Updated 6 months ago

Che Guevara era closes as Latin America's oldest guerrilla army calls it a day

In their 52-year fight against the Colombian state, Farc rebels used assault rifles, shrapnel-filled gas canisters, homemade landmines and mortar shells.

Those weapons are now set to be silenced forever as part of a historic peace deal with the government, to be signed on Monday. Once the demobilisation of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia is complete, their arsenal will be melted down into three monuments that will mark the end of Latin America’s longest-running conflict – and decades of armed uprisings in the region.

“This is an agreement with the last of the great guerrilla movements that emerged in the context of the cold war,” said Gonzalo Sánchez, director of the National Centre of Historical Memory in Bogotá. “There might be other episodes, but strategically the armed project, the armed utopia, is closing its cycle with Farc.”

Like many other Marxist and Maoist followers of the “armed struggle”, the Farc were inspired by the audacious exploits of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, who set out to Cuba on the rickety fishing vessel Granma with just 80 men in 1956, and went on to overthrow dictator Fulgencio Batista three years later.

It was certainly not the first armed rebellion in Latin America, which had witnessed numerous bloody independence campaigns against Spain in the 19th century and a smattering of communist militias in the 1940s. But the Cuban rebels’ success ignited a fresh blaze of revolutionary fervour across the continent that was fuelled by cold war politics, military coups, US backing for rightwing dictators and the murderous suppression of more moderate leftwing activists.

In the 1960s and 70s, guerrilla groups sprang up in every country in the region except Costa Rica: the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) in Nicaragua, the 8th October Revolutionary Movement (MR*8) in Brazil, the Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN) in Venezuela, the People’s Revolutionary Army (ERP) and Montoneros in Argentina, the Tupamaros in Uruguay, the Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR) in Chile. These and many others carried out assassinations, hijacks, kidnappings, bank robberies and attacks on military and political targets.

In Central America, they were among the factors that led to bloody civil wars in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua, where the Cuban-trained Sandinista guerrilla Daniel Ortega – who was once arrested for robbing a bank with a machine gun – secured power through revolution in 1979 and was then elected president of Nicaragua.

In South America, however, the communist militants made little headway. After Che Guevara was executed in Bolivia, Cuba and the Soviet Union cooled their enthusiasm to export armed struggle. Funding and weapons supplies – never very great in the first place – were cut. Splintered, outgunned and rarely able to secure popular support outside of remote strongholds, the guerrillas never came close to seizing power through military force.

Instead, many turned to the ballot box after the restoration of democracy in much of Latin America in the 1980s took away much of their raison d’etre. Some reached the highest office. Dilma Rousseff, a member of a clandestine Marxist group who was arrested and tortured after a gun was found in her handbag, became president of Brazil. José ‘Pepe’ Mujica, a Tupamaro who was shot and imprisoned in the 1970s, became president of Uruguay. Dozens of other former guerrillas became senators and congressmen.

Elsewhere, armed groups were sporadically active in countries that were slow to move towards democracy – such as Mexico, which had to wait until 2000 for its first change of government in more than 70 years.

The Zapatista Army of National Liberation staged high-profile military campaigns in 1994, but is now committed to peaceful means. “They are 21st-century guerrillas, shooting off more press bulletins than bullets,” said Eduardo Pizarro, a Colombian sociologist and conflict expert. The Guerrero-based Popular Revolutionary Army, however, staged attacks on oil facilities as recently as 2007 and has since been blamed for kidnappings and violent demonstrations.

The longest-enduring groups, however, are in Peru, Paraguay and Colombia – all countries that are not coincidentally centres of drug production and smuggling, which is a source of funds and guns.

Last month, the small Paraguayan People’s Army carried out an attack that killed eight soldiers. But it has lost several of its leaders in recent years and is thought to have only between 20 and 150 members, which makes it more of a local gang than a national threat. The same might be said for Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) in Peru. Once a formidable force, it was blamed for more than 30,000 killings between 1980 and 2000. Since then, it has been weakened and is now believed to have fewer than 300 members. But it remains on the US list of terrorist organisations and is recently thought to have expanded into a major drug trafficking region.

In Nicaragua, contra militia groups are also rumoured to be making a comeback, though they are thought to be very small and it is unclear whether their primary focus is opposing an increasingly authoritarian Ortega or drug running.

The illegal narcotics trade also helps to explain the longevity of Colombia’s main rebel groups; the Farc and the National Liberation Army (ELN).

The Farc is the oldest and most important guerrilla group in the western hemisphere. Born in 1964 as a communist-inspired peasant army that took up the banners of social justice for Colombia’s poor rural communities, it was inspired by the Cuban revolution. But it was never reliant on Havana like other insurgencies in the region were.

Even before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Farc were fairly autonomous in financing their struggle through kidnapping, extortion and the illegal drugs trade.

Public opinion polls have historically shown the Farc have a less than 1% approval rating in Colombia, though those polls don’t include rural areas where the Farc have reigned.

Farc leaders say it has been the support of civilians there that has allowed them to survive for so long. “They have offered us unconditional support and protected our forces in many ways even risking their own lives,” said Rodrigo Londoño, alias Timochenko, the Farc’s maximum leader, in a speech last week at the opening of the guerrilla army’s 10th conference.

But while the Farc may have survived the cold war, they were severely debilitated by the US-funded military onslaught against them under former president Álvaro Uribe, when their ranks were cut by half and rebel troops were driven back to jungle and mountain hideouts. In 2012, the weakened rebels agreed to begin negotiating a peace deal. At the time, leftist governments were in power across the region, giving the Farc confidence that since they were unable to take power via their armed struggle, they might achieve it through the ballot box.

Before his death, former Venezuela president Hugo Chávez – a former army officer who attempted a failed coup before securing power in an election – declared armed guerrilla movements to be “out of place”, a conclusion reached many years ago by his allies in Cuba, Fidel and Raúl Castro. They have been key backers of the Colombian peace process and fittingly hosted the negotiations that led to the end of an era that also began in Cuba.

Malcolm Deas, of the Latin American Centre at Oxford University, said the Farc is the last of the major guerrilla insurgencies inspired by Castro and Che Guevara, but argues that the significance of the deal should not be overstated, partly because the smaller ELN is still active, but also because the armed struggle in Colombia and elsewhere in Latin America never genuinely threatened the stability of one of the world’s most peaceful continents.

“To say this is like a civil war is very much an exaggeration. The struggle is at a very low level. It hasn’t really affected urban life very much. You can live in this country, and you can’t say that guerrillas have been a major worry,” he said. “People overdo it. If I may say so, journalists can never resist guerrillas.”

Holdout groups
National Liberation Army (ELN), Colombia

Estimated strength: 2,000 combatants

Anywhere else in the world a rebel army of 2,000 fighters would be a big deal. But for most of its history the National Liberation Army (ELN) has played second fiddle to the country’s larger and more powerful Farc.

Now that the Farc have committed to lay down their weapons and shift to party politics, the ELN – founded the same year as the Farc in 1964 – becomes the oldest and largest insurgency in Latin America.

“The ELN have lived in the shadow of the Farc,” says Jerry McDermott, director of InSight Crime, a thinktank that studies insurgencies and organised crime in Latin America. “Now will be the first time they will be in the limelight they have always craved,” McDermott says.

From the beginning, the ELN combined Marxist-Leninist ideology with liberation theology; some of the group’s first recruits came from the church, including Camilo Torres, a popular Colombian priest who died in his first battle in 1966 and later became a cultural icon of the group. The group was nearly decimated in the 1970s as a result of a military offensive and internal fractures that led to bloody purges.

But it recovered, and at its peak in the 1990s boasted an army of 5,000, after turning to kidnapping, extortion of oil companies and involvement in the drug trade. The group earned international notoriety in 1999, with the kidnapping of 186 people from a Cali church, and the hijacking of a passenger aircraft.

The possibility of the ELN negotiating a peace deal with the government remains remote, despite an announcement in March that the two sides were ready to begin talks. Strong anecdotal evidence is emerging that as the Farc move out from areas historically under its control, ELN units are moving in, scooping up some dissident Farc fighters.

The ELN, while hardly a threat to the state, is still potentially disruptive. “They can’t take power but they can be a right pain in the ass for a very long time,” says McDermott.


Shining Path, Peru

Estimated size: 300 combatants

Founded in the late 1960s by philosophy professor Abimael Guzmán, Sendero Luminoso expanded rapidly – and initially peacefully – in the 1970s by recruiting university students. But in 1980, it declared war on “bourgeois democracy”, burned ballot boxes and established military bases and training camps in the Andean highlands, where they won the support of poor local farmers.

In the years that followed, there were massacres on both sides. Shining Path guerrillas set off bombs in Lima and killed dozens of individuals, including rival Marxist leaders and union bosses. By its peak in 1991, the movement controlled much of south and central Peru but came under fierce assault from the armed forces during the presidency of Alberto Fujimori, who was also blamed for massacres and human rights abuses.

A 2003 Truth and Reconciliation Commission report estimated Shining Path was responsible for just over half the 69,280 people who were killed or went missing from 1980 to 2000 as a result of armed conflict in Peru. The security forces were blamed for about a third of the casualties and the rest were attributed to militias and other guerrilla groups, including the now defunct Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement.

Following the arrest of Guzmán in 1992, Shining Path has declined and the government declared it destroyed in 2012. But the group is rumoured to have made a comeback in recent years. At least one faction continues to be active in cocaine production and sporadic attacks, most recently on the eve of this year’s election, when eight soldiers and two civilians were killed. The group is still designated a terrorist organisation by Peru, the US, EU and Canada.


Paraguayan People’s Army (EPP), Paraguay

Estimated size: 20-150 combatants

Last month, the EPP reportedly killed eight soldiers in an attack on a military patrol, in what would be a major escalation for a group that has had a low profile compared with its counterparts in Colombia and Peru.

Formally established in 1998 (but active before then in other guises), the EPP was an offshoot of the now defunct Free Fatherland Party. Over the years, they have carried out a series of kidnappings and killings, most notoriously of the president’s daughter in 2004.

Its goals today are unclear. Some reports suggest the EPP has been recruited as muscle for drug traffickers.


Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR), Mexico

Estimated size: 20 combatants

Mexico is said to be home to more than 40 armed groups, almost all of which were formed during the rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party from 1929 to 2000. Few have been active since then, but the EPR was blamed for a series of bombings and attacks on oil pipelines and foreign companies in 2007 after its alleged leader went missing and was presumed captured by the military. It has been quiet for many years, but broke its silence in 2014 to join other former guerrilla groups in condemning the disappearance of 43 students from a rural teachers training school.

The EPR appears to have shifted its focus from armed struggle to protest by social movements and unions, but it continues to be blamed for kidnappings and violence.


Contras, Nicaragua

Estimated size: 20 combatants

The assassination of two Sandinista National Liberation Front activists in 2013 prompted speculation that rightwing contras may once again be active in the northern highlands. Under President Ronald Reagan, the US government funded this rightwing rebel insurgency against the Sandinista government of Daniel Ortega in the 1980s. The contras died down for most of the past two decades, but are rumoured to be making a comeback amid growing frustration with Ortega’s increasingly authoritarian rule. Several groups are said to have rearmed in remote northern and Atlantic regions. Although they are thought to number just a few dozen people and may be more involved in the drug trade than politics, the government is said to have responded with lethal force.

The Guardian |by Jonathan Watts and Sibylla Brodzinsky