The counter-insurgent paradox: when counterinsurgency feeds rebellion. The Colombian case

Dr José A. Gutiérrez

[This piece is abridged from a journal article originally published by the author in Small Wars and Insurgencies, entitled “The counter-insurgent paradox. How the FARC-EP successfully subverted counter-insurgent institutions in Colombia]


It is well known that the harsh methods of traditional counter-insurgency against local populations (indiscriminate bombardments, mass arrests, torture, food and medicine blockages, etc.) can often backfire. In many cases, instead of demobilising the rebels and isolating them through fear and deprivation from their potential supporters, these measures can boost support for their struggle. This is precisely what we saw in the case of Vietnam, Algeria, Angola, Northern Ireland, or more recently, Iraq, where the images of torture, humiliation and wanton killings backfired heavily on the US-led military coalition. 

But counter-insurgency is not all about violence and control, often resorting to the carrot and stick approach. Although there is much evidence that the coercive elements of counter-insurgency (the stick, so to speak) have often backfired from the perspective of the wielders of power, delegitimising rulers who resort to these methods and giving rebels a mass base of support, what about the soft-power elements of counter-insurgency? These soft-power mechanisms have often included services to neglected communities, infrastructural development, employment and other such methods. Paramount to this approach is the recognition that rebels proliferate because they tap into genuine grievances of the local populations. So, in order to avoid a revolution, reform becomes necessary. 

Latin America during the 1960s became a showcase of this carrot-based approach, particularly after the Cuban revolution of 1959 created panic among local elites and the US who feared Soviet penetration in what they considered their own ‘backyard’. That decade witnessed the launching of an ambitious US-sponsored reform programme in Latin America called the Alliance for Progress. Through this programme, roads and schools were built, and most importantlyacknowledging deep inequalities in land access at the heart of much of the insurgency in the hemisphereit advocated agrarian reforms. It also created a space for civil society to channel its grievances in institutionalised and non-revolutionary ways.

Colombia was an important partner to the US in their efforts to contain the ‘threat of communism’ in the context of the Cold War, and now remains an important partner in the so-called War on Drugs and War on Terror. A liberal-conservative coalition was in power in Colombia from 1958, after a devastating decade of political violence and a brief period of military rule. This period in Colombian history, referred to often as simply La Violencia (The Violence), was marked by the gruesome massacre of hundreds of thousands of people and the displacement of equal numbers, mostly in rural areas. As a response to State-sponsored violence, the first guerrillas, as self-defence detachments, were created in rural regions by disaffected liberals and communists. The latter armed groups developed later into what became the largest and longest rebel guerrilla army in the Western Hemisphere, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, People’s Army (FARC-EP). 

These loci of agrarian unrest became a prime concern for the Colombian government and for the US who saw these insurgencies as a challenge to its regional hegemony. At the end of the 1950s, in order to ‘rehabilitate’ areas under guerrilla influence, the JACs, the so-called Community Action Committees or Boards (Juntas de Acción Comunal) were created. These were community-based organisations with the prophylactic goal of countering agitation and strengthening the reach of the State in those regions. Although today the JACs can be found anywhere in the country, 70% of them are in rural regions. In towns, they tend to exist in peripheral areas, which have a high percentage of the population migrating from the countryside. And the countryside has been the main theatre of operations for the protracted armed conflict in the Andean country.

At first, rebelsin particular, communistsrejected these organisations as an ‘imperialist’ device to divert the revolutionary process. However, after realizing its potential to advance their cause, rebels embraced the JACs wholeheartedly. As early as 1970 the FARC-EP were recommending their supporters to join the JACs. They provided an institutional network, organised all over the country, officially-sanctioned, but which had enough malleability and flexibility to serve far more than a mere prophylactic and counter-insurgent role. They were valuable organisations to mobilise the population, indoctrinate them, organise them, and have access to information, while keeping a legal space for their supporters to engage in broader politics. This was possible because of two main reasons: as the promises of reform failed to deliver (especially in relation to the land question), the agrarian movement radicalised, and the violent backlash from authorities and landlords made many lean towards the rebels. Also, inasmuch as the rural poor needed to participate in these institutions to access basic infrastructure, smallholders had the time to engage in political participation at a local level. Although they were very poor, they still owned their means of reproduction and, being their own bosses, they could afford to have time for active participation.

To be sure, many of the JACs were far from radicalised, and many actually fulfilled their counter-insurgent role effectively. However, in regions where the insurgency was strong, these community-based institutions became hotly contested and often embodied the ambiguous interactions between State, communities and insurgencies.  At once, they were the basic organisational cell of the Colombian State and the cell of the ‘New Colombia’, according to the rebels. 

The FARC-EP were openly competing for the ‘hearts and minds’ of the peasantry with the army through the JACs, as they themselves recognised in an internal document: ‘when the military do civic-military actions (…) they win over the masses. This is why it is so necessary that we participate in these rehabilitation plans (…) in order to lead the masses’. Their presence in civic-military action initiatives would ensure that the community was benefited from them and that the inefficiency of the government was exposed. Thus, the struggle of the FARC-EP against the State, was a struggle fought squarely within the institutions of the very State they antagonised. 

Institutions, in general, do not serve, necessarily, the purpose for which they were created. This is so because all institutions are subject to contestation. That contestation, in this case, led to ambiguity. As the JACs expanded the political network of the rebels and provided a space for putting into practice governance mechanisms and their political ideas, they also strengthened State institutions locally, and extended services and infrastructure works, contributing directly to the incorporation of these territories into the process of State-building. On top of this, the rural population had a relative autonomy amidst this conflict to pursue interests that did not necessarily align with those of either party at all times, although important overlaps did exist. Therefore, ambiguity, rather than clear-cut lines, was a defining feature of the Colombian conflict at a local level, where often it was difficult to distinguish where community, State, or rebel initiative started and ended, which could have, at times, devastating impact for the local populations during moments of conflict escalation.

Profile picture Dr José Antonio Gutiérrez is a Research Fellow affiliated with the Institute for International Conflict Resolution and Reconstruction. He has extensive experience working on conflict, illicit economies, and contentious politics in Colombia, and has carried qualitative projects in Kenya and Indonesia as well.

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