FARC Offensive Intensifies the Guerrilla War in Colombia

An attack on a military base in Guaviare, Colombia, by the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces initiated a three-week guerrilla offensive that resulted in at least 130 casualties.

Summary of Event

Colombia’s long history of political violence is legendary. For a time, a political power-sharing arrangement known as the National Front (1958-1974) managed to calm the traditionally violent rivalries between the Liberal and Conservative parties. However, it left little room for organizations that more directly advocated for peasants, workers, and other politically excluded sectors. This situation led to the formation of radical underground movements, including the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC), led by Pedro Antonio Marín, also known as Manuel Marulanda Vélez and nicknamed “Tirofijo” (Sureshot). FARC
Revolutions and coups;Colombia
[kw]FARC Offensive Intensifies the Guerrilla War in Colombia (Dec. 29, 1996)
[kw]Guerrilla War in Colombia, FARC Offensive Intensifies the (Dec. 29, 1996)
[kw]War in Colombia, FARC Offensive Intensifies the Guerrilla (Dec. 29, 1996)
[kw]Colombia, FARC Offensive Intensifies the Guerrilla War in (Dec. 29, 1996)
Revolutions and coups;Colombia
[g]South America;Dec. 29, 1996: FARC Offensive Intensifies the Guerrilla War in Colombia[09610]
[g]Colombia;Dec. 29, 1996: FARC Offensive Intensifies the Guerrilla War in Colombia[09610]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Dec. 29, 1996: FARC Offensive Intensifies the Guerrilla War in Colombia[09610]
Marín, Pedro Antonio
Samper, Ernesto
Gaviria Trujillo, César
Pastrana, Andrés
Galán, Luis Carlos

Marulanda was a veteran peasant activist of earlier struggles who espoused a Marxist-Leninist vision of revolutionary socialist struggle. Convinced that the only viable strategy for revolution would be to create a military structure capable of capturing state power, FARC guerrillas proceeded to exert their control over areas in the countryside where governmental presence was weak or nonexistent. By the end of the 1970’s, the guerrillas were able to sustain nine active fronts. Five of these strongholds were concentrated in the southern departments of Caquetá, Putumayo, Huila, Cauca, and Tolima, which included areas engaged in illegal coca cultivation.

During the 1980’s, the FARC continued to steadily grow in the face of severe government repression of legal leftist opposition groups. By 1983, it had expanded to eighteen active fronts. President Belisario Betancur Betancur, Belisario (1982-1986) responded to its growing strength by negotiating a cease-fire, in the hopes of a peaceful way out of the conflict. The FARC responded by participating in the creation of the Patriotic Union (UP), a legal political organization in which its close ally, the Communist Party of Colombia, would play a central role. However, Betancur was widely criticized for seeking these negotiations, and his successor, Virgilio Barco Vargas (1986-1990), withdrew the initiatives. What ensued was a “dirty war” that killed thousands of UP members over the following decade. This mass murder of practically an entire generation of militants would contribute to a lasting reticence on the part of Colombia’s armed groups to participate in peace talks with the government.

The 1990’s was a politically turbulent period in Colombia with the continuation of high rates of violence, registering more than twenty-five thousand political killings a year between 1991 and 1996. In March, 1990, the UP’s presidential candidate, Bernardo Jaramillo, Jaramillo, Bernardo was assassinated at the international airport in Bogotá, becoming yet another victim of rightist forces that by then had killed at least three thousand members of his organization. Assassinations and attempts;Colombian presidential candidates A month later, the presidential candidate of the radical 19th of April Movement (M-19), Carlos Pizarro Leongómez, Pizarro Leongómez, Carlos was also killed. In May, 1990, César Gaviria Trujillo of the Liberal Party was elected president, but only after his party’s original candidate, Luis Carlos Galán, had been murdered at the onset of the campaign in August, 1989. Gaviria put forward a series of initiatives to negotiate with armed guerrillas, echoing what he called the “positive intentions” of Betancur. While pursuing neoliberal economic policies and fighting the Medellín drug cartel, Gaviria managed to negotiate the disarmament of several major guerrilla groups by agreeing to a Constituent Assembly, which drafted a new constitution for the country in 1991.

However, in December, 1990, President Gaviria launched a major military offensive against the FARC. He claimed that such actions would be necessary to pressure the organization into joining the disarmament negotiations. In May, 1992, a military operation targeted the FARC base at La Uribe, Meta, in hopes of taking out the entire FARC leadership. The attempt at a knockout blow failed, and the violence continued unabated. In December, 1992, a report issued by School of the Americas Watch declared that 40 percent of political assassinations were carried out by government agents, another 30 percent by paramilitary groups, 27.5 percent by armed guerrillas, and only 2.5 percent by drug mafias.

In January, 1994, the government made the controversial announcement that 120 U.S. military advisers had joined the Colombian military offensive against the illegal narcotics trade. Colombia;narcotics trade
Narcotics trade, illegal Ernesto Samper was narrowly elected president in June, although he was accused by his Conservative opponent of having accepted drug money in his campaign. To counter these accusations and to improve its deteriorating relations with Washington, the Samper administration ordered expansive aerial spraying of coca crops. Between 1994 and 1999, about 240,000 hectares of coca were fumigated with more than two million liters of glyphosate, a powerful and ecologically destructive herbicide. The result was a gradual displacement of coca cultivation into Putumayo, leading to a tripling of total production and embarrassing the government, who insisted that the supply of coca was being eradicated.

By July, 1996, thousands of farmers and members of surrounding indigenous communities in the department of Guaviare were protesting the government’s crop eradication policies and increasing political repression. These unprecedented peasant mobilizations numbered to around 300,000 strong at their peak. The resulting militarization of the area by the government and the attempt to criminalize all legal protest conspired to make the FARC an obvious political option for peasants under fire. The protests soon spread to Putumayo, where confrontations with the government also intensified.

On August 29, the FARC mounted a dramatic and unprecedented show of strength by directly attacking the military base in Las Delicias, Putumayo, killing fifty-four members of the government forces, wounding seventeen, and taking sixty soldiers captive. On September 9, FARC forces attacked the military base of La Carpa, Guaviare, killing twenty-two soldiers. The combined actions there and elsewhere amounted to a major FARC offensive and a stinging setback for the government.

A U.S. Department of State document released in 2002 revealed that a representative of the U.S. congressional staff had arrived in Guaviare just in time to see the bodies of the twenty-two Colombian soldiers being loaded onto helicopters following the FARC attack. The report indicated that Guaviare was by that time one of the largest coca-growing regions in the country and that the FARC offensive amounted to “retaliation for destroying the coca fields.” These and similar reports were significant because they showed that, contrary to U.S. congressional insistence, arms being provided to Colombia for the “war on drugs” were in fact being used to fight the FARC insurgency.


The 1996 FARC offensive in Guaviare and adjacent areas paved the way to similar actions in the following years, all of which convincingly demonstrated the accumulated military capacity of the FARC. President Samper’s successor, Andrés Pastrana, would later decide to meet directly with Marulanda and the FARC leadership to negotiate the withdrawal of government troops from five municipalities, creating a demilitarized zone about the size of Switzerland that would serve as a base for comprehensive peace talks in 1999. In so doing, the government granted political recognition to the FARC.

Also significant was the persistent agility of the FARC in positioning itself among those sectors most affected by the agrarian crisis, especially in zones traditionally abandoned by the Colombian state. In the 1990’s, this was reinforced by the FARC’s expansion into territories where coca and poppy cultivation was widespread, booming on account of the ever-expanding drug trade. The FARC was able to consolidate an impressive financial base via the “taxes” it levied in agricultural zones under its control in exchange for armed protection. For its part, the Colombian government remained single-mindedly focused on the FARC’s military capacity while blinded to the resilient social base being built up in these departments. In the case of coca and poppy production, the incessant demands of Washington to expand illicit crop eradication programs effectively placed the Colombian government at odds with thousands of communities where the continued presence of the FARC constituted the sole form of protection of their livelihood. FARC
Revolutions and coups;Colombia

Further Reading

  • Bergquist, Charles, Ricardo Peñaranda, and Gonzalo Sánchez G., eds. Violence in Colombia, 1990-2000: Waging War and Negotiating Peace. Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources, 2001. Collection of essays by prominent Colombian intellectuals that discuss various aspects of the Colombian conflict.
  • Dudley, Steven. Walking Ghosts: Murder and Guerrilla Politics in Colombia. New York: Routledge, 2004. Analysis of the Colombian leftist organization Patriotic Union based on the author’s firsthand experience.
  • Kirk, Robin. More Terrible than Death: Massacres, Drugs, and America’s War in Colombia. New York: PublicAffairs, 2003. Account of Colombia’s political violence from a human rights perspective.
  • Murillo, Mario, and Jesus Rey Avirama. Colombia and the United States: War, Terrorism, and Destabilization. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2003. Analyzes the effects of U.S. policies on the Colombian conflict.
  • Ramírez Cuellar, Francisco. The Profits of Extermination: How U.S. Corporate Power Is Destroying Colombia. Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 2005. Analysis of political repression in Colombia that focuses on the link with U.S.-based multinational corporations.
  • Safford, Frank, and Marco Palacios. Colombia: Fragmented Land, Divided Society. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Provides a broad, historical overview, including a detailed analysis of contemporary political violence.

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