Colombia: Conflict Profile

Almost 50 years of armed conflict

Colombia is in the midst of an almost 50-year 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 natural 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 de facto had no monopoly of justice and use of force.

Civil strife has been endemic to the development of the modern state of Colombia. The current conflict with armed guerrilla groups dates from the mid-sixties, but the origins of current conflict 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 Cuba revolution in 1959.

By the late seventies there were about a dozen guerrilla groups. The most significant Marxist 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. Over the years, the government of Colombia has held several peace talks and negotiations with guerrilla groups, with different degrees of success. 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. Recent years have also seen the power of the paramilitaries diminish. Following generous and controversial amnesty legislation which offered significantly reduced jail terms, by mid-2006 about 95 per cent of the total estimated AUC force was disbanded. Some demobilised fighters, however, have since reconstituted themselves into smaller and more autonomous units – collectively known as the Black Eagles (Águilas Negras). It is yet to be seen whether guerrillas would take advantage of the power vacuum left by the AUC.

In 2008, the ‘False Positives’ scandal rocked the country, with allegations that members of the army had murdered up to hundreds of civilians who were then passed off as rebels (the verified number killed is disputed). The story indicates just how much violence has become part of Colombian society.

Colombia remains the closest US ally in South America. The relationship between these countries strengthened with Plan Colombia, in which the US provides aid with the proclaimed aim of strengthening democracy, combating drug trafficking and terrorism, and promoting respect for human rights.  This alliance with the US, as well as ideological differences and territorial disputes, have intensified the friction between Colombia and neighbouring countries Bolivia, Ecuador and, in particular, Venezuela, with which relations have worsened in recent months. Tensions have increased due to an agreement which grants the USA access to up to seven military bases for joint anti-narcotics activities in Colombia.

Over the past half century, the conflict in Colombia has gone through various phases. The social and humanitarian impact, however, has been enormous throughout. 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. The new government’s period will be decisive for the peacebuilding process and its consolidation.

Last updated: June 2011