Far from over for FARC

March 19, 2008

They called him Toucan. His hooked nose and gold-teeth smile were menacing but also comical. His partner was stocky with closely cropped hair, neck and arms emblazoned with tattoos of saints and crucifixes.

It seems that stereotypes exist for a reason and the Hollywood image of Colombian drug dealers was made real in this remote region of Nariño department, in the far south west of the country. My team was working on a six-part series on terrorism and insurgency for the Al Jazeera Network. We were travelling on a small boat along rivers in the dense jungles of southern Colombia. The two cocaine traffickers needed a lift and in these parts, riverine hitch-hikers are granted transit.

Toucan tossed two black plastic bin liners containing 25 kilograms of cocaine paste onto the boat. The acrid odour of petrol – used during the first stage of the production of cocaine – burnt my nostrils. He chuckled when I told him that one gram of cocaine hydrochloride in London costs around £50.

The hillsides were a carpet of coca bushes. We were in guerrilla territory, land under the control of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia known by their Spanish acronym, FARC. In these parts, the FARC governs and the Colombian authorities have no enduring presence. We had just met regional commanders and were making the perilous journey back to the small town of El Charco. From there we hired a plane that flew us to Cali.

Following the death of two members of the General Secretariat in early March, the Colombian press began declaring the end of FARC’s almost half century of rebellion.
The influential Semana magazine announced on its front page: El fin de las FARC. Rual Reyes was possibly the second most influential member of the group after its reclusive founder, Manuel Marulanda.

Reyes was killed during an attack by the Colombian military on his camp in neighbouring Ecuador, an attack that almost triggered a regional conflict between the leftist regimes of Venezuela and Ecuador and the US-backed government of President Uribe in Bogota. 

Another member of the General Secretariat, Ivan Rios, was murdered by asubordinate, who chopped off his hand and took it to the authorities in order to claim a $5 million bounty.

These deaths and other military gains reflect a change in the dynamic of Colombia’s civil war since George Bush listed FARC alongside al-Qa’eda as common enemies in his global ‘war on terror’. This shift in US strategy has allowed President Uribe to override human rights concerns and bring paramilitary armies, who were formed by rich landowners to combat the FARC, into the political process.

In return for their demobilisation, most paramilitaries have been granted amnesty and offered job training. The scheme was so generous that many claimed to be former paramilitary killers simply to gain new skills. Before 9/11, US aid for Colombia was specifically targeted against the production of cocaine. One US diplomat told me in 1999: “There will be no US government assistance for fighting the guerrillas. It raises too many human rights concerns, which has plagued US policy in Latin America.” Now the FARC is a declared enemy of the United States and the government receives nearly $500 million a year from Washington.

The FARC commander that I met amid the coca fields of Nariño’s forests was known as ‘Joto-Joto’ (or J-J in English). He was stocky and wore a leather cowboy hat. “Tell the showman we’ll deal with him at 8”, he muttered into a radio.

As is common for a FARC commander, Joto-Joto had a young female guerrillera serving as an aide-de-camp. The base had a DVD player and a collection of Hollywood movies. Boats with beer and whisky moved with ease from government to FARC-controlled areas.

The trip established for me that the FARC survives as a well-armed movement due to its role in the production of cocaine. In Nariño, I witnessed coca production on an industrial scale. Laboratories had docking bays where boats were loaded up under the gaze of FARC commanders.

The FARC are by no means the only group benefitting from the cocaine business. Production of the drug constitutes up to 10 percent of the nation’s GDP. The country’s political caste is notoriously on the take as well. There is another reason to believe that this war is far from over. The violence in Colombia has continued for decades due to the political division that shears Colombia in two.

The well-off, Europeanised, urban elite live in another world to the Indian or black communities of the unchartered jungles that span much of this country. When trade union or human rights leaders try to create a more equitable nation, they are murdered by shadowy paramilitaries. 

Murderous groups within the ruling elite have repeatedly sabotaged peace talks that would force the wealthy to redistribute their privileges and riches. Discussions between FARC and the government were progressing smoothly in October 2006. Then a mysterious car bomb detonated outside a military college in Bogota, injuring dozens. The Colombian government blamed FARC and suspended the talks.

The war exists for a reason and its causes have not been solved just because the United States has taken sides and listed FARC as a ‘foreign terrorist organisation’.