Steven Lydon is a PhD candidate in German philosophy at Harvard University
On Sunday, Colombia will choose governors, mayors, and city councillors across the country in elections already marred by violence. Last Friday, 10 soldiers were killed in an ambush near the Ecuadoran border in what the army said was the deadliest attack this year. It was attributed it to the FARC-EP, one of the oldest and most dangerous insurgent forces in the world.
FARC-EP is a leftist revolutionary organization that purports to represent the rural poor in a struggle against Colombia's wealthier classes. It was established as a military wing of the Colombian Communist Party in the aftermath of La Violencia in 1964. They oppose United States influence in Colombia and the monopolization of natural resources by multinational corporations.
From 1999 to 2008, the group was estimated to control up to 40% of the territory in Colombia, with the largest concentrations of guerrillas in the southeast. There are different estimates for the organization's membership. From about 18,000 in 2007, President Juan Manuel Santos claimed the number had diminished to 8,000 in 2011. Other sources report up to 11,200 members.
In 2008 the Colombian military killed Raúl Reyes, FARC-EP's second-in-command. This was soon followed by the killing of Ivan Rios, another member of FARC-EP's seven-man Secretariat, by his own bodyguard. More recently, Colombian authorities announced the death of Mono Jojoy on September 23, 2010. These deaths were considered the biggest blow against the group in its four decades of existence.
Yet attacks against security forces have increased every year since 2005: in the first 6 months of 2011 an estimated 1,115 attacks were launched against the army and police. In 2010, 460 soldiers were killed.
FARC-EP is described as a terrorist organization by the Colombian, US, and EU governments. It receives most of its funding from the illegal drug trade, ransom kidnappings, bank robberies, and extortion of large landholders, multinational corporations, and agribusiness. Its total revenue has been estimated to average $300 million per year.
Such methods have alienated those who might support its ideals. Jason Suarez, a Bogotán resident, said, "The FARC-EP's initial idea of equality is lost and gone. Now it's just about raw economic profit for these people, though they still try to present themselves to the public as being about revolution and social equality."
The group has employed improvised mortars made from gas canisters, and according to the ICBL Landmine and Cluster Munitions Monitor, they are "the most prolific current user of antipersonnel mines among rebel groups anywhere in the world." Human Rights Watch says this displays the "group's flagrant disregard for lives of civilians."
FARC-EP is responsible for most of the ransom kidnappings in Colombia. According to the Fundación País Libre, an estimated 6,778 people were kidnapped by FARC-EP between 1997 and 2007. In 2009, Fondelibertad reviewed 3,307 officially unsettled cases.
Initially targeting the families of drug traffickers, the wealthy upper class, and foreigners, the group later expanded its kidnapping and extortion operations to include the middle class.
During the 1984 peace negotiations, FARC-EP pledged to stop kidnapping. However, hostage-taking actually increased in the following years. In 1997, Commander Alfonso Cano argued that some guerrilla units continued to kidnap for "political and economic reasons" in spite of the prohibition issued by the leadership.
Margarita Santiago is a student in Bogotá. In 2000 her father, who owned a small pharmacy, was kidnapped by the FARC-EP. "My opinion of the FARC-EP has changed over the years," she says. "They began with an ideal that many could agree with, namely to fight for the rights of the people. Over the years that ideal has changed. The group became a business subsisting on war, kidnapping, and drug trafficking. My father suffered greatly." He was returned after a week once the family paid a ranson of 500 million Colombian pesos, or about $268,500.
Despite this, the Venezuelan, Brazilian, and Argentinian governments view the FARC-EP as a military rather than a terrorist force. Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez stated in January 2008 that these were "real armies" and called for recognition of the guerrillas as a "belligerent force." This would, he argued, oblige them to renounce kidnappings and terror acts.
Chávez strongly stated his disapproval with the FARC-EP strategy of armed struggle and kidnapping. "If I were a guerrilla, I wouldn't have the need to hold a woman, a man who aren't soldiers," he said. "Free the civilians who don't have anything to do with the war."
Fidel Castro publicy demanded the unconditional freeing of "all the hostages and prisoners still under their control," and denounced the practice as "cruel."
According to a 2006 U.S. Department of Justice indictment, the FARC-EP supplies more than 50 percent of the world's cocaine. A 2007 UN World Drug report says the bulk of drug trafficking is controlled by professional drug-smuggling groups, while FARC-EP focuses on the cultivation and processing of coca.
In 2001, the Bush administration expanded Plan Colombia, aimed at curbing drug smuggling, with about $380 million in funding. It is worth remembering that as of 2004, Colombia was the fifteenth largest supplier of oil to the United States and could potentially rise in that ranking if extraction could be conducted in a "more secure environment."
In June 2000, Amnesty International criticized Plan Colombia as "seriously flawed" because of its "drug-focused analysis of the roots of the conflict and the human rights crisis." They claimed it ignored both "the Colombian state's own historical and current responsibility" and the "deep-rooted causes of the conflict and the human rights crisis."
Authors Doug Stokes and Francisco Ramirez Cuellar argue that the main intent of Plan Colombia is not drug eradication but the routing of leftist guerrillas. They say peasants are also a target due to their calls for social reform that would hinder international exploitation of Colombia's resources.
Furthermore, a United Nations study reported that elements within the Colombian security forces, which have been strengthened due to Plan Colombia, continue to maintain intimate relationships with right-wing death squads that either participate in abuses and massacres directly or deliberately fail to take action to prevent them.
With the recent election of Juan Manuel Santos, who was elected on the basis of crushing FARC-EP, it seems clear that the group could better reach its own goals by renouncing its violent methods. But it doesn't seem able to stop.
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