Colombia Primer (Part 2)
Author: Cristobal Campos
Posted: 24 Feb, 2003
The 1960s could almost be called the Guerilla Decade as several large groups were formed and rose to nation-wide prominence during these years. The FARC was founded in 1964. The same year, the Ejercito Liberacion de la Nacion (ELN) was established. (The ELN is currently–2003–the second largest guerilla group operating in Colombia. Estimated members 3-5,000.) Three years later the Ejercito del Pueblo Liberacion (EPL) came along but has since all but melted into some of the other larger groups. Throughout the 60s the guerillas formalized their philosophies and goals for attacking the bourgeoisie. It also became painfully evident during this time that the government of Colombia could do little against these subversive groups. The people began to lose faith in the administration and its leaders at the same time the guerillas were gaining in power and territorial influence.
Since a 1960s guerilla job didn’t pay much, the starving revolutionaries quickly realized their most immediate priority was eating, not overthrowing any government. To raise money they began taxing local peasants at the same time they spouted their “for the common man” rhetoric to anyone who would listen. Typically it was just the peasants from which they were stealing that were subjected to the guerillas’ grand philosophies of social engineering.
The 1970s brought a tremendous influx of new blood to the guerillas. Che Guevara’s guerilla warfare philosophy was quickly embraced in the FARC and other camps. New recruits began pouring in and the FARC grew from 500 members in 1970 to about 3,000 in 1980. Also during this period many students and educated intellectuals joined the revolution and guerilla groups became havens for freethinking communists.
During the late 60s and early 70s another dynamic was evolving that would play a huge part in the upcoming decades. As the guerillas grew in number, they grew in territory, taking areas, expelling the legitimate government and setting up their own shop. Eventually enough people became sufficiently enraged to do something. Thus began the birth of the paramilitaries, initially called “death squads” by many, as the very small handful simply attempted to systematically assassinate FARC leaders. These private militias, or paramilitaries, were disorganized and spread throughout the country. There was no central command; indeed, many groups did not know others existed. Most were financed by rich landowners that were less than thrilled about losing all their precious coffee plantations or cattle ranches to the FARC.
With the 70s in full-swing, the FARC growing and organizing itself (they even had ranks, manuals of conduct and bona fide esprit de corps items like a hymn and a mission statement), there was yet another development brewing back in the US that would forever change the face of Colombia, shaking it to its very foundations. Clapton even wrote a song about it.
Cocaine was nothing new in Colombia; the locals had been chewing the leaves, or placing it in tea, for a few thousand years. What was new, however, was the voracious appetite the United States managed to develop for the stuff almost overnight. The US took its first large snorts of the white powder in the 70s and never looked back. It became such a recreational sport that the United States now does an estimated 300,000-ton line each year! Although coca plants grew throughout the Andes mountains, the situation, both politically and geographically, was ripe in Colombia for the guerillas (among others) to capitalize on. Instantly, it became the world’s biggest gravy train. The FARC seemed to have solved its hunger problems overnight. The paramilitaries found a way to raise money for much-needed weapons and those that were up until now politically neutral had just found their party – the Greenbacks.
Cocaine itself, long almost a worthless crop-somewhere way below coffee-became the country’s number one export, with 80% headed straight to the US. Adding to the left-wing guerillas, the right-wing death squads and the center-wing impotent government, another group began to gain prominence in the country, neither hindered by Marxist ideas nor pesky things like consciences; these boys were pure capitalists – the Narco-traffickers.
Cities were built overnight in the jungle. Cars from Europe and the US were shipped in by the thousands. Mansions were built that would make Tony Montana blush. Airplanes and airstrips dotted the land. The DEA was nowhere in sight and the Colombian government certainly wasn’t in a position to do much about it. The infamous Medellin and Cali cartels were in their infancy. Pablo Escobar (left) and Jorge Luis Ochoa, the leaders of their respective cartels, eventually made so much money they were listed as two of the top 20 richest men in the world by Fortune magazine in 1987. At one point Escobar even offered to pay off the entire national debt of Colombia.
Of course, with all this money came the overwhelming desire for more – even from the supposedly anti-capitalist guerillas. The same simple but very bloody circle started all over again. The FARC now taxed the narcotraffickers, who hired the paramilitaries to kill the FARC, who then in turn went harder after the narcotraffickers, who paid the paramilitaries, and so on and so on. Not to be outdone, the guerillas and paramilitaries each started their own coca operations to supplement their other income. Everyone was heading full-tilt into the next decade with no end to the money in sight. The “Decade of Greed” it would come to be called in the United States. The US couldn’t hold a candle to the decadence prevalent 1,000 miles to its south. Judging by its past, Colombia was in for a time that could only be termed cataclysmic.