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Saturday, July 31, 1999 Published at 11:07 GMT 12:07 UK

World: Americas

FARC: Power versus principle

FARC negotiator Raul Reyes held recent talks with the government

By BBC South America Correspondent James Reynolds

"The guerrilla era is over," according to the region's most famous former rebel, Fidel Castro.

However in Colombia it continues.

Guerrillas from the Marxist-inspired FARC have been fighting the Colombian state for more than three decades.

[ image: Some say the guerrillas have given up the fight for social justice]
Some say the guerrillas have given up the fight for social justice
From its beginnings as a small rural movement in 1964, the FARC has now come to exercise de facto control over many parts of the country.

According to US Government officials, the group has now come to pose a serious threat to Colombia's stability.

The group is led by 70-year-old Manuel Marulanda, more commonly known by his nickname "Tirofijo" - Sureshot.

Marulanda leads an estimated 15,000 soldiers in their war against the state.

Drugs and ransoms

The FARC's military campaign has been helped by the considerable earnings it derives from kidnap ransoms and from taxes imposed in areas it controls.

In addition the guerrillas are accused of earning about $600m each year from their ties with the drug trafficking trade.

Much of the FARC's revenue is used to buy weapons which are smuggled in from neighbouring Venezuela or from Central America.

[ image: In San Vicente del Caguan, as in many southern towns, FARC are in open control]
In San Vicente del Caguan, as in many southern towns, FARC are in open control
During the last few years the FARC has achieved a series of striking victories against the Colombian Armed Forces.

The guerrillas have proved successful at launching attacks against military bases at night and in bad weather, when the armed forces cannot call on air support.

The guerrillas operate from a number of strongholds across the country.

Military solution

Since November they have had complete control of an area in the south of the country equivalent to the size of Switzerland.

This was given to the rebels by the government as a safe area in order to bring about the start of peace talks.

The FARC has used this zone as a starting point for a series of attacks carried out against nearby military areas.

In early July almost 300 FARC soldiers were killed in what was one of the guerrillas' heaviest defeats in three decades of civil war.

The Colombian Armed Forces have now begun to receive US military intelligence on rebel movements, and the Colombian government has asked the United States for increased military aid to fight the FARC.

There is renewed belief that the Armed Forces may eventually be able to defeat the FARC militarily.

Peace talks

[ image: Colombia believes its army can win the guerrilla war]
Colombia believes its army can win the guerrilla war
In January 1999 the FARC and the government started to discuss ways of bringing an end to the country's civil war.

Guerrilla commanders say they want to negotiate peace, but they say they will continue to wage war even as peace is discussed.

Many in Colombia doubt that the rebels are committed to giving up their armed struggle.

Some believe that the FARC wants to use the peace process as a stalling tactic while it builds up its military power with the eventual aim of overthrowing the government.

The FARC is widely accused of having abandoned its avowed struggle for social justice in its bid for power.

Despite their strength, the guerrillas have very little popular support in Colombia.

For some, the FARC's campaign is reminiscent of that waged by the revolutionary in Gabriel Garcia Marquez' novel One Hundred Years of Solitude.

He gradually abandons his beliefs and declares, "From now on we'll fight only for power."

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