The Colombian government says it has captured cocaine sold by Farc rebels [EPA]

It has been 44 years since the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia group, or Farc, began its fight to overthrow the Colombian government.

The Farc, which says its armed struggle against the government is based on a search for social and economic justice, found natural support among the country's rural poor.

But in recent years the movement has faced decline.

Many fighters say they are tired of fighting and morale is low. Some are angry that the group's revolutionary ideals have been corrupted by its involvement in the cocaine trade.

It has also come under increasing pressure from the US-backed Colombian military, with several influential Farc leaders killed in a series of raids.

According to the government, the number of fighters is down from 16,000 in 2001 to about 6,000-8,000.

Disillusioned by drugs

Pablo, a former Farc commander, says he believed in the group's call for an armed Marxist revolution when he joined them in 1990.

He entered as a young foot soldier but quickly rose to become a high-ranking leader in the oldest guerrilla movement in Latin America.

Pablo still lives in fear of retribution from
his former comrades
Pablo says fatigue among rebels is a result of 44 years of fighting that has brought them few victories.

"They have not seen one step forward in the conquest of the strategic plan; they don't see real perspectives of success," he says.

"What you can see is a sort of fragmentation within Farc."

Pablo, who deserted from the Farc four years ago, says he became disenchanted after his fellow fighters got involved in Colombia's drug trade.

"The drug trade has eroded the ideals for the revolution because now money buys uniforms, weapons and even the people's souls", he says.

The US state department says the Farc is believed to be responsible for more than half of the cocaine entering the country.

Officials have said the group makes more than one billion dollars a year from the trade, although this figure is disputed by analysts.

Jonathan, a 24-year-old from a poor rural family, is another deserter, forced into hiding after leaving the Farc two months ago.

Four years ago he had decided to take up arms and join the fight with the hopes of finding a better life for himself and for other poor Colombians.

But, like others, he has become tired and disillusioned with war.

"I got bored because things are not the same. Farc has turned to the drug-trafficking business and I was wasting my time," he says.

String of defeats

The Farc are also under attack militarily, as a successful campaign by the US-backed Colombian army pushes them deeper into jungle areas.

The Farc is now said to be relying on
its hostages as a way to achieve success [AFP]
The army and elite counter-narcotics police units are blocking drug-trade routes and supply lines to counter Farc's income from the drug trade.

Communications, key to the rebels' movements, are constantly intercepted. The tactic is to push the battlefield deep into jungle where the terrain is rough.

Rafael Pardo, a former Colombian defence minister, says the military offensive is having an effect on the Farc's ability to hold territory.

"Farc has lost control of many regions;  it is losing men who are deserting or have been killed and it has lost its ability to control and command its rearguard," he says.

The Colombian army inflicted one of its most severe blows on Farc's rearguard last month.

Government forces attacked a Farc camp across the border in Ecuador, killing Raul Reyes, one of the group's senior leaders, along with 24 fighters and civilians.

The incident sparked a diplomatic crisis and the Colombian government apologised to Ecuador for the raid, but Pardo says that the military retains the initiative.

"Farc lost that initiative eight years ago when Plan Colombia [a US military aid programme to Colombia that targets the drug trade] began," he says.

Instead, Pardo argues, the Farc now relies on the hundreds of hostages it holds - including Ingrid Betancourt, a former presidential candidate - to gain concessions from the government.

"Now it does not have strategic or tactical initiative, the only initiative they have is political and that's why they keep hostages," he says.

"The hostages are important for Farc because [they open] a window of opportunity for political manoeuvring with the Colombian government."

Battling on

Despite these challenges, the rebels remain far from being defeated.

Farc fighters have decades of fighting experience and they still pose a challenge to the Colombian state.

But after sleeping for 14 years in combat fatigues with his rifle, Pablo says he now sees things from a different perspective.

"When I was living with the guerrilla fighters I was like a frog in a pond, and my whole world was that pond," he says.

"But when I got out [of Farc], I realised that I was isolated from a very different reality, the national and international reality. I thought I belonged to the vanguard."

But the former Farc commander is still a revolutionary at heart.

"We've had 44 years of blood, pain and death, generations lost in confrontation," says Pablo, quoting a Farc leader.

"Colombia deserves a better destiny, and that can be found by negotiating."

Source: Al Jazeera