FARC Returns to the Battlefield: At War in the Aftermath of the Failed Peace Deal
In November, about 5 years ago, the Colombian state was ready to sign a peace agreement that would end a 50-year war between the state and the communist insurgents. High officials of the state came together at the same table with their biggest enemies. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) signed the peace deal after long negotiations. While the agreement gave the people hope for peace and change, current President Juan Manuel Santos bathed himself in the limelight of the international press; Santos was presented with the Nobel Peace Prize.
While 7,000 men and women of the FARC guerrillas surrendered their weapons with the sincere hope of peace, the state had its own unique motivation. The Colombian elite recognized: War against communists is bad for business.
The high hopes of the FARC, which announced its reformation as a legal political party, were disappointed: land and political reforms agreed to in the peace treaty have not been implemented, and now unarmed they face the already existing threat of paramilitary and state violence. More and more leading cadres of the legal party broke away from it, accusing the leadership of betraying the revolution. The party made the final break with its former revolutionary history when it decided to rename itself from FARC to COMUNES, which translates to ‘Together’.
In 2016, the FARC-EP (eng.: Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – Peoples Army) was ready to give up its weapons. Now, unarmed FARC veterans are being shot by their enemies. About 1,600 former FARC guerrillas will be murdered by the end of 2024 if the current trend of targeted killings continues, the Colombian Tribunal for Transitional Justice announced on April 28, 2021.
Not all are surrendering to this fate. Currently, the structures of the "new" FARC-EP have a national presence in 138 municipalities, indicating tremendous growth since 2016, the year the peace process between the "old" FARC-EP and the Colombian government was concluded. It should be noted that the growth has occurred mainly in the municipalities where the FARC-EP was already present before, even though new recruits now represent the majority of the total membership. Currently, there are three distinct lines of the FARC-EP, with two military/political lines relevant to a national insurgent movement.
The Origin and Perspectives of the “Segunda Marquetalia”
The story of the Segunda Marquetalia begins with the headlines about the dramatic disappearance of various former top guerrilla commanders from "reintegration zones." The zones were disarmed areas where the former guerilleros and guerilleras were to be reintegrated into civilian life.
The bitter betrayal of the peace treaty on the part of the state was the motivation for many former members, commanders and guerrillas of the FARC-EP and the associated Clandestine Communist Colombian Party (PCCC) to resume armed struggle.
In addition to differences over the handling of the peace process, it is clear that there was an irreversible rift between Márquez, Santrich and other commanders of what is now known as the "Second Marquetalia" with the Timochenko sector of what is now the COMMUNES Party. They are accused of despondency by acting during the peace process and afterward in its (non)implementation, and by their actions of wiping out the insurgent movement.
After numerous historically significant FARC leaders separated from the legal political party on August 29, 2019, they regrouped militarily and announced the reconstruction of the communist party along with the construction of a new political line.
The "Second Marquetalia" emerged from a group of former FARC-EP commanders around Iván Márquez, Jesus Santrich, El Paisa and Romaña. In the video communique, which went viral across the world, in which the FARC-EP Segunda Maquetalia announced its creation, the political manifesto of the organization was read.
The name "Segunda Marquetalia" is an anecdote to the "commune" Marquetalia, an area held by communist peasants in the Colombian Civil War in the 50s. After 16,000 soldiers overran the Marquetlia area, which was defended by only about 50 armed people, the surviving communists banded together and formed the FARC-EP guerrilla organization.
Jesús Santrich reiterated in an interview, "In essence, the FARC-EP (Segunda Marquetalia) is a continuity of the historical project in both areas, the political and the military." Santrich continued, however, that the near-complete destruction of the organization has had an impact on tactics and strategic plans. "Since the reestablishment, we have distanced ourselves from some practices such as kidnapping people for economic purposes. In any case, we operate as a political-military force with an army and party structure, a Marxist-Leninist and Bolivarian party that follows the legacy of Commander Manuel Marulanda (founding member of the FARC).
The focus of our strategic deployment also had changes that affect the military reserves, including changes within what we know as the new strategy. In essence, the procedures of surprise, siege, attack, and capture are maintained, without focusing on offensive actions against the police or army. The character of our actions is defensive and resistant to the army."
The Segunda Marquetalia has less military power than its rivals in the Gentil Duarte structure but has greater political appeal. Segunda Marquetalia combines three major organizational structures as part of its overall strategy: armed guerrilla forces, armed and unarmed militia units, and a completely unarmed clandestine party. Segunda Marquetalia insists on being primarily a political party as opposed to an armed group.
Direct clashes between the Segunda Marquetalia and its rivals in the other FARC structure under the command of Gentil Duarte prove that military clout does not always equal military victories. The fighting between the two structures in the Argelia region of Cauca at the end of October was the most intense since the peace agreement. The Segunda Marquetalia tried to defend its territories against the frente Carlos Patiño. An informant in the Segunda Marquetalia guerrillas told us, "We inflicted losses on them in the fighting and we also have the support of the population, a factor that gives us a great advantage."
Decades of political work at the leading level, and the accompanying existing political relations with the outside world and former infrastructures of the party and guerrillas, ensured that the Segunda Marquetalia is now at the center of the international debate on revolutionary prospects in Colombia, not least because international media repeatedly scandalize the guerrillas' relationship with the Venezuelan state.
Santrich and Marquez have historically good relations with Caracas, but these have become more complicated after the reconstruction of the FARC. Caracas has an opportunistic relationship with the guerrillas, on the one hand tolerating the use of the border area as a retreat for the FARC, on the other waging war against the guerrillas and being responsible for the death of some of their commanders. In addition, the recent information about the death of one of their great commanders, Jesús Santrich, shows that the country of refuge is now no longer 100% safe.
The FARC-EP Segunda Maquetalia aims to end rivalries between the armed leftist organizations in the country and unite them under the FARC banner or enter into alliance partnerships with them. They achieved some success in bringing Bolivarian groups under their command and forming cooperative alliances with what is now the largest Marxist guerrilla in the country, the ELN (National Liberation Army), and the smaller EPL (People's Liberation Army).
A key issue in the future of the FARC-EP, Segunda Marquetalia, will be the adaptability of its structure. A major contradiction is the enmity between the Segunda Marquetalia leadership and the leadership around Gentil Duarte. A serious threat to the Colombian state would be FARC unity.
Gentil Duarte and the "Western Coordination Command"
Gentil Duarte was a commander of the FARC since the late 1990s and many, including from the current party, recognize his political and military skills. He is active in the 7th Front with about 400 fighters. During the peace negotiations, he travelled to Havana and participated in the talks there. The FARC directive eventually sent him to Colombia to prevent a commander by the name of Iván Mordisco from leaving the guerrillas. Eventually, however, he joined the dissidents and set his goal towards the unification of all dissident groups.
Unlike his Segunda Marquetalia rivals, Duarte's structure was based on the FARC guerrilla base and built from the bottom up, which in some regions had advantages over the Segunda Marquetalia because the base was already present before Segunda Marquetalia commanders were sent to these areas to build a base.
Nevertheless, there are significant strategic differences with the old FARC. Duarte's line forms the construction of an umbrella organization for all military fronts of the guerrilla, the Western Coordination Command (CCO), which has a (semi-)autonomous command hierarchy. The CCO was created as an umbrella organization of various, sometimes formerly competing post-FARC groups in order to act united against other armed actors such as ELN, EPL, and the Segunda Marquetalia.
The CCO's clout was demonstrated on June 27, 2021, when shots fired at President Duque's helicopter revealed how fragile the situation in Colombia currently is. In addition to the right-wing head of state, other passengers on board included Defense Minister Diego Molano and high-ranking officials from the judiciary and military. Later, the FARC-EP Magdalena Medio Bloc released a video communiqué in which they claimed responsibility for the attack on the helicopter, a U.S. military base, and army forces. The Magdalena Medio Bloc belongs to the CCO structure.
That the military structure of the Gentil Duarte line appears better organized and more powerful than that of its rivals, however, is of limited relevance. While the CCO takes offensive action against the army and police, the Segunda Marquetalia is deliberately in a military-defensive position, while the clandestine one builds the political organs that the CCO lacks.
There are regular criticisms from the ELN, EPL and the Segunda Marquetlia that the Gentil Duarte structure, especially some specific fronts, have turned into paramilitary-like drug trafficking organizations and have discarded their revolutionary goals.
An informant in the ranks of the Segunda Marquetlia, who was stationed in Argelia at the time of the heavy fighting in late October 2021, told us:
“The Carlos Patiño front no longer fights for the people, they fight like paramilitaries trying to take over the territories where coca is grown, harassing the farmers in the area. From my point of view, the former FARC-EP forces are trying to create a corridor from the Pacific to Venezuela through their military movements. The dissidents would have control of a corridor for trafficking cocaine, gold, and arms from the Pacific, passing through the borders with Ecuador, Peru, Brazil and Venezuela to Arauca. This is a competitive advantage to strengthen Duarte's criminal alliances around the marijuana business with cartels in Brazil and cocaine with Mexican cartels. His fight is no longer for the people, it is corrupt and it is a shame that they are tarnishing the legacy of the FARC-EP.”
Life in the Countryside, Mountains and Guerrillas
Colombia is characterized by very uneven population distribution. Only about 23% of the population does not live in a city. About half of the land area, especially in the south, is very sparsely populated. 17 % of all workers are employed in agriculture. Colombia is responsible for 70% of the world's cocaine production, as this is more profitable than growing staple crops or coffee.
Social conflict within the country intensifies most in rural areas, and much of the armed conflict between guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries, drug cartels and the state is fought here.
While paramilitaries and cartels are in the countryside for profit, the guerrillas rely on the historical support of the rural population and the protection of the mountains and rural territories from state forces. The Colombian Armed Forces are behind enemy lines in the countryside, partly because of the presence of the guerrillas and partly because of their hostile relationship with the rural people since the state security forces are not seen as liberators but rather as occupiers because of the decades of experience of the population.
Often, the local population is considered fundamentally suspicious of cooperating with the guerrillas. And so, it is not uncommon for local people to simply disappear during military operations and be subjected to false trials, presented to the public as supposed guerrillas, or never seen again.
Attacks by the army are often accompanied by human rights violations, threats, and displacements. Between 2002 and 2008, there were at least 6,402 extrajudicial executions, so-called "falsos positivos." The murdered civilians were later presented as guerrilla fighters killed in action.
In rural areas, the guerrillas are the de facto ruling counterforce to the state. Infrastructure and laws are built by the guerrillas. The local population, raised as children in the guerrillas' schools and living side by side with them their entire lives, sees them as a stabilizing force in their lives and the only defence against the brutal despotism of the cartels, state paramilitaries and international corporations. Gender equality makes the guerrillas attractive to many women who come from feudal households. They fill about 40% of the ranks of the FARC-EP and ELN.
The Unity of the FARC-EP is Far Away
The fact that the two lines have not come together has different historical backgrounds. While the Gentil Duarte structure always stuck to the armed struggle and considered the peace process a betrayal, Iván Márquez himself, as the negotiator of the "old" FARC-EP, became a traitor in the eyes of Gentil Duarte. Second, during the meetings between the two structures, there were disagreements over the future level of command after the potential unification.
Moreover, the disagreements over territorial control and, consequently, economic sources of revenue in the different provinces, made for a strengthening of the conflict rather than a need for dialogue between the two structures. Even though the Segunda Marquetalia refers to Commander Duarte in documents as a "respected comrade," in reality there are military power struggles between the two organizations, with a tendency to intensify. At the moment, it is hard to imagine a dominant actor consolidating to gain power over both organizations. Historically, political-military organizations have always had more staying power and survival skills than those that are not political.
Although FARC unity is currently abstract, there have been important military developments in relations with other organizations, such as the Segunda Marquetalia alliance, the ELN and EPL. Historically, there have been times when all of the three organizations have fought each other.
It remains to be seen how the paths of the two groups will continue and when the next moment for unifying talks will come. For only through this will it be possible to sustain a national insurgent movement for the struggle for political power in the country.