Now in its fifth decade, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) — one of the most enduring South American Marxist insurgent groups — is in dire straits. Though STRATFOR does not unequivocally join those quick to declare the FARC dead or dying, several interrelated trends — from the effectiveness of Colombian military operations to defections by FARC's own commanders — suggest that the FARC is in very real trouble. Founded in 1964 as the militant wing of the Colombian Communist Party, the FARC began like many militant organizations in South America, rising out of a popular dissatisfaction with corruption and incompetence in the central government. Colombia was also in the middle of a civil war called "La Violencia" during which many different Marxist and right-wing militias rose up. The FARC was one of the most hierarchically well-organized groups and grew to become heavily involved in the drug industry, first through protecting the cartels' crops and then through its own drug operations. The FARC eventually became, by many measures, the most successful and certainly the most enduring major Marxist insurgent organization in the region. At its height, it had ambitions to grow from a large guerrilla organization into a full-scale people's army.
But the 21st century has not been kind to FARC — though it did not start out that way. The ineffectual negotiation efforts of former President Andres Pastrana (whom the FARC actually endorsed) allowed the group to run rampant in 2001. The FARC mortared President Alvaro Uribe Velez's inauguration in 2002 — almost 20 years after they gunned down his father on the family's ranch — and killed 16 other people in a nearly successful assassination attempt in April that same year. Uribe has since overseen the culmination of a dramatic reversal of the FARC's fortunes. When he took office, an increase in U.S. assistance that began under his predecessor was beginning to bear fruit; the value of U.S. aid shot up more than tenfold from 1996 to 2000, when it peaked at more than $750 million, and Colombia was the top recipient of U.S. training in Latin America from 2000 to 2002. The tide began to turn in the government's favor in 2002, when more aggressive government efforts put the FARC on the retreat. By 2004, some 150 police stations were built in municipalities that had been without, while Colombia's professional military grew dramatically to encompass nine Mobile Counter Guerrilla Force brigades, antiterrorism and counternarcotics units, a helicopter aviation brigade used to great effect and a special forces brigade. These forces have pushed deep into FARC territory, sustaining operations in high mountain areas previously held — uncontested — by the FARC. Then, the FARC began to lose its senior leadership, including:
- El Negro Acacia (Tomás Medina Caracas), one of the key financial masterminds behind FARC's drug and arms trades, who was killed in a Colombian air force strike in 2007
- Martin Caballero (Gustavo Rueda Diaz), leader of the Caribbean bloc of the FARC, who was killed in military action in October 2007
- Raul Reyes (Luis Edgar Devia Silva), FARC's No. 2 and one of its most long-standing and experienced operational commanders, who was killed March 1; no member of FARC's ruling secretariat had been killed or captured before
- Ivan Rios (Jose Juvenal Velandia), another senior secretariat member, who was killed March 3 by his own subordinate, who then surrendered to the Colombians
- Tirofijo (Manuel Marulanda Velez, also known as Pedro Antonio Marin Marin), the long-standing chief and ideological leader of the FARC, who was revealed in May to have died of a heart attack on March 26
- Karina (Nelly Avila Moreno, also known as Eldaneyis Mosquera), FARC's highest-ranking female commander, who defected with her child in May
Rios' demise is perhaps the most telling, as the effects of leaders getting killed or captured have been compounded by defections. These defectors — part of a "demobilization" process that includes extensive debriefing and then special assistance — further undermines the FARC. According to Bogota, the number of demobilized FARC individuals increased to more than 1,300 in 2003 (nearly triple the 2002 level) and has remained above 1,000 FARC fighters annually ever since, spiking to nearly 2,500 in 2007. These defectors not only reveal critical and sensitive operational and organizational intelligence, but sometimes become guides for Colombian troops, leading them through hills and minefields. Others give radio statements broadcast by the government nationwide, exhorting their former compatriots to demobilize, too. Altogether, the loss of the FARC's senior leadership has given the Colombian military the initiative and momentum against the FARC. Government troops appear to be gleaning and effectively processing significant and actionable intelligence in a sustained fashion while undermining the FARC's once strong command and control system. Operationally, the FARC has begun to pull back from more traditional and larger-scale military formations and operations to smaller unit guerrilla tactics — a trend reflective of both the Colombian military's successes and the FARC's recruiting problems. Desertion is reportedly rampant, and the militant group appears to be losing more personnel than it recruits. Its ranks have thinned considerably; according to U.S. Southern Command, the FARC now has some 9,000 fighters, which is more than Bogota admits but much less than its 2001 membership of 16,000. Though the FARC still draws impressive revenues from the drug trade (a 2006 U.S. Department of Justice indictment claimed that FARC was responsible for supplying half the world's cocaine), its revenues have declined due to a variety of factors — not the least of which is government efforts against the FARC. According to the Colombian government, the FARC's revenues have declined from a high of roughly $1.3 billion in 2002 to around $500 million in 2007, no doubt creating challenges everywhere from payroll to ammunition stores. This decline has no doubt been an important contributing factor to the rise in defections. On a more fundamental level, the national climate has begun to shift in a direction detrimental to the FARC. Whatever domestic complaints that might exist about Uribe, his government does not display the kind of incompetence that gave rise to the FARC in the first place (though it has inspired allegations of corruption). Meanwhile, the popular appetite for Marxist revolution is eroding, and the country as a whole has long wearied of the decades-long conflict. The rural locals that once provided support and sanctuary for the FARC have begun to turn against the insurgent group. The sustained military campaign orchestrated by Bogota appears to have convinced them that the Colombian government is here to stay, and might even be able to protect them from militant reprisal. These two concurrent and interrelated trajectories — the increasing effectiveness of the government's multifaceted efforts against the FARC and the erosion of both the support and organizational structure of the group — bode ill for South America's last major Marxist insurgency. Nevertheless, the writ of law remains another matter entirely in much of rural Colombia, where much of the world's coca is grown and processed into cocaine. While there have been significant shifts in smuggling and trafficking since the heyday of the Colombian cartels in the 1980s, it remains an extremely lucrative business (though at least some illegal enterprises in the darker corners of Colombia could be worrying about where Bogota's new mobile and battle-hardened army will be turning next, should it have the capacity). The challenge is not just consolidating the government's gains, but establishing enduring solutions to the drug trade. It is important not to be too optimistic about the future of drug trafficking in South America. The high profits generated by the drug trade and the large amount of suitably arable land in South America mean that coca eradication in some areas will simply lead to coca cultivation in others. Even without the FARC, there will be coca growers and cocaine producers in Colombia. And should the FARC be defeated, something will fill the vacuum — be it a new amalgamation of the FARC or another creature entirely.