The military history of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – Ejército del Pueblo ("Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People's Army", or FARC-EP) formally began in the middle of 1964, when the Colombian military attacked Communist guerrilla forces in Marquetalia. The FARC claim the involvement of the U.S. military throughout this period.
After gradually recovering from those military setbacks, the FARC continued to grow in relative rural isolation until the end of the period.
Some historians and analysts have considered that some degree of additional sympathy for all Colombian guerrilla groups may have developed between 1978 and 1982, in part due to some abuses resulting from the security measures implemented by the Julio César Turbay Ayala administration, in particular a temporary "Security Statute" which provided the military with increased judicial powers and created military tribunals to prosecute rebels and their suspected collaborators.
It is considered that FARC itself was not the most affected guerrilla force at this point in time, neither by repression nor by popular sympathy, as most of the security measures were applied in an urban setting where the 19th of April Movement was predominant and at the same time more vulnerable, but it did gain new recruits.
It is estimated that the FARC reached some 1,100 members by 1982, up from about 350 in 1966 and 780 in 1974.
Towards the end of the 1970s and continuing throughout the following decade, the FARC managed to significantly multiply its income by increasingly extorting regional landowning elites and newly emerging druglords, as well as by protecting and taxing drugs crops grown by low income Colombian peasants in its areas of influence.
At the same time, recruitment was also greatly increased due to the complex interaction of many factors. The bulk of the FARC's increases in manpower came sometime after the La Uribe 1984 peace agreement with Colombian president Belisario Betancur and a resulting cease-fire between both sides. The FARC kept its weapons during the cease-fire (which, with many interruptions, lasted until 1987). In this context, the FARC's political propaganda operations, also resulting from a high profile press coverage of the talks and their participants, were able to reach a wider audience than ever before.
More recruits also joined after the creation, as well as during the subsequent violent persecution by druglords, paramilitary forces and members of Colombian Army and Police, of the Patriotic Union (UP). The UP was a legal political party that was able to openly campaign both in the cities and in traditional FARC areas, gaining some electoral positions. Sometimes, not always and not necessarily at the same time, several of the UP's members also began to aid and join the FARC itself, while others distanced themselves from the guerrillas. Both the Colombian Communist Party, which until then had been officially affiliated with the guerrillas, and the FARC initially attempted to control the UP early in its history, with the FARC establishing a greater degree of influence. Subsequently, the Colombian Communist Party began to break its ties with the FARC towards the early 1990s.
Estimates considered that the FARC's strength had reached at least 5,000 men by 1986.
After the decline of the UP and as the FARC's strength continued even after the demobilization of rival guerrilla groups towards 1990, the FARC's newest recruits began to increasingly come from drug growing Colombian peasants in its expanding rural sphere of influence, where they were able to steadily consolidate newer guerrilla fronts. The internal political structure of the FARC was closed to outside influences, eventually establishing an underground Clandestine Colombian Communist Party in 2000.
After the Seventh Guerrilla Conference (1982), the FARC had begun to adapt its aims and its structure from those of an insurgency to those of an aspiring guerrilla army, now being able to concentrate its forces by employing co-ordinated "multi-front" attacks of several hundred men against specific, vulnerable targets. "Hit and run" attacks and traditional ambushes still continued, while groups of multiple guerrilla fronts and columns could silently gather to perform quite effectively even in nearly conventional armed combat tactics.
By 1994, it was estimated that some 9,000 FARC fighters existed in some 60 fronts.
This attack is usually considered as the beginning of a series of FARC offensives designed to exploit existing vulnerabilities in rural military bases and to showcase the guerrilla groups' strength in the eyes of the Colombian government (during the presidency of Ernesto Samper Pizano) and the international community.
An attack on a military outpost in the Guaviare department on September 4, 1996 led to three weeks of guerrilla warfare which claimed the lives of at least 130 Colombians, soldiers and civilians included.
In March 1998, some 700 FARC fighters ambushed the 52nd counterguerilla battalion of the Colombian Army's 3rd Mobile Brigade, stationed at El Billar, south of the Caqueta department. The battalion had entered the town of Peñas Coloradas with the objective of damaging the FARC's infrastructure in the lower Caguan river, in an area where FARC influence was deep among the population. The beginning of the FARC's attack took place between March 2-4, causing the battalion heavy casualties: some 62 were killed and 43 were taken prisoner, 105 casualties of a total of 154.
This marked a historical highwater mark for the FARC as never before had counterguerrilla battalions suffered such losses. The Colombian Air force had tried to support its troops using one Kfir, one Mirage V, one AC-47 and two OV-10 aircraft, but they were ineffective due to weather conditions, dense jungle and the long length of the flights from the nearest airbases.
In August 1998 FARC fighters attacked and destroyed another military base in Miraflores in the southern Guaviare. In November 1998 FARC launched a military raid against the Mitú department capital near the Brazilian border, which they briefly occupied for three days until Colombian reinforcements arrived after being given permission to use the nearest airbase, which was in Brazil.
Most of the FARC's notable multi-front attacks occurred between 1996 and 1998, attacks which prompted the Colombian military to pause to reestructure itself, while Samper administration decided to abandon many isolated rural outposts and to create fortified strongholds closer to department capitals. Similar FARC operations were carried out even after that period, up to the year 2000, though less frequently, due to the increasing gradual adaptation of the Colombian military to such tactics after heavy internal reforms were made, and later on after additional U.S. aid for the government's security forces began to arrive.
In July 1999 the FARC launched another series of multi-front attacks against military bases in Meta, Guaviare, Huila, Putumayo and Caqueta.
In October 2000 FARC attacked and raided the town of Dabeida, killing 54 Colombian Army and Police. During a counteroffensive by the Colombian military, the town was retaken by the government's troops at the cost of one UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter, killing all 22 soldiers on board, while another two had to land in nearby military bases due to heavy combat damage.
In the year 2000, FARC and ELN fronts joined forces to attack several paramilitary bases.
President Uribe launched a new offensive against the FARC, with U.S. aid and support, divided into two elements: a general security strategy known as "democratic security" (announced 2003), and a new military operation known as Plan Patriota (2004-2006), using about 18,000 soldiers in an attack against the FARC's historical heartland in the south/southeast of Colombia, meant to kill or capture its main leaders.
According to the Colombian government, the FARC suffered several defeats, for example, in Cundinamarca and in Antioquia, where existing FARC fronts suffered heavy losses and lost a few of their leaders. It is claimed that this was reflected in a statistical reduction in several fields such as murders, kidnappings, attacks and raids on towns, and in an increase in captured guerrillas, the capture of large quantitites of FARC equipment and supplies, and a high number of FARC deserters.
Some analysts accept that the Colombian government may have achieved some measure of initial success, but consider that its strategy has reached its limit and probably can't expect to definitely defeat the FARC, even as the offensive continues to be costly in manpower and economic resources. Human rights concerns have also been raised by critics that complain against increased abuses they claim to have been committed by the Colombian security forces against civilians, including the use of mass arrests of suspected FARC collaborators.
In early 2005, the FARC launched what has been interpreted as their active response to Alvaro Uribe's security strategy and to Plan Patriota, apparently adopting a new style of operations, in particular near the southwest of Colombia.
The FARC allegedly would have previously implemented what was later called "Plan Resistencia" in order to endure Plan Patriota's continuing effects, by withdrawing into the jungle and executing a temporary halt in its larger scale attacks. The FARC believe that Plan Patriota has been a failure, as mentioned in some of their communiques.
Between 1996 and 2000, the FARC had executed large scale multi-front attacks. The FARC's more recent attacks are different, consisting of so-called medium-size unit concentrations, considered to be potentially more flexible against Colombian military action but still able to pack a substantial punch. Critics suggest that withdrawing forces and reducing operations can only imply weakness.
The FARC claims that a U.S. intelligence team landed in Marquetalia in 1959 and produced a report about the area's Communist activities. The FARC believe that a triangle made up of the CIA, the Pentagon and the U.S. Southern Command have been working to stop their activities since that date. They point out that one of the main U.S. strategies in the Colombian war and worldwide is psychological warfare, which intends to use various methods to cultivate fear among the leftist rebels. The FARC claim that the alleged use of Napalm bombs in Marquetalia during May 1964 was due to the advice of psychological warfare department of the CIA. Other U.S. strategies have been implemented since then which, as interpreted and claimed by the FARC, and all have been a failure.
The FARC and its supporters claim that the CIA decided to destroy the guerrilla's civilan base through military actions.
The FARC believes that the CIA provided secret support for illegal paramilitary groups during the 1980s, in order to cultivate fear among civilians through massacres and murders and later to seek control over the drug business and peasant drug growers. The FARC's claim that this tactic failed, as surviving guerrilla sympathizers would have become FARC members to protect their lives and FARC has been able to better establish a system for collecting taxes from every stage of the drug trade in their areas of influence.
The FARC claim that Plan Colombia (a multi-billion dollar program for the purposes of impeding coca cultivation and providing development for rural economic alternatives to the drug trade ) is directed against them. Chemical herbicides have been used to destroy drug crops and force drug growers to abandon their crop. Plan Colombia has been criticized by many analysts as ineffective and this position is shared by the FARC. The rebel group considers it, as well as the large scale 2004 offensive known as Plan Patriota, to have failed in destroying the rebels and/or their support base, and points to FARC's own reactivation of some of its offensive capabilities since early 2005.
The U.S. has criticized Venezuela's president Hugo Chávez and considered him suspect for not doing enough to stop the illegal flow of weapons from sectors of his country's military forces to members of the FARC. The United States is also concerned with Venezuela's Russian arms purchase of 100,000 AK-103 rifles, as the rifles and their ammunition (7.62 x 39 mm) would be compatible with FARC standards and thus they suspect that some quantities might secretly get into the hands of the rebels. Apparently, a previous FARC purchase of 10,000 AK-47 rifles via the Russian mafia would have erroneously supplied them with 7.62 x 51 mm rounds, which could not be used in many of their AK-47 rifles, except in limited quantities and according to compatible rifle variants.
The FARC's leftist guerilla fighters have considerable capabilities in infantry warfare, and the rebel group considers that in theory their veteran members and units could be able to hold their own even against U.S. Special Forces. Airpower, on the other hand, presents a significant problem for guerrilla organizations. The only way for them to consistently address this challenge would be to acquire suitable anti-aircraft systems. In recent years, the FARC has employed machine guns in an anti-aircraft role during several operations. It has long been rumored that they might also possess very limited quantities of Man Portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS), such as shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles (the Soviet SA-7 Grail or the U.S. FIM-92 Stinger), which could be a threat to low-flying aircraft and helicopters and would also be able to use infra-red guidance. The effective firing range of such missiles is about 15,000 feet.
If the FARC were able to obtain sufficient quantities, they could easily hinder Colombian military helicopters during ground attack and troop support missions. The U.S. would find this very dangerous, and reportedly the FARC has made attempts to purchase MANPADS in Central America. Intelligence reports have led U.S. authorities to put pressure on the Nicaraguan government to speed up the destruction of their stock pile of around 7,000 Soviet MANPADS, previously acquired by the Sandinista (FSLN) administration (1979-89). It has been speculated that, to prevent this, the U.S. would have also launched a special training program for Latin American border policemen in order to teach them to properly identify MANPADS parts.
The DEA and CIA have used their intelligence networks in Latin America against the drug trade, and additionally to reduced the FARC's drug-related income. The U.S. government, while also criticizing specific elements of the situation, has advised and supported the Colombian government in its attempt to demobilize and disarm paramilitary fighters, which according to U.S. and Colombian Police records are also heavily involved in the drug business. From the point of view of the FARC, the CIA's initial plan would have been to encourage the paramilitaries against the leftist rebels for the destruction of their civilian base, but the FARC would have diverted the plan in order to achieve a mass recruitment of the affected civilians, gaining a large amount of drug related-income (through massive and organized taxation) in the process.
After the implementation of Plan Colombia in 2000, Colombia became third in the list of countries which receive annual counternarcotics, military and economic aid from the U.S. budget, after Israel and Egypt. Aid to Colombian government and military forces has subsequently continued to be significant, though it has since been surpassed by aid amounts to Afghanistan and Iraq.
High ranking military officers from the U.S. Southern Command have visited Colombia regularly to check up on the state of the situation and, allegedly, to revise existing counternarcotics and military plans. The U.S. military intelligence unit stationed in Colombia would have to send daily situation reports to the Pentagon and to the U.S. Southern Command, including among them reports on the activities of all the armed groups existing in Colombia.
The U.S. Congress increased the caps for military personnel and civilian contractors in Colombia to 800 and 600 respectively in 2004, both up from 400 each. It is a common claim by the FARC and by sectors close to it that the U.S. is considering to increase its direct involvement in the Colombian war to levels seen in Vietnam, though there is no consensus among analysts as to that claim. U.S. military experts and advisors have been analyzing military activities in Iraq and in Afghanistan, suggesting the implementation of any lessons learned in Colombia, and vice versa.