What Are the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia?

This “Explainer” is drawn from “Terrorism: Questions and Answers,” the Council on Foreign Relations’ online encyclopedia of terrorism. Click here for the full site.

Two bombs exploded in Villavicencio, Colombia, on Sunday, killing 12 people. Police blamed the attack on the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—or, as it’s known by its Spanish acronym, FARC. What is FARC?

FARC is Colombia’s largest and best-equipped rebel group, with some 18,000 members. It operates in about half the country, mostly in the jungles of the southeast and the plains at the base of the Andes mountains. FARC is responsible for most of the ransom kidnappings in Colombia; the group targets wealthy landowners, foreign tourists, and prominent international and domestic officials. It has also engaged in airline hijackings, extortion schemes, and assassinations. In 1997, the State Department added FARC to its list of foreign terrorist organizations.

FARC formed in 1966, bringing together Communist militants and peasant self-defense groups. Members say they represent the rural poor against Colombia’s wealthy classes and oppose the privatization of natural resources, multinational corporations, and rightist violence. They also oppose American influence in Colombia, particularly Plan Colombia, the United States’ $1.3 billion initiative to equip the Colombian military to eradicate coca.

How does FARC sustain itself? Experts estimate that the group takes in $200 million to $400 million annually—at least half of its income—from the illegal drug trade. FARC also profits from kidnappings, extortion schemes, and an unofficial “tax” it levies in the countryside for “protection” and social services.

In 1999, during peace negotiations between the Colombian government and FARC, President Andrés Pastrana ceded control of an area twice the size of New Jersey to FARC. After three years of fruitless negotiations and a series of high-profile terrorist acts, Pastrana ended the peace talks in February and ordered Colombian forces to start retaking the FARC-controlled zone. Experts say FARC is stepping up terrorist activities in urban centers leading up to Colombia’s May presidential elections.

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