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Colombia's war with FARC and why it might finally end, explained

A Colombian special forces officer stands near the site of a suspected FARC attack in 2002.
A Colombian special forces officer stands near the site of a suspected FARC attack in 2002.
Carlos Villalon/Getty Images

The FARC, a Marxist rebel group that has been fighting a 50-year civil war in Colombia, announced a unilateral, indefinite ceasefire on Wednesday. In a statement on its website, the group announced that it hopes the ceasefire will "transform into an armistice," thus potentially ending a war that has raged in Colombia for half a century, claiming over 220,000 lives and displacing more than 5.7 million people.

That ceasefire is an important step for the conflict and for the peace negotiations that have dragged on for two years. But 50 years of war can't end overnight, and significant obstacles to peace still remain. Here's what you need to know about the FARC, its conflict with the Colombian government, and what this announcement means for the chances of peace in Colombia.

Who are the FARC?

farc fighters in 1999

FARC fighters in 1999. (Marcelo Salinas/AFP/Getty Images)

The FARC is a leftist rebel movement, based in Colombia's vast rural areas, that since 1964 has waged a rebellion against the Colombian government in an attempt to launch a Marxist revolution. Its name is short for Fuerzas Armadas Revolutionarias de Colombia (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia).

The group formed in 1964, but its foundations lie years earlier, in a ten-year period of low-grade civil war in Colombia known as "La Violencia." La Violencia ended in 1958, after the fighting between political rightists and leftists had claimed more than 200,000 lives. The war had left Colombia with weak state institutions and significant social upheaval, especially in rural areas. That is the context into which the FARC grew.

A CIA analysis in 1958 concluded that inequitable land distribution and widespread lawlessness, poverty, and the absence of state authority in rural areas left the country at risk of "genocide or chaos." In the absence of state institutions, the real power in rural areas lay with wealthy landowners known as Latifundistas, who used private security forces to protect their interests — often violently. The rural poor were vulnerable and, with no government to turn to, receptive to the armed leftists who emerged claiming to champion them. That included the FARC.

How did the FARC become so powerful?

FARC cocaine

Cocaine seized from a FARC laboratory. (Guillermo Legaria/AFP/Getty Images)

In the early 1960s, the FARC and other leftist guerrilla groups formed as a rural insurgency that claimed to represent the interests of Colombia's poor against the landed elite. The elite responded by organizing private "self-defense" organizations to oppose the rebels, which soon transformed into right-wing paramilitary groups. That became the civil war that has lasted ever since, albeit in sometimes very different forms.

The FARC grew in power during the 1980s and early '90s. The drug trade was flourishing in its territory in rural Colombia; the extra revenue allowed it to expand its operations. Colombian cartels became increasingly powerful players in the cocaine trade in the 1980s, which the FARC exploited by levying "taxes" on the cultivation of coca plants within territory it controlled. (The drug trade fueled both sides of the conflict: the right-wing paramilitaries were also deeply involved in drug trafficking.) The FARC also grew reliant on kidnapping as a source of revenue and political pressure; many of its victims were held in the mountains for years at a time.

In 1998, President Andres Pastrana began peace negotiations with the rebel group. He granted it a 42,000 square kilometer safe zone in the center of the country — an area larger than the state of Maryland — in which it could operate without government interference. The FARC used the safe zone and the government ceasefire during the Pastrana peace talks to build up its strength, in part by taxing the coca crops that were cultivated in its territory. When the talks eventually broke down, the group was stronger than ever.

Why, after so long, did the FARC start losing?

farc fighting police

Anti-narcotics police blow up a FARC cocaine installation. (Guillermo Legaria/AFP/GettyImages)

The US, increasingly alarmed by Colombia's role in the drug trade, got involved in Colombia's war in the 1990s. The American initiative, Plan Colombia, included everything from military aid to aerial spraying to eradicate coca crops. Ironically, while the US effort was primarily focused on rooting out the drug trade and only incidentally concerned with the FARC, it had some success at weakening the FARC but little with regard to the drug trade, which simply shifted north to other countries.

In 2002, President Álvaro Uribe took office after campaigning on a promise to end the war. He cracked down on the FARC and was largely successful in undermining the group's power. The military regained much of the FARC's territory, and by 2013, the FARC had just over 7,000 members, down from a height of 16,000 in 2001. Uribe also concluded a peace agreement with the main paramilitary organization, the AUC, which had been responsible for the worst violence throughout the war. This reduced the scope of the conflict dramatically.

In 2010, Juan Manuel Santos was elected president on a promise to end the war, and began the current peace negotiations soon after he took office two years ago. Santos' peace negotiations have proven to be controversial, however. He has faced considerable opposition from former President Uribe and his political allies, who contend that negotiated peace with the FARC is not possible.

Will this week's ceasefire lead to peace?

guns farc

Weapons seized from the FARC and other criminal groups, about to be destroyed. (Guillermo Legaria/AFP/Getty Images)

On Wednesday, the FARC announced an indefinite, unilateral ceasefire, and said that they hope it turns into an armistice. That is a significant step towards peace, but there are still major obstacles to a final peace agreement.

It's possible, though, that this is less a gesture of peace than a negotiating strategy. It may be that the FARC is simply hoping that this announcement will pressure the Colombian government to agree to a bilateral ceasefire that will have better terms for the group. Cynthia Arnson, the director of the Latin America Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, told me that the FARC has been lobbying for a bilateral ceasefire for a long time. The government has refused to agree, however, because the FARC used the ceasefire during the late 1990s peace talks to build up its strength.

Arnson sees today's agreement as a way for the FARC to "up the ante" on its ceasefire demands, but does not expect the strategy to be successful. "It would be very, very difficult to impose a bilateral ceasefire," she told me. "I don't see the Colombian government having the political room, either with the Colombian public or with the Colombian military, to implement a ceasefire until it is clear that they are on the verge of signing the final agreement."

Today's unilateral ceasefire is also unlikely to resolve the biggest remaining point of contention in the peace talks: whether FARC combatants will face criminal punishment after they put down their guns and demobilize.

"The issue of impunity for the FARC is the most important, and most difficult in the peace talks," Arnson noted. "The FARC is opposed to the idea that its commanders would lay down weapons and then go to jail. But at the same time, the military says that there are members of the armed forces who are in jail for human rights abuses, and so it has to be the case that the FARC will also pay with jail time."

Even if that issue is resolved, a final hurdle will still remain: the peace accords must be approved by the Colombian public in a popular referendum. That means that Santos's negotiating position is constrained by public opinion, not just his government's willingness to make sacrifices in exchange for peace.

Still, the unilateral ceasefire is a step in a good direction and one that, after 50 years of war, Colombia badly needs.