Historic opportunity to end 50 years of bloodshed in Colombia

If a deal is struck with the Farc, it could help rebuild a shattered Colombia


This week’s statement by the Farc’s second-in-command that he believes Colombia’s half-century civil war is drawing to a close raises the possibility that Latin America’s oldest guerrilla movement is finally ready to cut a peace deal.

Such an accord would offer a historic opportunity to a society which has lost hundreds of thousands of lives during five decades of political violence. The conflict has also left three million people internally displaced, in a country still scarred by the appalling social inequalities that inspired the guerrillas to take up arms in the 1960s.

For the Farc, it was not so much a case of taking up arms as deciding to hold onto them. Such is Colombia’s violent history since its independence from Spain almost two centuries ago that the Farc – the Spanish acronym for the Revolutionary Forces of Colombia – in fact grew out of a previous round of civil conflict in the 1950s.

La Violencia
Known as La Violencia, this bloodletting between a conservative government and its liberal opponents left up to 300,000 people dead. As that conflict wound down, one peasant band of liberal-supporting guerrillas led by Manuel Marulanda turned to communism and in 1964 the legendary “Sureshot” founded the Farc with just 47 men.

For much of the 1960s and 1970s the group was just one of a number of guerrilla movements, inspired by the Cuban Revolution, operating in the country during Latin America’s so-called “years of lead”.

The Farc dates its rise to prominence to the 1980s when its taxing of the country’s booming cocaine trade made it the world’s wealthiest guerrilla movement. This allowed it to pay fighters and grow into an irregular army that undertook increasingly large-scale attacks against the army and urban centres.

By the 1990s it was involved in a vicious three-way war with the army and its allies in the right-wing paramilitaries of the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia. Massacres were commonplace, carried out by all sides according to human rights groups.

By the late 1990s, as its fighting strength grew, the Farc was pressuring the country’s main urban centres. Its control of many highways allowed it to kidnap thousands of people for ransom. This and its income from the cocaine trade helped immunise the group from a lack of support from a public which increasingly viewed it as a criminal enterprise.

The Farc always defended itself, maintaining it only taxed the production of coca in zones it controlled. But several of its senior commanders have been convicted for their involvement in drug trafficking, as have former members of the government, military and right-wing paramilitaries.

Change of fortune
The momentum began to swing against the movement after the last attempt at peace collapsed in 2002. The military – strengthened by Washington’s supposedly anti-drug aid programme Plan Colombia – went on the offensive. Under president Álvaro Uribe the government scored a string of successes against the Farc, killing several top comandantes, breaking up fighting “fronts” and driving others back from the country’s main cities and highways.

The Farc haemorrhaged guerrillas, its fighting strength dropping from 16,000 fighters in 2002 to an estimated 9,000 today. But Uribe’s successor Juan Manuel Santos has acknowledged that there can be no final military victory against a group that has returned to the classic guerrilla tactic of hit-and-run ambushes.

He has sought to create the conditions for a negotiated settlement to the conflict, paving the way land reform and a possible amnesty of Farc fighters. The next few months could reveal if the group will accept such a compromise that falls short of the socialist revolution it fought so long to bring about.

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