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A brief look back at 50 years of FARC on the eve of a promised peace

AP Photo/Fernando Vergara
War and peace.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Over its five decades of war with the Colombian government, Colombia’s FARC has held nine summits to plot military strategy. This week, it’s holding its 10th National Guerrilla Conference to talk peace.

The powwow, which is taking place in a secluded jungle location under the watch of international media, will likely be the last for the FARC as an armed group. Last month, its leaders, along with government representatives, signed an agreement to end the long-standing conflict. Under the peace deal, FARC members will lay down their weapons and move their fight to the political realm.

Colombians still have to ratify the deal in an October plebiscite. FARC members are casting their own vote before their conference ends Sept. 23. Their top leader, Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri, alias Timochenko, is lobbying for peace (link in Spanish). “Our main concern should be how to ensure that peace turns into a reality in our country based on social justice and democracy,” he told the troops gathered for the congress.

In the beginning

FARC emerged from a small group of leftist guerrillas living in the rural community of Marquetalia in the Colombian Andes. After government forces stormed their enclave in the summer of 1964, they fled and regrouped as an organized military force (Spanish) that declared war on the government. The documentary below, from FARC’s collection, shows its beginnings, which were rooted on land reform and ending poverty.

Building of an army

AFP/Getty Images
FARC guerrillas train at a camp somewhere in the Colombian mountains in the 1980s.

After officially renaming itself Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, in 1966, the guerrilla group moved to enlist more fighters. To fund their operations, they got into the drug-trafficking business and kidnapped prominent Colombians for ransom. By the early 1980s, their ranks had grown to 3,000.

Female guerrillas

Reuters/unnamed photographer
Women have long been part of the FARC.

Women are estimated to make up 30% to 40% of the FARC membership. The group’s leaders have said they stand for gender equality (Spanish), but few women have occupied top posts (Spanish). Some observers have noted that female fighters are charged with traditionally female tasks such as serving and preparing food. Women have also reported sexual abuse by their fellow guerillas.

On the offensive

Reuters/Henry Romero
The FARC became more ambitious, and destructive, in the 1990s.

The conflict intensified in the 1990s, with FARC’s attacks growing bolder and larger. By the end of the decade, the guerrilla group had recruited some 18,000 members and controlled 42,000 square kilometers (around 16,000 square miles) of land obtained through peace negotiations. Further talks fell through after the rebels hijacked an airplane to kidnap a Colombian senator in 2002.

Civilian toll

AP Photo/Leon Monsalve
A woman stands in the wreckage of her house, which was destroyed during a FARC attack.

Civilians were caught in the middle of the raging war between the guerrillas and the army. More than 1 million people have been killed or forcibly disappeared during the conflict, according to Colombia’s victim registry. Nearly 7 million others have been displaced.

Heavy damage

AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan
FARC rebels walk by a burning oil pipeline they sabotaged.

Along with the strikes to gain territory, the FARC targeted key government infrastructure, such as oil pipelines. They’ve hit one of them, which is connected to a major oil field, more than 1,000 times over the past two decades. The group’s brutal tactics eroded any sympathy  (Spanish) they might have enjoyed among Colombians.

Guerrilla casualties

Reuters/Guillermo Granja
An FARC fighter injured during an army attack on her camp.

The Colombian government cracked down on the FARC under president Alvaro Uribe, who took power in 2002. In the following years, the army killed some of the guerrilla group’s top leaders, along with many of its foot soldiers. Thousands of fighters voluntarily left the armed struggle in recent years. It was a much-diminished FARC that agreed to sit down with the government in 2012 to negotiate the peace deal that was signed last month.

Digital insurgency

AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd
A FARC mid-level commander works on her computer at a hidden camp in the northwest Andes of Colombia.

The internet has been a powerful tool for FARC members perennially in hiding. In 2007, when the group was under particularly heavy pressure from government forces, it carried out its ninth guerrilla conference online (Spanish) to avoid capture. The FARC has also used social media to communicate with society at large. Aside from its website, it has Twitter and Facebook accounts.

From the jungle

AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd
Rebels use trees to hang clothes and weapons.

Many fighters joined FARC as teenagers and have spent years living in isolated jungle camps. Existence there is communal, highly regimented, and pretty rudimentary.

To civilian life

AFP/Getty Images/Luis Acosta
Two FARC members dance at a party during the group’s 10th guerrilla conference.

Now FARC members are getting used to the idea of a life without fatigues or weapons. Judging from the festive atmosphere (Spanish) at the guerrilla conference this week, many are ready for it.

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