It is often said that the FARC is the oldest guerrilla group in the world. That may be true. It also may be true that, along with Hezbollah, the FARC exhibits the most sophisticated organizational design of any irregular armed group in the world. This is one of the reasons –a crucial one, though—why the group did not fall apart after the killing of its top commander, Alfonso Cano, on November 4, 2011.
The resilience of the FARC is indeed a fascinating fact for any social scientist. Not only has the group survived a number of military offensives, it also survived the fall of the Communist bloc and the disappearance of most Latin American guerilla organizations. It could even witness the eventual downfall of the Cuban regime.
The FARC were born under the most hostile of circumstances. Their “baptism of fire” came in 1964, with a huge military offensive against a region in the south of Colombia, where a number of small guerrilla groups had converged, initially seeking shelter from Conservative partisan persecution. This region was denounced as an “independent republic” by politicians who demanded military action. The group took heavy losses but was not annihilated, and its members, operating in “columns,” retreated to nearby regions where they would regroup and would declare the birth of the FARC.
More military setbacks were to come. In 1968, a failed venture by Ciro Trujillo, the FARC’s second in command, resulted in the loss of nearly 70 percent of the group’s manpower, including Trujillo himself. Between 1970 and 1983, the FARC would remain a low-profile rural organization, eclipsed by other groups such as the M19 and the ELN. They were, however, silently working in strengthening their forces. Between 1983 and 1987, taking advantage of a truce with President Betancur (1982-1986), the FARC tripled the number of their “fronts,” and got involved in the drug business.
In 1990, President César Gaviria ordered a massive surprise military operation, attacking the FARC command centers with the best units of the Army and the Air Force. Optimism, fed by the fall of communism, was fully in fashion. Gaviria declared the FARC to be “…a dinosaur in extinction.” Celebrations were nonetheless premature. Not only did the FARC manage to survive the offensive, they lost none of their commanders. They then took the initiative: the 1990s would witness a drastic military campaign by the FARC, reaching a climax between 1996 and 1998.
Since 2002 the FARC have again been under attack—this time like never before. Their numbers have been cut by more than half. No longer do they control vast rural areas of the country. Five top FARC commanders have been killed in action as part of spectacular military operations. One was captured and extradited to the United States.
Nonetheless, their armed campaign persists. They have even found ways to adapt to the sustained offensive. While it’s true that they continue to suffer losses (such as the killing of Cano), it’s also true that in the past two years they have changed their strategy and their tactics with partial success.
What is the key to this amazing resilience? I can only venture a hypothesis. In my view, the resilience of the FARC is due to the combination of four factors: ideological dogmatism, geographical advantages, a good organizational design, and continued financing from drugs.
Ideological dogmatism provides a unifying element. In spite of what many Colombians believe (that is, that the FARC is just an ordinary criminal organization), the FARC remains a heavily ideological group still upholding their Marxist-Leninist dogma, but with slight variations such as having introduced the cult of Bolívar and other idiosyncratic elements that stand in contrast to the universalist approach of communism. The group remains committed to the goal of taking over power. All of this helps them “make sense” of their losses and setbacks, which they interpret as normal facts in an armed struggle.
Colombia, on the other hand, offers a variety of regions where a guerilla group can easily establish itself and thrive. From rugged, almost inaccessible, mountainous lands –where the mist and the clouds restrict the use of air power (see video of a FARC attack in the mountainous region of Caldono, Cauca)—to faraway jungles and plains, distant from urban centers and more or less isolated from the rest of the country. Patiently, the FARC have established their presence in such areas since the 1960s. They have become an element of daily life for inhabitants, and in some areas, they have even assumed the role of local authorities, solving differences and regulating many aspects of ordinary life.
The complex structure of the FARC has prevented them from dependency over individual leadership. The loss of commanders—even those as revered as Manuel Marulanda “Tirfijo”—is somewhat eased by replacements, who, in turn, maintain the same structure. This also allows for decentralization. The FARC wouldn’t be able to operate in so many different areas if they were dependent on individual leadership.
Finally, the resilience of the FARC cannot be explained without the financial factor. Unlike many other guerilla groups, which struggle under financial constraints, the FARC have benefited by a continuous flow of money from their growing involvement in the drug business.
Consider these circumstances, and you’ll understand why the FARC have managed to survive so many hostile circumstances. When looking for similar cases around the world, the combination of difficult terrain, drug money and ideological dogmatism appears most notably with the Taliban, itself a survivor.