Colombia's guerrillas: between past and future

Ana Carrigan
2 July 2008

On 26 March 2008, in a remote camp somewhere in the central range of the Colombian Andes, an old guerrilla leader died. The news took two months to reach the outside world. When it did so, it arrived amidst a sea of troubles for the movement he founded and led.

His long life had personified the tormented history of his country's violent political struggles for sixty years. Few remember him by his real name - Pedro Antonio Marín Marín - for he was known worldwide by his noms de guerre. Tirofijo ("Sureshot") was the name he earned as a teenager in the 1940s on account of his phenomenal marksmanship when he fought in the first of Colombia's 20th-century civil wars. Later he would be known by the name he chose for himself when he became a member of the clandestine Colombian Communist Party in the 1950s: "Manuel Marulanda Vélez". "Don Manuel" the junior guerrilla leaders used to call him when he became old and vulnerable.

Perhaps for Marxists the "Don" was not politically correct, but then most of the rebels of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia / Farc) - the insurgent force that he co-founded in 1964 with his friend and political mentor, the Marxist intellectual, Jacobo Arenas - were Colombian peasants and Indians first and communists second. Besides, they didn't have many ways to express their respect for el Viejo (the old man) whose legendary career inspired their cult-like devotion.

The context

Marulanda's story, like that of a character in a Gabriel García Márquez novel, has haunted the imagination of Colombians - for good, and for evil - for decades. In the beginning he was admired or despised on either side of the polarising faultline in Colombian society: between city people and country people, between rich and poor, between conservatives and progressives. Then, in a fateful leadership conference in 1982 - the eighteenth year of the insurgency - his ideological partner, Jacobo Arenas persuaded Marulanda and the secretariat to change the Farc's direction: from building popular support for a mass insurrection, to creating an "army of the people" capable of taking power militarily before the millennium.

When Marulanda authorised kidnapping to fund this army (a practice he had previously rejected as anti-revolutionary) and later, when he decided the Farc should charge a tax on all the coca harvested by peasant coca-growers in guerrilla-held territories, the insurgency's status plummeted. It is reported that when other leaders among the ruling secretariat objected to the Farc's involvement in the drug business, Marulanda agreed to a compromise: they would give his plan a try for just one year, and when that ended the policy would be reviewed. But one year on, the Farc was too far in to get out.

Later that decade Farc leaders decided to charge landing-fees in exchange for protecting the pilots and the drug-planes that flew into Farc territory to collect the drugs for the traffickers. The Farc grew rich - and the military wing grew ever stronger at the expense of the political. The movement's relationship with the Colombian population became confused, then withered. The Farc's involvement with drugs, extortion, and especially kidnapping made them an easy target for the Colombian media and society. Today the Farc fills the role of national scapegoat for all the ills that beset Colombia; Farc-bashing has become a test of patriotism.

Ana Carrigan is the author of The Palace of Justice: A Colombian Tragedy (Four Walls Eight Windows). Her reports from Colombia have appeared in the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Nation, the Irish Times, In These Times and the Guardian. She is currently writing a book of Colombian memoirs.

Also on openDemocracy by Ana Carrigan:

"Colombia's elections: the regional exception" (10 March 2006)

"Colombia's testing times" (29 March 2006)

"Pawns of war: the Colombian hostage crisis" (15 November 2007)The struggle

"We've been stumbling around in this conflict for many, many years...but I think the worst of all our enemies,...it's the isolation of this fight... Between yourselves in the city, and ourselves, here in the mountains, there is another, greater mountain. Your voices and our voices don't listen to each other, we rarely speak to each other. It's not a distance of lands and rivers and natural obstacles, no, it's not the mountain across our paths. Among yourselves, it's the very little you know about us, among us, it's the very little we know of your history" (Pedro Antonio Marín / Tirofijo / Manuel Marulanda Vélez, talking to his biographer, the late Arturo Alape).

It all began so innocently.

Pedro Antonio Marín was born in 1930, or maybe 1928 (his father was never sure of the exact year or date). The eldest of five children of a poor farming family he left school at 13, barely able to read or write, to become a street-vendor. After a few years he started a small grocery store. Pedro had his life mapped out: he was going to buy a piece of land where he could build his own house, have some animals, and farm. He also dreamt of joining the army. His grandfather had been the bugler of the Liberal army during la guerra de los mil días ("the war of a thousand days") of 1899-1903; Pedro too was a musician, a violinist. Each evening when he closed the shop he would set up a chair on the street to sit and play his music.

Pedro's family were Liberals. He told his biographer Arturo Alape: "it was like the sign of the cross, you wear it permanently on your forehead." But the Marín family were not just Liberals - they were gaitanistas, followers of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, the populist Liberal leader whose radical politics resonated with Colombia's excluded poor. At 1 o'clock in the afternoon on 9 April 1948, Gaitán was shot dead as he left his law office in the centre of the capital city, Bogotá, to go to lunch. By nightfall Bogotá was in flames, and in cities and towns across the country his death ignited a violent insurrection.

Jorge Gaitán's death changed the course of Colombian history and among those whose destiny was changed and determined was Pedro Marín. In the small rural town of Ceilan, on that April day, Pedro watched, uncomprehending, as his father and his uncles led an assault on the police station and seized the town-hall. One week later, when the conservative government's police and paramilitaries reached town, the Marín family were forced to flee. Farewell Pedro Marín; welcome Tirofijo.

Years later, in one of his rare press interviews, Manuel Marulanda explained to a reporter: "I never sought the war, the war came to me." Like tens of thousands of young, poor, rural Liberals, Pedro Marín was swept by the maelstrom that followed Gaitán's death into a brutal decade-long civil war. He was not yet 18 when he headed for the mountains; but with fourteen of his cousins he organised his first Liberal self-defence group to protect himself and his family against the rampages of the Conservative government's paramilitary and police. "We didn't call ourselves guerrillas, we didn't know what a guerrilla was", he told Alape; "the violence followed me, like a shadow, first to one village, then to another." It was survival - resist or be killed, there was no option.

In the war he discovered that he had what Colombians call don de mando (the gift of leadership.) He also had an intuitive grasp of guerrilla strategy. The war taught him about his country, so that he learned about the nature of the Colombian political system; and he made friends who opened the door to an exciting world of serious ideas and revolutionary politics in the clandestine Communist Party. In the early 1950s the Liberal guerrillas divided into two camps, Liberals and Communists, and Tirofijo joined the communists. His group was led by a gifted, intelligent young commander known as Charro Negro, and Charro became the unlettered young Tirofijo's first mentor. The career of Manuel Marulanda Vélez, Marxist and revolutionary, had begun.

So many million rural families were displaced by the civil war, nobody knows if the final casualties were 100,000 or 200,000. In 1958 the politicians united in a national-front government and sought to end the fighting by offering an amnesty. Most Liberal guerrilla chiefs put down their guns; the government's regional negotiators sealed the peace, country-style, with bottles of whisky and aguardiente, feasting and dancing until dawn, and everyone went home. But after demobilising, several leaders and hundreds of their followers were murdered. The communists were cautious. Charro Negro told Marulanda that everyone had forgotten what the war had been about. He wanted a political pact that could actually change things, and excorcise the reasons why the communists had entered the war.

Thus, he and Marulanda drew up a list of requirements for a serious peace negotiation:

* democratic freedoms for all political parties, including the Communist Party

* liberty for all political prisoners and amnesty for all fighters

* immediate return of the army to barracks

* freedom of organisation for peasants in their leagues, unions and other collective organisations

* schools, teachers, health clinics, doctors and nurses in the war zones

* construction of roads and bridges in the areas affected by the violence

* economic reconstruction in the areas devastated by the war

* return of the lands expropriated by the pajaros (conservative government militias, forerunners of today's aguilas negras, the most recent version of Colombia's paramilitaries)

* scholarships for the sons of peasant farmers so they could study agriculture and other careers.

These requirements, considered as a recipe for peace, remain as broadly relevant today as they were when Charro Negro and "Manuel Marulanda" set them down, on a single piece of paper, in 1958. But the Bogotá government was not interested in grappling with serious solutions to rural problems. Two years later, in January 1960, Charro Negro was assassinated - shot in the back by the hitmen of an amnestied Liberal guerrilla leader who was undoubtedly on the payroll of someone powerful. So Colombia lost another potentially important leader: someone who, those who knew him believe, might have shown the way to healing the wounds of a horrific decade of fratricidal killing, so there might have been no cause for the Farc.

The legend

Marulanda inherited the leadership of his group after the death of Charro. He escaped an army encirclement and brought the guerrillas and their families to safety in a remote valley of the Colombian Andes, an 800-square-kilometre area called Marquetalia, 2,000 metres above sea-level; a region so abandoned by the state no one could remember ever seeing a public employee. The band composed some 200 people, of whom about forty were armed. Inspired by Jacobo Arenas, who joined Marulanda as the group's ideologue, they attempted to replicate the ideals of the Paris Commune of 1871 in the Colombian Andes, living and working collectively for social, economic and defensive objectives.

But the idea of a self-sufficient commune - a "communist enclave" in the Andes - frightened Bogota and Washington. In May 1964, after three years' intelligence gathering and planning by the CIA and US Southern Command, the Colombian army launched a massive attack on the "Independent Republic of Marquetalia." Under the auspices of the Latin American Security Operation ("Plan Laso"), the first US initiative designed to pre-empt the spread of communism after the Cuban revolution. Colombia's "communist enclaves" provided the CIA and the Pentagon with their first foray into Latin America.

"Operation Marquetalia" deployed 5,000 elite Colombian troops, backed by US helicopters and fighter-planes dropping napalm (not yet in use in Vietnam) to destroy Marulanda's guerrilla and civilian commune. The Colombian army - seemingly unaware that the guerrillas had survived, scattered, and regrouped to fight another day - claimed victory. Two years later, a message from the American embassy to the state department struck a pessimistic note:

"Confidential telegram from Bogotá Embassy to Secretary of State, July 1, 1966:

Commanding General Armed Forces June 28 told me he did not expect capture Tirofijo prior end Valencia administration. Said Tirofijo not now in Cauca but had moved to difficult area between Sumapaz and Llanos. Was confident bandit would be caught in time as others had been but did not believe this imminent owing protection he receives from peasants."

Operation Marquetalia enhanced Marulanda's legend. The joint US-Colombian attempt to destroy him, and the government's refusal to give land to some 200 destitute, landless campesino families, was the catalyst for the Farc, which he and Jacobo Arenas founded in 1964.

Also in openDemocracy on Colombia's politics and internal violence:

Isabel Hilton, "Álvaro Uribe's gift: Colombia's mafia goes legit" (25 October 2005)

Sue Branford, "Colombia's other war" (14 November 2005)

Juan Gabriel Tokatlian, "Colombia needs a Contadora: a democratic proposal" (29 May 2006)

Adam Isacson, ""The United States and Colombia: the next plan" (12 March 2007)

Jenny Pearce, "The crisis of Colombia's state" (14 May 2007)

Myles Frechette, "Colombia: interrupted lives" (21 January 2008)

Catalina Holguín, "Colombia: networks of dissent and power" (4 February 2008)

Adam Isacson, "The Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador tangle" (14 March 2008)

Jenny Pearce, "Colombia: who are the enemies of peace and democracy?" (9 April 2008)The crisis

Now that his overpowering presence is no more, Marulanda's death marks the end of an era for the insurgency that he had dominated for nearly half a century, and raises many questions for the future.

At its 1990s peak, the Farc's "army of the people" was a formidable force: more than 17,000 men and women in uniform, supported by thousands of civilian militias providing food, medical supplies and information, with an international network able to maintain fluent communications with foreign countries and ideologically allied friends. The insurgents controlled 45% of Colombian territory and were even seen as a threat to Bogotá. But Colombia did not need another army on the march, seizing territory, shelling small rural towns to bits, displacing the population, and wrecking the rural infrastucture. The Farc's army became hated and feared. The insurgency lost its most essential asset - the support of the people.

Today, the Farc is in trouble. In military terms, the rebels have lost the initiative in their war with the state. Plan Colombia is no Plan Laso. Since 2002, Plan Colombia has - at the cost of $5 billion - transformed the conduct of the war. The US counterinsurgency programme has allowed new fleets of helicopters and low-flying, silent, Brazilian Toucan bombers to be deployed, which conduct ferocious bombing and combat raids on guerrilla camps. In addition, new hi-tech satellite intelligence systems have compromised the Farc's communications, disrupting its supplies and isolating its far-flung active fronts from each other and from the secretariat's central command; while American, British and Israeli special forces have trained elite, mobile counterinsurgency commandos to infiltrate the Farc's jungle habitat and Farc units, identify potential defectors, and gather intelligence on the movements and location of guerrilla leaders. In the last year a number of senior and mid-level commanders have been killed (including Raúl Reyes, in a cross-border inside Ecuadorian territory on 1 March 2008) or have abandoned the struggle (including Nelly Avila Moreno, one of the most seasoned women commanders of a major guerrilla front, on 19 May 2008).

In political terms too, the Farc is on the defensive: bogged down in a paralysing standoff with the Uribe government over the terms of a hostage release and an exchange of prisoners. In the international arena the movement is isolated: accused of war crimes for its hostage-taking policy, and placed on the terrorist list of the countries of Europe and Latin America with whom it most wants contact and recognition of "belligerent status".

The appeal by Hugo Chávez to the Farc on 8 June 2008 that it should release the hostages it holds and end its four-decade struggle to seize power intensifies further the pressure on the movement to break with the policies of the past.

Most serious of all, the Farc is losing its own members through desertions - induced by government programmes that offer freedom, a roof, a stipend, and vast bounty payments for information leading to the arrest or death of Farc leaders. According to official sources, demoralised Farc fighters are deserting en masse, bringing valuable intelligence with them. Colombia's ministry of defence figures claim that in recent years the rebel army and militias have lost over 7,000 people. When Nelly Avila Moreno surrendered, she claimed that "the Farc is cracking", and called on her fellow commanders to quit and seek peace.

The opportunity

In the end, Marulanda's career personifies the complexities, the betrayals, the unresolved, unaddressed causes, the lost aspirations, and tragic mistakes, that have sustained and fueled Colombia's unending political violence.

Marulanda's successor is the middle-aged, middle-class, bespectacled ideologue and former anthropology student, Alfonso Cano. It remains to be seen whether he has the don de mando to impose his authority and his leadership at this crucial moment. His task will not be aided by President Álvaro Uribe's announcement of the creation of a $100 million fund to recompense Farc leaders who desert and / or who free the hostages. The reports that the Colombian army has deployed 6,000 combat troops to capture or kill him are hardly an encouragement either. But the reality is that Colombians need Cano: for if the hostages are to recover their freedom, if Colombia is to find peace, it is more important that the Farc recover its unity under Alfonso Cano's leadership, so it can rationally confront the present reality, rather than continue to fragment under the pounding of the bombs.

For the first time since the collapse of the last two, ill-fated peace processes, the Farc has a new generation of leaders from its political wing. Two of the new seven-member secretariat are medical doctors, one is a veterinarian; at this moment of crisis, serious and university-trained professionals have come to the fore. This cannot have happened fortuitously, or overnight. As in Cuba, the transition from the historic leader seems to have been carefully prepared (see Antoni Kapcia, "Cuba after Fidel: stability, movement, reform", 22 May 2008).

This means that a new leadership is in place which could offer Colombians their best chance yet of breaking through that "great mountain" of mutual ignorance and indifference which Marulanda defined as the most serious enemy in the war. "Your voices and our voices don't listen to each other, we rarely speak to each other.... Among yourselves, it's the very little you know about us, among us, it's the very little we know of your history", Marulanda told Alape long ago. The need is for dialogue. But this presents a major challenge - and not only to the Farc, but to the Colombian government and indeed to the international community. In the coming months it is more important to keep spaces open where a dialogue could commence, than to continue eliminating leaders and encouraging potential traitors. Military victory for Álvaro Uribe will not resolve the underlying causes of political violence (see Jenny Perace, "Colombia: who are the enemies of peace and democracy?", 9 April 2008)

Hugo Chávez has got it right this time: guerrilla warfare in today's Latin America is history. It spells ruin for the progressive, democratic policies that all Colombians, so desperately need. Interestingly, Chávez's words exactly echo the messages sent repeatedly to Marulanda by Fidel Castro in January-February 2002, when the last peace process was disintegrating. Marulanda, surrounded by his military leaders, refused then to listen. It was el Viejo's most tragic mistake.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData