Colombian Rebel Group Becomes World's Oldest Guerrilla Army

In May 1964, the Marxist guerrilla group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC, began its fight to overthrow the Colombian government. Fifty years later, the FARC is still fighting.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

In May of 1964, a Marxist militant group called the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or FARC, began its fight to overthrow the Columbian government. Fifty years later, despite ongoing peace talks that fight continues, making FARC the worlds oldest guerilla army. John Otis reports.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Spanish spoken).

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Here in the southern Colombia town of Uribe, army troops salute their officers. This region is a long-time rebel stronghold, so everyone is on high alert.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD)

OTIS: Base commander Colonel Eduardo Gonzalez, who is 47, wasn't even born when the FARC first took up arms.

COLONEL EDUARDO GONZALEZ: (Through translator) All my life, I've been hearing about the FARC, he says. All my life, I've been fighting against them.

OTIS: Like many Latin American rebel groups, the FARC claim to be fighting for land reform and economic equality, but while most other guerilla armies were defeated or demobilized, the FARC grew. By the late 1990s, the FARC had 20,000 troops. The main reason is the group's involvement in kidnapping, extortion and drug trafficking. These crimes make the FARC deeply unpopular but they provide an endless supply of cash, says Maria Victoria Llorente of the Bogata think tank Ideas for Peace.

MARIA VICTORIA LLORENTE: And they were able to reproduce and to maintain a huge army with that money. Otherwise, they would have disappeared as most of the insurgencies in the rest of Latin America.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

OTIS: That's the sound from a rebel-made video of a FARC attack on a police station in December. Although a military offensive has weakened the FARC and prompted its leaders to seek peace, the group still fields 8,000 fighters. All told, the war has killed more than 200,000 people and displaced 5 million. Meanwhile, huge sums that could be spent on schools and clinics instead go to the war effort. In and around Uribe, there's one soldier for every three civilians.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD)

OTIS: In the nearby hamlet of La Julia, soldiers are even in charge of social events like movie night in the town park. This vast military presence has improved security but not much else. Take the dirt road connecting Uribe to La Julia. It's so bumpy it takes two hours to drive the 30 miles. Then there's the village bridge that doesn't quite reach the other side of the river.

HILDARDO GARCIA: (Spanish spoken).

OTIS: Farmer Hildardo Garcia says if completed, the bridge would open up the region, making it easier to get crops to market. But the Army says FARC extortion threats scared away the contractors. As a result, people and supplies must be ferried across the river in a narrow, wooden motor boat. Today it's carrying a half dozen passengers, including a man and his motorcycle. Although the FARC took up arms on behalf of the poor, even rebel supporters now say progress will only come when the fighting ends.

NANCY CASTANO: (Spanish spoken).

OTIS: All the money spent on the war could be invested in the needs of the people, says Nancy Castano, a town activist who returned to La Julia after serving three years in prison for collaborating with the rebels. President Juan Manuel Santos says negotiators in Cuba are moving closer towards a peace treaty with the FARC, but Santos finished second in the May 25 presidential election, and will face conservative Oscar Ivan Zuluaga in a June 15th runoff. Zuluaga is a harsh critic of negotiating with the rebels, whom he calls NARCO terrorists.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD)

OTIS: Back at the Army base in Uribe, I asked Colonel Gonzalez what he thinks of the 50th anniversary of the FARC

GONZALEZ: (Spanish spoken).

OTIS: It's been 50 years of continuous war, 50 years of death, terrorism and bloodshed, he says. That's nothing to celebrate. For NPR News, I'm John Otis.

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