Down But Not Out: Why Colombia’s FARC Guerillas Just Won't Go Away

On the 10th anniversary of the abduction of Ingrid Betancourt, the Marxist guerillas, although weakened militarily, continue to sow trouble in Colombia. They survive thanks to drug trafficking -- and refuse the government’s conditions for negotiation.

Resisting is what the FARC does best (SMORENO2007)
Resisting is what the FARC does best (SMORENO2007)
Marie Delcas

BOGOTA Ten years ago, on Feb. 23, 2002, Colombia's Green party presidential candidate, Ingrid Betancourt, was taken hostage by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), an armed Marxist organization that is considered the oldest guerilla group in South America. Three days earlier, Bogota had put an end to peace talks that had been going nowhere for three years. War resumed – and in fact continues to this day. Ingrid Betancourt was freed by a well-executed military operation in July 2008.

In 2002, the FARC was holding some 60 hostages. By now, that number is down to 11. The others having been freed by the army or released by the guerillas. Four were shot at point blank range by the hostage takers on Nov. 26, 2011. Like his predecessor Alvaro Uribe, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos refuses to negotiate for the release of the hostages still in captivity, even though these are all soldiers captured in combat.

The government refuses to "cede to the blackmail" of a guerilla group in decline, it says. In 2002, the FARC had approximately 17,000 armed men, according to official figures at the time. Today, there are fewer than 9,000 FARC. Even if the organization is still recruiting on a regular basis, thousands of rebels have deserted due to army pressure and campaigns led by the authorities promising amnesty if they lay down their arms. Within the space of 10 years, some 17,000 guerilleros have turned themselves in, the vast majority of them young, freshly-enrolled men.

Army figures should be viewed with caution, however. "To get an idea of the FARC's evolution, its territorial presence is a more reliable indicator than the number of recruits," says researcher Camilo Echandia who has been charting the Colombian conflict for the past 20 years. "The FARC was present in 377 municipalities in 2002, as opposed to 142 today," Echandia says. In a country twice the size of France, with a population of 46 million, a military offensive led by the Uribe government pushed the guerilleros away from the cities and the main roadways.

A turning point?

There is no question, though, that the army offensive decapitated the FARC. The organization's "Secretariat," a long untouchable leadership collective comprised of seven members, suffered some mortal blows. On March 1, 2008, the Colombian air force bombed Raul Reyes's camp on Ecuadorian territory and killed the FARC's chief ideologue. Three days later, Ivan Rios, another Secretariat member, was assassinated by one of his body guards. To get the reward offered by the government, the killer presented himself to the authorities with the severed hand of his victim in a plastic bag.

The FARC received an earlier blow in March 2008 when former chief Manuel Marulanda Velez, alias Tirofijo, died of old age. At 78 years old, 60 of them spent as a guerilla, he had become a symbol of the longevity of the FARC, which was founded in 1966. Following these successes the army announced the "beginning of the end of the FARC."

President Santos – who was Uribe's minister of defense – appeared convinced that the death of these FARC leaders marked a turning point. The deaths of other FARC leaders followed. In September 2010, Mono Jojoy, the FARC's grand strategist, died in a bomb explosion. On Nov. 4, 2011, Alfonso Cano, who had been the FARC commander-in-chief since 2008, was also killed. And on Feb. 13, the army announced it had seized "a giant arsenal of more than six tons of weapons and explosives' and a camp in the department of Caqueta, in the south of the country, that could hold nearly 200 guerilleros.

The modernization of the Colombian army, which began in the late 1990s and was largely financed by the United States, gave state forces a decided advantage over the FARC. There had also been progress in the air force, as well as improvements in communication and information.

The army was quick to portray the FARC as cornered and demoralized, just a shadow of its former self. Observers said the only reason it survived at all was its increased involvement in the drug trade. Either way, the infamous guerilla army finally seemed to be fading away.

Staying power

Yet for some reason, the FARC did hang in there. In Colombian back country, its ability to recruit remained pretty much intact – the group hadn't lost sight of its peasant origins. Not only that, but FARC activities appear in fact to be on the rise of late. According to the Bogota-based Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris, the FARC was implicated last year in 2,148 armed actions, of which 421 were combat situations. Those kinds of figures have in fact gone up consecutively over the last four years. "Resisting is what it does best," an army general admits.

The FARC, in would seem, has adapted. "The days when it was capable of getting a thousand fighters together to attack a military base are over," says Ariel Avila, the director of the Nuevo Arco Iris "Observatory." "The guerilla fighters have dispersed, but highly mobile small units continue to make life difficult for the army. Ambushes have become the order of the day along with the use of anti-personnel mines, snipers, and booby-trapped cars." The new tactics are increasingly murderous: between January and October 2011, the FARC killed 429 members of the military and wounded 1,806.

Adapting for the FARC has also meant growing involvement in drug trafficking. "FARC and the drug trade cover exactly the same territory on a map. There are guerillas where drug-producing plants are cultivated illegally, and at the borders where both drugs and arms trafficking take place," explains Camilo Echandia. These are the same areas that harbor the "Bacrims' (short for bandas criminales) -- new criminal bands that are direct descendants of right-wing paramilitary groups that, officially speaking, have been demobilized. Depending on the region, the FARC and Bacrims team up and share the spoils – or kill each other.

"The FARC has not, however, turned into a mafia: drug trafficking is not an end in itself," says Echandia. In mountain hideouts and the depths of the jungle, the guerilleros live a miserable life. "The drug money is used to buy weapons and finance the war," says Ariel Avila.

As far as the FARC is concerned, winning the war may be a long way off, but a negotiated peace is not in the cards. President Santos has demanded that the FARC free all hostages, stop terrorist attacks and hand in their arms before negotiations can get underway. Like his predecessors, the new FARC leader, Timoléon Jimenez, refuses these conditions.

Several indications suggest that there are secret contacts between the guerillas and the authorities. But, as Echandia stresses, "there is no consensus within the army, within Colombian society or probably within the FARC itself that negotiations alone could lead to peace."

Read more from Le Monde in French

Photo - SMORENO2007

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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