After fighting the ELN and the FARC for so long, the Colombian government continues to learn and implement anti-guerilla/anti-trafficking strategies.









[1] InSightCrime. The FARC: A History. 2015.

[2] Paredes Zapata, Terrorism in Colombia.

[3] Ricardo Vargas. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the Illicit Drug Trade. 1999.

[4] Vargas

[5] Stanford University. Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army. 2015.

[6] Stanford University

[7] Stanford University

[8] Vargas

[9] The Wilson Center. The FARC and Cocaine Production. 2015.

[10] The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the Illicit Drug Trade. Ricardo Vargas. 07 June 1999.

[11] InSightCrime. The FARC: A History. 2015.

[12] InSightCrime. The FARC: A History. 2015.

[13] InSightCrime. The FARC: A History. 2015.

[14] InSightCrime. The FARC: A History. 2015.

[15] InSightCrime. The FARC: A History. 2015.

[16] Stanford University. Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army. 2015.

[17] InSightCrime. The FARC: A History. 2015.


One thought on “The Colombian FARC: A History

  1. I found your post on FARC extremely informative and interesting! You explained the complicated relationship between the Colombian government, FARC, and the Colombian people perfectly. I remember first learning about FARC in my Spanish lang and culture class and being amazed at how long the conflict in the region has lasted. I hope to read more of your thoughts and I love your blog!


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