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Colombia is the first Latin American country to become subjected to the theatre of United States anti-guerrilla warfare. Colombia has also one of the richest histories of revolutionary politics on the continent extending well over half a century. It is throughout this time, that Colombia has been the battleground of an undeclared civil war.

Two mutually complementary causes are traceable. First, Colombia’s compradores, the national business and landlord classes have waged a life and death battle against the landless poor. Second, a policy of repression and repossession has been pursued by the Colombian ruling class with the financial and military support of the USA.

The aim of the US counterinsurgency has been to defeat the long and enduring struggle for national liberation by the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – Ejército del Pueblo (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army, FARC-EP), Latin America’s oldest and most powerful Marxist insurgency. Longer than Vietnam, it has been America’s longest and toughest counterinsurgency war (Leech 2011). No other Latin American country has experienced so long a period of almost undisrupted violence from the mid-twentieth century as Colombia.

Colombia’s most violent span of history has come to be known as La Violencia (1948–1958), but the class war has never ended. In 1510 Spain’s conquistadores brutally conquered Colombia which remained a Spanish colony for 300 years. In 1810 Colombia fought for its independence and won. Simon Bolivar, the South American liberator, declared the ‘Gran Colombia’ which formed modern Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Panama. A Venezuelan, Bolivar’s vision was of a united Latin America free from foreign and imperial rule. Francisco de Paula Santander, a Colombian, who fought under Bolivar’s command, led the Federalist opposition to Bolivar’s project for Latin American integration, comparing him to Napoleon and Julius Caesar (Posada 1983; Bushnell 1970).

Colombia’s independence from Spain gave rise to two main political parties, the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party. Conservatives sought a centralised government with ties to the Catholic Church and limited manhood suffrage based on ownership of property. Liberals desired a decentralised government with home rule, the separation of church and state, and voting rights for men of property and wealth. These differing ideologies shifted the vision and leadership of the country which ultimately split the Colombian bourgeoisie in 1948 igniting La Violencia (Pearce 1990).

Colombia’s political instability drew it further into the Cold War embrace of United States imperialism. In 1903 the United States dismembered part of Colombia to create Panama, valued for its American built canal and strategic location. The indecisive Thousand Days War (1889–1902) between radical factions of the Conservative and Liberal party had left Colombia too vulnerable and divided to prevent La Violencia. By the mid-twentieth century Colombian dependence upon Washington provided unity amongst the newly formed oligarchs who ruled Bogotá. Despite the consolidation of power by the Colombian ruling class the country’s unresolved land problem remained.

Power and wealth were the possession of the great landowners and urban bourgeoisie while landlessness and poverty were endured by the campesinos (peasants). FARC arose as a weapon of the wretched in the Colombian class war.Their armed struggle is not another ‘colourful episode’ in Latin American politics following Peron, Fidel and Che, the Brazilian coup, the Tupamaros, Allende’s Chile, the Sandinistas, the Shining Path, the killing fields of Central America, Chavez’ Bolivarian revolution, or Morales.

The story of the FARC remains captive to Washington and Bogotá. This article re-examines the world’s most enduring national liberation struggle against US imperialism as a ‘forgotten war,’ one which is unique both politically and historically. In this vein it will argue that the FARC is virtually unknown globally and entirely misunderstood in most political analyses. The ‘War on Terror’ continues the United States and Colombian governments commitment to destroy the FARC at the expense of social and economic inequalities in a country that is rich in natural resources including coca, the raw ingredient for processed cocaine.

Colombia remains one of the few Latin American countries in the 21st century to rely upon US sponsored security forces to maintain an oligarchy in power. The Colombian conflict is the world’s most expensive war after America’s wars in the Middle East (The Center for Public Integrity 2007). This article will explore the FARC from La Violencia to the ‘War on Terror’ and Washington’s crucial role in the Colombian conflict. This role can be seen with Obama’s attempts to install seven new US military bases in Colombia and his tacit support for the military coup in Honduras in 2009, which may serve as historical precedents for future military confrontations in the region (Grey and Azul 2009). The Colombian conflict has the potential to ignite regional conflict that may test US influence and loyalties in the Western Hemisphere.

La Violencia: Birth of the FARC

Unlike past Marxist insurgencies in Latin America and the Third World which have capitulated or turned to liberal-democratic parliamentary politics, the FARC is a powerful insurgency of the twenty-first century capable to adapt and survive overwhelming military superiority and propaganda. The reasons and motivations for the FARC’s main objective, which is to overthrow the Colombian state for the goal of socialism can only be understood with a re-examination of the Colombian conflict through pivotal moments in the nation’s troubled history.

The Spanish Conquest brought the hacienda to the New World, a system of colonial exploitation which divided the peoples of Latin America. In Colombia, the haciendas developed a rural class structure of Spanish landlords and a landless campesino peasantry. The colonisation of land by property owners was met with militant resistance by the colonos (landless workers) and peasants without a promised land (McFarlane 1993). Hundreds of major confrontations between campesinos and landlords occurred throughout the nineteenth century. The continuity of the agrarian class conflict was relived during La Violencia when the compradors unleashed their struggle against the entire nation (Pearce 1990). A Liberal presidential candidate, Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, sympathised with the need for land reform. On April 9, 1948 Gaitan was assassinated. It was the first crime believed to have been organised by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in Colombia (Weiner 2008; Idels 2002). The Bogotázo, a major uprising in the nation’s capital erupted igniting Colombia’s civil war (Ruiz 2001; FARC-EP 2000).

Landowners and Conservatives organised militias backed by the military. Communists, unions, and radicalised Liberals organised peasant based guerrilla armies and self-defense groups (Richani 2002). The Partido Comunista Colombiano (The Colombian Communist Party, PCC) aligned to Moscow played an important role by reorganising the peasant resistance and founding guerrilla base camps in the mountains. In the famous Motorcycle Diaries, Che Guevara wrote, “the atmosphere [in Colombia] is tense and it seems a revolution may be brewing. The countryside is in open revolt and the army is powerless to suppress it” (Guevara 2004, p. 157). The Colombian military with the support from US intelligence, troops, aircraft, military leaders and specialists responded by destroying the encampments. Survivors were forced to flee to distant zones in the jungle and remote villages throughout Colombia (Pearce 1990; Arenas 1972; FARC-EP 2000).

The US counterinsurgency in Colombia began on May 18, 1964. The Colombian Armed Forces surrounded Marquetalia, the principal rebel agrarian community(Schneider 2000). US advisors and Colombian veterans of the Chinese Civil War (1945-1949) and the Korean War led the campaign (Grandin 2006). Accompanied by tanks, helicopters and warplanes for bombing raids, 16,000 troops attacked what the Colombian government feared to be ‘independent republics’. Communists and peasant rebels retreated to the agricultural frontiers in Amazonia (Arenas 1972).

Modelled on the US counterinsurgency in Vietnam with the use of napalm bombs, Colombian security forces entered villages selectively torturing and killing peasants and locals (Arenas 1985). As in Indochina many atrocities were carried out followed by demonisation of national liberation forces. The United States supplied Colombia with helicopters, vehicles, communications equipment and weapons to destroy rebel communities in Marquetalia, Rio Chiquito, El Pato-Guayabero, and Santa Barbara (Rabasa and Chalk 2001; Kirk 2003). The peasants were inspired by the revolutionary examples of the Paris Commune in 1871 and the Chinese Revolution in 1949 to create Marquetalia. While the Cuban Revolution in 1959 absorbed most of the world’s attention, the Marquetalian resistance and its aftermath became legend in the Colombian public’s imagination, attracting great interest throughout Latin America (Arenas 1972).

By 1958 La Violencia cost the lives of approximately 300,000 Colombians. For the Colombian bourgeoisie its political and economic future was assured. President Alberto Lleras Camargo (1958–62) concluded that “blood and capital accumulation went together” (Pearce 1990, p. 58). Political opposition was outlawed. Repression of the people continued through the creation of the Frente Nacional (or National Front) which would last until 1974 (Richani 2002). The National Front was a political alliance between Colombia’s landowners and the urban bourgeoisie. The basis for this political arrangement was to settle differences between Conservatives and Liberals with alternating presidencies: Alberto Llera Camargo (Liberal) 1958–62; Guillermo Leon Valencia (Conservative) 1962–66; Carlos Lleras Restrepo (Liberal) 1966–70; Misrael Pastrana Borrero (Conservative) 1970–74. Communists and militant unionism became the primary targets of the National Front.

Washington’s Cold War policy of anti-communism helped to unify the Conservative and Liberal parties. Quasi-official opposition such as the Movimiento Revolucionario Liberal (Revolutionary Liberal Movement, MRL) and the Alianza Nacional Popular (National Popular Alliance, ANAPO) ran candidates on Conservative or Liberal party tickets (Osterling 1989). Unlike the rest of Latin America, where military juntas led their assault on working class and peasant movements until the return of liberal democracy in the 1980s, the National Front set the ideological foundations for Colombia’s modern political system. It successfully curbed inter-party competition, shared power with members of the ruling class, and politically demobilised the masses by permanently criminalising protest and dissent. Its main achievement was to marginalise and drive back the insurgency from the urban areas into the countryside. The possibility of a rising urban based Bogotázo was then neutralised.

The United States enlisted Colombia in its Alliance for Progress (AFP) of 1961. The Alliance for Progress financially rewarded Colombia with huge expansions in commercial agriculture and saw leading compradors represented in government (Randall 1992). The AFP was an anti-Communist program which sought to win allies and isolate the Cuban revolution of 1959 through military and economic aid (Hylton 2006; Randall 1992).

At the height of the Cold War, many left-wing intellectuals across the world supported liberation movements which sprang up across the Third World. In Latin America the Cuban revolution was a source for inspiration. In Colombia, these political developments led to the founding of the FARC in 1964 by La Violencia veterans Jacobo Arenas and Manuel Marulanda Velez, as well as other armed groups such as the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (National Liberation Army, ELN), the Ejército Popular de Liberación (Popular Liberation Army, EPL), and the Movimiento 19 de Abril (19th of April Movement, M-19) soon after (Molano 2000; Arenas 1985; Guaraca 1999).

Arenas was of proletarian origin, a trade union leader and PCC member when he met Marulanda, a young Liberal peasant leader. Marulanda joined the PCC and became a committed Marxist-Leninist. Arenas’ ideological influence combined with Marulanda’s proven military prowess throughout La Violencia was the FARC’s genesis with its peasant base and proletarian political line. Between 1970 and 1982 the FARC grew from 500 militant colonos to an army of 3000 campesinos. At the FARC’s Seventh Conference on May 4–12, 1982 the guerrillas declared, “From now on, we officially call ourselves: The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army, FARC-EP” (FARC-EP 2000, p. 26).

During the Conservative government of Belisario Betancur (1982–1986), the FARC founded the Unión Patriótica(Patriotic Union, UP party), as part of the peace negotiations that the guerrillas and sectors of the Colombian left held with the Betancur administration. From the mid 1980s to the mid 1990s, 5,000 activists and leaders including elected officials, candidates and community organisers of the UP were assassinated in a “deliberate policy of political murder” involving the Colombian military and government (Amnesty International 1988, p. 1). Eight congressmen, 70 councilmen, dozens of deputies and mayors and hundreds of trade unionists and peasant leaders were targeted and two of the UP’s presidential candidates were assassinated (Brittain 2010; Dudley 2004). Any illusions of a Colombian parliamentary road to socialism were eliminated.

From Cold War insurgents to narco-terrorist guerrillas?

The end of the Cold War was a major setback for national liberation struggles internationally. With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the debate in the West about the ‘evils’ and ‘failures’ of Soviet Communism was used to attack the relevance of revolutionary thought and organisation in a Post-Cold War world. Despite Western expectations, it did not change the popular struggle in Colombia (Petras 2001; Radu 2000). The FARC criticised the Soviet leadership for its long detour from Marxist-Leninist policies, its inefficient bureaucracy and isolation from the people, the disastrous socioeconomic effects of the Kremlin’s post-Stalinist capitalist road. FARC argued, “Many revolutionaries with weak ideological foundations and convictions came to believe the socialist ideal of building a more just and humane society was truly a utopia with no historical standing, as the imperialist propaganda claimed” (FARC-EP 2000, p. 48). According to the FARC, “what finally happened was the surrender of the achievements of socialism that gave human life more dignity by guaranteeing employment, housing, health care, education etc., to the unlimited voracity of savage capitalism” (FARC-EP 2000, p. 48).

Manuel Marulanda Velez, chief commandant of the FARC, issued a statement on the former socialist bloc:


The music about the collapse of socialism has been used to demand the Colombian guerrilla movement to surrender its arms and become part of civilian life. This is what M-19, the EPL, the Quintin Lame and the PRT did, agreeing with the government to unconditionally demobilize, thinking that the armed struggle had lost its validity. They forgot the extremely grave problems which affect the country and which were not solved by their demobilization. On the contrary, the situation in which we are living, far from having improved, has been deteriorating and at the rate we are going, things will get much worse due to the political, economic, social and cultural crisis. The validity of the armed struggle is not determined by whether the Berlin wall fell or not; it is determined by the reality of our country and here, the political, economic and social disequilibrium and the state violence that impelled the rebellion, continue in place (FARC-EP 2000, p. 48).


A massive propaganda assault targeted Marxism at the end of the Cold War (Fukuyama 1992; Huntington 1991). The corporate mass media, political, legal and educational institutions, including belief and value systems by religious organisations, discredited Marxism. Conveniently, former Marxists and apostates described themselves as ‘Post-Marxists.’ The right-wing hegemony dominated the Western intelligentsia (Petras 1998; Boron 2000). The FARC were labelled ‘narcoguerrillas.’ ‘Narcoterrorism’ had replaced ‘Communism’ in Colombia in the Washington Consensus.

The FARC closely examined the guerrillas in Central America and neighbouring Peru (Marks 2002; Passage 2000; Downes 1999). An alliance between poor peasants and urban workers was established. The unemployed, city dwellers, and indigenous peoples were recruited. Bases in both rural and urban areas were set up. Open dialogue and diplomacy was promoted with the Colombian government and the international community. And as a result of the worsening agrarian problem in Colombia, a frontier survival economy based on nomadic agricultural production which included coca was established as a means of subsistence (Richani 2002).

The term ‘narcoterrorist’ was introduced when an emerging ‘Crystal Triangle’ in Bolivia, Peru and Colombia recorded high levels of cocaine production in the early 1980s. These changes in Colombia’s political economy had its roots in the nation’s land problem. For Colombia the 1980s became known as the ‘cocaine decade’.

During the Reagan presidency ‘narcoterrorism’ had been invented to condemn the left-wing Sandinista government in Nicaragua as a base of Soviet influence in Central America and a centre of ‘narcoterrorism’ (Scott and Marshall 1998). Rachel Ehrenfeld (1986, 1988, 1990)of the American Center for Democracy emphasised the idea of a ‘narcoterrorist’ label in three books on the subject.[1]Latin American guerrilla movements were described as ‘narcoterrorists’ linked to Cuba and the Soviet Union. In Cold War scholarship ‘narcoterrorism’ was defined as encompassing “a variety of phenomena: guerrilla movements financed by drugs or taxes on drug traffickers, drug syndicates using terrorist methods to counter the state’s law enforcement apparatus, and state-sponsored terrorism associated with drug crimes” (Lupsha 1989, p. 72). Ehrenfeld argued that with the demise of the East European Socialist bloc, ‘narcoterrorism’ replaced the ideological foundations of the FARC with alleged links to the drug trade through Colombia’s Medellin drug cartel, the Sandinista government, and Cuba. Leading US counterinsurgency experts promoted Ehrenfeld’s thesis to capitalise on an invented social panic about terrorists and drug traffickers to mobilise support for foreign interventions against leftist regimes in Latin America (Waghelstein 1987).

Most academic analyses and popular commentary depict FARC as a drug trafficking organisation which dominate the Colombian cocaine trade. However, coca is cultivated throughout the country. Recent fieldwork shows that the FARC has been the dominant political force in nearly 60 percent of Colombian territory which includes rural areas without coca (Brittain 2010). According to widely varying estimates, the export of cocaine is worth between $4 to $25 billion a year (Rohter 1999; Steiner 1999; Flounders and Gutierrez 2003). The ‘narcoterrorist’ agenda defames and demonises the FARC in line with American and Colombian official sources. It misrepresents the role of coca in the insurgency as ‘cocaine.’ The Washington Post reports US aid to fight terrorism and drug trafficking in Colombia has been tied to “abuses of power” and “political agendas”.

Military and economic aid titled “Plan Colombia” has been also used to carry out spying operations and smear campaigns against political opponents including Supreme Court judges investigating the Colombian government rather than drug trafficking. Myles Frechette, a former US ambassador to Colombia argues the Department of Administrative Security (DAS, Colombia’s intelligence agency) has some of the hallmarks of a criminal enterprise (DeYoung and Duque 2011). Key American agencies the CIA, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Internal Revenue Service (IRS) have worked closely with Colombia’s DAS.

The FARC tax only six-tenths of a percent from the peasants who have no choice but to grow coca for their subsistence. The peasants earn a living from the cash crop which sells at an average of US$1.50 per kilogram, far more than coffee, or any other crop (Roskin 2002). A major study in 1999 by Colombia’s National Planning Department and the Colombian Army estimated that both the FARC and ELN earned twice as much by employing Bolshevik methods of kidnapping and robbery than from any alleged ‘drug trafficking’ activities (Foreign Broadcast Information Service 2005).[2]No more than 2.5 percent of all coca cultivation activity is traceable to the insurgents and is confined only to taxation within Colombia (Wilson 2003). Colombian intelligence reports claim the 2.5 percent is attributed to “cocaine exports”, whereas right-wing paramilitary militias of the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia or the AUC, now renamed the ‘Black Eagles’) control 40 percent (Scott 2003). The rest is attributed to Colombia’s comprador narcobourgeoisie (Villar 2007). Their collective annual income is estimated to vary from US$3 billion to $4 billion which is approximately 4% of Colombia’s GDP (Richani 2002). The United Nations estimates 48% of Colombia’s land is owned by wealthy absentee landlords who comprise 1.3 percent of the population (Reyes 1997). Poor peasants who account for over 68 percent of the population, own less than 5 percent of the land. Forty-two percent of the arable land is owned by the so-called ‘drug mafia’ (Knoester 1998).

Right-wing paramilitary groups with ties to former President Alvaro Uribe Velez and his successor defence minister Juan Manuel Santos have been involved in Colombian DAS and US DEA controversies involving drug trafficking and money laundering scandals (The National Security Archive 2004; Villar and Cottle 2011; Drug Enforcement Administration 2001; Conroy 2006; Petras 2010).The ‘narcoterrorist’ label promotes the conventional view that FARC are terrorists connected to drug trafficking and the US and Colombian states are together fighting a ‘War on Drugs and Terror.’

Two Colombias

The conflict between US counterinsurgent forces and the FARC reveals an impressively well-organised power struggle in the country. The FARC cannot be described as simply a ‘peasant army’ but more accurately a ‘people’s army’ which inhabits the same environment of the general population (Kalyvas 2006). According to field research FARC leaders hold great prestige among the peasantry. In conservative areas of the countryside, the FARC are respected not feared for their integrity and defense against reactionary forces (Brittain 2010; Gildhodes 1970). The Argentine revolutionary, Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara described Marulanda, former Chief Commandant of the FARC, as an ‘outstanding’ revolutionary leader and Colombia the scene of many ‘great battles’ with US imperialism (Guevara 1967). What once began as a mission of the Colombian army, backed by the United States financially and militarily, to attack and destroy peasant-based subsistence communities in the southern mountains of Colombia, has evolved into a high-intensity class conflict that is well hidden from the rest of the world. The ‘War on Terror’ initiated by President George W. Bush has intensified the Colombian conflict from a war of position pre-September 11, to a struggle of dual power.

The principal political forces under arms in this conflict are the FARC and the Colombian state backed by the United States. Right-wing paramilitary forces are misleadingly described as ‘third parties’ in this conflict in most commissioned studies. Analysts from different perspectives (Brittain 2010; Richani 2002; Marks 2002; Rabasa and Chalk 2001; Passage 2000; Ruiz 2001; Downes 1999; Radu 2000; Beckley 2002; Petras 2003; Rempe 2002; Bergquist, Peñaranda, and Sanchez 2001; Suarez 2003)agree that FARC deserves serious examination as the most powerful political and military force in the country with the aim and capacity to overthrow the Colombian state.

Since the beginning of the new millennium, the Colombian conflict has reflected a distinctive feature of a revolutionary situation which Lenin (1917)described as ‘dual power’: when an incumbent government is weak in its claim to rule and instead, another government has arisen and attempts to rule. A ‘counter-government’ exists in Colombia. It represents a powerful political, economic, and military force in the country. Dual power has emerged in Colombia in the struggle for state power and has taken on a new form as a result of the political and economic conflict between the compradors and the peasantry, which is linked to the nation’s centuries old land problem. The political and economic importance of FARC in the conflict has created the following scenario: US and Colombian state power versus the clandestine state-making project of the insurgency.

FARC is a resourceful and modern, self-reliant guerrilla army according to American military science (Marks 2002). The ‘War on Terror’ has practically assured that Colombia remains a regime of the comprador class in the cities and landlord class in the countryside. Despite promises by former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe (2002-10) to defeat the FARC the insurgents remain a powerful force. The national business class have turned paramilitaries into counterinsurgents and the Colombian state has declared war on the Colombian left with state terror (Ospina 2008; Taussig 2003). A ‘centre-left’ social-democratic party named the Polo Democratico Alternativo (Alternative Democratic Pole, PDA) has emerged seeking to reform Colombian politics. However the PDA is considered no threat by leading Colombian politicians and paramilitaries which, according to former AUC chief Salvatore Mancuso, 100 politicians in Congress have direct links to paramilitaries (Thompson 2008; Leech 2011).

During the Andres Pastrana government (1998–2002) FARC controlled San Vicente Del Caguan, known as the zona de despeje or the demilitarised zone (DMZ). The DMZ consisted of five municipalities where tens of thousands of workers and peasants lived and participated in its daily management (Resistencia International, 2001). London’s Telegraph described San Vicente Del Caguan as “ ‘FARClandia,’ the world’s newest country” (Lamb 2000). To justify invading the DMZ, on February 21, 2002 Pastranaaccused the FARC of running a lucrative drug-trafficking business from San Vicente and of hiding kidnapping victims in the zone (Ruth 2002). Under pressure by the United States, Pastrana ordered the Colombian military to invade the zone and the Colombian air force to bomb its communities (Hylton 2006). Anticipating a military attack on the zone’s population, FARC ordered residents to evacuate and retreat to nearby mountain jungles where most of the guerrillas were located (Reuters 2002).

As with Marquetalia in 1964, the Colombian military offensive on San Vicente Del Caguan was an attack on FARC’s ability to construct an alternative socialist society, it had little to do with ‘drug trafficking’ or ‘terrorism’ charges. The hardening of the regime’s position was a response to the intensifying class struggle and the growing frustration of the Colombian ruling class and the rising dissatisfaction by their US backers. The FARC’s ‘independent republic’ of San Vicente was the safest region in all Colombia (Hylton 2006).

The FARC melted into the jungles and towns across the country. The insurgents established a strategy of solid local support and a frontier survival war economy. In their goal to create a ‘New Colombia,’ today there are two Colombias. One is west of the Cordillera Oriental, where much of this area is high country. It is there that the country’s productive forces are concentrated. The other, east of the mountains, the IIanos, is savannah, vast plains, and Amazon, the jungle. More than 95 percent of the populace live in the high country. The other 5 percent and key insurgent formations are in the second zone. FARC has been, in many respects, a large foco in search for a mass base. The FARC stand out from all other insurgencies for their endurance in waging political struggle through guerrilla warfare and clandestine support.

The number of FARC combatants have increased to at least 40,000, sixty-fold since its original founding (Brittain 2010; Delgado 2008). By the new millennium, FARC stood as a regular army with 60 fronts and support bases in barrios across the country (Brittain 2010). Their numbers of militant supporters in the nation’s capital Bogotá were estimated to be between 2,000 and 2,500 and between 4,000 and 6,000 nationwide. Latest reports indicate that since the mid-2000s FARC could number up to 50,000 fighters or more (Brittain 2010).

The rebel organisation has built an administration and physical infrastructure for its constituents which have enabled FARC to move from a war of position to the reality of dual power. In areas of guerrilla control, the Colombian state can no longer destroy communities such as Marquetalia in 1964 or San Vicente Del Caguan in 2002 unless it is prepared for a long and costly fight. Dual power for the FARC is a war for territory where laws and institutions are established to create an alternative political community with guerrilla leadership and a mass support base. The conflict between the US backed Colombian state and the FARC has emerged as a war for hegemony.

FARC’s state-making capability parallels the expansion of its base areas in the IIanos, Putumayo, Guaviare, Meta, and Caqueta. Collecting taxes is the job of the guerrillas in their zones of control, which consist of villages, municipalities, and regions. It is a governmental role which challenges the Colombian state. FARC channels funds to its fighting forces as well as to vocational schools, public health, environmental protection, and road paving in the midst of war (Richani 2002). The guerrillas play an important role in areas where they can exercise or project influence. They denounce public officials for corruption and demand re-investment for public works. Corrupt governors, local council members, alcaldes (mayors), and even senators are subject to ‘guerrilla justice’ for crimes of treason, murder, or other serious charges which are resolved through a people’s court or Cuban style firing squads (Richani 2002; FARC-EP 2000).

The political impact of FARC in the ‘other’ Colombia can be understood as almost undisputed territorial control with the ability to manage commerce, provide transport, health, and education services, as well as employment. The guerrillas have been known to force employers to provide work and better pay for the townspeople, and in extreme circumstances, have threatened to burn down the means of production (Taussig 2003). In many municipalities of these areas, the only authority, beyond the symbolic state police station in the capital centres of the municipalities, is that of the FARC, which has been the sole provider of essential public services ranging from clean water to public safety (Vargas 1994).

FARC has been able to recruit and establish forces, to the point of encircling the capital Bogotá, and other key cities, by consolidating its power base in the Cordillera Oriental. In the Alto Naya, nearly all of the guerrilla fighters are Indians from the mountains of the Cordillera Central, running north to south along the eastern side of the valley (Taussig 2003). In the mountains, the landlords have waged a war against the indigenous groups, while pursuing their continual war against the peasant. As a response FARC has expanded its military presence in nine municipalities in Cundinamarca, primarily those adjacent to the area of Meta, a FARC traditional stronghold, and Boyaca. This has generated systematic effects of dual power with the ruling regime becoming less stable as FARC guerrillas tax landlords, cattle ranchers, drug traffickers, and multinational corporations which include Westinghouse, Occidental Oil, British Petroleum, BP, Merielectric, and TPL (Richani 2002).[3]

The narcobourgeoisie has responded by contracting private security firms alongside their militias for limpieza or ‘social cleansing’ murder campaigns (Jervis 1999). There are approximately 400 US military personnel in Colombia working as private contractors and trainers to support the Colombian army, thousands of paramilitaries, and hundreds more soldiers for hire are from the US and across Latin America (Garamone 2004; The Center for International Policy”s Colombia Program 2001). In the urban areas, this polarisation of the conflict between rich and poor has drawn the homeless, street vendors, prostitutes, homosexuals, drug addicts, street children, and informal garbage collectors, into supporting or joining the FARC (Flounders and Gutierrez 2003; Richani 2002; Villar and Cottle 2011). Remaining marginalised groups are coerced into the Colombian state’s network of spies, collaborators, and killers set up by Alvaro Uribe Velez and Juan Manuel Santos (Rabasa and Chalk 2001).

The Colombian oligarchy has amassed every resource at its disposal to obliterate the peasant guerrillas. In turn, the FARC have established a frontier survival war economy built on its mass support base. Experts from former US ambassador to El Salvador Robert White to Colombian historian Herbert Braun argue that FARC cannot be militarily defeated (Braun 2003; Ungerman and Brohy 2003; Murch 2000). The insurgency strategy has consolidated power in local areas for the armed struggle and has demonstrated a political commitment to its constituency in rebel held areas. The insurgents coerce private and public enterprises of the ruling class and are active in their support for the labour movement in Colombia. This strategic expansion by the guerrillas was a planned retaliation to the counterinsurgency strategy. It had two main objectives, to move the war closer to urban centres and intermediate cities and to exert mounting political pressure on the state and the ruling class to increase its finances. These significant developments were influenced by the events of September 11, 2001 in New York and Washington DC, as both the Colombian state’s political and financial dependency on the US to fight the FARC via the ‘War on Drugs-War on Terror-Narcoterrorism’ paradigm intensified under the Bush administration after 9/11. The Colombian conflict has taken on an ideological as well as a military and economic shape to combat the guerrillas.

A dangerous border zone

The United States’ Colombian counterinsurgency directs the war on the Colombian left and labour movement with a constant flow of funding and military assistance. Without American backing the Uribe-Santos narco-paramilitary regime would be isolated to growing political opposition. The FARC’s strength is a challenge to an emerging security crisis in the Andean region which threatens US control of the hemisphere. It highlights the vulnerability of a dangerous border zone linking the territories of Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Panama, and Brazil. The US military and political intervention in Colombia has triggered ongoing fears of a ‘Vietnamisation’ of the region (Flounders and Gutierrez 2003; Dent 1999; Loveman 2006). This US engagement in Colombia represents America’s battle for hegemony and influence on the continent.

According to a US Government Accountability Office report in 2008 US assistance to the Colombian military and National Police has reached nearly $4.9 billion since the fiscal year 2000 (Government Accountability Office 2008). Colombia remains the leading recipient of US military aid and training in the world second only to Israel, Egypt and funding for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (The Center for Public Integrity 2007). During Uribe’s presidency, Colombia received $6 billion from the Bush administration with the annual total falling slightly under Obama to just over a half a billion dollars in combined aid this year (DeYoung and Duque 2011). Colombia is the theatre for the US ‘War on Drugs and Terror’ in the Western hemisphere.

The Venezuelan government of Hugo Chavez has long held that the Colombian situation could lead to a “Vietnamisation of the whole region”. Ecuadorians fear that if Colombia becomes ‘the next Vietnam’ Ecuador will be “the next Cambodia” (Jelsma 2001). In May 2004, Venezuelan security forces captured 86 Colombian paramilitaries. They were arrested near the outskirts of Caracas wearing Venezuelan army uniforms in a country house belonging to a “radical member of the opposition”, an anti-Castro Cuban who resides in Miami (Marquez 2004; Corto 2004). Chavez said the aborted plan of invasion was, “thought up, planned and led by an international network – two of whose hubs are Miami, Florida and Colombia with the complicity of unpatriotic Venezuelans”.

The United States has used Colombia as a proxy state against Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and any potential enemy in the region wanting to break free from US imperialism. President Barack Obama has effectively neutralised Venezuela as America’s leading foe in the region and a potential ally of the FARC. Bordering on Panama, Colombia is also a potential launching pad for attacks on Central American nations Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador. These efforts to neutralise Chavez commenced in 2009 with Obama’s tacit support for the military coup in Honduras on June 28 and his plans to install seven new US military bases in Colombia on October 30. In Colombia, the Uribe government welcomed a delegation from the Honduran coup regime. Colombian officials stated their support for the new Honduran government while Obama portrayed himself as a defender of democracy with condemnations of the ousted President Manuel Zelaya (Leech 2009).

While Obama reduced military and economic aid to Honduras he refused to withdraw either the US ambassador or US troops from the country. No pressure was applied to Washington to the coup regime to unconditionally surrender power. The US refused to defend Zelaya. As Zelaya stressed, “the United States only needs to tighten its fist and the coup will last five seconds” (Reuters 2009). According to Zelaya, the coup was planned by the US. The ouster was the result of adopting measures in 2006 that affected US oil companies and a plan to convert the US built Palmerola airbase into a civilian airport. Another reason was his rejection of the recessionary policies of the IMF in favour of subsidising transportation and boosting wages. Washington did not approve of Honduras’ decision to join Venezuela’s Petrocaribe initiative, under which Caribbean and Central American nations receive Venezuelan oil on generous terms (Latin American Herald Tribune 2010). Brazil not the US gave Zelaya sanctuary to the Honduran president in the embassy in the capital, Tegucigalpa. The Brazilian President Lula da Silva warned the coup regime not to enter its embassy and to respect its diplomatic status, thereby allowing Zelaya to remain in Honduras (Leech 2009).

On October 30, 2009 Obama and Uribe signed a military agreement which gave Washington access to seven military bases in Colombia. White House and Colombian officials argued the agreement was aimed at fighting “drug traffickers” and guerrillas within Colombian borders. A US Air Force document states the agreement offered a “unique opportunity” for conducting “full spectrum operations” in the region against various threats, including “anti-U.S. governments”, a euphemism to describe leftist governments which resist US control of its own affairs (The United States Air Force 2009). The Pentagon sought access to the bases in Colombia after Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa cancelled the lease for the US military base in Manta, Ecuador. The US capability in Colombia is greater than at Manta (Dangl 2010).

These moves by Obama in Bolivar’s Gran Colombia do not suggest US influence in Latin America is in decline. Rather, it demonstrates a readjustment of US foreign policy from Republican confrontation under George W. Bush vis-à-vis a strategy of Democrat diplomacy and counterinsurgency operations under Obama. When considering this shift of US strategy, the most serious of border zone security issues was ignited on March 1, 2008 when the Colombian air force bombed a FARC camp in Ecuador during Bush’s last term in office, killing the FARC emissary Raul Reyes and 24 foreign sympathisers (including four Mexicans and an Ecuadorian). The bombing raid detonated the worst crisis of inter-American diplomacy of the last decade.

Washington feared that Chavez in Venezuela and Correa in Ecuador could leave Colombia sandwiched between two leftist governments. Under pressure from the Bush administration, the crisis stemmed from Uribe’s dismissal of Chavez as a mediator in the Colombian conflict. Uribe chose instead his allies the governments of France, Spain, Switzerland and the Catholic Church (Lucas 2008; Reuters 2007).

At half past midnight on March 1, 2008 the Colombian air force fired precision guided bombs into a FARC camp 1.8 kilometres inside the border in a difficult jungle area of Ecuador known as Angostura. According to a report by the Ecuadorean government, ‘The strategic intelligence processed at the [former] base in Manta was fundamental in tracking down and locating Raul Reyes as the primary target’ (Reuters 2009). Uribe informed Correa nine hours later about the attack on Ecuadorian sovereignty. Backed by Venezuela, Correa ordered the Ecuadorean Army to the border and suspended diplomatic relations with Colombia the next day. In support of Correa, Chavez mobilised troops on the border. Despite US backing for Colombia, Uribe backed down by not sending troops to confront the forces of Venezuela and Ecuador (Marcella 2008).

On March 8, 2008 the Summit of the Group of Rio meeting unanimously condemned Colombia’s violation of Ecuadorian sovereignty. On March 17, 2008, the Organisation of American States (OAS) however rejected the incursion on the grounds of fighting ‘terrorism,’ stating the international law principle: “no state or group of states has the right to intervene, either directly or indirectly, for whatever motive, in the internal or external affairs of another” (El Tiempo 2008). Latin American efforts towards integrationism led by the Venezuelan government failed to unconditionally condemn Colombia for its violation. Cuba’s rejection for OAS membership in June 2009 protested the role of the organisation. Fidel Castro recalled a lesson from the siege of Troy, pointing to the OAS for having “opened the gates” to what he described as the Trojan horse of “US post-colonial despotism” (Xihuanet 2009). This view was supported by Chavez, Correa, Zelaya and Bolivian president Evo Morales.

Since Colombia’s attack on March 1, 2008 any present danger arising from Colombia’s own border zones appear to have been neutralised with Colombia’s new President Juan Manuel Santos. Political differences between Uribe and Santos over FARC have surfaced. Santos has introduced legislation that provides reparations to victims of the conflict and the restoration of lands seized from peasants by right-wing paramilitaries and landowners. Uribe argues Santos has ‘retreated’ from the FARC and has criticised him for establishing friendly diplomatic relations with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (Boadle 2011).

Under Uribe, Colombia was facing increasing isolation from the continent in return for its subservient relationship with Washington. However the countries of Venezuela, Ecuador, Panama and Brazil remain concerned about the prospects of the Colombian conflict spreading into their countries. Despite strengthened Colombian-Venezuelan relations, US support for the ‘War on Terror’ adds to a heightened insecurity. The FARC are ‘terrorists’ to the United States, the European Union and Colombia, but debated within the OAS and in most Latin American countries (Marcella 2008).

The ambivalence is demonstrated by Hugo Chavez’s position who has declared the FARC as a belligerent force not a terrorist group, whilst reaffirming the “guerrilla war is history” (Wolf 2008; BBC News 2008). The Uribe-Chavez diplomatic border crisis strained Venezuelan-Colombian relations but later forced Chavez to prioritise national security concerns above international left-wing opinion or judgement (Petras 2010). The UK’s decision in 2009 to end nearly a decade of military aid to Colombia’s armed forces due to gross violations of human rights, including extrajudicial executions of civilians dressed as guerrillas (known as the ‘false positives’ scandal), exacerbates regional anxiety and tensions as well as divided loyalties to Washington (Brodzinsky 2009). The ‘War on Terror’ serves mixed nationalist agendas in Latin America.

A report published in 2009 by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) found arm sales to Latin America had risen 150 per cent over the past five years, compared with the previous five years (Holtom et al. 2010). An arms build up centred on the Colombian conflict is occurring in Latin America. A $5 billion arms deal between Russia and Venezuela reignited concerns about a Latin American arms race, with Alvaro Uribe, Colombia’s former president, warning that competitive spending on weapons was “enormously harmful” (Mapstone 2010). On September 2009, Correa announced he would accept Chavez’s offer to assist in strengthening its security capabilities by donating six Mirage 50 jets to Ecuador. Uribe has stressed the importance of viewing the Colombian conflict as an internal threat to its security.

Chavez however still feels threatened by the US-Colombian agreement to give US forces access to seven Colombian military bases. Venezuela now views Colombia’s partnership with Obama as a potential threat, by increasing its deep-strike capacity with some $4.4 billion in arms purchases from Russia since 2005, including Kalashnikov assault rifles, 20 fighter planes and 51 helicopters under agreement (Mapstone 2010). A plan to build a Kalashnikov factory has been discussed. During a visit to Caracas by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, it was promised Venezuela would receive a $2.2 billion loan (Medetsky 2010). The Obama administration has been looking closely into media reports Venezuela might be receiving technical help on civilian nuclear power from Iran, which has developed close ties with the South American state and is accused by the US and its allies of seeking nuclear weapons ( 2009). Given Colombia’s status as a leading recipient of US military aid and training the need to understand the Colombian conflict as a revolutionary conflict involving historical enemies is timely and critical.


The FARC-EP are an inherent part of Colombia’s troubled history and a principal threat to US control and influence in the Western Hemisphere. As a deep rooted insurgency, the FARC will remain a potent and formidable force for the United States and its client state Colombia. The US-Colombian alliance leads the anti-FARC campaign in Latin America. The conflict will continue to be misrepresented as one fuelled with ‘cocaine money’ and ‘terrorism’ as a class war engulfs Santander’s anti-Bolivarian Colombia with scandals and controversies which Obama views as “a potentially failed state under terrorist siege” (DeYoung and Duque 2011). This ‘forgotten war’ will lead to many challenges for the United States, Colombia and its cautious neighbours. President Santos will have the task of securing Colombian borders with potentially ‘hostile’ Venezuela and Ecuador but with also Panama, Peru and Brazil as ‘moderate’ states in the eyes of Washington.

The FARC’s ongoing military and political proficiency will make Colombia’s president’s mission doubly complicated by the unforgiving geography in Colombia, on the Venezuelan side of its border, in much of the Amazonian basin, and even on the north-western border with Panama. The contrasting views on FARC and security and the assumed role of the OAS for ‘peace and diplomacy’ with handshakes and abrazos between Santos and Chavez are very much part of the Latin American political culture. However they leave unfinished the tasks of Latin American integrationism of the kind envisioned by Simon Bolivar and promised by Hugo Chavez. Paradoxically, both Chavez’ diplomacy towards Colombia and Obama’s strategy to isolate the FARC have allowed the US counterinsurgency to continue in this potentially explosive ‘cockpit’ of Latin America. From La Violencia to the ‘War on Terror,’ only the Colombian people under arms can set themselves free from the state terror of ultra ‘conservative’ politics that has historically plagued the nation and benefited only the North American imperial overlord.

[Oliver Villar is a lecturer in Politics at Charles Sturt University. He has published broadly on the Inter-American cocaine drug trade, the US war on drugs and terror in Colombia and US-Colombian relations. His forthcoming co-authored book, Cocaine, Death Squads, and the War on Terror: U.S. Imperialism and Class Struggle in Colombia is a study of the political economy of Colombia, cocaine, and the US imperial state and the class war underpinning the ‘War on Terror’ in Colombia.

[Drew Cottle is a senior lecturer in Politics at the University of Western Sydney. He has written extensively on international political economy and revolutionary struggles in the Third World. His book, The Brisbane Line: A Re-Appraisal was a study of inter-imperialist rivalry and potential collaboration in Australia prior to the Pacific War. He is the co-author of Cocaine, Death Squads, and the War on Terror.]


1. Ehrenfeld is also a member of the Committee on the Present Danger (CPD), a neo conservative lobby group chaired by former CIA Director James Woolsey. CPD was the first to allege the Saddam Hussein – Al Qaeda link after September 11. Ehrenfeld was a participant in a series of Western intelligence conferences held in Israel in 2003.

2. This analysis was published in Colombia’s El Tiempo on May 17, 1999. The CIA’s FBIS is now called the Open Source Center.

3. According to Richani, these corporations have been involved in an arrangement with the FARC for local projects and social investment. They are just a few examples of concrete cases that his field study in Colombia found.


 Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal By Oliver Villar and Drew Cottle, November 3, 2011.


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Oliver Villar and Drew Cottle