Misunderstanding the FARC
The recent death of FARC commander Jorge Briceño, also known as Mono Jojoy, has led many so-called experts to espouse their opinions on the implications of this development for the guerrilla group. This is not surprising given that these “experts” are often quoted by mainstream media outlets following any significant occurrence related to Colombia’s largest insurgency. What is surprising, however, is the degree of ignorance about the FARC exhibited by many of these experts, who often simply reiterate long-held misunderstandings or propaganda that have little basis in reality. The problem rests in the fact that most of these experts have spent little or no time in traditionally FARC-controlled regions or with the guerrillas themselves. As a result, they have very few actual insights to offer regarding the inner workings of the guerrilla group.
Many analysts have long suggested that the death of the FARC’s longtime leader Manuel Marulanda would lead to internal dissent within the guerrilla group and a possible power struggle between the rebels’ international diplomat Raúl Reyes and Mono Jojoy. Reyes was portrayed as a political leader and negotiator while Mono Jojoy was presented as a warmonger. Ultimately, analysts claimed, whichever of these two leaders proved victorious in the power struggle would become supreme commander of the FARC and hugely influence the prospects for peace in Colombia. But since Reyes was killed three weeks before Marulanda died, it was assumed by many that Mono Jojoy would then be the legendary leader’s natural heir. Consequently, many analysts were surprised when the FARC announced following Marulanda’s death that Alfonso Cano was the guerrilla group’s new supreme commander. Some analysts even began suggesting that such a decision signified internal divisions within the secretariat that could lead to a fracturing of the guerrilla group.
Analysts have repeatedly been wrong in their assumptions and projections because they lack any real knowledge about the inner workings of the FARC and under-estimate the group’s levels of organization and cohesiveness. In actuality, the FARC’s seven-person secretariat has agreed upon such promotions long before they need to be implemented. In other words, there already exists a list of commanders who are in line to be promoted to the secretariat should an existing member die. Similarly, it has already been decided who in the secretariat will become supreme commander should Cano die.
Such organization and foresight explains why the announcements declaring who would replace Marulanda, Reyes, Ivan Ríos and Mono Jojoy were made within a few days of their respective deaths, sometimes within 24 hours. These promotions had been debated and agreed upon by members of the secretariat long before they needed to be implemented. And the decision to promote Cano rather than Mono Jojoy to supreme commander was not divisive among members of the secretariat or among the guerrilla group’s rank and file because it was partly influenced by the fact that the latter had been suffering serious health problems in recent years, primarily diabetes.
Another misunderstanding many analysts make regarding the FARC relates to a desire to categorize its leaders and reduce them to one-dimensional beings. Because Cano was the head of the FARC’s political party—the Clandestine Colombian Communist Party (PCCC)—then he must be more politically-minded than military-minded, they argue. Similarly, using the same logic, since Mono Jojoy was the commander of the FARC’s largest and most powerful bloc then he must have been a warmonger and the group’s leading proponent of a military solution to the country’s problems.
Such reductionist approaches have led many analysts to claim that with the “politician” Cano rather than the “militarist” Mono Jojoy replacing Marulanda then the chances of achieving a negotiated settlement to the conflict increased dramatically. Similarly, now that Mono Jojoy has been killed then the prospects for peace must have once again improved. Such analysis displays a lack of understanding of the FARC, its commanders and their commitment to armed struggle. Cano joined the guerrillas because he believed that social justice could only be achieved in Colombia through armed struggle. He became the head of the group’s clandestine political party because he was an ideologue. Therefore, as an ideologue who was committed to armed struggle, there is little possibility that Cano will compromise the FARC’s agenda by negotiating a peace that fails to fulfill the guerrilla group’s political objectives.
Likewise, despite analysts repeatedly reducing him to a ruthless military tactician, Mono Jojoy was also an ideologue—as are all of the FARC’s high-ranking commanders. This was evidenced by the fact that the bloc Mono Jojoy commanded has implemented some of the FARC’s most progressive social and economic policies, which have benefited thousands of peasants in eastern Colombia. Over the past 20 years, many small towns in remote regions under Mono Jojoy’s control experienced significant infrastructure improvements as a result of the FARC’s public works programs. The FARC has built hundreds of miles of roads that connected dozens of isolated communities to each other. In the early 2000s, Efrain Salazar, the FARC’s public works director in Meta, had an annual budget of $1 million and paid civilians who worked for him a monthly salary of $125.
And during the 1990s, Mono Jojoy used some of the FARC’s tax revenues to construct electrical grids in dozens of remote towns and villages neglected by the national government. The guerrilla commander also oversaw agrarian reform projects such as the breaking up of ten large ranches in the southern part of Meta in 2002 and 2003 with the smaller properties then distributed to subsistence farmers.
In short, a guerrilla fighter in the FARC will not become a member of the secretariat unless they are fully-committed to both the rebel group’s ideology and the armed struggle. This is a fundamental reality that many analysts fail to portray in their reductionist examinations of the FARC. Furthermore, analysts often imply that the FARC’s supreme commander has dictatorial powers within the guerrilla group when in reality political and military strategies are more often than not a result of consensus decision-making by the seven members of the secretariat. It is this decision-making process that often results in the FARC being slow to respond to proposals; after all, the seven members of the secretariat are scattered across the country.
Such fundamental misunderstandings of the FARC explain why so many claims by analysts regarding the future of the guerrilla group and the implications of certain events have proven to be erroneous. These misunderstandings are rooted in the fact that the overwhelming majority of analysts have little or no experience with the FARC’s inner workings. Ultimately, their analysis is based on the same misunderstandings that they then help to further perpetuate.