LA JULIA, Colombia -- Even behind the razor wire, eight-foot-tall sandbags and surrounded by his troops, Col. Kell Soler keeps his Tavor 5.56-mm machine gun slung around his neck and his helmet within reach.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas have controlled this agricultural village at the dead end of a dirt road for decades. Soler’s military base sits on ground that used to be a guerrilla stronghold and played host to some of its most notorious commanders. For soldiers to be here, deep in central Colombia, is a stick in the eye.
“The fact that we’re in their rearguard, in an area that’s important to them — they have to understand that they’re being defeated,” Soler said. “They have to feel like they’re not safe anywhere.”
The FARC turn 50 on Tuesday, making them the longest-standing guerrilla army in the hemisphere and defying those who have predicted their demise.
From their birth as a ragtag rural militia in 1964 under the command of Manuel “Sure Shot” Marulanda, the FARC metastasized into one of the world’s deadliest guerrilla groups with global ties and awash in cash from extortion and the drug trade.
Gone are the days when the group — labeled as terrorists by Colombia and the United States — could muster almost 20,000 men and credibly threaten to overrun the capital. A prolonged war and more than $9 billion in U.S. military aid have left them deeply wounded. The army estimates the FARC are about 7,000-strong and have a support network of thousands more.
But Soler’s caution is a sign that they remain deadly. Although the area around La Julia is crawling with about 3,600 soldiers, the single road into town is prone to guerrilla raids and is off-limits to troop transports, he said. Instead, soldiers rely on Black Hawk helicopters to shuttle them 32 miles to the nearest town of Uribe.
“They avoid direct combat and have gone back to fighting guerrilla skirmishes,” Soler said of the group. “They dress like civilians, look for troops, and when they see the opportunity they strike.”
Even so, some believe this FARC anniversary may be among its last. For 19 months, guerrilla leaders have been meeting with government officials in Cuba to hammer out a peace deal that would require the rebels to lay down arms, shed fatigues and join the cutthroat world of Colombian politics.
The fate of those talks is at the center of Sunday’s election, where President Juan Manuel Santos is hoping to stay in office with the promise that he’s the only one who can guarantee the peace process. His primary rival, former Finance Minister Óscar Iván Zuluaga, has threatened to pull the plug on talks — or at least tack on conditions that may make them untenable. The two are expected to face each other in a June 15 runoff.
The administration is optimistic about talks, but many here are skeptical. Valentín Gomez has a clubbed foot and pale eyes that seem sun-bleached from living in the Colombian plains, or llanos, for 88 years.
Gomez said he first fled political violence in the 1940s when Conservative and Liberal gunmen terrorized the countryside during what’s known as La Violencia. After the FARC spawned from that conflict, he recalls having to run at least four more times. He’s seen several peace talks start with promise only to fail.
“I don’t believe peace can happen,” he said, as he watched soldiers slap up posters encouraging guerrillas to defect. “War is a business and a lot of people make a living on it...What is the government going to do with all those armed boys in the hills? There’s not enough work for them in this country.”
The government admits that poverty is one of the driving forces behind the FARC and other criminal groups. But it also says the guerrillas owe their longevity to Colombia’s unique geography. This redoubt is flanked by mountains, sliced by rivers and provides thick vegetation to hide in. The ground also bursts with one of the most lucrative crops on the planet — coca to make cocaine, and the FARC are major players in the drug trade.
The FARC delegation in Havana has not responded to multiple requests for comments, but people in La Julia say the vision of the FARC as a drug-fueled mafia is too simplistic.
Nancy Castaño, 48, is a community leader who sells livestock feed. Although she was jailed for three years for being a guerrilla collaborator, she says the charges were trumped up. But that hasn’t dampened her sympathy for the group’s cause.
When the FARC took up arms a half-century ago, longtime neglect of rural areas and deep inequalities provided fertile ground for the movement, she said.
The uprising “had so much resonance and, I would say, was based on such an objective view of life on the ground that it turned into a global phenomenon,” she said. “There are reasons and causes that led to their birth 50 years ago that are still with us.”
Even today, the gap between Colombia’s rich and poor is growing faster than any other nation in Latin America, according to U.N. figures.
When Fidel Castro overthrew the Batista dictatorship in Cuba in 1959, it inspired leftist guerrilla movements in every country in the region except Costa Rica. But the FARC’s roots can be traced back to the 1940s when Marulanda, whose real name was Pedro Antonio Marín Marín, took up arms after the assassination of Liberal presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán.
Eventually, Marulanda and his men formed a communist enclave called Marquetalia in central Colombia. The government — backed by U.S. military advisers and equipment — attacked Marquetalia on May 27, 1964.
Outnumbered and outgunned, Marulanda managed to escape and lead his troops to safety. Although the band didn’t adopt the name of FARC until 1966, it has always considered the Marquetalia attack its symbolic birth.
As the FARC’s power and military might grew and they found new sources of income, such as kidnapping and drugs, successive governments tried to broker peace. Two initiatives in particular provide reason for pessimism and help explain the FARC’s longevity.
In the 1980s, the administration of Belisario Betancur signed a cease-fire and the guerrillas tiptoed into politics by forming the Patriotic Union, or UP party. The UP won more than 200 local council positions and a handful of congressional and senate seats in 1986. But in succeeding years, more than 1,500 UP leaders were assassinated, including presidential candidate Jaime Pardo in 1987. Both sides accused each other of acting in bad faith and the FARC stepped up its military push.
A new peace process got underway in 1998, when the Andrés Pastrana administration cleared the military out of a 26,000-square-mile area, larger than the state of Maryland, as a precursor to talks. The area, which included La Julia and Uribe, was known as Caguán, but many called it Farclandia because the guerrillas had free reign. There was a nightclub for officers and the FARC owned the streets.
Those talks broke down in 2002 after the guerillas hijacked a commercial flight to snatch a senator. When the army and right-wing paramilitary squads moved in to reclaim Farclandia, they found the guerrillas were stronger than ever. The clash generated grisly violence and forced tens of thousands to flee their homes.
This whole area still lives with the stigma of being a onetime FARC bastion. Rosa Gilma Gonzalez, 34, has been the head of the local school district for about a year. But when she goes home to Villavicencio, she doesn’t talk about it.
“My mother has forbid me from telling anyone I work in Uribe,” she said. “The idea they have about this place is that we’re all guerrillas.”
Marcelino Chacón, the mayor of Uribe, spent two months in jail at the beginning of his term in 2011 after authorities charged him with being a FARC collaborator. The case is still under investigation but he denies the charges.
He was detained, he said, because he insisted on traveling to rural areas without bodyguards.
“They didn’t link me [to the guerrillas] because they saw me armed or working for the FARC,” he said. “It’s simply because I’m the mayor of Uribe and simply because I tried to take the state presence to the countryside.”
On paper, Chacón is following the government playbook. With U.S. funding, authorities launched a pilot project in 2007 to push public services into these long-neglected communities in lockstep with the military.
The “Integrated Consolidation Plan,” as it’s known, has been rolled out in seven other regions, and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has earmarked $235 million to the effort from 2011 to 2016.
But the FARC still exert control in other ways. In La Julia, a much-needed bridge and a health center are both half-built. The military says guerrilla extortion chased away the construction firms.
Castaño, the community leader, said that a peace process will be a chance for the government and the FARC to prove that, after 50 years of fighting, they both want the best for Colombians.
If the negotiations are successful “we can begin to lay the first little rock so that everything that has been invested in the war can be invested in peace and the needs of the people,” she said. “I think we’re about to start that process.”
Coming Monday: Reintegration plan for demobilized guerrillas