50 Years of Pointless Bloodshed: Farc vows to fight on

In May 1964, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) was established by a group of Marxist rebels intent on creating a communist state in South America. In the intervening half-century some 220,000 people have been killed in the armed struggle between the criminal/terrorist group and government forces.

Manuel Marulanda (Sureshot) was one of Farc's founders and died in 2008 without ever being caught
Manuel Marulanda (Sureshot) was one of the Farc’s founders and died in 2008 without ever being caught

Like many left-wing guerrilla groups that formed with a strong ideological premise, the Farc has descended into a militant criminal gang, operating in the realm of narco-trafficking, political assassination and abduction more characteristic of the big Colombian drug cartels or the Mafia.

Whilst some progress has been made in the ongoing Havana peace talks between representatives of the Colombian government and the Farc (including agreements on land reform, political participation and the drug trade), a lasting concord appears unlikely. Quite simply, the Farc cannot be trusted. The organisation is no longer a coherent body and militant criminals acting under the Farc banner will quickly discredit any move towards reconciliation.

After sustained efforts by the Colombian government - with US support - Farc's national coordination has been irreparably damaged
After sustained efforts by the Colombian government – with US support – the Farc’s national coordination has been irreparably damaged

The failure to completely eradicate the Farc (which had seen its numbers decline from approximately 20,000 to 7,500 in the first decade of this century) is part of the reason President Juan Manuel Santos has lost the first round of his re-election campaign to right-wing candidate Oscar Ivan Zuluaga.

Zuluaga, quite reasonably, sees the peace talks in Havana as a delaying tactic by the Farc, allowing it to rebuild whilst simultaneously drawing concessions from the government.

Because of Colombia’s geography – vast swathes of forest and rural highlands – wiping out every last vestige of the Farc is likely to prove extremely difficult. Just as the Maoist Shining Path group in Peru causes periodic instability, the Farc is likely to continue do the same thing. Indeed, its nominal leader, ‘Timochenko’, has promised just that:

We promised to win and will win…after 50 years of incorruptible battle, we will continue to fight as long as it takes if the oligarchy insists on impeding peace.

Farc maintains most of its territorial control - and popular support - in remote rural villages
The Farc maintains most of its territorial control – and popular support – in remote rural villages

Timochenko dreams of an ‘effective peace’ and refuses unconditional surrender. What concessions he really expects from a country terrorised by his group’s activities for half-a-century is hard to fathom. And the notion that the Farc would willingly uphold any signed agreement, given its history, seems faintly ludicrous.

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Military Sowed Conflict for Bolivia’s Coca Conundrum: traditional production vs drug trafficking

The EU is funding a $1.3m anti-drugs centre in Yapacani, a city on the edge of Bolivia’s Chapare region. Chapare is a major production area for coca, the raw material used in cocaine. Whilst the anti-drug centre will focus its work against traffickers, indigenous people worry that their involvement in coca production for traditional purposes will see them targeted.

Chewing coca is part of Bolivia's cultural heritage
Chewing coca is part of Bolivia’s cultural heritage

Coca production and consumption has been a feature of Andean life for thousands of years, with the plant used both as a medicine and as a stimulant against altitude sickness. Whilst limited coca production is permitted for some indigenous groups in Bolivia, the line between legal and illicit harvesting has become increasingly blurred, particularly as some farmers have become involved (forcibly or otherwise) with drug cartels.

The inauspicious-looking coca plant
The inauspicious-looking coca plant

The involvement of indigenous populations in the cocaine industry became embedded in Bolivia during the period of military rule between 1964 and 1982:

With military collusion, a trade in coca leaf was developed by drug cartels which paid poor Indian peasants to grow the traditional leaf for processing into cocaine in Colombia…Many desperate ex-miners and landless peasants migrated to the eastern lowlands, especially the Chapare region near Cochabamba, to grow coca leaf for the drug trade (Williamson, 2009, p. 604)

The economic devastation caused by military rule left many Bolivian peasants and itinerants with no option but to involve themselves in the drug trade. This subsequently precipitated the intervention of American-backed president Hugo Banzer in a brutal ‘cocaine war’ to eradicate coca production sites. (Patton, 2002, p.3)

Whilst the intention to eradicate Bolivia’s link with the cocaine trade was understandable:

Eradication hit the peasant growers very hard because compensation for the loss of their crops was inadequate and alternatives fetched much lower prices. (Williamson, 2009, p. 605)

Evo Morales, Bolivia’s current president and former leader of the coca-producing federation, has tried to allow increased indigenous production whilst simultaneously limiting the influence of the drug cartels. Such a goal, unfortunately, is almost impossible, as drug gangs and indigenous coca-producers have become inextricably linked in the cocaine supply chain.

Evo Morales has blamed drug use in the West for causing Bolivia's coca conundrum
Evo Morales has blamed drug use in the West for causing Bolivia’s coca conundrum

To eradicate coca production altogether would alienate the indigenous base on which Morales rests his legitimacy. To allow it to flourish inadvertently increases the power of the cartels.

It is an unenviable situation, one caused by Morales’ predecessors and Western habits, where the president is torn between choosing one of two evils or allowing the destabilising status quo to persist.

Sources

Patton J, ‘Counterdevelopment and the Bolivian Coca War’, The Fletcher Journal of Development Studies (Volume XVII, 2002)

Williamson E, The Penguin History of Latin America (St Ives, 2009)