The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has, since its emergence in 1964, represented one of the most resilient and deadly insurgent armies in the world, funded through narcotics trafficking, extortion, kidnappings and robberies. During one of its peak periods of activity, during the mid- to late-1990s, the FARC successfully carried out a number of large-scale, coordinated military operations that posed a serious threat to the continued viability of the Colombian state. Colombia’s president from 1998 to 2002, Andres Pastrana, attempted to redirect the government’s efforts from inflicting an unlikely military defeat on the FARC towards a policy grounded in a more conciliatory approach to the Marxist insurgents. That approach involved the establishment by President Pastrana of a very large – over 16,000 square miles – expanse of Colombian territory that constituted a safe haven for the FARC. Pastrana’s hopes were that the FARC would accept the government’s entreaties and negotiate an end to the conflict, which had been responsible for thousands of deaths. Rather than negotiate a resolution of its grievances, however, the FARC’s senior commanders exploited the safe haven to recruit and train more guerrillas and to continue to carry out military and terrorist operations against Colombian soldiers and civilians.
The United States, of course, was not an idle bystander during Colombia’s near-civil war. The administration of President George H.W. Bush developed a strategy to aid in the defeat of FARC called “Plan Colombia,” which provided increased military assistance, including weapons and training, along with increased measures intended to eradicate the coca crops that supported the lucrative trade in cocaine that fueled the insurgency and that also threatened the Colombian state’s survival. (Large, well-armed drug trafficking organizations, cartels, posed as serious a threat to the state as did the FARC, especially the Medellin, Cali, and Norte del Valle Cartels.) Critics of Plan Colombia argued that its emphasis on coca plant eradication and on militarily defeating the FARC ignored underlying social, economic and cultural issues, such as the economic importance to otherwise destitute Colombian farmers of the trade in coca plants, and that the focus on Colombia’s coca fields only pushed the trade to other, equally poor countries like Bolivia. Critics also pointed out that the demand in the United States and Europe for cocaine fueled the trade and the insurgencies and, absent concrete strategies to curb that demand, the war against drugs was destined to fail, leaving only thousands of dead or ruined low-income Colombian and Bolivian farmers in its wake.
While the critics were correct about the seeming futility in attempting to stop the flow of drugs into the United States, U.S. efforts at supporting the Colombian armed forces in its war against the FARC bore fruit, and the insurgency today lacks the capabilities it possessed twenty years ago. Even during the reign of Hugo Chavez, a Marxist and vehemently anti-U.S. leader in neighboring Venezuela who provided the FARC political support and safe havens inside its common border, the FARC was proving increasingly incapable of regenerating from the government’s efforts at defeating it. While the FARC continues to carry out terrorist attacks and conduct military operations in the countryside, its threat to the viability of the Colombian state was seriously diminished through the concerted military campaigns of successive presidents, especially former President Alvaro Uribe, although 2010 was a notably violent year with hundreds of deaths on each side of the conflict. Current Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has sought a more conciliatory approach to the FARC similar to that pursued by Andres Pastrana, but it is too soon to predict whether Santos will be more successful than his predecessor in negotiating a resolution of the conflict.
There is no question that demand for drugs in the United States and Europe fuels much of the global trade in narcotics. There is also little doubt that military efforts alone can seriously impede the flow of drugs into the U.S. Billions of dollars have been spent on the “war on drugs,” with little to show for the effort. To the extent that the FARC is a product of that war, however, there is little likelihood that the guerrilla insurgency would fade away absent the demand for drugs. FARC is an ideologically-driven organization that remains deeply committed to advancing its political agenda. Drug revenues are a means to funding its activities, but its Marxist agenda drives its efforts, not drug money. The best way to limit its reach, therefore, is to address the underlying causes that drive some Colombians to its side: the vast economic and social disparities that characterize not just Colombian but most Latin American societies. Most farmers (and this applies to poppy farmers in Afghanistan and Southeast Asia, as well) grow these crops because they are the most lucrative and the most hardy. Crop substitution programs in which the government provides the seeds and wherewithal to plant other types of crops instead of coca plants are worthy measures, but only insofar as these other crops provide the financial remuneration necessary to entice poor farmers to forego the more lucrative coca and poppy fields that feed America’s drug addicts. Colombia has a long and violent history, though, and cultural factors also play a role in the continued survival of the FARC. There is no reason, based upon Colombia’s history, to suggest that guerrilla insurgencies like FARC will disappear anytime soon. If one believes that FARC represents a legitimate political movement, then its survival is a precondition to serious, far-reaching reforms inside Colombia. If one believes, in contrast, that FARC is an illegitimate terrorist organization advancing an autocratic vision, then its defeat is an imperative. That defeat, however, will only occur through sustained economic, political and military action. It is hard to argue that FARC represents a legitimate political movement when its terrorist activities have defied numerous democratically-elected administrations in Bogota. The inability of successive administrations to extend their control to the country’s rural regions, however, has left a vacuum into which FARC has been only too willing to advance.