Written by an investigative journalist who’s spent decades with the FARC, including some times as their captive, Gary Leech’s book The FARC: The Longest Insurgency presents the largest and oldest Marxist-Leninist insurgency movement in North America. They are, I believe, second only in size in the world to the Naxalite movement in India. FARC-EP, the group’s official name, stands for Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army.
The origins of the group stemmed from the country’s gross economic inequality and lack of access campesinos had to fertile land. Since Independence, the descendants of the Spaniard ruling class used their access to capital and arms to dispossess indigenous peoples and peasants of their land. Purchasing foreign made goods and directing the state to invest more in men to protect private property than democratic institutions, uneven development transpired in a way that put the people at odds with the State. Inspired by the revolutionary movements in Latin American and abroad that followed the Second World War, the group started advocating and fighting on behalf of the agricultural workers.
The beginning of cocaine production in the Southern/Putumayo region in the 80s gave the organization a new influx of money. Such an influx of money wasn’t without additional problems – as narco-traffickers started buying large tracts of land and dispossessing others until they became the largest class of landowners in the country conflict between the two groups became inevitable. As the Medellin cartel had greater access to capital, they were dominated them though reached a modicum of peace as they needed to redirect their forces to fight the Cali Cartel, which had allied itself with the DEA and the Colombian Government. While reading I was bemused, though not surprised, that the growers in the region under the control of the FARC consistently made more money from their coca crops than did those under the control of the Cartels.
In discussing the issue of human rights as it relates to the FARC, Leech presents a view that is nuanced, yet does not get bogged down in the details. He shows how it conceives of itself, an alternative to the official state that functions as a judiciary and sponsor of economic development in the areas it controls. While he does find some faults with it, compared to the official Colombian state as well as its paramilitary apparatus it is adjudged as the superior adherent to human rights. It’s this and the long history of the organization which ought to justify the categorization of the guerillas as combatants rather than narco-terrorists or, alternately, just terrorists.
Leech addresses a number of the reasons why, despite their clearly not being as responsible for reprehensible acts of terroristic violence against civilian populations as right-wing paramilitaries, they are vilified. For one there is Colombia’s long history of violence against and assassinations of leftists. Such campaigns were not limited only to guerillas but also those journalists who brought greater clarity and context to the stakes of the violence in their writings. Operating under the dialectics of suspicion, those that were considered sympathizers were equated with the actual combatants and seen as fair game for AUC and others. Secondarily, as a covert organization it is difficult to hold press conferences and talk with reporters that are already wary of being seen as sympathetic to the FARC. As a result many reporters fail to investigate the veracity of the press conference spectacles held by the military. Third, the news largely reflects the political interests of the owners. Stories published and broadcast highlight the kidnappings by the FARC for ransom, conceived of as a just response to non-payment of taxes, and typically ignore those narratives about human displacement caused by corporately funded paramilitary operations. Thus the stories of rich people being kidnapped, an act which at it’s height peaked around the 1,200 mark and has since decreased to around the 100s, silences the between 3.2 and 4.9 million people that have been forced to relocate due to violence.
The relationship between the FARC and the Government as well as the United States role in providing assistance to the latter is another area the Leech extensively reports upon. Since the passage of Plan Colombia in 1998, which made the country the second largest recipient of U.S. aide, casualties have mounted and the FARC has lost much of it’s territory. As far as I’m aware the La Gabarra, False-Positives and other scandals that illustrate the depth of cruelty of the Uribe government haven’t made the news, though high profile scandals, such as the kidnapping of Ingrid Betancourt and U.S. missionaries have despite the former issues being bloodier.
In his conclusion Leech is not hopeful that there will be peace anytime soon between the AUC, the FARC and the Government as the government has consistently pursued neo-liberal policies and made these exempt from negotiations during their peace accords. Since the conditions that lead to the FARC in the first place aren’t dealt with and the Colombian and U.S. government have made liability for engagement in civilian dispossessions and massacres to protect corporate profits, any future peace is likely not to be long-lasting.