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January 13, 2008
On the FARC and Terrorism
By Dr. Steven L. Taylor

Via trhe BBC: Chavez makes Colombia rebel call

Just a day after helping to broker the liberation of two high-profile hostages, Clara Rojas and Consuelo Gonzalez, Mr Chavez used his annual state of the nation speech to make the appeal, addressing himself to Colombia’s conservative President Alvaro Uribe.

“I ask you (Uribe) that we start recognising the Farc and the ELN as insurgent forces in Colombia and not terrorist groups, and I ask the same of the governments of this continent and the world,” Mr Chavez said.

But Mr Uribe quickly rejected the idea.

He said the insurgents were terrorists who funded their operations with cocaine smuggling, recruited children and planted land mines in their effort to topple a democratically elected government.

“The only thing they have produced is displacement, pain, unemployment and poverty,” Mr Uribe said.

The problem is: they are both correct after a fashion.

The regular application of the word “terrorist” to the FARC and ELN1 both as a descriptor and in terms of public policy is very much a post-9/11 phenomenon. Indeed, I wrote about this development in book chapter published a couple of years ago2 While the FARC3 has been called “terrorists” or “narcoterrorists”4 the regular application of the term “terrorist” comes only after the US declare war on terrorism in late 2001.

The problem with the terms “terrorist” is that it creates an atmosphere in which negotiation is essentially impossible, and if one thing is clear about the situation with FARC, the only likely endgame will be one that features some amount of negotiation. This has been true with every armed group in Colombia that has demobilized, including those portions of right-wing paramilitary groups who have disarmed during the Uribe administration .

And it should be noted that the paramilitaries in question, the AUC (the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia) are, like the FARC and ELN, on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations. Further, the AUC has a hideous record when it comes to human rights violations and have utilized tactics that could be easily defined as terroristic. They also have clear ties to cocaine trafficking. As such, it is difficult to argue that one simply cannot negotiate with the FARC if one has negotiated with the AUC. It is also worth nothing in that context that the FARC’s history is one that has more elements of an actual political organization than the AUC’s ever did.5

It should further be noted that the FARC did support an overtly political and non-violent project in the 1980s by the creation of a political party, the Patriot Union, which was eventually systematically slaughtered by right-wing paramilitary groups which had ties in many cases to the military. As such, the FARC carry the memory of their allies being terrorized, and therefore use it as fuel to justify their own actions.

All of the above is so say that Chávez has a point6.

Uribe, however, is right as well—the FARC have caused a lot of pain to Colombians, and have also engaged in substantial criminal activity. Even setting aside their involvement in the cocaine industry, they earn somewhere around half of their revenue by kidnapping and clearly have no compunctions about stealing years and years of the lives of whomever they deem a legitimate target.7 Further, they have engaged in bombings and other violence that has threatened and killed innocent civilians.

There is, therefore, no doubt that it is a desirable thing to stop their activities. Four and a half decades of conflict between the state and the FARC have yet to produce a military victory sufficient to stop the fighting. As such, that option appears unlikely to succeed anytime soon (indeed, if ever). If we also consider the role negotiation has played in the past in Colombia, it again would seem that such a route is inevitable if the violence is ever to cease.

None of this is to forgive or justify the FARC’s actions, but rather it is a practical fact that perfect justice isn’t attainable here and that at some point there are going to have be some trade-offs made.

The truly depressing part is that even if some sort of political rapprochement can be achieved with the FARC’s leadership, the bottom line is that money that can be made via drugs and kidnapping will be enough to encourage many “guerrillas” to stay in the field, so to speak. That fact, however, should not dissuade the government from trying. Indeed, the negotiations with the AUC prove that even an imperfect settlement can reduce the violence, even if it can never eliminate it totally.

  1. The The Army of National Liberation, a smaller, less publicaized guerrilla groups that, like the FARC, has been fighting since the 1960s []
  2. “Colombia: Democracy Under Duress” in William J. Crotty, ed. (2005) Democratic Development and Political Terrorism: The Global Perspectives, Northeastern University Press. []
  3. For a variety of reasons, it is better to focus this conversation on the FARC and leave the ELN out of it, as they are smaller, apparently not involved in the drug trade, and have been in talks with the government. The ELN has been known to use kidnapping to fund its activities. []
  4. Although that terms was more likely to have been applied to groups like Medellín Cartel []
  5. Although, granted, it would matter what “political” means, but that is a lengthier discussion than I want to enter into at this time []
  6. Not a sentence I write very frequently []
  7. And not just overtly political targets, either []
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FARC Frees Two Hostages
By Dr. Steven L. Taylor

Via the CSM: Colombian leftist guerrillas free two high-level hostages

Colombian leftist guerrillas released two of their most prized hostages Thursday, in a deal brokered by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez that could pave the way for a broad agreement for the liberation of dozens of others being held in rebel camps.

Politicians Clara Rojas and Consuelo Gonzalez were whisked from the jungles of southern Colombia where they had been held for six years to the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, into the embrace of their families.

“They are finally safe, they are free,” Ms. González’s daughter Patricia Perdomo told Colombian radio from her hotel room in Caracas, her voice trembling with emotion.

[…]

It’s the most important hostage release in the Colombian conflict since 2001, when the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, freed some 300 soldiers and police officers and it’s being hailed as a political victory for Mr. Chávez and Colombian President Álvaro Uribe.

Excellent news, and something of a surprise, to be honest.

The article suggests that this move could spur talks about hostages held by the FARC and prisoners held by the government. Such talks are badly needed, but a heathy dose of caution is needed to go with any optimism that this event may have generated.

Still, it is a wonderful thing for these two to be back with their families.

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