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Colombia: the FARC returns to war?

As killings of social leaders and ex-guerrillas mount, FARC's former second-in-command announces the renewal of hostilities



The recent announcement by Iván Márquez – the second highest commander of the original Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) – that sections of South America’s largest demobilised guerrilla movement are returning to war, should come as little surprise to some observers of Latin America. In a recent video, Márquez, whose real name is Luciano Marín, said that the Colombian State has failed to implement its promised land reform for peasants as established in the 2016 Peace accords.

Former FARC Second-in-command Ivàn Márquez announces the return to armed struggle. Video: Eurnews, 29 August 2019

From the rebel’s perspective, the Attorney General, ultra right-wing members of Congress, former president Álvaro Uribe Vélez and current president Iván Duque Márquez are to blame for the failure of the peace agreement. The Embassy of the United States in Bogota was also mentioned.

Elaborating on the breakdown of the accords Márquez stated:

‘When we signed the agreement of Havana, we did it with conviction that it was possible to change the lives of the humble and the dispossessed. But the State has not fulfilled even the most important of the obligations, that is to guarantee the lives of its citizens and particularly to prevent their murder for political reasons. All of this, this trick, this betrayal, this perfidy, the unilateral modification of the text of the accord, the unfulfilled commitments on the part of the State, the judicial setups and insecurity have obliged us to return to the mountains.’   

The FARC dissidents

Accompanied by close to twenty armed men and women, including ex-rebel leaders Hernán Darío Velásquez (alias ‘El Paisa’), who was once commander of the guerrillas’ strongest military wing, the Teófilo Forero Column, and Seuxis Pausías Hernández (alias Jesús Santrich), Márquez added that: ‘[i]n two years, more than 500 social leaders have been killed and 150 guerrilla fighters are dead amidst the indifference and the indolence of the state.’

According to the dissident commander, the majority of Colombians do not support a war with neighbouring Venezuela while this branch of the FARC will look to establish an alliance with the National Liberation Army (ELN) – historically, Colombia’s second largest rebel group and currently the only one not to have signed a peace agreement.

Shortly after Márquez’s declaration, president Duque Márquez claimed that he ordered an offensive against the ‘gang of narco terrorists that has the shelter and support of the dictatorship of Nicolas Maduro’ in Venezuela. For its part, the FARC, which now goes under the name Common Alternative Revolutionary Force, expelled Márquez along with five other commanders. The FARC claim the majority of their rank and file are still committed to the 2016 Peace accord.

The FARC leadership responds to Iván Márquez’ announcement. Video: El Tiempo, 29 August 2019

Commenting on developments in Colombia on PBS NewsHour, Latin American studies expert Cynthia Arnson from the Wilson Centre in Washington was recently asked if there was any truth in the accusations made by the dissenting rebels. From her perspective, ‘there is truth’ in their claims as ‘about 130 to 150 members of the FARC that had demobilized have been killed’ while there are ‘hundreds and hundreds of social leaders, of even government officials that are based in Colombian communities, that have been killed with impunity.’ Arnson notes that the United Nations Verification Mission in Colombia has condemned these assassinations. 

Despite her previous remarks, Arnson does not consider the high number of assassinations of ex-FARC rebels and social activists to be the ‘main reason’ for some commanders to be taking up arms again. Failing to elaborate on what may be their real motives, Arnson concedes paramilitary groups have predominately been responsible for the spate of recent killings.

Uribistas and paramilitaries

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The long-standing connection between paramilitary groups, the drug cartels and the Colombian State of course cannot be ignored. Historically, all these actors have been closely connected with the paramilitaries long doing the dirty work for the cartels, the military and private corporations. At a political level, ex-president Álvaro Uribe Vélez stands out as he has exercised vast power through his connections to these groups while directing the most aggressive aspects of State policy in its attempts to destroy the guerrillas.

In a 1991 report by U.S. Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) operatives in Colombia, Uribe (at that time a Senator) was considered to be a ‘close personal friend of Pablo Escobar’ who was ‘dedicated to collaboration with the Medellín [drug] cartel at high government levels.’ The country’s president from 2002 to 2010, Uribe’s administration, writes researcher Alejandra Silva Ortega, ‘was riddled with secret wiretapping, corruption, blatant support of right-wing paramilitaries and severe human rights abuses.’

Commenting on numerous Uribe minsters who ended up in prison on corruption charges, Silva Ortega adds that an even more serious concern was: 

‘His administration’s ties to the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), a right-wing paramilitary coalition with the primary goal of fighting against the leftist insurgency groups in Colombia and a designated terrorist group by the U.S. government as of 2001. This group is responsible for the largest number of human rights abuses in the conflict, including kidnapping, extortion, murder, and rape, even when considering the abuses committed by FARC and ELN.’

In the largest controversy to grip the Uribe administration and known as the ‘false positives’ scandal, up to 5,000 civilians were assassinated by the military and dressed up as guerrillas in order for their killers to claim bonuses from the government. Adding to this nefarious record, Silva Ortega notes that eventually Uribe’s own brother and several close relatives were incarcerated on charges for supporting paramilitaries.  

In 2009 though, Uribe ensured that his former defence minster Juan Manuel Santos was endorsed as a presidential candidate. While Santos as head of state (2010-2018), with the support of Cuba and Venezuela, achieved a peace deal with the FARC, he concurrently, according to one report, ‘continued Uribe’s policy of denying the continuation of paramilitarism in spite of increasing evidence elements within the military and the political establishment continued working with the illegal armed groups.’

In 2013, the National Centre of Historical Memory published one of the most extensive studies into the conflict in Colombia which it claimed cost the lives of 220,000 people since 1958. With over 5.7 million Colombians displaced, the report documented 1,982 massacres between 1980 and 2012 attributing 1,166 to paramilitaries, 343 to the rebels and 295 to government security forces and unknown groups.

Giving strong backing to the Colombian State, the United States has had a massive impact on the conflict, as Washington sent Bogota close to US$10 billion in aid to fight the rebels since 2000 under the Clinton administration.  

Orders to kill

Fast forward to today and another one of Uribe’s political protégés (Iván Duque Márquez) sits in the presidential office while Colombia, as noted by journalist Antony Loewenstein in his recent book Pills, Power, and Smoke: Inside the Bloody War on Drugs, is the world’s largest supplier of cocaine following a 31 per cent increase in cocaine production since 2018.

Uribe himself has recently been ordered to stand trial in October on charges he tampered with a witness who claimed he formed a death squad in the 1990s. While only about 1,500 to 2,000 FARC rebels failed to demobilize under the 2016 Peace accord, and Colombia has not seen major fighting between the military and the rebels since, The New York Times revealed in May this year that the Colombian military has been ordered to escalate the number of its military operations. Titled ‘Colombia Army’s new kill orders send chills down ranks’, the article notes that the military’s new strategy looks rather similar to Uribe’s ‘false positives’ scandal.

On the ground, Jonathan Levi – co-director of the García Márquez Fellowship in Cartagena – and Marta Orrantia – a Colombian lecturer at the National University of Colombia – recently visited the Catatumbo region in north-eastern Colombia where numerous ex-guerrillas and social leaders have been murdered. According to them, the Santos government claimed that the political murders taking place throughout the country were ‘crimes of passion and jealousy’ while Iván Duque blames the ELN left-wing guerrillas. The problem with this version of events, note Levi and Orrantia, is that the killings taking place are in ‘regions overrun by paramilitary splinter groups.’ The ELN has virtually zero presence.

  • Dr. Rodrigo Acuña is an independent researcher. He has taught at various universities in Australia and has been writing for over ten years on Latin American politics. He can be followed on Twitter @rodrigoac7