Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)

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Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)

LEADERS: Fabio Vásquez Castaño; Felipe Torres; Manuel Marulanda Vélez


ESTIMATED SIZE: 18,000 (30% of membership is female; 20-30% are children; the majority are under 19)



The Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia-Ejército del Pueblo (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC) originally began as the military wing of the Colombian Communist Party. Founded between 1964 and 1966, the group now has a membership of 18,000 and is led by Manuel Marulanda Vélez, nicknamed "Tirojifo." The group has been actively fighting against the Colombian national government for nearly forty years in an armed struggle to forward its Marxist-Leninist goals. FARC claims to be Marxist-Leninist and also draws inspiration from Simon Bolivar, who "liberated" northern South America from Spanish colonial rule in the early 1800s.

FARC claims to represent the cause of the rural poor and fights against privatization of utilities, and foreign investment and influence in Colombia (especially from the United States), while battling against right-wing paramilitary groups such as Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC). FARC's stated goal is to overthrow the national government and create a communist-agrarian state. FARC funds itself primarily with ransomed kidnappings, donations from supporters, and extortion in the narco-trafficking trade in Colombia.

International human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have noted FARC's violence against citizens, its use of children as soldiers in armed conflicts, and execution-style killings of farmers engaged in coca growing and the drug trade. It is estimated that FARC outright controls or has a military presence in as much as 30-40% of the land in Colombia.


FARC is the largest left-wing organization in South America. FARC's roots began in 1948, when the head of the Liberal Party in Colombia, Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, was assassinated; the country broke into chaos, with riots and insurrections in major cities. In the decade that followed, called La Violencia (The Violence), more than 200,000 people were killed and more than $1 billion in personal, government, and corporate property was damaged or destroyed. A peasant named Manuel Marulanda Vélez joined with others to form a guerilla army to fight against conservatives and Colombian military during La Violencia.

As La Violencia continued, Marulanda formed a peasant cooperative in the Andean plains called Marquetalia. Many members of the communist and liberal parties had formed similar "independent republics" during La Violencia. With more than 1,000 members, Marquetalia became the largest of the cooperatives. This cooperative allegedly became the basis for the formation of FARC shortly after La Violencia ended.

In 1964, the Colombian government used napalm against Marquetalia in an attack. In response, Marulanda created a group called the Southern Bloc, which later turned into FARC. Marulanda became their military leader and remains leader to this day. By 1964, FARC had become active, under the banner of Marxist-Leninist ideology.

Marulanda was joined in leading FARC by his friend Jacobo Arenas. Arenas' political vision joined with Marulanda's military strategies to form a movement devoted to creating an agrarian and communist state with local industries. Both Arenas and Marulanda believed that the Colombian national government was corrupt and exclusionary; FARC's mission was to overthrow the government.

FARC quickly grew in military force, eventually establishing twenty-seven battalions of armed fighters. In addition, throughout the 1970s and 1980s FARC charged a "war tax" to individuals and businesses in areas it controlled. The group used some of this money to provide needed social services in the poorer areas it controlled, opening hospitals and schools in remote areas in southern Colombia. Over time, FARC came to control or occupy 30-40% of Colombia.

By 1984, as FARC's popularity and strength coalesced, the national government, under President Belisario Betancur, offered a ceasefire, as well as other measures that would make FARC a part of the political process in Colombia. In May 1984, FARC and Betancur signed the La Uribe peace accords, which granted FARC the right to form an accepted political party, called Unión Patriótica (Patriotic Union, or UP). The UP was comprised of communists, guerillas, and some liberals. Their platform consisted of the same goals FARC had aimed to achieve: land and income redistribution, the elimination of government corruption, and strong penalties against drug traffickers (at this point, FARC was not involved in the drug trade; Arenas would not permit it).

With FARC's increasing legitimacy came greater success in elections, and as the UP gained more seats in national government and won local elections, right-wing supporters became agitated. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, right-wing insurgent groups, local in nature, formed in direct response to FARC and another leftist group, the National Liberation Army (ELN). Organized in loose vigilante groups originally, this movement developed to allay the fears of national and foreign corporations and the elites. These vigilante groups, paramilitary in nature, formed to protect landowners and drug-traffickers; by the 1980s, the Colombian government viewed these groups as a viable response to FARC and ELN and began supplying the vigilante groups with arms.

When FARC's political party gained more power and attention, paramilitary groups began to crack down on leftists and suspected leftists. More than 3,000 UP members were killed by right-wing militias and death squads. FARC returned to using military violence, as its members came to believe that their participation in political parties and legitimate political systems would not be tolerated by the paramilitary groups.

By 1989, interactions between FARC and the paramilitary militias had become increasingly aggressive; the right-wing militias had organized into a loose coalition later referred to as United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) and numbered more than 8,000 members. AUC faced accusations of attacking civilian villages without provocation and murdering civilians they suspected were aligned with FARC or ELN. The Colombian government outlawed the groups, but they received unofficial financial support from the government, training from retired military members, and increased membership from former military soldiers and rightwing militants.

In 1990, Arenas died; FARC expanded dramatically into the coca trade and began to collect protection fees and "taxes" from narcotraffickers and coca farmers. FARC began to argue that Colombia should legalize narcotics as a political and economic strategy, so that Colombia could gain economically from the United States through the drug trade. Within a few years, the money from the drug trade represented 65% of FARC's funding. Because of FARC's growing prominence in narcotrafficking, the group gained more attention from the U.S. government as it fought its "War on Drugs."

The new source of funding provided FARC with the means to upgrade munitions, increase communications ability, and fortify and expand its army. FARC launched a new campaign and reached out to universities to attract militant students; the "Bolivarian Movement for a New Colombia" drew on the image of Simon Bolivar, the colonial liberator, to tie FARC's actions in with the idea of liberation from what FARC perceived to be an oppressive, imperialist national government.

Between 1996 and 1998, FARC made major inroads in controlling more areas throughout the country. One major victory involved the capture of a military base at Las Delicias, a move that concerned the national government, international observers, and citizens alike. In response, Colombian citizens lobbied their government to open up peace talks with FARC. In 1999, the Colombian government gave FARC official control over a portion of Colombia with the understanding that FARC would enter into negotiations for peace. After three years, however, a period during which FARC was rumored to have been using the land to shore up its base, recruit new members, and increase its role in the coca trade, the Colombian government became discouraged. The kidnapping of presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt in 2002 ended the peace talks; President Andrés Pastrana Arango ordered the Colombian military to reclaim the lands he had given to FARC. Ingrid Betancourt is still in FARC's custody as of this writing.

Like its leftist counterpart, the National Liberation Army, FARC uses kidnappings and ransoming of wealthy individuals, political figures, or executives from multinational companies as a form of revenue. In 1999, FARC kidnapped three U.S. citizens working in Colombia; the hostages were killed. The incident provoked international outcry, and FARC admitted that the killings had been a "mistake," and that those involved would be punished. To date, international human rights observers have not seen evidence of any punishment for the murders.



Manuel Marulanda Vélez, nicked named Tirojifo, was born to peasant parents in the coffee-growing region of west-central Colombia. He is in his 70s or 80s at this point, though his exact birth date remains a question. Marulanda received an elementary school education and worked for a time as a candy maker and a woodcutter. In 1948, when the head of the Liberal Party in Colombia, Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, was assassinated, Marulanda joined some cousins to form a band of guerilla fighters for the Liberal Party. During La Violencia, from 1948–1958, these peasant guerilla fighters fought the Colombian military and civil forces primarily in the countryside.

Marulanda established FARC in 1964 after the Colombian military used napalm against his village. Marulanda became FARC's military leader and remains the leader to this day.


FARC signs the La Uribe peace accords with the Colombian national government.
FARC ambushes military convoys and small towns, fighting on more than five fronts.
Jacobo Arenas dies; FARC expands into the coca trade.
FARC kidnaps presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt.
FARC attacks during President Alvaro Uribe's inauguration.
Grenade attacks in the Colombian capital of Bogota leave one dead, and 72 wounded. Military forces suspect FARC.

Between Ingrid Betancourt's kidnapping in 2002 and 2004, FARC was relatively quiet compared to past activity; it is believed the organization was busy regrouping and training. In June and July of 2004, FARC was implicated in execution-style killings of peasants, and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights condemned FARC's actions, calling it a violation of the Geneva Protocol. Since 1997, FARC has been listed by the U.S Department of State as a terrorist organization. On October 15, 2001, in the wake of the September 11 attacks, the United States listed FARC as a serious terrorist threat, claiming that the area of Colombia controlled by FARC was a training ground for terrorists.

Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)


Established in 1964 as the military wing of the Colombian Communist Party, the FARC is Latin America's oldest, largest, most capable, and best-equipped insurgency of Marxist origin. Although only nominally fighting in support of Marxist goals today, the FARC is governed by a general secretariat led by long-time leader Manuel Marulanda (a.k.a. "Tirofijo") and six others, including senior military commander Jorge Briceno (a.k.a. "Mono Jojoy"). Organized along military lines but includes some specialized urban fighting units. A Colombian military offensive targeting FARC fighters in their former safe haven in southern Colombia has experienced some success, with several FARC mid-level leaders killed or captured. On December 31, 2004, FARC leader Simon Trinidad, the highest-ranking FARC leader ever captured, was extradited to the United States on drug charges.


Bombings, murder, mortar attacks, kidnapping, extortion, and hijacking, as well as guerrilla and conventional military action against Colombian political, military, and economic targets. In March 1999, the FARC executed three US indigenous rights activists on Venezuelan territory after it kidnapped them in Colombia. In February 2003, the FARC captured and continues to hold three US contractors and killed one other American when their plane crashed in Florencia. Foreign citizens often are targets of FARC kidnapping for ransom. The FARC has well-documented ties to the full range of narcotics trafficking activities, including taxation, cultivation, and distribution.


Approximately 9,000 to 12,000 armed combatants and several thousand more supporters, mostly in rural areas.


Primarily in Colombia with some activities—extortion, kidnapping, weapons sourcing, logistics, and R&R—suspected in neighboring Brazil, Venezuela, Panama, Peru, and Ecuador.


Cuba provides some medical care, safe haven, and political consultation. In December 2004, a Colombian Appeals Court declared three members of the Irish Republican Army—arrested in Colombia in 2001 upon exiting the former FARC-controlled demilitarized zone (despeje)—guilty of providing advanced explosives training to the FARC. The FARC often uses the Colombia/Venezuela border area for cross-border incursions and consider Venezuelan territory as a safe haven.

Source: U.S. Department of State. Country Reports on Terrorism. Washington, D.C., 2004.


FARC is a hierarchical organization with the leader, Marulanda, at the top. Beneath him are seven "General Secretariats," each responsible for particular blocks or zones in Colombia. Marulanda and his commanders maintain tight control over FARC's activities in spite of the remote areas it controls and the problems with maintaining open communication lines.

Terror Trainers or Eco-tourists?

I slept next to the brothel.

The music and shrieks from that sad bordello drifted in the window until long past dawn, while I turned and sweated in the muggy swamp of my bed, the main attraction for squadrons of mosquitoes.

But I had some consolation. I was not the most uncomfortable Irishman in Colombia that night.

Far away in a high-security prison, three Irish Republican prisoners were enduring another night of captivity.

They are suspected to have trained the Colombian extreme left-wing FARC rebel group in terrorism techniques.

This week, a congressional report released in Washington alleged that links exist between the FARC and the Irish Republican Army—the IRA quickly denied that any of its operatives had been sent to Colombia to carry out training.

Safe Haven

I was, in fact, following a path those same Irishmen had blazed some months before.

For all I knew, they may even have stayed in the same hotel in San Vicente, the town in the Colombian jungle which until recently was the capital of the guerrilla safe haven.

Under a unique arrangement, the government had allowed the Marxist guerrillas of FARC to control a vast swath of territory, on condition that they were good chaps, and talked about a ceasefire.

They did talk, and talk.

Alas, they also kidnapped and killed, and continued to raise millions from taxing the cocaine which flourishes in the jungles of Colombia.

The FARC are the world's richest Marxists. The U.S. government believes they earn as much as US$300m a year from the drugs trade.

Guerrilla Needlework

The following morning, I set out for the big FARC base in the hills outside San Vicente.

The inquiry was launched after the arrest of three alleged terrorist trainers.

One of the group's leaders had agreed to an interview, news delivered to me by a bearded, motorbike-riding revolutionary with whom I dined the night before.

The guerrilla camp was a muddle. The commandant would be with us in a few minutes, a young guerrilla guard had announced—we should be patient.

The teenage fighter was polite, but she was preoccupied.

We had interrupted her morning needle-work session. She had been busy stitching a holster for her pistol.

It was a scene of extraordinary incongruity. The Women's Institute meets Che Guevara.

Cautious Response

Commandant Raoul Rais turned out to be a very dreary man—plump, and dressed in immaculate fatigues, he sat with an armalite in his lap throughout the interview.

But the commandant was very cautious when I brought up the question of the three detained Irishmen.

They came here for one reason only, to share political views.

They wanted to study the peace process in Colombia, and to share with us about the peace process in Ireland. And that was that.

The U.S. State Department, though, believes otherwise.

One of its officials told congress it was his information that the three had traces of explosives on their clothes.

They had also been traveling on false passports. And the FARC had of late been using bombing tactics familiar to anybody who had studied the IRA in Northern Ireland.

The White House seems disinclined to accept that the men were on a mission of peace.

Rather, it believes they were training a group which has threatened American lives, and which is now a target of the war on terror.


Why would three Irish Republicans go to one of the most dangerous countries on earth, traveling on false passports, into the stronghold of a guerrilla group notorious for kidnapping, drug trafficking and murder?

It is a question the three defendants will attempt to answer at their trial in Colombia, but one which has caused untold embarrassment for Sinn Fein, and considerable anger for the White House.

There may indeed be a simple explanation.

They might have been there as eco-tourists, the first explanation offered, or to study the Colombian peace process—the subsequent explanation.

The notion of convicted terrorists James Monaghan and Martin McCauley chasing butterflies in the jungle or listening to the warbling of parrots is charming. But am I alone in wondering if it is true?

For all that, I doubt that Mr. Bush will want action against Sinn Fein that might in turn precipitate a crisis in the Irish peace process.

There is, it needs to be said, no proof that the party, or indeed, the IRA, sent the men to Colombia.

Big American Stick

And with the Middle East in flames, the last thing the White House needs is trouble in a place where the U.S. has gained so much credit for its peacemaking role.

There already have been some very tough words in private, but my guess is it will not go much further than that.

As far as the commandant and his comrades are concerned, stand by not for words, but for a very big American stick.

In George W. Bush's world of friends and enemies, the commandant knows exactly where he stands.

Source: BBC News, 2002

FARC is best known for its use of kidnapping and ransoming as both a political and economic strategy. Colombia is the kidnapping capital of the world, and FARC is believed to be responsible for approximately one-third of all kidnappings in that country. FARC has been held responsible for the kidnapping of elected and appointed Colombian government officials, international and national aid workers, employees of multinational corporations, and wealthy Colombians and nonnative individuals.

In addition, FARC's use of traditional military tactics, and the formation of fully armed army battalions, has given rise to its status as the largest leftist, independent army in South America. FARC trains volunteers in its political ideology and in military maneuvers and methods for combat in the areas it currently holds and protects or in areas it seeks to capture. FARC then goes into an area and attacks local police and army targets to gain control.

The group uses murder as a political tool as well. Although the vast majority of its kidnapping victims are returned alive, nonpayment of a ransom results in death. In addition, FARC has been accused of execution-style killings of various kidnapping victims, such as the killing of three activists from the United States in 1999.

According to human rights groups, FARC frequently violates international law by conscripting children as fighters into its armies, creating booby traps by hiding bombs in the bodies of fallen opponents, and burning civilians alive in their homes. FARC's response has vacillated between agreeing to follow international humanitarian law and claiming that they are not bound by such conventions as FARC is not the official government of Colombia.

Along with kidnappings and military actions, FARC uses bombings to damage the energy sector, with a particular focus on oil pipelines. The organization focuses also on water reservoirs, electricity plants, and transportation centers.

FARC has been accused of murdering high-ranking politicians and their family members as well. In 2001, FARC stepped up violent acts against kidnapping victims, murdering hostage Consuelo Araújonoguera, a former Colombian minister of culture and the wife of the attorney general. In 2002, in addition to kidnapping presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, FARC hijacked a Colombian jet and took passenger Sen. Jorge Gechem Turbay as hostage, the fifth congressmen kidnapped by FARC since June 2001.

On August 7, 2002, FARC attacked the presidential palace, where President Alvaro Uribe was being inaugurated. Dignitaries from around the world were present but not injured, although twenty-one civilians died in the attack from stray bullets.

In recent years, FARC has begun to use kidnapping victims as leverage for prisoner exchange demands. President Uribe prefers to use rescue operations to save the seventy or so hostages being offered in the exchange, but family members have balked at the idea, pointing to the failure to save Governor Guillermo Gaviria Correa, his peace advisor, and numerous soldiers, who were kidnapped by FARC in 2003. FARC reportedly killed all the hostages when the Colombian army initiated a rescue into the area of the jungle where they were being held.

FARC continues to hold the hostages, including three Americans, presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, her running mate Clara Rojas, and a German citizen, Lothar Hintze. Negotiations with the Colombia government have failed to come to any resolutions that would lead to their release.


Human Rights Watch, a nonpartisan, nongovernmental organization, has long criticized FARC for their poor human rights record. Human Rights Watch states that:

… Human Rights Watch has found little evidence that the FARC makes an attempt to conform its methods to international standards, which its members flagrantly violate in the field. Despite repeated requests, the FARC has not provided Human Rights Watch with a copy of its regulations, current combat manuals, trial procedures, or rules of engagement, nor has it responded to our submission of a list of detailed cases … of alleged violations committed by the FARC.

When the FARC perceives a political advantage, it emphasizes its respect for international humanitarian law, as in the case of sixty soldiers captured after an armed forces-FARC clash at the Las Delicias base in the department of Putumayo in 1996 and released ten months later. The laws of war applicable in Colombia give captured combatants no special status but provide for their humane treatment and safe release, which the FARC respected.

However, in dozens of other, less publicized cases, when no political advantage is apparent, the FARC makes little if any attempt to abide by international humanitarian law.

At the same time, international observers also note that Colombia's role in the United States' War on Drugs complicates internal politics in Colombia. FARC seeks to eliminate U.S. involvement in Colombia, and yet FARC derives significant income from drug interests. Experts point to this paradox: until drug activities decrease, U.S. pressure will continue or possibly increase. FARC will not voluntarily reduce the drug trade, as such action would lower its funding.

Garry Leach, of Colombia Journal Online, notes that although demands are made for FARC to cease all political violence in Colombia: "… there was never an agreement that the Colombian military cease its military activities throughout the rest of the country. And yet, politicians and the media in the United States and Colombia repeatedly lambasted the FARC for continuing to fight a war against an enemy that was actively seeking to defeat it on the battlefield. The rebels also had to contend throughout the peace process with the growing military threat of right-wing paramilitaries closely allied to the Colombian army."


FARC continues to face conflict with right-wing paramilitaries from the AUC. In addition, FARC has been holding Ingrid Betancourt hostage since 2002. Betancourt had condemned government corruption and had written extensively about the need for a peace process prior to her kidnapping; negotiations for her release are ongoing as of this writing.

In 1997, one of the strongest right-wing paramilitary groups, under the leadership of Carlos Castano, formed to create the AUC officially—until this time the groups had operated as a very decentralized whole. AUC has been accused of destroying entire villages solely because they were suspected supporters of FARC. Approximately 3,500 civilians die in Colombia each year as a result of FARC, ELN, AUC, and Colombian military actions. Experts believe AUC is responsible for 75% of those deaths.

On December 13, 2004, a FARC leader named Ricardo Gonzalez (also known as Rodrigo Granda) was arrested. The incident caused conflict between Venezuela and Colombia; some FARC members claim that Colombian authorities arrested Granda in Venezuela illegally. Colombian officials have previously accused Venezuela of harboring terrorists; this incident aggravated tensions between the two countries and brought FARC to the forefront once more.

The discrepancy between the way the Colombian national government treats FARC and AUC has been the center of controversy. In 2005, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe granted limited immunity to right-wing AUC insurgents—but the order does not give the same rights to members of FARC, although AUC is responsible for significantly more civilian deaths in recent years. Critics charge that President Uribe is using the agreement to increase foreign aid and investment and that by disengaging the AUC, he opens the door for an increase in leftist political violence.



Murillo, Mario Alfonso, and Jesus Rey Avirama. Colombia and the United States: War, Terrorism, and Destabilization. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2003.

Pearce, Jenny. Inside Colombia: Drugs, Democracy, and War. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2004.

Safford, Frank, and Marco Palacios. Colombia: Fragmented Land, Divided Society. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Web sites

Amnesty International. "Colombia, A Laboratory of War: Repression and Violence in Arauca." 〈〉 (accessed September 30, 2005).

Amnesty International. "Colombia: Report 2005." 〈〉 (accessed September 30, 2005).

Foreign Policy Research Institute. "E-Notes: Terrorism in Colombia." 〈〉 (accessed September 30, 2005).

Colombia Journal Online. "The Hypocrisy of the Peace Process." 〈〉 (accessed September 30, 2005).

Audio and Visual Media

National Public Radio's Weekend Edition (audio clip). "FARC." 〈〉 (accessed September 30, 2005).


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Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)