Last March, Manuel “Tirofijo” (“Sureshot”) Marulanda (78), a man thought to be the oldest active guerilla in Latin America, died of a heart attack in a remote Colombian jungle patch.

More than four decades ago, “Tirofijo” formed the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or the FARC (Spanish acronym for Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces), Latin America’s oldest insurgency.

Leading a ragtag detachment of peasants and police defectors, “Tirofijo” resorted to guerilla-tactics to fight the Colombian government ever since the late 1940s, when a cruel civil war broke up in Colombia over the assassination of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, a left-leaning Liberal presidential candidate, idolized by the poor.

Gaitán, a charismatic leader who was poised to be the next Colombian president, was shot to death by a unknown hired assasin in Bogotá in April 9, 1948. His assassination sparked a wave of riots that razed Bogotá’s to the ground in a gale or massive arson and looting. Gaitán’s faithful followers in the poor districts went amok. Fire destroyed important landmarks of the city. Mobs assaulted and ransacked police precincts. They used the stolen weapons to fight the army in unevenly matched conditions.

A full week went by before Government forces could finally restore order in the city. By then there were over 3000 dead. Aftershocks of Gaitán’s murder soon extended through the rest of the country triggering a period of gruesome civil strife known as “la Violencia” (“the Violence”). Clashes between the ruling Conservative party and obdurate Liberal irregulars lasted ten years during which approximately 200.000 people died.

The son of a staunch Liberal peasant family, Marulanda was born and raised in the coffee-growing region of Quindío. A butcher by trade, he also learned to be a carpenter and, in time, became a modest shopkeeper while still in his twenties. But his family began getting killed by the chamuzos, as the Conservative death-squads were called. These crimes were never brought to court and young Marulanda decided to join the Liberal guerrillas.

In time, Marulanda became the fierce marksman and experienced comandante of a column that later, in the mid-Sixties, would approach the Communist Party. The Violence had already been put to an end by a political agreement between Liberal and Conservatives parties, signed in 1958.

But strong-minded “Tirofijo” had an everlasting grievance to show against what he called “Liberal and Conservative oligarchies” and, instead of benefitting from a general amnesty, he chose to stay in war footing. It was out of his veteran column that he founded the Marxist oriented FARC in 1964.

Thus, it is no exaggeration to say that the FARC have been active long before Fidel Castro’s started his own guerrilla in the Eastern Cuba mountain ridges in 1956. In truth, FARC have outlasted not only all the ill-fated guerrilla movements supported by Castro throughout Latin America during the 1960s—including, of course, the one led by Ernesto “Ché” Guevara in Bolivia—but also all the civil wars that ravaged Nicaragua and El Salvador during the 1980s.

Guerrilla war manuals say that the regular army loses if it does not win, while it is enough for the guerrillas not to lose to continue dreaming about triumph. During four and a half decades, the FARC have recovered time and again from many a military defeat, yet resilience has not brought about political success.

Despite the inequalities anyone can see in Colombia—a country where 50% of the population lives in poverty—the “social base” of the guerrillas is minimal. The support that this rural “Army of the People” has within the poor is more likely to be zero than even 3%, according to every survey available.

On second thought, using the word “rural” is a misnomer because the FARC guerrillas have become guerrillas in the rainforest, rather than in the rural areas. The rainforest gives the conflict its savage character.

The FARC virus has given rise to antibodies that are just as deadly that the sickness that they are supposed to combat: the paramilitaries.

The original militia founded by Marulanda, by way of degrading their methods of struggle—that include the practice of kidnapping, cocaine trafficking, assassination of civilians, and the recruiting of children—has finally arrived at the ideological misery that we see today.

The ruling body of the FARC, called the Secretariat, consists of seven members. No one knows exactly how many men they command, as the figures are contradictory, varying from between 8,000 to 17. 000 combatants. The hard fact is that in the last weeks, Marulanda and two other members of the Secretariat have died in action.

One of them was Ivan Rios who died in a betrayal by a fellow guerrilla fighter who wanted to collect the reward of two million dollars offered by the Colombian Government for Rios’s head.

In 2001, French philosopher Bernard Henri-Lévy met Ivan Rios while researching for a book on the “forgotten wars”. His comment on Rios’s death:

I can still see him, his emaciated silhouette, his coiffed hair, his impeccably maintained beard, speaking like a teacher analyzing an extremely complex equation, explaining without the slightest embarrassment the ‘profound fairness’ of the FARC’s targeted kidnappings—of Ingrid Betancourt [a French politologist of Colombian descent who was kidnapped by the FARC in 2002, while campaigning as a candidate to Colombia’s presidency. She is still hostage to the FARC], among others.

[…] Ríos used all his dialectical skills to convince me that the culture of coca, the militarization of clandestine labs where it would be refined, the trafficking of cocaine and its massive commercialization in service of the metropolises of the American Empire, was all a form of resistance to oppression, a way for impoverished peasants broken by capitalists to defend themselves, a politically correct response to the deterioration of the terms of exchange between North and South set in place by American corporations. Rarely in my life have I come up against rationality gone so mad.1

Yet, it should not be difficult to see “rationality”, though a wicked one, in Rios’s narrative of “social resistance.

Probably the major contribution of professor Paul Collier to the understanding of Third World’s protracted armed conflicts is condensed in Doing Well out of War: An Economic Perspective, a short article first published in 2000.

Collier’s argument provides a useful distinction in understanding Third World’s civil wars. It is that between greed and grievance.

At one extreme—he writes—rebellions might arise because the rebels aspire to wealth by capturing resources extralegally. At the other extreme, they might arise because rebels aspire to rid the nation, or the group of people with which they identify, of an unjust regime. […] Since both greed-motivated and grievance-motivated rebel organizations will embed their behavior in a narrative of grievance, the observation of that narrative provides no informational content to the researcher as to the true motivation for rebellion To discover the truth we need a different research approach.”2

Collier’s approach emphasizes economic agendas and the results of his field studies on African civil wars between 1960 and 2004 are extremely persuasive. Especially when transposed to the Colombian case.

The proxies used by Collier to grasp the notion of an economic agenda are two. The most relevant of them is the importance of primary commodities exports measured as their share of the GDP. This share is a good proxy for the availability of “lootable” resources.

The other major factor is the cost of attracting recruits to the rebellion. People who join Third World civil wars are overwhelmingly young. Hence, ceteris paribus, you can expect that the proportion of young men in a society—those between 15 and 24—would greatly influence the feasibility of rebellion. The greater the proportion, the easier it would be to recruit rebels.

A third factor is the average years of education received by the young population.

“If young men—argues Collier—face only the option of poverty; they might be more inclined to join the rebellion than if they have better opportunities.”

Collier offers an example of how hugely important those considerations may be. During the largest civil war of the 20 century, waged in Russia between 1919-1920, both the Red and the White armies faced big recruitment and desertion problems. They lost four millions men to desertion. The desertion rate was ten times higher in summer than in winter. Since both armies were composed of peasants, summer offered much higher income-earning opportunities. Notable the harvest, than in the winter.

When the Colombian armed conflict is considered, you can easily see that most factors of the economic agendas that Collier identifies in African civil wars can be recognized in the FARC’s performance to an astounding degree. For example, FARC’s recruitment and desertion rates swing markedly along the coffee crop seasons.

With an area of more 424.7 square miles and a population of 45.6 million, coffee and other agricultural products crops represent 12 percent of a $ 122 million GDP. According to economist Salomón Kalmanowitz, who sits at the board of the Banco de la República (Colombia’s equivalent to the Federal Reserve), in the early 90s, cocaine already accounted for 5 to 6 per cent of the Colombian GDP.

Colombia is currently the major coca leaf producer country in the world. In 1992, coca leaf plantations involved 144..7 square miles. By 2001, this figures had risen to 540.5 square miles. A 286% growth in only nine years.

Running an army is expensive. The FARC involvement in drug trafficking began the very day the Secretariat noticed that impoverished young campesinos could use “protection” from the big city cartels who payed them a pittance to grow coca leaf. Not to mention from the underpaid antidrug patrols. As any character in a gangsters movie would say, ” one thing led to another and the rest is history”. Estimates of the income derived by the FARC during the first stages of its metamorphosis vary between $200 million and $600 million.

In 1991, Milton Friedman delivered a keynote speech at the Fifth International Conference on Drug Policy Reform, held in Washington, D.C. Here’s a short excerpt:

I don’t believe there’s any way in which you can say that the prohibition of drugs is administering justice. Justice to whom? Is it justice to the people of Colombia who are being murdered because we can’t enforce our own laws? That’s hardly justice.

While justice arrives a whole new generation of Colombian economists, like Fabio Sánchez and Alejandro Gaviria, is working hard to comprehend to the fullest extent what it means to live in the “supply side” of the war on drugs and what Colombians can do about it.

By drawing from Paul Collier’s findings they are moving Latin American political and economic studies away from misleading grievance narratives. And help save our countries from the self-righteousness of the antidrug warriors.


Ballad of a Dead Man by Bernard Henri-Levy, The New Republic, Saturday, March 15, 2008.

Chapter five of Greed & Grievance: Economic Agendas in Civil Wars, (Mats Berdal / Dadiv M. Malone, edit.), Lynne Rienner Publishers. Boulder, Colo, 2000.


*Ibsen Martinez is a columnist, journalist, and award-winning playwright from Caracas, Venezuela. His writings have appeared in El Nuevo Herald, Miami, Letras Libres, Madrid, and El Pais in Madrid. Since 1995, he has written a weekly column for El Nacional.

For more articles by Ibsen Martinez, see the Archive.