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The order of war

The Farc: "a military giant maybe but politically and democratically a dwarf"

New Year’s Eve was celebrated to the sound of the name of  Farc (the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces), because of the unsuccessful, albeit with broad media coverage, Emanuel operation, which brought together filmmaker Oliver Stone and the President of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, in an attempt to rescue some of the many hostages kidnapped by the guerilla group. Depending on the spokesperson, the group is viewed in different ways. The Colombian Government and the US, especially after September 11, consider the Farc a terrorist group. For part of the media, it is an organization which, after the demise of the drug cartels, has monopolized drug trafficking. In an attempt to decipher the enigma, several researchers are analyzing the actions of this guerilla group. The researchers include Colombian sociologist Jesus Izquierdo, whose doctoral thesis Meninos não choram: formação do habitus guerreiro nas Farc-EP (Boys do not cry: forming warriors within the FARC-EP) was prepared at the Federal University of Ceará and recently published in book format by the UFC publishing house. “The guerilla group and the State throw accusations at each other amidst deep mutual distrust. In the manner of a conversation between deaf people, neither party is able to define suitable terms to end the war. While the conflict expands because the protagonists want to win by using weapons, this battle is constantly fueled and is guided by an unpredictable goal, which only reaffirms the warrior habitus of the Farc.”

In his opinion, one must understand how a small band of 48 men who confronted the Armed Forces in May 1964, in Marquetalia (a place and a date that hold a lot of mystique for the guerilla group), was able to grow into an army of more than 20 thousand men and women spread throughout Colombia. In short, the question is how the group evolved from a peasant self-defense movement in the 1950s and 1960s, to ferocious opponents of the current regime, which included an attempt to gain full political power in Colombia. At the same time, the group – which has existed for nearly 40 years – has never managed to achieve its main political objectives. The researcher points out that, due to the poor cultural level of its members, the lack of any political experience, the resistance to change, the predominance of centralized decision making to the detriment of democracy, and the high political and ethical costs of the group’s organizational decisions, the statement that the “Farc is a military giant and a political dwarf” is not wrong. This is nothing new: “The existence of guerillas in the country is an old and evident fact, dating back to the early 19th century, which witnessed the rise of groups that defended the peasants from the violent interventions of the State, especially during the lengthy government of the Partido Conservador (conservative party),” explains Izquierdo. Until the 1960s, most of the population lived in rural regions, where the land was owned by powerful landowners who were not supervised by the State. In 1930, the conservatives were defeated, which led the Liberal party to power. However, after 16 years as the governing party, the Liberal party was not much different, says the researcher, from its political rival.

“Capital accrued in the hands of production sectors, such as the coffee industry, and excluded extensive social bases. Peasant leaders, with significant social networking strength, materialized in the midst of this situation. This led the landowners to pressure the government to control the situation in the rural regions by upping violence.” Given this “feudal-like” situation, leaders such as Jorge Gaitan, a radical and dictatorial liberal, fueled the discourse of the peasants in the struggle for a more equitable relationship in terms of agricultural work. This generated peasant movements such as the Ligas Camponesas (Peasant Leagues), the rural sector’s instrument of cohesion to express its demands. Soon the Ligas moved on from being fierce defendants of the peasants and extended their struggle to demand radical changes in society. The militants began to invade privately-owned lands, which led the conflict of ideas to turn into an armed conflict on both sides – the peasants against the landowners. When the conservatives returned to power in 1946, many peasants, points out Izquierdo, turned to the Colombian Communist Party (PCC), “but it was the burden of social exclusion, more than ideology, that drove the Liga to fight the system.” The aftermath of Gaitan’s assassination in 1948 triggered the period referred to as Violência, (Violence) which lasted for 20 years in Colombia. This was a civil war between the rural sector and the landowners, who were protected by the State; the State believed that the union of peasants in communist settlements would lead to the creation of independent republics, which represented a threat to the country’s sovereignty. One of these settlements, Marquetalia, was attacked in 1964 by a large contingent of soldiers who were driven away by 48 men. This was the birth of the guerrilla. “The guerilla movement was the result of a process of transformation of an agricultural movement which, in the depths of armed battle, was faced with the need to find an ideology capable of providing consistency for its political platform. Hence the entry of the PCC as the social base of the Farc.”

In the regions where the State was virtually absent, the Farc guerrillas had an enormous influence on  communities. They began to define social behavior and to establish community and state values, says Izquierdo. He states that the guerilla fighters held power and became a reference of authority for  destitute communities. “As time went by, this power was strengthened and led the guerrilla fighters to believe that violent actions, initially justified as the need for protection, were an instrument to achieve visibility and social recognition.” The impoverished and far-flung communities became their target for recruiting more guerilla fighters; as a result, most Farc members are of peasant origin. The Farc then began forced recruitment, including that of adolescents. In El orden de la guerra (The order of war), a reference study on the guerilla movement organized by Juan Medina and Graciela Ramón, the researchers point out that it is a mistake to say that the massive recruitment tactics of the Farc are an indication of general support. They describe how “desperate poverty in Colombia virtually pushed the needy into the discourse of insurgency as a way of gaining a supposedly alternative future.” Izquierdo agrees with this. “Children and youngsters are more willing to follow the revolution. The lack of opportunities might be the reason why the young peasant boy sees the guerrilla movement as an opportunity to break the cycle which provides very few job opportunities,” he states. As a sad paradox, Medina and Graciela point out “the lack of control of the Farc, with serious gaps in terms of political training, is translated into authoritarian practices and is a source of human rights violations.”

Moreover, the authors point out, “the poor educational level of many of the members, coupled with the preference for military action, leads to an impoverishment of  political debate and to a deep abyss between the high command and the immense contingent of soldiers. Hence the decision to move away from the PCC and establish a link with a kind of ‘Bolivarianism’ that masks  a permanent tension between urban and rural, in which the guerilla fighters´ disdain for urban problems and for city dwellers is entirely unveiled, as the latter are viewed as inferior to the peasant-soldier, who is better skilled and has the capacity to bear the daily difficulties of guerrilla life, being totally familiar with the people and the territory in which the actions take place.” This attitude, say the researchers, is the Farc’s Achilles Heel; the group is incapable of presenting proposals for contemporary urban policies and this has cost it the support of the cities, leading to the indefinite extension of the conflict. The group’s other weakness is its strong link to the illegal drug trade; the guerrillas, to sustain the growth of its members, sacrificed their political legitimacy and ethical acknowledgement as an organization that proposes to lead society. “The guerrillas collect taxes, regulate trade and act as interfaces to the drug dealers; through these actions, the Farc sustain the war independently, but at the same time they undermine their movement’s ethical legitimacy.” This is why civil society is reacting so strongly against the extortions, kidnappings, assassinations of civilians and interface with the drug trade. The reactions include protest marches against the Farc, which in turn strengthens the far-right paramilitary groups, many of which have strong ties to drug dealing.

As Izquierdo points out, “the cross-fire between Farc and its enemies has created a vicious circle between the need for war to generate profits and the need for profits to strengthen the war apparatus.” Moreover, the greed for drug money has increased the violence between the guerrillas and the paramilitary groups, a phenomenon created by the joint interests of the Colombian armed forces, local communities, landowners, businessmen and drug trafficking groups whose mission is to annihilate the Farc. “Far-left guerrilla fighters and far-right paramilitary groups fight in the war arena for  profits generated by the production and sale of cocaine.” The population is in the midst of this dispute, which lacks an ideological dimension; the population, points out political scientist Boris Salazar in his La hora de los dinosaurios (The hour of the dinosaurs), “is disputed by the groups as a source of support and growth; thus, the interaction between the State, the insurgents, and the paramilitary groups has resulted in the population and the civilian economy being converted into the core military objective of a confrontation whose course is moving farther and farther away from the rules that regulate conventional conflicts.” It is in this context that the Farc kidnappings should be viewed, states Irina Gato Aranol, from Universidade Autónoma de Occidente, in her article “El secuestro como ato de violácion de derechos em el conflicto colombiano” (Kidnapping as an act of violation of rights in the Colombian conflict). “The act of kidnapping, in addition to being a source of funds, is the guerrilla’s show of force, designed to demonstrate the prowess of its military and logistic work, reiterating the outdated strategy whereby armed guerrilla forces seek to oust the government,” analyzes the researcher.

“The objective is to force the State, by means of terrorist actions against the population, to negotiate under the terms dictated by the Farc in the last few years. Now, the core objective is no longer the military defeat of the regular Armed Forces, but the continuous and growing undermining of the government’s capacity to protect citizens and weaken the State with regard to its fundamental role: to provide security for everybody,” Salazar points out. “This contains a kind of inertia in the movement, as it increases the chasm between the guerrilla fighters´ military capacity and political credibility. To merely be `against the State` without proposing anything effective will only result in more poverty and suffering for the Colombian people, with no prospects of democratic change,” says Daniel Pécaut, from the École des Hautes Études de Sciences Sociaux de Paris, in his article “Les Farc: puissance militaire, carences politiques” (The Farcs: military puissance, political shortcomings). In the researcher’s opinion, the issue is a form of “protection similar to that provided by the Sicilian mafia, which is based on the imposition of collective constraint in which the costs that this implies in terms of the loss of freedom are offset, according to the guerrillas´ reasoning, by benefits in terms of interests.”

“The Farc could make up for the absence of the State, but as they strengthen their ties with the illegal economy derived from cocaine and  kidnappings, they become increasingly motivated to disregard the State. This is a war for more State, against the State,” according to Medina and Graciela. This also holds true for the guerillas´ connection to drug trafficking, which is not merely restricted to the planting of coca and to the fees charged to act as the interface of the drug dealers. “The drug trafficking economy destroyed the unity and the functionality of the peasant family living in the coca planting regions prior to the advent of the Farc, and, unfortunately, it continues to do so, thus generating another terrible vicious circle. It quickly penetrated into other institutions and organizations that provided a meaning for the local or regional social and political order (companies, political parties, State entities etc.). Finally, the culture of getting rich quickly, of rewarding the bold, spread throughout all of Colombian society, banishing hard work, the slow accumulation of wealth, and productive efforts to a lower level.” The culture of focusing on speculative income and the private appropriation of public assets and amoral family networking has become the predominant element in many sectors of Colombian society.

Violence has become the “weapon of persuasion of two protagonists, the State and the guerrilla, without any humanitarian consideration or regard for the social and economic interests of the groups affected by the fight,” says Pécaut. “This has led the population to adopt opportunistic, short-term attitudes, because of survival and to gain benefits. This is expressed in civil organizations willing to accept agreements regulated by the violence of armed coercion, destroying social values that could stop the conflicts, which are growing increasingly difficult to resolve.” In the opinion of the French researcher, “the priority granted to obtaining funds has relegated the garnering of solid support among the population to a secondary level, and thus the work of raising political awareness becomes more difficult every day.” So the only thing the group can do is to maintain this military and violent attitude forever and wait for the support of neighboring countries, such as Venezuela under Chávez, which, being equally “Bolivarian,” would be a way of withdrawing the Farc from  uncertainty about the future they find themselves in.

But is another kind of future possible? A decree enacted in 2002 guarantees  legal protection to deserters from armed groups. “The major challenge is to deconstruct the warrior habitus during the national reconciliation process. What must be done to transform warriors who  have lived in hiding for so many years into law-abiding citizens without the need to resort to violence? A huge effort would have to be made to welcome the former combatants and ease their inclusion into civilian life, and this effort would require a combination of joint efforts at all social levels,” says Izquierdo. Boys must learn how to cry again.