Colombia: Conflict Profile

Over 50 years of armed conflict

Colombia is in the midst of a half-century long conflict between the government and several guerrilla groups. The human impact of the conflict has been enormous, with at least 50,000 lives lost to date, and one of the world’s largest populations of internally displaced people – many of whom have disappeared.

Despite being the oldest democracy in Latin America, the country has lacked national cohesion since its independence in 1810. As a result of the country’s three Andean mountain ranges, acting as geographical barriers, and the division of society by class interests, Colombia has had a weak state, with vast areas of territory in which the government has had no monopoly of justice or the use of force.

Civil strife has been endemic to the development of the modern state of Colombia, which has suffered from political violence since its inception. Though the current conflict with armed guerrilla groups dates from the mid-sixties, its origins go back to the period of ‘La Violencia’ (1948-1958). Following the assassination of the popular charismatic leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán Ayala in 1948, an internecine conflict between the Liberals and the Conservatives took place. During this period, some peasants organised themselves into communities with the support of the Communist Party.

‘La Violencia’ came to an end through a constitutionally sanctioned power-sharing agreement between the Liberal and Conservative Parties, known as the ‘National Front’. The accord, however, eliminated political competition. Any political activity outside these two options was often repressed and attacks to Communist enclaves led to the transformation of the peasant communities into mobile guerrillas, especially following the Cuban Revolution of 1959.

By the late seventies there were about a dozen guerrilla groups. The most significant leftist guerrilla groups are the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias Colombianas, FARC) and the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN).

Child victim of violence

Victim of landmines in Colombia. Photo credit: Sgiraldoa. Uploaded under Creative Common License

The activities of the guerrillas prompted the formation of right-wing paramilitary organisations, primarily the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, AUC), as a means of protecting landowners, drug lords and local businessmen from attacks and kidnappings by guerrilla forces. Whilst denied by the government, there are accusations of linkages between the paramilitaries and the state in waging war against the guerrillas. Since their origins, both forces (guerrillas and paramilitaries) have become increasing involved in criminal activities (such as kidnapping, extortion, bombings, murder, hijacking, etc.), and have given a new dimension to the problem of narco-trafficking. The penetration of drug-trafficking in Colombian society has contributed to widespread corruption and the delegitimisation of the political class.

The first decade of the 21st Century saw the power of the paramilitaries diminish, following generous and controversial amnesty legislation which offered significantly reduced jail terms. By 2006 31,671 professed AUC fighters had disbanded. Reports of people being paid to falsely present themselves as AUC members however, would suggest that that figure should be taken with a pinch of salt. Importantly, most paramilitary blocs also held onto the majority of their weapons and command structures remained largely intact. In recent years, some demobilised fighters, have reconstituted themselves into smaller and more autonomous units – collectively known as the Black Eagles (Águilas Negras).

During his eight years in power between 2002 and 2008, former President Alvaro Uribe stepped up a massive military assault on the guerrilla, with the support of US funds, through his continuation of predecessor, Andrés Pastrana Arango’s Plan Colombia, and the implementation of Plan Patriota. The tough strategy inflicted significant damage on the rebels, allowing the government to reassert control over large areas of the country, and seeing Uribe’s domestic approval rating skyrocket.

In 2008 however, the ‘False Positives’ scandal rocked the nation, with allegations that members of the army had murdered hundreds of civilians who were then passed off as rebels (the verified number killed is disputed). The practice artificially inflated the apparent success of the government in its fight against the guerrilla, by as much as 40% in 2007, and indicates just how much violence has become part of Colombian society.

Colombia remains the closest US ally in South America. Its alliance with the US, as well as ideological differences and territorial disputes, have at times caused major friction between Colombia and neighbouring countries, Ecuador and Venezuela, though relations have improved in recent years.

After President Uribe’s bid to run for a third term was ruled unconstitutional, Colombia elected Juan Manuel Santos, a former Defence Minister under Uribe, as President in 2010. Santos’ time in power has been marked by a long running peace process with the FARC, which looks to have had notable success so far.

Re-elected in 2014, on a platform of continuing negotiations with the guerrilla, Santos’ administration has since entered into additional talks with the ELN. In an effort to prevent rebel forces making use of a ceasefire to regroup and strengthen their capabilities, negotiations have not included any cessation of hostilities and fighting is still ongoing. Although guerrilla groups remain a threat to the government, it is currently believed that neither FARC nor the ELN have the military strength or public support necessary to assume power or pose a serious challenge to constitutional order.

Although Colombian history has taught us that nothing can be taken for granted, there are therefore, high hopes amongst the population that the current peace process could be the one that finally holds and brings lasting peace to Colombia.

Last updated: November 2014. Background information published on Insight on Conflict is compiled by volunteer researchers and does not reflect the opinions of Peace Direct. For information on how you can contribute to this site, please contact us.

Thanks for research on this page to Philip Paterson