Colombian Reality: An Internal Conflict Analysis

Social circumstances cultivate civil insurrection

Colombia’s Marxist guerrilla group, las Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), or the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, has been misunderstood and underestimated since its germination. Even today they are mistakenly labeled as the sole offenders and primary cause of violence in the country, as Colombia and its armed forces, along with U.S. assistance, continue attempting to extirpate them.

This notion of the FARC, while common around the world, contradicts reality. Violence in Colombia was a regular occurrence long before the FARC arose from the country’s blood-stained soils. In fact, during the past half millennium, “war torn and oppressed” is the most accurately succinct description for civil society in this country of extreme contrasts.

When dissecting Colombia’s internal conflict, the objective should be to develop a comprehensive understanding, even it if juxtaposes mainstream imagery. Awareness as such begins by realizing that the majority of people affected by the conflict are the impoverished indigenous communities, rural farmers, and common folk. However, their accounts of the violence are rarely printed or reported, an important point to keep in mind.

Information that is traditionally reported are testaments by the government, military and national police force. This is the news that makes its way around the world, and this is what produces popular perception. In fact, personal accounts that contradict this news, often surfacing weeks or months later, rarely reach the public here in Colombia, let alone around the world.

In order to have a more integral and impartial understanding of Colombia’s Marxist revolutionary group, one must examine the socio-political climate at least two decades prior to their inception. By doing so, it is clear to see that a particular social impetus was the cause of this revolutionary effect.

When viewing a time-line depicting the events, one also notices that Washington’s involvement in this Latin American paradise has been incessant since shortly after WWII. That preliminary involvement was initially rationalized to fight communism which was sprouting in the backyard.

So, who were the supposed communist elements in Colombia in 1948? Well, on 9 April of that year, only a day after meeting with Cuba’s “Fidel Castro at a conference of anti-imperialist student leaders,”1 the country’s most publicly supported populist leader and presidential candidate of the people, “Dr. Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, was assassinated in Bogota’s downtown center at roughly 1:15 p.m.”2 The capital city and national provinces were quickly destroyed after erupting into absolute chaotic rebellion.

The supposed patsy of that day, Juan Roa Sierra, was found by the infuriated mob in a local store, removed from the establishment, beaten to death, dragged through the streets and finally put on display in the city’s center. All the while, neither the government nor the armed forces did anything to stop the resulting civil violence. On the contrary, they set out against the enraged mob. Since then, that day has become famously known throughout the country as the Bogotazo, at the cockcrow of an era notoriously called The Violence.

It’s quite relevant to point out that Dr. Gaitan was a genuine populist, estimated to have had more than 80% of the populace’s support – a sure winner for the coming elections of 1950. He was also a member of the Colombian Liberal Party, courageously hoping to overturn the oligarchic stranglehold and implement social programs for the common people; education, health care, infrastructure development and centralized resource management were a few cornerstones of his campaign.

The entrenched rulers of the oligarchic class however, likely found it difficult to accept the occupation of the House of Narino (Presidential Palace) by a people’s president like Gaitan, as they certainly didn’t share his social interests. The country’s history consistently demonstrates this dominant, plutocratic attitude since the curtailing of the Independence Wars against Spain in 1848.

The insurgency organizes

What then became of that impetuously black April afternoon in Bogota? Some of the people who supported Dr. Gaitan and his political ideology became known as Gaitanists. In the department of Tolima, neighboring Cundinamarca of which Bogota is the capital, these Gaitanists took up arms against the inveterate system. One member of this guerrilla group was Pedro Marin, commonly known as Manuel Marulanda, or Tirofijo (Sureshot).

By 1950, the fledgling, Gaitanist guerrilla group of peasants formed ranks in the countryside with fighters from the Social Democratic Party (PSD). This group would gain momentum over the next sixteen years in the defense of peasant-proletariats. Marulanda would go on to officially name this group the FARC, which he then presided over, in 1966. He would assume this position until his recent death, reported to have been this past March 26, 2008.

The origins of the FARC are rooted in the soils of socialist ideology. Contrary to popular belief, their inception had nothing to do with drugs. The core of their doctrine sought to establish overdue land rights for the peasants. Along with this they promoted the development of unions within the controlling sectors of agricultural big business, which was becoming monopolized and yet ever more oppressive by the national and foreign oligarchs of the day.

The FARC originally functioned as a “regional structure of social warfare, of individual and collective survival”, and eventually became “a setting for the building of real local power.”3 This is the course they maintained throughout the 1970′s. However, since the 1980′s, with the emergence of cocaine trafficking and counter-insurgent, state-sponsored paramilitary troops to contend with, their ideological roots began to wither somewhat.

Cause and effect are often unavoidable and inherently universal principles. As such, if the governing body decides to abandon or abuse the people in favor of power and profit, the people will likely resort to their own measures. This is precisely what happened after the Bogotazo. Thus, conditions were optimal for a group like the FARC to sprout in response to calculated, systemic corruption which had been oppressing the less affluent portion of the population since Spanish colonial times.

This is the communist force that Washington intended to uproot while in vegetative growth, yet they somehow failed to succeed. Today, forty-odd years into its commemoration, the FARC still stand their ground. Over the decades they’ve been labeled as communists, as narcotraffickers and today as terrorists. And though at present they are estimated to be weakening, they nonetheless continue to exist as an armed opposition to be reckoned with.

Resistance as such helps Washington justify its gracious annual donations to the Colombian government of roughly $700 million dollars in US taxpayer’s money under Bill Clinton’s Plan Colombia, which has only sustained the internal conflict, poisoned the environment and produced the highest internal human displacement figure in the world. In fact, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre reveals that even Iraq, at nearly 2,000,000 internally displaced people, still fails to fit the crown.4 Although this constitutes imperative data to consider in achieving our initial objective of developing a comprehensive understanding, we shall postpone any further analysis of this anti-terrorist/anti-drug program for another article.

Redefining the conflict’s perpetual scapegoat

Taking into account the historical origins of Colombia’s primary guerrilla group is a requisite for any degree of comprehension apropos of the conflict. However, by no means is this to suggest that the FARC are exempt from having committed illegal and atrocious crimes over the decades. Nor is this to indicate that they should continue to be granted impunity as numerous paramilitary and guerrilla forces have already been fortunate to achieve under President Alvaro Uribe’s transparency-lacking Justice and Peace Law of 2005. This paper seeks not to validate the FARC’s immorality, but simply to reveal for the reader a more accurate depiction of Colombia’s conflict relevant to this group.

Let us now proceed by establishing some parallels and deviations between the two previously mentioned groups. Paramilitaries are organized civilians developed militarily to act as, or assist, regular military troops. The reference mentioned in the previous paragraph coincides with this definition.

The FARC, on the other hand, are not a paramilitary group. They are classified as guerrillas, like Castro’s revolutionary players, combating against the military and their paramilitary associates. So, it has been guerrilla groups like the FARC, the National Liberation Army (ELN), and M-19 that throughout the years have held up arms against the Colombian government, its army, national police and paramilitary group, the United Self-Defense Force (AUC).

Aside from the inaccurate assertion of many Colombians and others in foreign circles that comfort themselves by exclusively condemning the conflict on the guerrillas, it would be naive to believe that the FARC are the sole culprits in this condemnable chaos. Observation from Amnesty International contradicts the blind-eyed and wide-held belief completely by stating that “although all parties to Colombia’s internal armed conflict – the security forces, paramilitaries and the guerrilla – have systematically violated human rights and international humanitarian law, the paramilitaries have, in recent years, been responsible for most of the killings of civilians, “disappearances”, and cases of torture, while the guerrilla have been responsible for most politically-motivated kidnappings.”5

Reports such as this aren’t any more reassuring when attempting to construct a comprehensive understanding of the conflict, because in essence the scenario has just become even more complicated with additional factors. Unfortunately though, that is Colombia’s conflict in a nutshell, a monumentally complex, socio-political quagmire.

Just the same, if one sincerely aims to arrive at a more realistic awareness regarding this country’s internal conflict, stereotypes of the Marxist guerrilla movement and preconceived notions of its rebellion must be abandoned in order to see the real picture. The contemporary reality of massacres, torture and other human rights violations are indeed not dominated by the FARC, as popular opinion has been intentionally and irrationally shaped.

The majority of these violations, rather, are by a dominate force and its associates, whose concentration of power permeates the country’s social, economic and political realms. One has to look no further than the Colombian government to identify the principle agitator. That may read like a bold claim, but the majority of rural Colombians with whom this writer speaks concur nearly unanimously.

In an interview conducted in 2002, Noam Chomsky shares some of his personal experiences, while in Colombia on a humanitarian agenda to the militarily active department of Cauca, which confirm this reality. In response to a question establishing that the Colombian government claims it’s caught between a guerrilla insurgency and a paramilitary army, neither of which it can control, Chomsky responds by stressing that “both international and Colombian human rights organizations now attribute the large majority of atrocities to paramilitaries, who are so closely, and so visibly, allied to the military that Human Rights Watch calls them the ‘Sixth Division,’ alongside the five official divisions. There’s overwhelming evidence of intimate connections and cooperation, both from ample personal testimony and published reports of the major human rights organizations, which are detailed and informative. The proportion of atrocities attributed to the military/paras has been steady over the years: about 75%-80%, with the military component declining as atrocities are ‘farmed out’ to the paras in ways that are familiar elsewhere.”6. This doesn’t constitute acceptable information that either the US or Colombian establishments care to have the global public contemplating around dinner tables, as it contradicts la carte du jour.

Conclusion

By reflecting on these latter diagnoses from Amnesty International and Chomsky, previous assumptions of the FARC as the “lone Marxist group” being the sole conspirator of terroristic violence in Colombia, hereby begin to fade and lose credibility. This is especially true when comparing information released by the government and mainstream sources, with that which one would expect to be more reliable and objective data supplied by humanitarian groups and intellectuals, whose commitment to compiling accurate information is not subject to imposing forces. Personal testimonies of peasants who have been caught in the crossfire weaken those assumptions even more.

In order to develop a more accurate understanding of the FARC and Colombia’s conflict, one must look beyond the biased headlines, the nightly 6 o’clock cover stories and back-page snippets of the dominating media sources, to the wellspring of alternative media. If that fails to suffice, an excursion to the country itself will provide plenty of opportunity to discuss the issue with those directly affected. This is the most forthright manner to change perception while grasping the reality of the FARC as participants in Colombia’s conflict.

  1. Hylton, Forrest; Evil Hour in Colombia; 2006, p40. []
  2. El Tiempo, 9 April 2008. []
  3. Pizarro Leongomez, “Revolutionary Guerrilla Groups”, in Bergquist et al, eds, Violence in Colombia: Historical Perspectives, p181-182. []
  4. International Displacement Monitoring Center. []
  5. Press release, “Colombia: The Justice and Peace law will benefit human rights abusers,” Amnesty International, 12 September 2005. []
  6. Noam Chomsky interview with Justin Podur; Cauca: Their fate lies in our hands, 12 July 2002 []

David A.G. Fischer is a high school English teacher who lives in Colombia. He is also a lifetime student who contributes socially as a free-lance writer, volunteer, and activist. Read other articles by David, or visit David's website.