Revolution in Colombia, part two: Origins of the guerrilla groups

Just like rings in a tree trunk mark off its yearly growth, so would successive appearance of Colombia's guerrilla groups over the past half-century indicate shifts or ruptures in the worldwide left. Every shakeup in the revolutionary movement internationally has had the effect of spawning a new armed group in Colombia that has taken root in the country's fertile political soil, made so by permanent injustice. This article will explain their various origins.


The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia began as the rural armed detachment of the Communist Party of Colombia.

When "La Violencia" broke out in 1948, Communist Party militants in the countryside took up arms to protect themselves and the masses. Jenny Pearce writes, "In El Davis, peasants organised a guerrilla enclave and a self-sufficient community under the political leadership of the Communist Party, which, till it had a population of 5,000 attracted people fleeing from other areas." Even as the CP formed armed bands, it continued to retain its ties to the Liberal Party and agreements were made with Liberal guerrillas to carry out joint actions. This did not stop the Liberals from betraying the CP as indicated by the willingness of the Liberal guerrilla chiefs to begin collaborating with the army in 1953.

In the first infusion of US aid against "subversion," $160 million was earmarked for counter-insurgency and "economic development" between 1961 and 1967. It was during this period that the anarchic, semi-bandit armed groups that had first emerged during 1948 began to take on more and more of a conscious anti-imperialist political character, especially those under CP leadership.

The US assistance bore fruit. Between 1963 and 1964, most of the openly bandit-like armed groups were defeated. Then the army turned its attention to the areas in which the CP formed a parallel state power based on peasant support. The CP, true to form, declared that it was ready to become re-integrated into the two-party system. A 1958 statement signed by Marulanda ("Sureshot") declared its intention to work within the system:

"As patriots, who have struggled during the years prior to 10 May 1957 against the despotic dictatorships which sowed ruin in the countryside and towns, we are not interested in the armed struggle and we are willing to collaborate in any way we can, with the task of pacification which the present government of Doctor Alberto Lleras Camargo is prepared to implement."

Camargo was the recently elected president of the National Front, a bloc between the two major bourgeois parties in Colombia. They signed a pact which guaranteed that they would alternate in power during a period of sixteen years. Imagine an agreement between Clinton and George Bush Jr. on this basis. Then imagine the CPUSA endorsing it. While this Bloc marked the end of armed hostilities between the two political wings of the ruling class, it at the same time marked the beginning of a new round of military attacks on the peasants and workers.

That the Communist Party of Colombia could refer positively to "pacification" points to the heavy hand of Stalin-era class-collaboration. While CP militants fought bravely for reforms in the countryside and in the trade union arena, the party was hampered by this ideological confusion about the tasks of the revolutionary movement. In their eyes, until Colombia had become a modern bourgeois-democratic republic, socialism would not be on the agenda. However, as the Cuban revolution would reveal the very next year, it was only through socialist revolution that the basic tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution could be achieved, including land reform which was and is the burning issue in Colombia.

Even though the CP had showed its willingness to placate the ruling class, the ruling class would be satisfied with nothing less than the physical elimination of the party. With US advisers, the Colombian army would unleash one of its most infamous operations in 1964. 16,000 troops encircled Marquetalia, a valley where fewer than 100 peasant sympathizers of the CP were toiling, while the airforce dropped bombs. Almost all the peasants escaped and joined up with others from around the country who had been living in CP "liberated zones" to form mobile guerrilla groups. At a conference in 1966, they officially launched the FARC. "La Violencia" was officially over, but a new war along more sharply delineated class lines was now beginning.

(The FARC and CP split sometime in the 80's over political differences related to Gorbachev and domestic strategy and tactics.)


The ELN was a direct outgrowth of the Cuban revolution. Student radicals decided that it was possible to replicate the success of the July 26th Movement in Colombia. Its initial impetus came from the MOEC (Workers, Students' and Peasants Movement), formed by student leader Antonio Larrota who died in 1961 while trying to establish a "foco" in the northern territory called Cauca. By 1964 MOEC had imploded due to a combination of military reversals and factional infighting.

At that point Fabio Vásquez and a small group of student activists from the ex-MOEC launched the ELN after receiving military training in Cuba.

The ELN made its debut on January 7, 1965 when 27 men and one woman armed with hunting rifles took control of the small town of Simacota for two hours and made revolutionary speeches. In a recent review one of the ELN leaders looked back at the group's early activities with self-reproach:

"A great problem of our practice at the time was the absolutism of the armed struggle...we married it and didn't let it go. Whatever we believed didn't accord with that line, we cast it aside; that's why we thought that the union movement and trade union struggles were a deviation."

To place these remarks in context, let us recall that immediately after the success of the Cuban revolution, a schematic model was put forward by Regis Debray in "Revolution in the Revolution." This slender book argued in favor of "foquismo," a basically militarist approach to revolutionary politics in which columns of guerrilla fighters ("focos") would be established in the countryside with very little advance political preparation. Bold actions by the guerrilla would serve to raise the fighting spirit of the masses. Foquismo type groups sprang up all across Latin America and if they stuck to Debray's rigid formula, they soon perished--including Che's own foco in Bolivia.

The relationship between the FARC and the ELN were strained from the beginning. While Cuba never developed the kind of systematic critique of Stalinism that the Trotskyist movement did, there was an implied criticism through its collaborative relations with armed groups to the left of the CP's, such as the ELN. The added complication in Colombia's case was that the FARC was a guerrilla group itself and upon first blush seemed indistinguishable from other so-called Castroite guerrilla groups.

The ELN made overtures to the FARC in 1966 at the time of its founding. The ELN, based in the north, invited collaboration with the southern-based FARC: "All efforts that make toward collaboration, knowledge, co-ordination and unity with other guerrilla forces, however recently formed, are playing a great part in the development of the struggle for national liberation."

The CP replied: "Comrade Marulanda has been informed by our party of your activities, which have not pleased the party. The party, the general staff of the FARC, and Comandante Marulanda Vélez himself, consider that such relations as you suggest will not be possible unless you accept the policy of the Communist Party."

And what was the policy of the Communist Party around that time? Fabio Vásquez, founder of the ELN, explains:

"...the Cuban Revolution coincided in our country with the fall of Rojas Pinilla's [National Front] dictatorship, and a return to traditional representative democracy with Liberal and Conservative politicians. This brought about conflict between those who supported stepping up the electoral struggle and forming electoral movements, and those who advocated the insurrectional war. After the fall of Rojas Pinilla, the only movement with revolutionary ideas was the Communist party. But at the same time they proposed forming broad political fronts with so-called progressive sectors within the Liberal party, for example, the Liberal Revolutionary Movement (MRL) which was headed by Dr. Alfonso López Michelsen. Meanwhile those who followed the pattern of the Cuban Revolution looked for armed solutions. They had a decisive clash with the directives, tactics and strategy of the Communist party and the MRL, which at that time was the most representative left-wing movement in Colombia. This was when the Workers-Peasants-Students Movement (MOEC) appeared, headed by Antonio Larrota, a student leader, who proposed armed struggle. From the beginning the MOEC had major difficulties and clashes with the official leadership of the Communist party, which was concentrating its efforts on helping to form the MRL in order to take part in the elections which were beginning to take place after the fall of the dictatorship."

In 1968 the FARC defined its task as building the Patriotic Liberation Front, which is Stalinist jargon for a multiclass government, and stated that its policy was "guided by the policy of the [Communist] party, expressed in the decisions of the Tenth Congress and meetings of its Central Committee." Faced with such hard-line CP orthodoxy, the ELN had no alternative but to proceed alone.

The most famous leader of the ELN was Camilo Torres, a Catholic priest who died in combat and who was one of the most extraordinary figures in Latin American revolutionary politics in recent decades. He was chaplain of the National University in Bogotá and one of the founders of the sociology department. Later he became dean of the School of Public Administration, where he gave lectures on the need for agrarian reform. In 1965 he issued an anti-capitalist "Platform for a Movement of Popular Unity," which set off a major controversy in Colombia and led to his firing from the university. When the church gave the unemployed Torres a job, he soon lost it after advocating expropriation of church property through socialist revolution.

When Torres joined the ELN, it was with the understanding that he might facilitate an urban wing of the movement under the auspices of a group he had initiated called the People's United Front. All through 1965 he traveled around the country drumming up support for his group, frequently appearing with ELN bodyguards. At a certain point, Torres became frustrated with the failure of urban-based leftists to align themselves or even support his movement. He was attacked by Maoists, for example, for not being radical enough--a huge surprise. Exhausted and disillusioned, Torres put on a guerrilla uniform and went to the countryside. He was killed in action on February 16, 1966. This tragedy cut off possibilities for the ELN developing deeper urban ties. Torres's frustration with the pace of the People's United Front was symptomatic of the kind of mood that prevailed in the 1960s. Looking back with 20-20 hindsight, it is clear that he would have proven much more useful in Bogotá than in a futile firefight in the hills. His loss, like Che's, was a product of a deeply impatient time, when the imperative to "Create two, three, many Vietnams" was irresistible, no matter how poorly considered the strategy put forward in pursuit of that goal.


The EPL was formed as the armed wing of the Maoist CP-ML in December, 1965. It was directed to carry out "prolonged popular war" on the model of the Chinese Liberation Army or the NLF. It came close to annihilation during numerous confrontations with the army. It was also subject to numerous splits as characterizes sectarian groups of this nature. It spawned the Marxist-Leninist League, the Marxist-Leninist Tendency and the urban group, Pedro León Arboleda (PLA).

In the early 1980s, the group shifted away from the Maoist perspective and began to orient to the unions and popular organizations. When a dialog opened up with the government, the EPL and the M-19 proved willing to forego the armed struggle and take part in "normal" electoral activities.


The M-19 was born in 1972. It seems to be very close in conception to the FSLN, in particular the "Terzerista" [Third way] faction led by Daniel Ortega. Like the "Terzeristas," the M-19 believed that bold armed initiatives, combined with a broad alliance policy intended to exploit divisions within the ruling class, would isolate the government and lead to a general insurrection. The M-19, like the FARC, sought to redeem the electoral process from corruption and return it to the status of an instrument of the popular will. The April 19th was a reference to the election day in 1970, when a left party was cheated out of a victory. The implication of the M-19 approach was that armed struggle was necessary to return the country to normal parliamentary rule, a vain hope in light of Colombia's history. Some of the founding cadres of the M-19 indeed came from the FARC and undoubtedly sought merely to provide a turbo-charged version of the CP's Patriotic Liberation Front.

The M-19's first public action was to steal the sword of Simón Bolivar to draw attention to the loss of the country's revolutionary heritage. This was the greatest achievment of the M-19, to combine revolutionary struggle with a country's indigenous revolutionary traditions. In doing so, they were in keeping with the July 26th Movement's embrace of Jose Martí in Cuba, and similar use of national revolutionary symbols such as Farabundo Martí in El Salvador and Sandino in Nicaragua during the 1980s.


By 1985, Colombia had entered a deep political crisis. The causes were the same as they had always been. Rapid economic development was not matched by a representative democracy. The lack of democracy ensured that the vast majority of the population was not offered social services such as clean water, education and health care. When they protested in the streets, they were attacked by right-wing paramilitaries. The guerrillas had a complicated relationship to the mass movement. While providing armed defense, they also gave the government an excuse to "empty the ocean" in order to kill the fish. Colombia was the site of rural pacification programs not that different from those that had been implemented in Vietnam and with the same dubious results. The internal immigrants who had fled government and private repression were far greater percentage-wise than the number of Kosovars who had fled from NATO bombing.

President Virgilio Barco embarked on peace talks with the guerrilla movement, so as to return a modicum of peace to the country. The cost of repression was proving too high and the carrot might work better than the stick in keeping the masses under control. The M-19 and the EPL agreed to the government's proposals, while the FARC and the ELN held back.

The M-19 had high expectations for re-entry into the normal political process. A 1985 survey found that if it ran a candidate for president, it would receive 36.7 percent of the vote. So when a truce was signed with the government, they went on the offensive and held rallies in slum districts of the big cities. And as soon as they did, the army, the police and the paramilitaries began to victimize the poor people who attended them.

Unlike the CP/FARC, which also looked forward to electoral openings but knew from bitter experience how treacherous the ruling class could be, the impetuous M-19 cadres took very little precautions. When their leaders in Cali were murdered by security forces, the M-19 called off their truce and launched one of the most disastrous actions in recent Colombian revolutionary history. While superficially bearing a resemblance to the sort of actions that had propelled the FSLN into the limelight, this action would serve to destroy the M-19 and demoralize the mass movement.

In November of 1985, the M-19 stormed the Palace of Justice in Bogotá and during a 28-hour pitched battle with the army and police, 128 people were killed. Twelve politicians were killed in the fighting, as were 41 militants of the M-19. Leftwing journalist Ana Carrigan has written a sympathetic but rueful account of the disastrous action. Her description of the M-19 militants evokes the Sandinista image:

"John Agudelo Rios, the conservative lawyer who led the peace negotiations with the M-19 for President Betancur in 1984 and '85, says that none of the leaders he got to know ever did grow up. Agudelo Rios also says that no two of the M-19 leaders ever shared any common political ideology. There were right-wingers and Marxists, anarchists and a few lonely social democrats, and they could never agree on a program. They still can't. 'I hate programs,' says Antonio Navarro Wolf. 'There is nothing more deadly than programs. Those sacred texts that people hang around their necks like the doctrinaire dogmas of the Catholic Church.'

"Neither the long march through the political institutions nor years of guerrilla warfare in the distant mountains was ever the M19 style. From the moment they burst upon the scene in 1974 with the theft of one of the nation's most prized possessions, the sword of Simon Bolivar, through the high-jacking of several tons of weapons from the army's crack, XIIIth Brigade Bogotá's headquarters over New Year's Eve in 1979, to the seizure of the Dominican Embassy while the entire Bogotá's diplomatic corps were celebrating the Day of Dominican Independence in 1980, their specialty was always the 'golpe revolucionario publicitario,' designed to effect the maximum destabilization of the system. They were children of the media age, long on imagination and daring, short on discipline, and they believed their own high-flown rhetoric."

The M-19 and the EPL have disappeared from the Colombian political landscape. Those militants who were not killed have been largely absorbed into electoral politics. This leaves the FARC and the ELN as the sole armed opponents of the regime. In my next post, I will focus on the problem of guerrilla ties to the cocaine trade. Since the United States is using this as a pretext for an imperialist intervention, it is vitally important that anti-imperialist activists have a clear understanding of the issues, even if we don't all agree on whether connections to the cocaine industry itself constitutes a prima facie basis for condemning the guerrilla.


Berquist-Peñarada-Sánchez, "Violence in Colombia"
Ana Carrigan, "The Palace of Justice"
Richard Gott, "Guerrilla Movements in Latin America"
Jenny Pearce, "Inside the Labyrinth"

Louis Proyect