For almost 40 years, Marco León Calarcá has been a guerrilla in Colombia’s outback, fighting in the hemisphere’s longest-running and bloodiest civil conflict.
Now, as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the government appear to be closing in on a peace deal that might end the half-century struggle, Calarcá insists his group isn’t giving up its ambitions of taking power. It’s simply trading boots for ballots.
The reality is that the [government] was never able to defeat us and that's why this process isn't about us capitulating
Marco León Calarcá, guerrilla peace negotiator
“The reality is that the [government] was never able to defeat us and that’s why this process isn’t about us capitulating,” said Calarcá, who has been in Havana for almost four years as part of the guerrilla delegation negotiating a peace deal. “But some people still don’t realize that...There are many sectors that still think that we came here to surrender.”
Instead, the FARC plans to turn its estimated 7,000 fighters into a disciplined political force.
“One of the things that makes this process unique is that we’re not talking about demobilizing and de-organizing,” Calarcá, 58, told the Miami Herald. “We’re talking about mobilizing toward politics. We’re going to make the transition from a political-military organization to a political organization.”
While most Colombians favor a negotiated peace, polls also show they are uneasy about government concessions at the table and, particularly, the FARC’s political aspirations.
The 52-year-old group is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and Colombia and is reviled by many, particularly those who have been victims of guerrilla extortion, kidnapping and violence. Former President Alvaro Uribe calls them the world’s largest drug cartel and says they belong behind bars, not in congress or the presidential palace.
But Calarcá said those characterizations miss reality.
“Why have the FARC existed for 52 years?” he asked. “If the FARC were simply an armed force that was hated by everyone, as they say it is, then [we] would have been destroyed....The regions where we’ve had support historically are communities that are with us and have allowed us to survive.”
Like many nations in Latin America, Colombia often seems like multiple countries. There’s the Colombia that’s the darling of investors and full of exotic tourism hotspots, like the colonial port city of Cartagena. Then there are large swaths where the government’s presence is null and poverty is grinding — a country where more than 100 children have died this year of suspected malnutrition.
It’s in that other Colombia that the FARC believes its message of social justice and political inclusion will resonate.
“There are large portions of the population, particularly in urban areas, that don’t know the FARC because there has been so much disinformation...There are people who think we’re simply bandits who want to keep swimming in money,” he said. “But that’s not our reality. And as we reach those people, share our proposals with those people, we’ll start to overcome that.”
South Florida fears
Colombians in South Florida may be some of the hardest to reach. Many fled guerrilla and drug violence in the 1980s and 1990s and are immune to the guerrillas’ political charms. During the 2014 presidential election, Colombians in the United States voted overwhelmingly for Óscar Iván Zuluaga, a candidate whose major proposal was to reevaluate the peace process.
Calarcá admits his group “committed excesses” and “made mistakes” during the war.
“But it was never in the FARC’s plan to affect the civilian population, never,” he said. “That it happened, we recognize it as one of our errors.”
Under the peace deal, guerrillas who confess to their crimes can avoid prison time, and Calarcá said the group is prepared to ask for forgiveness and, in some cases, provide reparations.
But he claims many Colombian exiles, particularly outside of South Florida, fled the country for economic reasons.
“The state of the economy isn’t the responsibility of the FARC or any other [armed] group,” he said. “This economic model and structure that excludes people is imposed by the country’s elite and that’s what we’ve been fighting against — that injustice.”
“That our fight had to be done with weapons is only because they gave us no other choice,” he added.
The FARC traces its roots back to the 1940s when its founder, Manuel “Sure Shot” Marulanda, 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. On May 27, 1964, government forces, backed by U.S. military advisers and equipment, attacked the redoubt. Outnumbered and outgunned, Marulanda managed to lead his troops to safety, and although the group didn’t adopt its revolutionary acronym until 1966, it has always considered the Marquetalia attack its symbolic birthplace.
Since then, the group has survived successive administrations, failed negotiations and billions in U.S. military aid aimed at wiping them out along with the cocaine trade.
The Obama administration has pledged $450 million annually if a peace deal is signed, but Calarcá said the U.S. has a “historical obligation” to do more.
Among the most contentious issues is how much the FARC can provide to help heal wounds and rebuild the country.
The U.S. and others characterize the group as an apolitical criminal gang awash in cash from taking hostages, extortion and drugs. The Economist magazine, citing a government official who was forced to step down, recently said the group might have as much as $10 billion stashed away.
The FARC renounced kidnapping as a precondition to begin peace talks in 2012, and Calarcá objects to the narco-guerrilla characterization.
“What we do is charge a tax on economic activity,” he said, including drug crops. “In coffee areas, we charge coffee growers. But what the world and we understand as narco-trafficking, that is, taking drugs out of the country and sending them to places where they’re consumed — we don’t do that.”
Calarcá said his group would keep taxing drug crops until a bilateral ceasefire is signed — something that could happen before a final deal is reached.
“We don’t have the kind of capital they say we do,” said Calarcá, who noted that it was expensive keeping troops fed, armed and healthy. But “we’re willing to use the infrastructure we’ve created around fighting the war toward building peace.”
Peace At Last?
Since formal talks began in 2012, much progress has been made. The parties have agreed to tentative plans for agricultural and land reform, guerrilla participation in politics, and how the FARC can help end the drug trade. Hopes are running high that an agreement will soon be reached on the mechanics of how the FARC can hand over their weapons and be gathered in “concentration zones” ahead of demobilizing. If a final deal is reached, it will be put up for referendum.
Having seen other talks fail, Calarcá said he entered these negotiations with skepticism. Now, he’s convinced that a deal is within reach. For the FARC, however, that simply means a new stage of their fight will begin.
“Beyond the guns and beyond us people, if there are objective conditions for an armed struggle to resurge it will resurge,” he said. “That’s why we have to work to close off that possibility — end the injustice, the misery, the lack of democracy, so that there’s no need for violence.”
Bearded and broad, Calarcá looks more like a politician than a jungle fighter. Speculating about life after peace, he said he would like to rebuild ties with the family, loved ones and friends he left behind decades ago. But he said his next move — like all good FARC soldiers — will be dictated by the organization he’s served since 1977.
“There’s a big difference,” he said, “between what one would like to do and what one has to do.”