From Principled Revolutionaries to Disillusioned Drug Traffickers: barriers to the Farc peace talks

A major step has been reached in attaining a peace deal between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc). At negotiations in Cuba, the government representatives have agreed to Farc’s future political participation, adding to a recent partial agreement on land reform.

Despite these positive steps, four other areas need to be agreed upon for a peace deal to be concluded: disarmament, illicit drugs, rights of Farc victims and the implementation process of any peace deal. The first two items seem particularly difficult to resolve given Farc’s resemblance in recent years of little more than heavily-armed drug dealers.

Farc rebels have become synonymous with guns and drugs
Farc rebels have become synonymous with guns and drugs

As the mirage of revolutionary success has gradually slipped away over the years, many of the Colombian rebels have abandoned their revolutionary principles and attempted to profit materially from their endeavours, recruiting a variety of violent hooligans, traffickers and murderers along the way.

An idea of the more principled nature of some of the early Farc rebels can be gleaned from British Foreign Office documents, and one story from 1976 is particularly illuminating.

At the beginning of that year, members of the Anglo-Colombiano private school travelled to the small village of Uribe on the eastern foothills of the Cordillera, on the edge of the Llanos, to establish a literacy and agricultural education programme for the local populace.

Modern-day Uribe, on the edge of the Llanos
Modern-day Uribe, on the edge of the Llanos

During a stopover in Uribe, the British deputy headmaster of the school, in addition to other staff and pupils, were awakened in their dormitories by the arrival of a group of Farc rebels. Eight guerrillas shepherded the group into the small town square. Despite being afraid of the intrusion, the deputy headmaster acknowledged that none of the Farc were brandishing weapons.

As local villagers were corralled into the square with the school personnel, a 24-year old rebel, calling himself ‘Miguel’, assured the people that they would not be harmed. Rather than harangue the ‘prisoners’ in the town square, Miguel welcomed them and thanked the delegation from the Anglo-Colombiano school for their efforts to initiate a regional literacy programme. It was then that Miguel made his political stand:

He spoke against the government of Lopez Michelsen, the rising cost of living, the lack of health and educational facilities, and American imperialism. The answer to these problems, he said, could only be found through workers’ control. 

Delivering his speech in the pitch dark, Miguel apparently captivated the 100-strong audience, all of whom enthusiastically joined in with the singing of ‘viva las fuerzas revolucionarias’ and ‘viva el comunismo’. Miguel finished by telling the people that his men had no intention of committing robbery or assault, rather they had come in search of food and medicine for which he said they would gladly pay. (This is in stark contrast to some modern Farc rebels who, rather than protect the common villages and workers, pillage their land and extort their businesses).

The only alarm expressed by the deputy headmaster was when, having been returned to their dormitories, he realised that a female student was missing. He was relieved, however, to find that the girl had remained behind talking to one of the rebels, who she described as “muy simpatico y muy churro (dishy)”.

This whole event was later deliberately misinterpreted by the Colombian press, which suggested some 200 guerrillas had invaded the helpless Uribe. This justified an armed response of paratroopers and attack helicopters by the government.

Such personalities as Miguel and his troupe helped win the Farc support amongst both the rural poor and the educated liberal middle class during the 1970s which led to the belief that the communist militants would one day assume control of Colombia.

That they never achieved this may be a blessing given the problems inherent in communist states, yet it has led to the Farc metamorphosing into a quasi-revolutionary, criminal gang, loosely organised under a command incapable of instilling the founding principles of the movement into its current members.

The Farc are still active throughout north-western Colombia, although centralised control is diminishing
The Farc are still active throughout north-western Colombia, although centralised control is diminishing

The peace process undoubtedly still has a long way to go.