What the FARC?

A field guide to the leftist militias of Latin America.

Guerrilla guard

Raul Reyes, a senior leader in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, was killed by Colombian security forces Saturday. The Explainer previously spelled out what the FARC is, but how is this group different from all those other Latin American leftist militias?

It’s rich, and it’s still active. With the exception of two militia movements that successfully seized and retained power—Fidel Castro’s 26th of July movement in Cuba and, 20 years later, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua—most of Latin America’s armed groups were defeated by their nations’ governments years ago. The FARC has endured because the cocaine trade in Colombia has become a huge source of revenue for the group—by some estimates, $250 million to $500 million a year, or at least half of its income. The other major leftist insurgent group that remains active in Latin America today is also Colombian: the National Liberation Army, or the ELN. Drug money helped this smaller group endure as well, though it may make up only one-tenth of ELN’s income; kidnapping and extortion provide the bulk.

The FARC is part of a wave of Marxist-Leninist rebel groups that rose after Castro’s Cuban revolution in 1959. But those groups didn’t share exactly the same political ideologies or strategies for reaching their goals. ELN, for instance, was influenced by Catholic liberation theology and has held international talks in order to negotiate with the Colombian government. The FARC, by contrast, has lost much of its political agenda and is today viewed by some Latin American leftist movements as more akin to a large mafia organization. In Peru, the violent and secretive Shining Path (PDF), or Sendero Luminoso, embraced Maoism and focused on peasants, not just workers as in the classical Marxist view. The group symbolically began its “People’s War” in 1980 by hanging dogs from lampposts to represent the dogs of capitalism. By comparison, another Peruvian group, the Marxist Tupac Amaru, wasn’t as ruthless or as clandestine; after ambushing a Japanese ambassador’s residence in Lima and taking hundreds of hostages in 1996, the rebels spent months negotiating with Fujimori’s government. (In Nicaragua, the Sandinistas included members who were not Marxists; they also didn’t aim for worldwide revolution, but for the overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship.)

Not all of the armed rebel groups of Latin America were based in the jungle or drew membership only from the peasantry. The leftist Tupamaros of Uruguay fought urban battles in Montevideo, since that’s where most people lived. The Montoneros of Argentina also operated in cities, partly backed by the students who had been radicalized in the 1960s.

What about the Zapatistas in Mexico? Despite the militaristic name—Zapatista Army of National Liberation—the group carried out a largely nonviolent, popular struggle. Mayans were a large part of the organization, and the Zapatistas’ success in negotiating with the Mexican government raised the profile of indigenous movements in Latin America in the 1990s, paving the way for the election of Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president, in 2005.

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Explainer thanks Henry Dietz of the University of Texas, Austin; Greg Grandin of New York University; Jose Antonio Lucero of Temple University; and Scott Mainwaring of the University of Notre Dame.