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The history of the guerilla movement in Colombia

by Militante Monday, Oct. 28, 2002 at 9:53 AM

The guerilla in Colombia has not been invented by the left. It dates further back and is the answer of the lower classes to the violence of the rich and mighty.

The guerilla: an answer to the supression by the ruling class.

Since colonian times, protest and revolts have always been put down with a bloodshed. Who has read "A hundred years of solitude" by Gabriel García Márquez knows the history of repression and of the dozens of civil wars constantly carried on in that country during the 19th century.

Those wars have officially gone down in history as conflicts between the two big parties: the conservative and the liberal. But more than that they were wars breaking out because of social injustice and in which the leading figures of the two parties enriched themselves at the expense of the lower classes.

That is way the armed struggle, being an expression of social conflicts, dates back way further than the guerilla organisations.

The civil war (1948-53)

The "War of Thousand days" (1897-1899) was followed by a brutal supression of the union movement and of the indigenous people in the twenties. In 1928, the banana multi United Fruit Company slaughters hundreds of strikers waiting for a negotiation delegation (Gabriel García Márquz: A hundred years of solitude - the strike of the banana workers). In 1948, the popular liberal leftwing politician Jorge Elicier, who at that point incorporated the hopes of millions of Colombians for a better life, is murdered by order of the oligarchy. The murder is succeeded by the socalled violencia (1948-53), a civil war costing the lives of at least 200,000 people. The population is again slaughtered on the pretext of it being a conflict between liberals and conservatives. Again, it is in reality a war of land owners against the rural population.

Still, the violencia becomes a turning point in history. Independent peasant groups develop in different regions and defend themselves against the terror of the mighty. They form the first nucleus of today's Colombian guerilla.

Although the leaders of the conservative and the liberal party reach an agreement in the fifties and establish the Frente Nacional (both parties simply take turns with presidency und ministries every four years), some armed groups of peasants do not dispose of their weapons. While liberal and conservative governments come and go, resistance from below is rising. In rural areas, the power stays in the hands of self organised peasants. They found socalled Independent Republics.

In the beginning of the sixties, a broad mass movement against the Frente Nacional of the oligarchy is being formed. It is called Frente Unido del Pueblo and is lead by the revolutionary priest Camilo Torres. Tens of thousands of workers, slum inhabitants, students and peasants mobilize against social injustice and the undemocratic two-party-regime.

The Independent Republics as well as the Frente Unido del Pueblo are being transformed into targets of the oligarchy. The Peasant's Republic of Marquetalia is extinguished by the army in 1964. Camilo Torres, being the leader of the FUP, has to go into hiding due to death menaces. He retires to the countryside where at that time a first group of the ELN exists.

Birth of today's guerilla

The first two "modern" guerilla organisations come into being in 1964: as an immediate answer to the massacre of Marquetalia, a couple of peasant groups influenced by the Communist Party found the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People's Army (FARC-EP).

At the same time, a guerilla focus inspired by the Cuban revolution and well anchored in the peasant's resistance in Santander is being formed. The organisation calls itself National Liberation Army (ELN), relies on the strategies of Che Guevara and wins significantly in sympathy when being joined by Camilo Torres (the revolutionary priest falls during his first combat on February 15th, 1966).

In 1967, after the international division of the communist parties into "pro sowjet" and "pro chinese" factions, a third organisation is born: the maoist People's Liberation Army. The new organisation spreads especially in the northern part of the country.

Just a peasant's guerilla?

All three groups are mainly present in the rural areas, this by the way being an important factor in understanding the conflict in Colombia. It has often been stated that the roots the guerilla has among the peasants stopped them from gaining a foothold in the cities. Whereas the armed organisations influence or even control large rural regions, they hardly have any influence on the conflicts in the cities.

Although this criticism is legitimate to a certain degree, one should not forget how difficult it is to work illegally in the cities. Repression there is much harder than in the countryside. Still, the guerilla has brought alot about in the cities in spite of these restrictions.

The expansion of the guerilla until the armistice in 1984

In the seventies, more guerilla organisations are being formed, many quite different from the already mentioned ones in their political program and their operations. The most important one is the Movement April 19th (M19), which is rapidly becoming known abroad due to their spectacular operations (e.g. the occupation of the embassy of the Dominican Republic in Bogotá in 1980) and their significance in the big cities.

In spite of numerous splits and crises of the different organisations, the guerilla has transformed into a real menace to the government in the late seventies. An outstanding general strike in 1977 manifests the dissatisfaction of the population. President Turbay Ayala (1978-82) reacts with new waves of repression. The security offices start to "let disappear" political opponents, torture is becoming common in police barracks and the government passes new "anti terror laws".

But other than expected, resistance is spreading in Colombia. At that time, especially the M19 is leading the war against the regime. The organisation conjures up an army of peasants in the south, especially in the department of Caquetá, and spectacularly reaches the important cities in this region.

The government of the conservative Belisario Betancur (1982-86) grasps the danger emerging from the guerilla's expansion. The Nicaraguan revolution being young, civil war reigning in El Salvador - Betancur is trying hard to neutralize Colombia's revolutionary movement. He suggests a very risky project: A general amnesty for political prisoners, many guerilleros and guerilleras among them, is put into force and direct negotiations with the armed organisations are being sought. He thus really succeeds in further splitting the guerilla. In 1984, the FARC-EP, the M19 and the EPL agree to an armistice while the ELN (and two other organisations) reject the government's proposal. According to the ELN, the government's initiative only aims at keeping the opposition calm.

Growth of the protest movement

These are very moved years. In the middle of the eighties, a new mass movement formed by workers, christians, feminists, blacks, indigenous people and the inhabitants of slums is spreading and takes over the streets.

Several legal political organisations arise. Socialists, communists and former guerilleros of the FARC-EP found the Union Patriótica. Sympathizer of the EPL run as Frente Popular in the local elections.

The most radical parts of the mass movement found the political movement A Luchar! The Betancur government is playing a double game. While presenting itself as a government of dialogue in front of the world public, it promotes the setup of paramilitary groups.

In 1984, the dirty war against the opposition is roused. An alliance of the military, secret services, stockbreeders and the drug cartels install hundreds of paramilitary groups which - unlike centralamerican death squads - do not confine themselves to the murder of political opponents and slaughter of alleged sympathizers of the guerilla.

Today, the paramilitary controls everyday life in dozens of communities. Especially Puerto Boyacá in Magdalena Medio (in the center of the state) and the stockbreeder regions of Córdoba (on the Atlantic Coast) have become something like radical rightwing "independent republics".

Dirty war: the government's strategy

While the armistice of 1985 is still in force, several political speakers of the M19 and the EPL are being murdered. Paramilitary groups shoot the popular presidential candidate of the Unión Patriótica, Jaime Pardo Leal. At the same time, the army breaches the agreement and attacks guerilla camps. Unionists and peasants are indiscriminately slaughtered in the regions of war.

Thus, the UP has lost 2000 representatives and activists since 1984. All in all, an estimated 30,000 murders are charged to the paramilitary. The victims are not only political opponents, but also homosexuals, prostitutes, criminals and street kids. In the mean time it has become known that the most important massacres effected by the paramilitary have directly been ordered by the army. Investigations by human right groups and even the Colombian justice system accuse generals as important as Jesús Gil Colorado (chief of the army until 1994) and Farouck Yanine Díaz (former brigade general, then teacher of the Interamerican school for defense issues in Washington D.C.).

Worst of all, the ones responsible for the dirty war enjoy complete freedom of punishment. Without international pressure, not even the modest investigations now pursued by the justice authorities would be enforced. The only geenral ever punished for his violations of the human rights and war crimes is Jesús Gil Colorado, assassinated by the FARC-EP close to Villavicencio/ Meta in 1994. It sounds brutal, but this is the truth: without like guerilla operations, no general would have to fear punishment for his crimes.

1987: The guerilla coordination Simón Bolívar is founded

The dirty war and the attacks by the army finally lead to an end of the "peace process". The M19 and the EPL resume their operations after one year of armistice because they cannot see any genuine readiness to democratizing the country. In 1985, the National Guerilla Coordination is created consisting mostly of the M19, the EPL and the ELN. In 1987, the FARC joins the coordination and it is renamed Guerilla Coordination Simón Bolívar (GCSB).

As a result of the unsolved social problems in the eighties, the armed struggle is spreading in the whole country. The ELN, consisting of four fronts in the beginning of the eighities, counts more than 30 in 1990. The same applies to the FARC-EP, even though it had followed an entirely different strategy in the eighties. The guerilla has become a considerable power in many regions of the country.

The demobilization of the M-19

In the late eighties, the mass movement is collapsing due to the dirty war and the breakdown of the "socialist" world. In spite of a quantitative growth, this development leads to a crisis of the rebellious movement. Especially the M19 is extremely weakened between 1985 and 1989. The majority of its leaders are arrested or killed and it is seeking negotiations with the government. In 1991, the M19 demobilizes itself and changes into a political party, the Alianza Democrática M19, reaching a little over 10% of the votes in its first participation in elections. It is not the actual military significance of the M19 but the political implications of the demobilization which causes a crisis of all of the Colombian guerilla. The "Eme" possessed an extraordinary international recognition, much sympathy in the cities, but later on it only symbolized one big lie: that the demobilization of the guerilla could bring social justice.

One can today state that the peace process of the M19 had been a big deception maneuver of the oligarchy. Carlos Pizarro Leongomez, most important leader and presidential candidate of the M19 is murdered shortly after his return to legal life because of the government fearing his popularity. There is not a single drastic social reform which would have improved the living conditions of the poor. Not even the human rights situation changes with the legalization of the M19. As ever, the dirty war is a state-run policy against the opposition. But in 1990, the strategy of the M19 is still convincing. Two small guerilla organisations also demobilize themselves, the EPL is splitting in two factions. There are terrible symptoms of decay among the guerilleros. Demobilized members of the EPL start working for the paramilitary in Urabá (Atlantic Copast). Other former fighters become criminals.

This development is due to the state not being able to offer real alternatives to the demobilized fighters but also to fatal errors of the guerilla itself. Only the authoritarian structure of the organisations and missing political training and conviction of the Combatientes made this possible. A realization that today at least is selfcritically recognized by the organisations.

No justice - no peace

In spite of all these problems the majority of the GCSB, nowadays consisting of FARC-EP, ELN and a minority of the EPL, is still militarily active without refusing a dialogue with the government.

In 1991, the GCSB starts a number of negotiations with the state. These contacts are unilaterally broken up by the Gaviria government in 1993. In opposition to the "peace process" with the M19, the suggestion of the GCSB proceeded from the assumption that the armed struggle is not the cause but the result of the violence. That is, that violence springs from social injustices and the terror of the oligarchy against the mass movement. Armed groups therefore are legintimate forms of resistance.

Under these conditions the demobilization of the guerilla doesn't make sense. The only way of pacifying the country is a radical democratization, en end to repression, the punishment of those responsible for the dirty war and a social economic policy in favor of the poor majority of the population. Eduardo Pizarro, professor of political science at the Universidad Nacional in Bogotá, recently pointed out in an analysis that only a small part of the violence in Colombia has to do with the armed conflict between army and guerilla. The large majority of the dead are victims of the dirty war, of the "social purge" or of the criminality, the last one in its turn being a result of the poverty.

Nevertheless, the guerilla has grown in strength

Today, the Colombian guerilla is stronger than ever. This a more than anything due to the opression of the opposition. There are hardly any opportunities for legal political activity in Colombia today. The unionists, the christians, the students, the inhabitants of the slums - they all become victims of death menaces when starting to be politically active in the opposition. Sad but true: the safest place for a Colombian political opponent today is the rain forest, that is the guerilla.

The organisations of the GCSB have prepared for the intensified situation. According to government sources, they are now present in more than 500 of the 1000 Colombian communities. It is also closing in on the cities. There are guerilla fronts in the suburbs of Bogotá, Cali and Medellín, people's militias have come into being in the poor neighborhoods and the FARC-EP is operating with irregular units in the municipal area of the capital Bogotá.

In the countryside, the guerilla is exercising governmental duties. It administrates budgets or controls the mayor's job. Who has ever been to the remote areas forgotten by the government will confirm that - in spite of all restrictions - the guerilla accomplishes this administrative work more effective and honestly than Colombia's political class. There is less corruption and more social investment in favor of the poor.

The national uprising has transformed itself into a new power, an alternative government and a military force that will prevent a bloody "pacification" as the government wants it. The armed movement is a legitimate factor not to be overseen. And it will go on growing, just because it wants an end to the daily violence against the poor majority.





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