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Five facts about Colombia's FARC rebels

By the CNN Wire Staff
updated 12:03 AM EDT, Tue August 28, 2012

(CNN) -- The Colombian president said Monday the government is in "exploratory" talks with Latin America's oldest insurgency.

Here are five facts about the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, commonly known as the FARC:

1. The FARC has been at war with the Colombian government since the 1960s

The FARC was formed in 1964. Espousing anti-U.S. and Marxist ideology, the group draws the overwhelming majority of its members from the rural poor. Its aim is to overthrow the government.

Though it began as an insurgency and continues to champion leftist causes, the FARC is sometimes criticized for eschewing its beliefs in favor of running drugs. Colombia is one of the world's top cocaine producers and the FARC is estimated to make around $500 million from the illicit trade per year, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.

2. The two sides have not sat down since 2002

Peace talks between the rebels and the government have occurred sporadically since the 1980s. A cease-fire brokered in 1984 included the release of a number of imprisoned guerrilla fighters. That truce ended in 1990 when several thousand former FARC members were killed.

The last attempt at peace fell apart in 2002. Then-President Andres Pastrana ceded control of an area roughly the size of Switzerland to the FARC, but broke off talks after a series of high profile rebel attacks. The government moved to retake control of the so-called neutral zone, and the sides have been at war since.

3. The rebels have suffered significant setbacks

From its peak, the FARC has shrunk considerably in both size and strength, in part because of a U.S.-backed security campaign. As of last year, the group was thought to have around 8,000 troops, down from more than 16,000 a decade earlier.

The FARC has also lost several of its top leaders. In November, the group's head, Alfonso Cano, was killed in what President Juan Manuel Santos described then as the nation's "most overwhelming blow" against the rebel organization.

Colombian security forces killed the then-second-in-command, Raul Reyes, during a 2008 cross-border raid into Ecuador. That same year, FARC founder Manuel Marulanda died of an apparent heart attack.

4. Despite its losses, the FARC continues to carry out attacks

Rebels and government troops still clash with regularity and the FARC is capable of inflicting serious casualties.

Between 2010-2011, attacks rose by 10%, according to the Colombian think tank Nuevo Arco Iris. Some saw the increase as evidence of a comeback, while others argued it reflected a desperate attempt by the FARC to hold strategic land.

The rebels remain in control of some remote regions, notably in the southern jungle.

5. The United States and the European Union consider the group a terrorist organization

In its struggle against the government, the FARC has engaged in bombings, murder, extortion and kidnappings.

Among the highest profile cases in recent years was that of Ingrid Betancourt, who was kidnapped in 2002 during her campaign for the presidency. She was freed in a helicopter rescue mission in 2008. Colombian commandos posed as humanitarian aid workers to liberate the group, which included three U.S. military contractors and 11 Colombian police and military members.

After Cano's death, the FARC tapped a new leader, Rodrigo Londono Echeverri, who is also known as Timoleon Jimenez or Timochenko.

The U.S. State Department alleges he has run the FARC's cocaine operations and ordered rebels to "shoot down fumigation aircrafts, increase coca production, kidnap United States citizens and kill farmers who sold cocaine paste to non-FARC buyers."

A $5 million reward is offered for information leading to his arrest.

CNN's Dana Ford and Sarah Aarthun contributed to this report.

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