T
here is more repression of individual freedom here that in any other country we’ve been to, the police patrol the streets carrying rifles and demand your papers every few minutes, which some of them read upside down. The atmosphere is tense and it seems a revolution may be brewing. The countryside is in open revolt and the army is powerless to suppress it.” A young Ernesto Che Guevara was travelling around South America and, in a letter to his mother – dated June 1952 -, used these words to describe Colombian state during La Violencia (1948-1958).

In order to understand the deep roots of FARC’s origin and longevity, their experience should not be detached from the political and social context of Colombian history. FARC’s insurgency cannot be understood discerning from agrarian conflicts during the 1920s-1930s and from the period of La Violencia.

The Post Colonial Colombia was dominated by a bipartite political system in which the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party exercised undisputed political and economic hegemony. Nino argues that “The independency was an horizontal movements, an elite was removed, but, automatically it was replaced by the its immediate lower one, which became aristocracy, upper class, dominant class.” Sachez and Meertens think that the this new class of lord owners exploited peasants to support their local hegemony, “To peasants the armed support to one of the party was a characteristic of massive incorporation to political life of the nation.” The conflicts between the political elite resulted in peasants fighting “for local landowner, in return for moderate reforms that improved their own lot in life.”

Previously to FARC’s foundation, Colombian peasants started to be organized in experienced self-defence movements that tried to break the bipartite system of hegemony. The Partido Socialista Revolutionario, the Partido Agrario Nacional, the Union Nacional de Izquierda Revolucionaria and - after its foundation in 1930 - the Partido Comunista de Colombia (PCC) were the main actors in organizing peasants to (i) protect themselves from official violence and to (ii) promote an agrarian reform. According to Gilhdoes, during the 1920s and the 1930s there were three kind of agrarian conflicts in Colombia. (i) The dispute around the distribution of lands. (ii) The issues related to indigenous communities. (iii) The tensions between landowners and their workers due to the labour conditions. In such environment of social and economic tensions, peasants and natives created unions and self-defence organizations to protect their interests: “these associations emerged in response to the oligopolistic structure of agriculture product markets caused by industry and trade”.

Operation Marquentalia was led to break the consolidation of independent areas in which self−defence groups were exercising local power and, as suggested by Leongòmez, Operation Marquetalia was the turning point in which “the self-defence movement becomes a revolutionary movements”. The tension between self−defence groups and dominate elite culminated in repressions and massacres. Gabriel Marquez Garcia – in his masterpiece One Hundred years of solitude – remembers the Massacre de las bananeras in 1928, when a strike of peasants – working for the United Fruit Company - was bloody repressed. An indefinite number of workers were killed by the Colombian army, “It was as if the machine guns had been loaded with caps, because their panting rattle could be heard and their incandescent spitting could be seen, but not the slightest reaction was perceived, not a cry, not even a sigh among the compact crowd that seemed petrified by an instantaneous invulnerability.“

The local and low-intensive conflicts became a national political crisis in April 1948 when Jorge Gaitàn was killed in Bogotà. Gaitàn was a charismatic populist leader of a minority of the Liberal Party. He offered hope to poorest both urban and rural areas, leading campaigns to promote agrarian reforms and to defend peasants against state violence. He was able to gain the support of discontent middle class and poorer ones. After his murder, the PCC declared legitimate the armed resistance against state terrorism, “the figure of “legitimate defence”, intend to justify it as an inexorable moral exigency aimed to neutralize a violent, unfair, sometimes, unconstitutional aggression”. The relation between the PCC and the armed self-defence peasants movements is well understood, as explained by Leech, “the PCC was instrumental in organizing the peasant self-defence movement.”

What is not clear is the role of PCC in FARC’s foundation. While LeGrand argues that Bloque Sur was composed by members of the Communist Party and Liberal Party, Brittain suggests that the Liberal Party did not actively participate to FARC’s formation. As confirmed by several studies, the FARC were formed by members of self-defence groups with elements of the Communist Party. William Avilés argues that the FARC “emerged under the leadership of the Communist Party and operated with the support of peasants who sought refuge from the repression of la Violencia.” According to Leongòmez, the FARC “born as a reaction against the foundation of the ELN and EPL“ by the PCC. In the XXXI el Partido Comunista proclaimed to support peasants rebellion, “Our party has sustained that violent guerrilla cannot be imposed to people (...) for this reason our party is against revolutionary adventures (...) But the problems due to Marquetalia aggression are different. And for this reason the PCC from the beginning has supported the peasants, victims of an aggression by the military force.” Even though some authors highlight the contradictions of the PCC between supporting a violent insurgency and participating to Colombian democratic life,32 there are several evidence that suggests a tight connection between FARC’s origin and PCC activities in Colombian countryside.

La Violencia is considered to be over in 1953, when the General Rojas Pinilla established his dictatorship with a military golpe. His government launched military offensive to tackle down communist peasants insurgency while many Liberal peasants decided to accept the amnesty granted by Pinilla government. 34 In 1958 Conservative and Liberal elite – concerned about the concentration of power and Pinilla’s desire to strengthen his dictatorship - created a “power-sharing agreement called the National Front. Stokes argues that the National Font served to “alternate power between aligned sections of the Colombian Conservative and Liberal elite while strengthening the Colombian armed forces to suppress popular reforms.” Communist-armed peasants did not cease the fire, improving their organizations and their military strategies. In 1964 – in order to destroy communist self-defence communities – Colombian government planned a massive military attack to the areas where peasants organized forms of local auto-government. “The army symbolically took the Marquetalia region, but in spite of its new anti-guerrilla conceptions, it was military impossible to wipe out the seed of the struggle, which sprouted from these lands. The seed is the origin of the FARC.” Marquetalia operation, then, represents a turning point of Colombian history.

“(We are) the result of a revolutionary movement which born in 1948 (...)”. These words - taken by the original document “Programa agrario de los guerrilleros 1964” - explain why FARC’s historical origin are tracked down in 1964, when a small group of guerrilleros announced the birth of an armed revolutionary front during the First Guerrilla Conference in 1964. The group joined armed peasants from Marquetalia with other guerrilleros from several zones, forming the Bloque Sur (Southern Bloc). According to Leech - even though the name Las Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) is officially dated in 1966 during the Second Guerrilla Conference, FARC’s historical representation is told to start from the experience of Bloc Sur and the First Guerrilla Conference.3 FARC’s self-representation recognizes their tight bond with Colombian past framework. During the First Guerrilla Conference, the guerrilleros argued that “Against us (peasants) there have been four wars: one started in 1948, antother one from 1954, one from 1962 and this one that we are experiencing since May 18th 1964, when the military force have officially declared that Operation Marquetalia is started.” In conclusion, Bloque Sur proclaimed itself to be (i) a reaction against the repression of Colombian elite and to be (ii) the heredity of the tradition of peasants self-defence movements.

The foundation of the FARC represents a qualitative change of traditional self-defence movements, “with FARC’s foundation there was a crucial turning point of military strategy, then, it was left the protection of lands by armed peasants – included mobile combat force – to replace it with a an agile warfare which uses military tactics.” FARC’s history can be divided in three main stages considering their organizations and their military actions. (i) 1964-1974: the FARC implemented “a marginal, silent and low intense warfare which combines old methods with new forms of recruiting and social relations with peasants.” (ii) 1970-1990: the FARC drastically increased the number of their members, improving the quality of their actions and the zones in which they exercised their direct power. 1991-2008: the peak of the conflict between the FARC and Colombian state. 2008-Today: it has started the slow and hard path for FARC’s demobilization and pacification.

Nicola Bilotta

Nicola Bilotta has a BA and a MA in History from Università degli Studi di Milano and a MSc in Economic History from the London School of Economics. He works as a Global Finance Research Assistant at The Banker (Financial Times) and collaborates as an external researcher at ISAG (Istituto di Alti Studi di Geopolitica e Scienze Ausiliari) N_bilotta[at]lse.ac.uk

Top