Small Wars Journal

When Insurgent Leadership Splits: Understanding FARC’s Internal Crisis Amidst a Fragile Peace Agreement

Fri, 01/17/2020 - 12:19am

When Insurgent Leadership Splits: Understanding FARC’s Internal Crisis Amidst a Fragile Peace Agreement

Alexandra Phelan

On January 12, the Colombian government announced that FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia / Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) dissident leaders, Iván Márquez and “El Paisa,” ordered an assassination attempt from Venezuela on FARC’s current leader, Rodrigo “Timochenko” Londoño. Analysts have observed that there has been a historical rift between Timochenko and Márquez, and suggestions that silent fractures within the organisation’s ranks beginning many years ago. However, whilst focus has been placed on the significant, ongoing challenges in implementing the 2016 peace agreement, it is becoming clear that FARC may be facing one of their most significant internal crises.

Former FARC Secretariat member Iván Márquez announced a return to arms and “new phase of armed struggle” on 29 August 2019. Alongside former top leaders Jesús Santrich, “El Paisa” and “Romaña,” a 32-minute video called for a “second Marquetalia” and a continuation of the “guerrilla struggle in response to the State’s betrayal of the Havana peace agreement.” This reference to Marquetalia served as a legitimation strategy linking the continuation of conflict back to Operation Marquetalia in 1964, where a group of individuals who survived a military bombardment in an area colloquially known as “the Independent Republic of Marquetalia” went on to form FARC. Márquez—presumed leader of FARC II—stated that there had been a betrayal of the peace agreement, that they would “continue the legacy of Manuel (Marulanda Vélez, FARC’s former commander-in-chief) and (Simón) Bolívar.” Furthermore, the new organisation would seek to join forces with the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional or ELN) and other FARC dissident groups.

Despite raising immediate concern for the future of Colombia’s peace process, it is important to note that 13000 former FARC combatants that have already demobilised as part of the 2016 peace agreement. Shortly after the video was released, current FARC leaders and former FARC combatants reaffirmed their commitments to peace and government reintegration processes, and it is unlikely that Márquez’s endeavours to reignite an armed movement will trigger a mass rearmament. In short, there is no definitive threat to the peace agreement’s implementation per se directly as a result of Márquez’s announcement. However, given the general realignment of armed actors within the Colombian conflict, FARC II has the potential to form alliances with other armed groups in order gradually strengthen its position vis-à-vis the Colombian state. Moreover, a split leadership raises concerns for FARC bases who have becoming disenchanted with the ongoing process, or whose loyalties swing further to Márquez’ directions.

Slow Implementation and Failure of Security Guarantees: Justifications for Defection

Regrettably there are indeed enabling conditions that could potentially contribute to re-mobilisation amongst a small minority that are disenchanted with the Colombian government’s compliance with the peace agreement. Márquez’s announcement of FARC II can be seen as a manifestation of the Duque administration’s failure (and unwillingness) to comply with the peace deal, and more pressingly the Colombian security force’s failure to adequately provide security. This is especially amongst those undergoing reintegration and participating in illicit crop substitution programmes. Márquez himself mentioned in the video that since the signing of the Havana Peace Agreement, more than 500 social movement and community leaders and 150 former FARC members had been killed. He further added that “[with] the naïve disarmament of the guerrillas in exchange for nothing, the killing does not cease…we were never defeated or defeated ideologically, so the fight continues”. Failure of guarantees under the peace agreement has led to disenchantment amongst some former FARC combatants. For example, a former FARC member expressed to me that when he arrived at a demobilisation zone, he saw that it had not been finished and he immediately became suspicious. He eventually decided to defect the collective process. At present, the overwhelming majority of former FARC combatants are committed to the reintegration process, but ongoing difficulties pertaining to the slow pace of its implementation and failure of security guarantees has provided rationale for dissidence.

FARC II’s Experienced Leadership

What is further concerning is the militant credibility of FARC II’s likely leadership. Iván Márquez was the former second-in-command of FARC to current leader Rodrigo “Timochenko” Londoño at the time of demobilisation, and former FARC political leader, negotiator and commander of the Caribbean Bloc. A lesser-known fact is that Márquez was also elected as a congressman representing Caquetá in 1986 when FARC ran its overt political party at the time– the Patriotic Union (UP)—in the congressional elections. Jesús Santrich, whose extradition was requested by the United States in April 2018 on alleged drug trafficking charges, was second-in-charge of the Caribbean Bloc and well respected amongst FARC ranks. “El Paisa” was the former commander of FARC’s strongest and most feared “Teófilo Forero Mobile Column”, and “Romaña” was a highly experienced military commander of the Eastern Bloc. Other notable commanders in the video include “Walter Mendoza”, “El Loco Iván,” “El Zarco Aldinever” and, symbolically, “Enrique Marulanda”—the son of FARC’s founder and original commander-in-chief, Manuel Marulanda Vélez.

There is no doubt that the calibre of former commanders in this new leadership body should be cause for concern. However, as many observers have noted, a notable absentee in the video was “Gentil Duarte.” Duarte is one of the most powerful FARC dissident leaders and in alliance with Iván Modisco and “Jhon 40” command the 1st Front, operating in the departments of Meta, Guaviare, Vaupés and Guainía. According to Colombian media outlet Blu Radio, Márquez, Santrich and “El Paisa” had met with Duarte, but that Duarte made it a condition that ex-commanders could only return to dissident ranks if they did so as ordinary guerrillas. Though there appears to be a current disagreement amongst these dissident factions, it is possible that recent events could encourage a more serious consideration of alignment.

What FARC II Potentially Means for the Colombian Conflict

Both the assassination attempt and Márquez’s announcement of a “return to arms” has created a crisis for the Colombian state, particularly given the criticism it faces given the slow (and, in some cases, completely stalled) implementation of key guarantees in the 2016 peace agreement. However, it has also created an internal crisis for FARC. FARC II faces both enabling and constraining factors in attempting to further mobilise towards its “second Marquetalia,” which has contributed to a degree of unpredictability for the splinter organisation. First and foremost, although Márquez urged former FARC combatants in the Territorial Spaces for Training and Reintegration (Espacios Territoriales de Capacitación y Reincorporación or ETCRs) to continue the armed struggle, the overwhelming majority seeks to continue a path to peace, including current FARC leadership. In this sense, it is possible that FARC II will mobilise from existing dissidents and a small number of disenchanted former combatants, rather than appeal to a mass rearmament amongst those committed to the reintegration process. However, such failed government guarantees could indeed serve as motivation for further defection.

Second, despite a skilled leadership, current figures suggest that roughly 2000-2500 FARC dissidents have returned to hostilities. Given the fact that FARC II’s leadership is believed to be in Venezuela, and the fact that some dissident fronts continue to operate autonomously, it is probable that the “second Marquetalia” will likely be launched from the offensive. In this sense, FARC II will likely return to traditional guerrilla warfare that was favoured by FARC up until a strategy shift at its Seventh Conference in 1982. Before FARC II’s website was removed (, there were appeals to cells from FARC’s covert Clandestine Colombian Communist Party (PC3) which formed support networks extending into Colombia’s urban environments. Márquez suggested that the organisation would also refrain from kidnapping, but rather “talk” with businessmen, ranchers, and the wealthy to “finance the rebellion.”

Finally, despite Márquez’s call to join forces with ELN, in reality this may not be as straight forward as it would appear. The relationship between FARC and ELN has historically been marked by both cooperation and confrontation. As an individual example, a former ELN member explained to me the ways in which in the past, her squad had worked together with a FARC squad to patrol their territories in Antioquia. After Márquez released the video, commander of the ELN Omar Gómez front “Uriel” welcomed the pronouncement of the FARC II leadership, stating that “this side is open to all who want to contribute”. However, analysts rightly observe that the ELN and FARC dissidents have previously engaged in confrontation over resources, particularly in Arauca and Catatumbo bordering Venezuela.

The internal split leadership within FARC presents the organisation with a significant crisis, particularly amongst a fragile and precarious peace agreement. Given the Colombian conflict’s transformation after the 2016 peace agreement with FARC that resulted in the opening of both territorial vacuums and resources for other armed groups, it remains precarious as to how FARC II will merge or compete given its current resources. However, the notable split and defection of such a high-profile, experienced and credible leadership suggests that the implementation of guarantees outlined in the agreement—most pressingly, security guarantees—should be a key issue at the forefront of Duque’s response.

Categories: El Centro - FARC - Colombia - insurgency

About the Author(s)

Dr. Alexandra Phelan is Deputy Director of Monash Gender, Peace and Security Centre (Monash GPS), and a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Monash University. Her research interests include insurgent governance and legitimation activities, insurgent women, political violence and organised crime with particular focus on Latin America. Alex completed her PhD in 2019 at Monash University.  Her dissertation examined why the Colombian government alternated between counterinsurgency and negotiation with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Based on an extensive examination of negotiation documents and primary FARC material, fieldwork and interviews with former and active FARC, ELN, M-19 and AUC members, she critically examined the role that insurgent legitimation activities had on influencing Colombian government response between 1982-2016. Before she was appointed a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations, she was a postdoctoral fellow at Monash GPS. Alex's research at GPS focuses on gendered approaches to understanding terrorism and violent extremism. She currently serves on the editorial board for the journal, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism. She can be found on Twitter at @Alex_Phelan.



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