Small Wars Journal

The FARC’s Political Roadmap: From Insurgency to Criminalized Political Party?

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The FARC’s Political Roadmap: From Insurgency to Criminalized Political Party?

Douglas Farah

The chances the Colombian government’s ongoing peace negotiations with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) will end with the guerrillas morphing into a political party willing and able to participate in the democratic process of Colombia and play by the rules of participatory democracy are iffy at best.

This is because the FARC, a Marxist insurgency that endured more than 50 years by developing thriving clandestine structures that became highly criminalized and enormously profitable, is not required to dismantle those structures in the peace process.

Key leaders of other Latin American revolutionary movements that successfully kept their clandestine structures intact – particularly the Communist Party faction of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) in El Salvador and the Ortega wing of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) in Nicaragua – are the FARC’s most important advisers in the negotiations, and their clandestine structures have today grown into some of the most powerful criminal organizations in Central America.

These advisers, who still define themselves in their internal writings as Leninists, believe that the Marxist revolution must continue by whatever means available, much as the FARC believes. Having lost the war militarily, the FARC is now shifting to economic and political warfare, not with the idea of playing a constructive democratic role but with the goal of taking power then holding it in perpetuity following the path trod by Fidel Castro, Hugo Chávez, Daniel Ortega, and Evo Morales.

While couched in ideological terms, the revolution they now preach has devolved into the corrupted, failed models of Chávez in Venezuela and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in Argentina: once vibrant economies with weak institutions and corrupt political elites that were transformed into failed economies run by functioning criminal enterprises and selective and political application of the law.

The FARC model borrows from the experiences several revolutionary movements that were far more successful in field than the Colombian group was, but wandered in the political wilderness for years because, at least in their own analysis, they could not compete financially with the traditional parties. In this analysis the FMLN in El Salvador didn’t gain electoral power for 27 years because of the lack of funds, not ideological bankruptcy and significant internal corruption. The FSLN was out of power 17 years not because of Ortega’s authoritarian and anti-democratic behavior but because the party had not taken over enough of the government’s resources when it had complete control of the government.

The FARC has the experience of its allies in the Bolivarian Revolution, who triumphed in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Suriname. The model is based on the overarching theory, enunciated by Cuba’s Castro, that the time for armed revolution in Latin America had passed. This may seem surprising, given that Castro had long supported armed revolutionary movements in Latin America and Africa.

But Castro, ever the realist, came to the realization that armed struggle was no longer the only, nor even desireable path to power and specifically warned Bolivia’s Evo Morales in 2003, as well as the FARC and other allies that the real road to enduring power was that ultimately successfully pioneered by Chávez and his acolytes:

  • Delegitimize corrupt and inefficient democratic governments through massive civil unrest and selective violence;
  • Win elections with a broad coalition and call for a “refounding” of the state based on rewriting the constitution and making alternance in power untenable for the opposition;
  • Drive out all the moderates from the governing party and label those who resist veering toward authoritarianism as “traitors” and “counter-revolutionaries;”
  • Decapitate the military and police of its U.S.-trained leadership;
  • Promote criminal activity, particularly cocaine trafficking, as a way to generate resources to buy the loyalty of the armed forces, political base and the corruptible members of the business elites;
  • Strangle the free media, corrupt and coopt independent judiciaries, and weaken state institutions through media laws, loyalty tests and control of all branches of government, allowing political opponents to be jailed without charges and media outlets to be shut down.

The FARC is taking concrete steps to follow the model and has a roadmap designed with the aid of its successful supporters in the Bolivarian bloc. Essentially what the Bolivarian bloc advisers from Nicaragua, El Salvador and Venezuela are telling the FARC is that the successful model to take power and keep it already exists. All they have to do is study and adapt the existing playbook to the Colombian context.

The FARC has already moved its considerable financial holdings, estimated by Colombian and regional analysts to be in excess of  $1 billion, to safe harbor in El Salvador, Panama and Nicaragua. These allied governments raise no questions and enjoy a cut of the money that flows through the elaborate laundering structures built on fictitious companies that move funds through Panama to offshore structures in the British Virgin Islands and elsewhere. Mega projects estimated to cost in the hundreds of millions or billions of dollars are regularly announced but not intended to ever come to fruition. Rather, the Bolivarian alliance uses the fabricated financial architecture to launder enormous sums of money. Because the governments are complicit these structures operate in a stable and secure environment.

Borrowing from Morales’ audacious and successful mass mobilization of coca growers in Bolivia, the FARC has helped fund and support transport strikes and civil unrest across Colombia, flexing its relationship with groups that may or may not be ideologically akin to them but willing to go along.

From Chávez and the other Bolivarians the FARC has been unceasing in its demand for a Constitutional Assembly to rewrite the Colombian constitution into something more easy to manipulate and that would grant the group power and impunity they cannot win at the ballot box.

In a particularly bold move attempted less successfully by the FMLN, the FARC has successfully negotiated to regain control of much of the territory it had lost from 2002-2013 by having their existing and former territorial strongholds designated “areas of concentration” of its forces for eventual demobilization. For a group that had been militarily defeated and lost more than 80 percent of the territory it once controlled, regaining territorial control over large swaths of territory without firing a shot is a coveted prize.

These issues would be less worrisome if there were indications that the FARC leadership was truly interested in joining the political fray as a transparent, clean political party. But there are few indicators that the FARC will go that route.

Its leaders claim indigence and shield their cocaine profits from being used to pay reparations to their hundreds of thousands of victims. They are actively encouraging their members and followers to massively expand the planting of coca, the raw material for cocaine, to take advantage of the withdrawal of government troops from the field. The leadership continually violates the agreements on matters large and small, but neither the government nor the third party observers say anything for fear of derailing the peace process.

As they follow the Bolivarian model, those “moderate” FARC leaders who may exist and want to nurture a true democratic transition will be driven from leadership positions. FARC-provoked civil unrest will likely increase dramatically as the group moves to delegitimize the government and state institutions. Illicit FARC funds will flow to the political wing from the criminalized clandestine structures providing a steady flow of resources from cocaine trafficking, illegal gold mining and multiple other illicit activities.  The recent near simultaneous announcement by several known drug trafficking fronts that they would not join the peace process and demobilize probably does not reflect true dissent within the organization, but rather the execution of the FARC plan. 

No one wants to see the war in Colombia continue into its sixth decade. But peace can only really be achieved if the defeated group genuinely embraces the democratic process, dismantles its clandestine and criminal structures, and subjects itself to the will of the people. Without that, the peace cannot be real or long lasting.

Categories: El Centro

About the Author(s)

Douglas Farah is president of IBI Consultants and a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Center for Complex Operations, National Defense University. His writings do not reflect the policies or opinions of NDU or the U.S. government.