Civil War: Colombia (1978-Present)

Joakim Kreutz. Civil Wars of the World: Major Conflicts since World War II. Editor: Karl DeRouen Jr. & Uk Heo. Volume 1, ABC-CLIO, 2007.


At first glance, Colombia seems to have several positive features that would set the country aside from most of Latin America. The country is rich in natural resources and experienced a stable economic growth for most of the twentieth century, combined with a long democratic tradition and notably few interventions by the military in its political life. (Rabasa and Chalk 2001, 4; Silva 2001). Despite these features, the country has also become the battleground of one of the most complex and intense civil wars in the world, a war that claims several thousand victims each year (Restrepo, Spagat, and Vargas 2003, 2006). Although a multitude of explanations exist, some aspects stand out throughout Colombia’s history. The society and its political life have largely remained fragmented; developments were regionally specific and accompanied by a constant high degree of violence. Indeed, it can be argued that armies were already mobilized before the political objectives of the insurgencies had formed. These aspects have also made it difficult to find a solution for the conflict, as suggested settlements have created new grievances and led to the formation of new armed groups. It is no coincidence that several analysts have used the term labyrinth to describe the Colombian civil war.

The left-wing rebel movements in Colombia originated in public dissatisfaction with growing social inequalities, but other considerations grew in importance as the conflict developed. Conflict actors have benefited from, but also contributed to, an expanded unofficial economy based on the export of natural resources, most notably the illegal drug trade. Profits acquired in this trade have further increased the capabilities of rebels and paramilitaries who assumed statelike responsibilities in territories under their control.

The Colombian civil war is one of the severest ongoing conflicts in the world, although it is difficult to give a precise estimate of conflict-related fatalities, for the country also has suffered from severe criminality. According to the Uppsala Conflict Data Program, a traditionally conservative source, clashes between the government and the guerrillas have led to at least 42,000 victims (UCDP 2005). If additional violence is included, such as attacks on civilians and the fighting involving paramilitaries and drug cartel militias, this estimate should be several hundred thousand deaths (Bergquist, Peñaranda, and Sánchez 2001, 276; Restrepo, Spagat, and Vargas 2006). The higher estimate is based on annual homicide reports, and it has been argued that as many as 80 percent of the violent deaths in Colombia are due to everyday violence rather than directly related to the guerrillas or armed forces (Bejarano 2003). The effects of the civil war have been further observed through numerous human rights abuses, and at least three million people have been displaced, according to Refugees International (RI 2005). In general, the rebel groups formed in the mid-1960s; but the conflict can easily be divided into two phases, with the second and more intensive period starting around 1978. This article focuses primarily on the second phase of the conflict, when the impact of the drug trade and introduction of paramilitary forces created some features that are arguably unique to the Colombian civil war.

Country Background

Colombia is considered one of Latin America’s oldest democracies, with an institutionalized two-party system in place since the mid-nineteenth century. Colombia is administered through thirty-two departments and one federal district, all of which enjoy substantial independence. In many areas, the development of basic public infrastructure such as sanitation or electricity depended on communal efforts or the individual efforts of a regional politician or family (Pearce 1990). Since independence in 1830, the dominant elites within the two parties, the Conservatives and the Liberals, have been successful in maintaining their influence over the Colombian political establishment. When other political movements have developed, these have been either incorporated into the two-party structure or marginalized through suppression. Throughout the nineteenth century, early political life spawned a vivid political debate between party representatives in Bogotá while the rest of the country remained organized along basic feudal lines. The outcomes of elections were usually determined by the ability of local party representatives to “mobilize” the rural vote. Electoral manipulation, fraud, violence, and clientism were widespread practices, as political decision making in the capital rarely influenced the lives of the peasant population (Palacios 1980, 83; Pearce 1990, 35) The development of political factionalism in the country could also be attributed to the character of the economic sector, as the Colombian economy at the time depended almost entirely on agriculture exports. During the 1880s and 1890s, the need for labor grew on the expanding coffee-growing haciendas, which created a migration of the rural population from the Andean highlands to the temperate midlands and hot lowlands. Colombian coffee exports became an increasingly successful industry and an important source of tax revenue for the government, and poor peasants were encouraged to settle on available public land. The basic issues of competition over land and labor during these decades continued, remaining one of the more sensitive political issues in Colombian history. This fierce competition over agricultural resources also led to early outbreaks of violence as armed militias were recruited by some wealthy landowners to acquire peasant-designated land (LeGrand 1984, 34-40).

In the early twentieth century, the government tried to further facilitate coffee exports by investing in communications improvements, using loans from the United States and indemnification for the loss of Panama in 1903. Industrialization of the country continued at a slow pace, but the creation of public works led to employment opportunities that attracted people to the town (Pearce 1990, 29). Urbanization and economic development during the first decades of the twentieth century were accompanied by growing labor and peasant movements that, influenced by European socialist doctrines, increased political mobilization among the poor population (LeGrand 1984, 41-42; Rudqvist 2002). Many of these new political ideas were adopted by the opposition at the time, the Liberal Party, which created a leftist faction that propounded social reform. When the Liberals started to introduce some of these policies after winning the presidency in the 1930s, parts of the Conservative Party instead drifted toward a populist fascism influenced by the examples of Spain and Italy. Even though neither of the most radical wings of the respective parties managed to control the government in this period, Colombian political life became increasingly vocal and violent. Following a turbulent decade in which moderate politicians of both parties had been increasingly marginalized, large-scale violence erupted in 1948. The assassination in April 1948 of the hugely popular leader of the Liberal Party left wing, José Eliécer Gaitán, led to violent riots in Bogotá that spread across the country and initiated the period in Colombian history commonly referred to as La Violencia (The Violence). Political life in Colombia all but collapsed, and democracy was suspended while a military government took power in the years 1953-1958. The military dictatorship of Gustavo Rojas Pinilla was initially supported by large parts of the population as well as many leaders within the political establishment. They considered the military administration a transitional phase, but when the armed forces failed to eradicate the violence and Rojas initiated his own political movement to compete with the traditional parties, the Conservative Liberal elite unified to restore democracy (Burnett and Johnson 1970, 315-17; Pearce 1990).

Exiled Conservative and Liberal leaders signed the San Carlos Agreement in 1957, which proposed a sixteen-year period of shared government powers between the two parties to stabilize the situation. The proposal was supported by a popular plebiscite in December 1957, and the Frente Nacional (National Front) coalition government was installed. According to its critics, the Frente Nacional reinstated the traditional parties’ authority over political life, established new patronage systems, and led to a significant decrease in voter participation (Rivera Cusicanqui 1984, 36-37). Simultaneously, attempts to improve economic performance in the country during the 1960s led to renewed tension regarding social inequalities. In the countryside, the government encouraged a move toward large-scale private enterprise to increase efficiency in the agricultural sector, even though this interrupted the traditional life of the independent. small-scale peasantry. The urbanization trend continued, but the investments did not create enough employment opportunities in the cities. In the period between 1958 and 1978, GDP per capita increased from US $540 to US $1,999 (in current prices). The rapid urbanization in effect led to more economic inequality and a growing “informal” economic sector, which included both legal odd jobs and illegal activities (Pearce 1990, 70-78). When the economy suffered a recession in the early 1980s, the situation worsened, and structural adjustment programs since then have only increased unemployment and economic inequalities. In 2000, the Colombian GDP per capita had increased to US $5,800 but more than 60 percent (2001 est.) of the Colombian population was classified as living in poverty (Valenzuela 2002). Although the Frente Nacional system formally ended in 1974, the sharing of bureaucracy posts continued to 1978, and the basic tenets of the agreement remains in place. According to the latest data on the Polity IV democracy scale (2003), the level of democracy in Colombia has remained basically unchanged since the end of military rule in 1957 (Marshall and Jaggers, 2002).

Conflict Background

All these different phases of the political, societal, and economic development of Colombia were accompanied by violence. After independence, the military leadership seemed content with a limited mission primarily concerned with protecting the borders of the country rather than pursuing an active role in politics. This has obviously been positive for the development of the Colombian democracy in comparison to other Latin American countries, but it also opened the door for regular use of private militias. Throughout the nineteenth century, conflict between Conservative and Liberal supporters was almost continuous, culminating in the 1,000-day war in 1899-1903 (DeRouen Jr and Heo 2005). Apart from the political violence at the time, the country also became rife with organized, armed groups involved in criminal activities, as well as conflicts between large landowners and peasant settlers and indigenous tribes. The radical political mobilization in the 1920s was accompanied by large-scale strikes and attempts to initiate regional socialist revolutions. When the Liberal government imposed partial social reforms in the 1930s, some Conservatives supported by local bishops and businesspeople began to set up paramilitary associations. The movement in opposition to the government’s policy included attacks on peasants who demanded the right to land, and many of the reforms introduced in the mid-1930s were reversed in the early 1940s. Concern within the armed forces about the increasing violence in the country led to a failed coup attempt in 1944, which further destabilized the situation. Demonstrations, street protests, and strikes became daily features of Colombian life in 1946-1948. Local clashes broke out between supporters of the right-wing fundamentalist Conservative party leader Laureano Gómez and the left-wing Liberal party leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, as moderate factions in the parties became marginalized. The violence was also becoming more organized, especially in rural areas. Conservative militias were created to threaten and murder likely Liberal voters in the 1947 congressional elections. Liberal supporters also armed themselves, and an estimated 14,000 victims were claimed by political violence in 1947 (Pearce 1990, 30-47).

The political violence observed during these years can still be considered only a prequel to the anarchy that followed. The assassination of Gaitán in April 1948 during the ninth Pan-American Conference led to large-scale riots in Bogotá that are usually referred to as the Bogotazo and that destroyed much of the city center and had some 2,000 victims. In the weeks that followed, disturbances spread across the country as the movements became more organized. The government responded by restricting civil liberties and initiated army repression against Gaitán supporters, while right-wing paramilitary groups became increasingly active. The situation in October 1949 was beyond control: “[M]assacre followed massacre;… Anyone not supportive of the government became a potential victim, while the opposition formed resistance committees to avenge them” (Guzmán, Borda, and Luña 1986, 1: 44). The decade that followed is referred to as La Violencia, and it has been estimated that almost 300,000 people were killed by government forces, partisan political rivalry, and rural banditry (Restrepo, Stragat, and Vargas 2003). Despite the high casualty numbers during La Violencia, it is estimated that the number of murders reported in 1988 was some 30 percent higher than the most violent year of La Violencia (Bejarano 2003). Also, La Violencia did not affect all parts of Colombia but was confined to certain regions, and the experiences within these regions were different. In some regions, armed peasant self-defense groups took control of territory and redistributed land with the help of the growing Communist Party. In other regions, powerful landowners expanded their land by dispossessing poorer peasants by force or threats. During La Violencia, a new type of actor also became increasingly common through the formation of organizations referred to as Los Pájaros (the Birds). The best term for them would be militias-for-hire, who managed to establish themselves as an important actor in several regions. Apart from being used as mercenaries, mainly by wealthy landowners and companies, these groups sometimes participated in joint operations with the military and developed a role in the local economies through stealing and trading in coffee (Guzmán, Rals, and Umana 1986, 1:165-166; Pearce 1990, 56-57).

The political compromise of the Frente Nacional in 1958 is often quoted as the end of La Violencia, and an amnesty was offered to all Conservative and Liberal militias. The new government led to a decrease in violence, but several groups, including many Pájaros, rejected the offer and effectively continued as criminal gangs. Furthermore, the amnesty did not extend to the Communist guerrillas, who had managed to establish “independent republics” in some parts of the country. The Communist guerrillas, who largely had cooperated with the Liberals during La Violencia, expressed a willingness to join the amnesty, but this was rejected by the new government and the military establishment. The Colombian political elite and military establishment actively tried to improve relations with the United States and were convinced that the successful Cuban revolutionaries were planning an attack on Colombia. With U.S. military assistance, several counterterrorist operations were launched in 1961-1964 to suppress the bandits and the remaining Communists (Nieto, 2003, 184-186; Pearce 1990, 62-64).

Although the military operations were successful in removing many of the guerrilla leaders, new organizations formed, convinced that armed struggle was necessary to force political change. The example of the successful Cuban revolution further influenced the willingness of antigovernment groups to take up arms, and several rebel groups were formed in 1965-1966. The 1960s saw an increase in kidnapping for ransom, and the Colombian Ministry of Defense encouraged wealthy families to form civil defense associations—thus further increasing the number of armed militias in the country (Burnett and Johnson 1970, 321). On several occasions in the years that followed, the military announced that they had “eliminated the guerrillas,” but the rebels continued to grow until a full-scale civil war erupted twelve years later (Nieto 2003, 185-186).

Although the Communist guerrillas slowly increased their presence in rural areas, in 1972 there was also an outbreak of urban terrorism through the creation of the group M-19. The rebels managed to increase their resources during the 1970s as Colombia became a major transit country for drug smuggling—first marijuana and eventually cocaine—to the United States.

Sources: CIA 2005 ; Doyle and Sambanis 2000a, 2000b; Refugees International (RI) 2005 ; Restrepo, Spagat, and Vargas 2006.
Notes: *D & S data estimate 50,000 total deaths for the years 1978-1999. Of these, it is suggested that 22,000 were battle related in the time period 1984-1992. According to the CERAC microlevel dataset (, an additional 10,384 people were killed in the conflict in 2000-2002.
War: ELN, EPL, FARC, M-19 vs. government and paramilitary groups (AUC)
Dates: Ongoing since 1978
Casualties: More than 60,000, including more than 22,000 killed in battle*
Regime type prior to war: 8 (ranging from-10 [authoritarian] to 10 [democracy])
Regime type at present (2007): 7 (ranging from-10 [authoritarian] to 10 [democracy])
GDP/capita year war began: US $612 (constant 1985 dollars)
GDP/capita at present: US $6,600 (2004 estimate)
Insurgents: ELN (Ejército de Liberación Nacional; National Liberation Army), EPL
(Ejército Popular de Liberación; Peoples Liberation Army), FARC (Fuerzas
Armadas Revolucionarias Colombinanas; Revolutionary Armed Forces of
Colombia), M-19 (Movimento 19 de Abril; 19th of April Movement)
Issue: Ideological struggle for control of central government
Rebel funding: Drugs, kidnapping for ransom, “taxation” of controlled territory, smuggling
Role of geography: Rebel strongholds in jungles and mountainous areas
Role of resources: Important sources of revenue, but also reason for clashes between rebels and
paramilitary groups
Immediate outcome: Conflict ongoing
Outcome after 5 years: Conflict ongoing
Role of UN: Limited
Role of regional organization: Limited
Refugees: More than 3,000,000
Prospects for peace: Not likely
Table 1: Civil War in Colombia

Another important source of continued organized criminality that eventually influenced rebel income was the trade in gold and emeralds (Pearce 1990, 106-109).

The Insurgents

The Frente Nacional coalition government managed to end the worst excesses of La Violencia in 1958, and many armed groups dissolved as a consequence of the amnesty. However, the basic conditions that had contributed to the political instability remained unresolved in rural areas throughout the country. The Communist Party was outlawed in 1956, and the military leadership, backed by the political and economic elite, considered socialist agitation the main threat to national security. At the same time, the example of the successful Cuban revolution had a strong impact on the antigovernment movements that started to form in the cities, mainly centered on university campuses. A group of students inspired by the Cuban victory wanted to organize a similar revolution through establishing the Movimento de Obreros, Estudiantes y Campesions (Workers, Students, and Peasants Movement [MOEC]) in 1959. MOEC never managed to start a guerrilla war, for the leaders were killed in counterinsurgency operations, and the organization split into different factions (Rempe 1995). A small group of former MOEC activists went to Cuba for basic military training in 1964 and returned with the intention to overthrow the government. On January 7, 1965, the first armed attack by the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (National Liberation Army [ELN]) was launched by twenty-eight men and women armed with hunting rifles (Medina 1996). The group received increased popularity when Camilo Torres, a Catholic priest and lecturer at the National University of Bogotá, joined the ELN in July 1965. Torres wanted to create a united front of opposition movements and drafted a political program for the ELN before he was killed in his first battle in February 1966 (Pearce 1990, 168). The organization continued to grow in strength for another decade but had become marginalized by the time the second phase of the Colombian conflict began in 1978.

The Colombian Communist Party split in the mid-1960s, and a Maoist-inspired breakaway faction was formed in 1965. The new organization, Partido Comunista Marxista-Leninista (PC-ML), started preparing a peasant-based struggle in the regions of Córdoba and Bajo Cauca. Even though student activists in the PC-ML almost immediately formed the Ejército Popular de Liberación (People’s Liberation Army [EPL]) it was 1967 before the group was involved in any fighting (Pearce 1990). The military launched several operations targeting EPL and its supporters during the early and mid-1970s, and the group had limited influence when the conflict escalated in 1978.

The third major rural guerrilla group in the Colombian civil war had direct links to the history of La Violencia, in which peasant self-defense groups had taken administrative control of their territories and established leftist “independent republics.” The Colombian military considered these areas the most serious threat to national security, and plans were drafted to regain control of these territories. With the help of military aid in the form of the U.S.-sponsored Plan LASO (Latin America Security Operation), Colombia initiated Plan Lazo (“lasso”) to surround and defeat the guerillas. Plan LASO managed to defeat the “republics,” but the harshness of government repression also created desperation among the remnants of the self-defense groups. The few surviving guerrillas, Communist and non-Communist, met in July 1964 to form a unified front as the Bloque Sur (Southern Block) and to call for an “armed revolutionary struggle to win power” (Rempe 1995, 319). At the second conference of the Bloque Sur in 1966, the group established an army under the name Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias Colombianas (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia [FARC]) (García-Durán 2004 ; Molano 1994). The FARC started as the smallest of the three rural insurgencies but managed to increase its influence through a steady expansion. The FARC has been the most powerful insurgent group for most of the time since 1978.

The ELN, the EPL, and the FARC have much in common. They were formed in the same time period, share the same basic ideology, and have mainly focused on fighting in rural areas with the intention to control territory. The fourth major rebel group in the conflict had a different background and used different methods. After a decade of Frente Nacional rule, opposition to the two-party dominance in Colombia became more intense. The former military dictator, Gustavo Rojas Pinilla, returned from exile to form an alternative popular political movement, the Alianza Nacional Popular (National Popular Alliance [ANAPO]). Apart from its political activity, ANAPO established a strong following in urban areas by dispensing services in poor neighborhoods. After four recounts of the votes in the 1970 presidential election, Rojas was narrowly defeated by the Frente Nacional candidate despite strong claims of election fraud (Bushnell 1993). Disgruntled former ANAPO activists decided in 1972 to join forces with a group expelled from FARC, the Jaime Bateman Cajón, and formed the armed group Movimento 19 de Abril (the 19th of April Movement [M-19]). The name referred to the frustrating election day of 1970 (Peace 1990, 170-171). The strategy of M-19 was to launch high-publicity operations, golpe revolucionario publicitario, to destabilize the state and instigate a public uprising against the government. In its first political attack, the M-19 stole the sword of the independence hero Simon Bolivár from its exhibit in Bogotá in 1974, and the group continued to create civil disorder throughout the 1970s. The M-19 attracted former guerrillas and students in urban areas and managed to become arguably the most influential, if not the biggest or most active, insurgent group toward the end of the decade (Gómez 1996 ; Kirk 2003, 63-64).

The situation could hardly have been more different for the different insurgent organizations when the conflict escalated in 1978-1979. The M-19 was slowly becoming more militant and expanding into rural areas, particularly the region of Caquetá, to increase its support base. This was accompanied by an increase in kidnappings for ransom by the group and the theft of 5,000 weapons from the army headquarters outside Bogotá in January 1979 (Gómez 1996 ; Pearce 1990, 171-172). The increase in kidnappings brought the group into open conflict with militias formed by the drug cartels, and the M-19 never managed to establish a strong rural presence. After participation in the peace attempts during the mid-1980s, the M-19 launched another spectacular attack, the takeover of the Supreme Court of Justice in Bogotá in November 1985. The military response was substantial, and the M-19 was on the retreat until the group signed a peace agreement and became a political party in 1990 (Boudon 2001, 181; Pearce, 1990).

In 1978, the FARC had managed to become the largest rural guerrilla group by avoiding military offensives. In the first decades of its existence, the FARC had mainly focused on defensive tactics, such as organizing basic services and protecting peasants from harassment by large cattle ranchers. The organization became, in effect, the governing authority in the regions under its control and was for periods supported both by landowners and by peasants. Establishing a general staff and secretariat in 1974 was the first step toward expanding FARC influence, but despite the group’s substantial local strength, it had managed to establish only nine fronts (military commands) by 1979. Three years later, the FARC officially declared that a revolutionary situation existed in the country and adopted more offensive military tactics. The number of fronts soon grew to twenty-seven in 1983, to sixty in 1995, and to more than seventy in 2000, when FARC claimed to have at least one front in each Colombian department (Pearce 1990, 173; Rabasa and Chalk 2001, 26-27). Although government offensives have made the FARC withdraw from some of its bases, the organization remains by far the biggest guerrilla group in Colombia, with an estimated 18,000 troops in 2004 (UCDP 2005).

The expansions of the FARC and the M-19 were made possible in part by the increased economic resources they received through increased kidnapping and taxation of the growing drug industry. At the same time, joining or supporting the guerrillas also provided security against the increased threat from paramilitary groups and drug cartels (Bejarano 2003). By the late 1970s, cocaine had largely replaced marijuana as the main Colombian drug export, and the newly formed cartels were looking for rural areas with limited government control to set up refining laboratories. Most of the cocaine paste was imported from Peru and Bolivia and the finished product mainly smuggled to the U.S. market. The cartels were allowed to settle in guerrilla-controlled territory by agreeing to pay a protection tax of around 10 percent on all transactions (Joyce and Malamud 1998, 69-70, Krahmann 2005, 72). Although the FARC quickly increased the number of its fronts, local commanders became more independent, and the approach to the drug businesses has not been regulated centrally. In some regions, drug plantations were suppressed, whereas others accepted the cartels, and some became actively involved in the business (McDermott 2004, 29). Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, an increasing amount of coca was grown in Colombia following successful drug eradication programs in Bolivia and Peru (McCoy 2003, 444; Thoumi 2002). The FARC established a minimum price that the middlemen had to pay the farmers for the cocaine paste in their territories but also provided security for the laboratories, which were usually set up close to the guerrilla camps. The income from the drug trade has become increasingly important for the rebels, and protection of drug-producing territories has influenced the military strategies used, especially by the FARC’s South and East Blocs (McDermott 2004).

In 1978, both the EPL and the ELN were almost destroyed as rebel movements. Following large-scale military operations targeting the ELN throughout the 1970s, it was reported that only thirty-six guerrillas remained in rural areas in 1978. The organization regained their political influence in some areas, and the group suddenly expanded following the ELN’s nonparticipation in the peace dialogue initiated in 1982 (Pearce 1990). Since the early 1980s, the ELN has been the second-largest active, left-wing guerrilla group, and it also has established some strategic cooperation with the FARC. The ELN has also received some revenue from the drugs business but mainly has focused on kidnappings, extortion, and sabotage of the Colombian oil industry for its income. It is generally estimated that since 1996, the ELN has consisted of some 3,000-5,000 troops (Rabasa and Chalk 2001).

The EPL also suffered through government offensives in the 1970s, but more significant were the internal divisions that split the political organization, the PC-ML, into several factions in 1975. The group continued to lose influence until the party renounced Maoism in 1980. Although the organization expanded slightly in the decade that followed, it never acquired the capabilities of the other guerrillas and joined the peace process in the mid-1980s to build political support among the population. A peace agreement with the government was signed in 1991 but was renounced by a faction of the EPL that continued some activity and relied mainly on kidnappings for income. When the EPL faction tried to expand its rural positions, it came into conflict with the FARC forces, who accused the group of selling out and cooperating with paramilitaries (Human Rights Watch 1998 ; Pearce 1990, 176).

The sixth main conflict actor developed in response to the increased influence of guerrillas as well as the drug trade in the early 1980s. On December 3, 1981, a helicopter flying over the city of Cali distributed leaflets announcing the formation of the group Muerte A Secuestradores (Death to Kidnappers [MAS]). The group was formed by members of the Medellín drug cartel to hunt down and kill the M-19 activists responsible for kidnapping the sister of a local cocaine boss (Kirk 2003, 104; Pearce 1990, 177). Paramilitary organizations had been commonplace in Colombia, and the legal possibility had existed for the military to organize civilians into self-defense boards since the mid-1960s (Zárate-Laun 2001). The establishment of MAS was viewed as an example by many politicians and businesspeople discontented with guerrilla taxation, and the phenomenon quickly spread across the country. At the same time, political developments also made the military more inclined to support the formation of paramilitary groups. The election of President Belisario Betancur in 1982 led to the initiation of peace negotiations with the rebels and a focus on national reconciliation. For the Colombian military, this was accompanied by a change of strategy from the previous “dirty war” tactics of suppression. Parts of the military were suspicious of the peace talks and helped organize paramilitary groups, mainly with the objective of attacking the guerrillas despite the cease-fire (Pearce 1990 ; Zárate-Laun 2001). The paramilitary groups that at first had acted in tandem with the army became increasingly independent and copied the tactics of the guerrillas. Kidnappings and human rights abuses increased as the groups aimed to limit guerrilla income by taking control of taxation and territory themselves. One of the more influential early rural paramilitary groups was the Autodefensas Campesinas de Córdoba y Urabá (Peasant Self-Defense Groups of Córdoba and Urabá [ACCU]). Led by Fidel “Rambo” Castaño, the group managed to force the FARC out of the Magdalena Medio by 1985, and Castaño and his brothers soon became involved in controlling the drug business in the region (Human Rights Watch 1996). With the help of the paramilitaries, large landowners expanded their territories, at the expense of the rural peasant population, from an estimated one-third to one-half the arable land between 1984 and 1987. This was accompanied by an increase in human rights abuses and political murders committed by paramilitaries, which led to strong protests among the Colombian civil society; self-defense groups became illegal in 1989 (Human Rights Watch 1996).

After Carlos Castaño took over the leadership of ACCU following his brother’s disappearance in 1994, a process was launched to unify the different regional paramilitary organizations and diversify into other regions. Through an organizational structure that tried to emulate guerrillas, the ACCU joined forces with self-defense groups in the regions of Cesar, Magdalena Medio, Santander, Casanare, Cundinamarca, and the eastern plains to establish the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (United Self-Defense Groups of Colombia [AUC]) (Human Rights Watch 1996). Since 1997, the AUC has been a fully organized, independent actor even though some links to the military allegedly remain. Apart from modeling their structure on the guerrillas, the AUC has also established itself as an actor with strong interests in the illegal drug industry, collecting protection fees for territory under its control. When the AUC has expanded, it has focused on resource-rich areas, allegedly to limit guerrilla access to resources. Controlling territories with oil, gold, and drug production has also made it possible for the paramilitaries to strengthen their forces (Zárate-Laun 2001). Ideologically, the group has pursued an agenda based on antileftist ideas and rejection of any reforms of land ownership. The AUC has become the fastest growing actor in size and capabilities within the conflict during the last decade, recruiting mainly in poor urban areas and offering attractive salaries (Bergquist, Peñaranda, and Sánchez 2001, 133-134).


The fighting in Colombia has spread into each of the thirty-two departments of the country, although there have been substantial regional differences in intensity, in part owing to the dramatic geographical attributes of the country. According to Sánchez and Núñez, “The geographical differences within Colombian departments are many…. For example, the temperature of Cundinamarca (a department located in the center of the country, and one of its richest regions) varies from very hot in some places to freezing cold in others” (2000, 5). In general, three main geographical areas can be identified, all of which provide opportunities for groups to take cover. The lowlands of the Pacific and Caribbean coasts are similar and covered with thick jungle. From the lowlands rises the mountainous region, consisting of three Andean ranges, that cuts the country and defines its climatic variations. The highlands comprise only 26 percent of the Colombian territory, which is dominated by peaks reaching over 5,700 meters (18,700 feet). The ranges are separated by deep valleys, notably those of the two great rivers, the Cauca and Magdalena, and the cooler climate in the highlands has made the region the most populated as well as the center of the country’s economy. The third region, to the east, consists of huge plains to the north and extensive forests to the south (Pearce 1990).

Estimated Troop Sizes (Average) for Conflict Actors
Year No. of Deaths Gov. AUC FARC ELN
Sources: Restrepo, Spagat, and Vargas 2006; Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP) 2005 .
1990 1,820 133,000 5,500 2,200
1991 1,860 134,000 5,500 1,750
1992 2,036 139,000 6,000 2,750
1993 1,560 139,500 3,500 1,000
1994 1,375 146,400 5,700 2,500
1995 1,330 146,400 5,700 2,500
1996 1,582 143,000 5,700 2,500
1997 1,741 143,000 2,000 6,400 2,750
1998 2,417 144,000 4,000 11,000 4,500
1999 2,710 153,000 5,300 13,500 4,500
2000 3,101 158,000 8,000 12,500 4,500
2001 3,245 158,000 11,500 17,500 4,000
2002 4,036 158,000 15,000 17,500 4,250
Table 2: Intensity and Escalation of the Conflict 1990-2002

Routes developed by refugees and drug traffickers have also been used by guerrillas, who move along the mountains across the border to Ecuador in the south as well as under the cover of the jungle to Peru, Brazil, and Venezuela to the south and east (Millett 2002).

The ability of armed groups to benefit from the geography has been further accentuated by the slow development of the Colombian transport network. Historically, rivers were the most important routes of transportation, and the roads and railroads built in the late nineteenth century were designed to connect towns and villages within the same region rather than to interconnect nationally. The country still has one of the lowest road densities in Latin America (Sánchez and Núñez Méndez 2000, 6-7). It can be concluded that despite the sometimes impressive capabilities of the different armed groups in Colombia, both in reference to manpower and weaponry, the geography has made it possible for groups to survive even when severely outnumbered. The physical and political geography of the country has contributed to the strategies used with several smaller fronts in different departments.


The geography has influenced tactics in the conflict, benefiting smaller groups with high mobility. For historical and political reasons, the Colombian war has been characterized by brief encounters between local, operationally independent, smaller units. The different insurgent groups all originated as small groups, whereas the Colombian army deliberately adopted a strategy based on U.S. counterinsurgency manuals. Historically, the Colombian armed forces were formed for border protection, and the underfunded police were responsible for regulating internal divisions in the country. Since early in the twentieth century, Colombia’s official policy had been to follow the United States in foreign policy and security matters, and these contacts became further institutionalized after La Violencia erupted in 1948. Colombia was the only Latin American country to send troops to the Korean War, and an increasing number of officers were sent to the U.S. counterinsurgency training academy, the School of the Americas, renamed in 2001 the Western Hemispheric Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC) (DeRouen and Heo 2005; Stokes 2005, 5).

When the Frente Nacional coalition government took power in 1958 and ended the most intensive part of La Violencia, a military strategy was devised to defeat remaining armed groups. This strategy, which was based on recommendations from a U.S Special Survey team in 1959-1960, provided the basis for military action to protect national security from internal threats in Colombia. And although several modifications have been made to the strategy, the basic concepts have remained the core of the military approach to dealing with the guerrillas. Arguably, the increased military buildup in the years since 2002 has led to a return to many of the concepts originally introduced in the early 1960s (DeRouen and Heo 2005, Koth 2005, 18-19). Most of the Colombian military is organized into mobile infantry forces that are supported by a relatively large fleet of helicopters and have the ability to initiate joint internal security operations with the police. These troops are the descendents of the specific counterinsurgency battalions and hunter-killer teams established in the 1960s (DeRouen and Heo 2005; Stokes 2005, 69-70). Central to Colombian military tactics has been the military’s ability to use civilians as informers and supporting troops. The ability of the military to create and arm paramilitary units was legalized by Law 48 in 1968, which built on a decree in place since 1965. These “self-defense boards,” consisting of civilian personnel from the combat zone, operated in coordination with the armed forces and also had an unspecified mandate to prevent the formation of rebel groups. When the conflict escalated in 1978 through offensives conducted by the government of Julio Cesar Turbay (1978-1982), these paramilitary forces were criticized by human rights organizations. It was argued that the use of semimilitary groups led to impunity for the armed forces’ involvement in a “dirty war”—murders, disappearances, torture, etc.—against the civilian population (Ruiz 2001, 164-169; Stokes 2005, 72-73; Zárate-Laun 2001). Arguably, the poor human rights record of the armed forces and its paramilitary allies during this period led to increased support for the guerrillas in rural areas. Even though membership in a paramilitary organization of any kind became illegal in 1989, reports throughout the 1990s continued to highlight links between the armed forces and the paramilitary groups. As part of recent reorganizations of the Colombian military, renewed options have been created to incorporate civilians into the counterinsurgency efforts. Military intelligence has been bolstered with a network of part-time civilian informants. Also, conscripts from rural areas have deliberately been placed into regionally based “peasant platoons” to support the police and regional troops (DeRouen and Heo 2005). These developments have received criticism from human rights organizations concerned that this might lead to an increase in military atrocities against civilians.

The tactics employed by the guerrillas have been similar to the government’s in that the main imperative has been to avoid full-scale battles and engage in smaller, hit-and-run operations. There has been a distinct difference between the terrorist tactics of the mainly urban-based M-19 and the rural FARC, EPL and ELN, although the latter groups have modified their tactics in past years. The spectacular tactics employed by the M-19 made the group one of the most influential in the conflict until the peace agreement in 1990. The organization was different from the other insurgents in its focus on urban warfare and also in that it could trace its origin to middle-class intellectuals rather than peasants. This led to the formation of a strategy referred to as the Organizacion Politico Militar (Military-Political Organization [OPM]), which emphasized the symbolic value and social impact of the operations as being of equal importance to military-strategic gains (Gómez 1996). In 1974, the group announced its existence in the week leading up to the symbolic theft of the sword of the national liberator, Simon Bolivár, by blanketing Bogotá with messages such as “Wait for the M-19” and “The M-19 is coming” (Kirk 2003, 63-64). Even the bank robberies and kidnappings that provided most of the funds for the M-19 were ideologically justified, with U.S. interests specifically targeted. Apart from large-scale, spectacular operations, the M-19 also pursued minor sabotage operations to initiate public discontent and force the ruling parties to open up the political sphere to other actors. Often, these operations coincided with an effort to strengthen the M-19’s popularity and influence, such as stealing trucks with food and medicine and delivering them to the poorest communities (Gómez 1996).

The traditionally rural guerrilla groups FARC, EPL, and ELN have employed similar tactics throughout the conflict. The civil war in Colombia never became a significant part of the Cold War, despite the significant U.S. resources allocated to defeating the Communist threat. This can be attributed partly to the local background of the insurgencies and partly to an apparent lack of interest on the part of the socialist bloc in supporting the Colombian guerrillas. All the groups formed in the mid-1960s had links to different factions of the Colombian Communist Party, but none of them were encouraged from abroad in their struggle. Notably, the Soviet Union tried to pressure the FARC, officially embraced as the army of the Colombian Communist Party, to stop their activity in an attempt to improve Soviet relations with the Colombian government. Cuba was more active, supplying basic military training to the founding members of EPL and the ELN. However, even though a secret CIA report in 1968 declared the substantial threat of a Cuban-sponsored revolution in Colombia, the rebels received only limited material support (Ruiz 2001, 119-120). Furthermore, in late 1968 the Cuban government decided to redirect its program of military support to the Middle East and Africa (Copper and Papp 1983).

The lack of outside support meant that Colombian organizations had to acquire resources themselves through criminal activity and taxation of areas under their control, and thus provided a tactical imperative for the rebels to take control of economically important areas. Lack of outside support also explains why the insurgents so willingly established alliances with the drug cartels. Apart from providing economic resources through the taxation of drug traffic, the cartels also provided connections and transportation for arms transfers (McCoy 2003, 447). The end of the Cold War influenced the conflict in that it made possible the Colombian Communist guerrillas’ acquisition of more advanced weaponry. The availability of arms from Eastern Europe and used materiel from the Central American conflicts that ended in the late 1980s boosted guerrilla capabilities (Rabasa and Chalk 2001, 35-36).

Although the guerrillas, especially the FARC, have managed to establish several battle fronts across Colombia, these consist of small units of about 100-200 combatants (Jansson 2005). Following the government offensives since 2002, these fronts have been further divided into “guerrilla” units reportedly consisting of twenty-six troops each (McDermott 2004, 31). With the exception of temporary operations launched by either party, the conflict has become “normalized,” and all parties seem to refrain from engaging in battles (Ceballos Melguizo 2001, 112). According to an eyewitness account:

The plains are a divided territory… . Each side knows where the other is and respects their territory, but outside of those boundaries, on the road, on the paths and in the towns every type of revenge and outrage is committed… . We even saw how the guerrilla camped on one side of the river and the army on the other. Each washed on its banks, but they didn’t attack each other. Each side considers the war a job to be done and if they’re not forced to fight, they prefer not to risk their lives… . Both want us, the people, to offer them our services and when we serve on one side, the other side kills us and vice versa. (Galvis 2000, 135)

A similar situation has been observed in urban areas, where front lines are established on a block-by-block basis, although the situation is further complicated there (Fichtl 2004). After the M-19 signed a peace agreement in 1990, remaining guerrilla groups tried to expand into urban areas. The armed groups in poorer urban communities developed independently of the guerrillas, who tried to link up with them through tactical alliances such as the FARC-sponsored Red Urbano Antonio Narino (Antonio Narino Urban Network [RUAN]) (Rabasa and Chalk 2001 ; Rudqvist 2002). The urban militias had formed mainly in response to the drug-related gang wars in the cities during the late 1980s and consisted of a mix of former gang members, M-19 activists, and self-defense vigilantes. The groups declared themselves the armed power of the barrios and announced their presence through graffiti while attacking criminals, drug addicts and dealers, and occasionally the police (Ceballos 2001, 120-122).

The connections between the rural guerrilla headquarters and the urban groups are reportedly weak, and the growth of paramilitaries during the last decade have probably also made some of these actors change their allegiances from the FARC to the AUC without notable difficulties. During the last decade, there seems to have been a slight development of insurgent tactics toward more urban, “terrorist” tactics. Because the situation in rural areas is unlikely to provide a significant military breakthrough for either party, more attention has been given to M-19-style operations. The peace negotiations with the FARC in 1998-2002 were interrupted and eventually abandoned because of highly publicized terrorist operations such as airplane hijackings, and in June 2001, the FARC threatened to take the war to the cities (McDermott 2003, 22; Ruiz 2003). After the breakdown of negotiations, urban guerrilla operations increased. The FARC fired mortars on the inauguration ceremony of President Álvaro Uribe in 2002 and was responsible for several bombings in the following year. As part of its urban strategy, the FARC allegedly employed bomb experts from the Basque Euskadi ta Azkatasuna (ETA [Basque Nation/Fatherland and Liberty]) and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) (McDermott 2003, 22-23). The other active remaining guerrilla group, the ELN, has also increased its use of terrorist tactics such as airplane hijackings, although the group to a lesser extent seems to target civilians in its operations. An important source of income for the ELN has traditionally been extortion of the Colombian oil industry, and it has been blowing up pipelines systematically in the north of the country (Rabasa and Chalk 2001, 45).

The final actor in the conflict, the paramilitaries of the AUC, has largely adopted the same tactics as the guerrillas but with a more systematic approach to attacking civilians. The guerrillas have consistently punished the civilian population that broke the imposed “law” in their territories, but the paramilitary forces deliberately included attacks on suspected civilian left-wing collaborators as part of their strategy. Hundreds of political assassinations by paramilitary groups in the 1980s ruined the FARC’s attempt to lay down arms and become a political party, the Unión Patriótica (Patriotic Union [UP]) (ACEU 2004). After the paramilitaries created the AUC in 1997, violence escalated, and it has been observed that most of the increased intensity in the conflict during the last years can be attributed to AUC attacks on civilians (Bodemer, Kurtenbach, and Meschkat 2001). The guerrillas have responded with the same tactics, accusing civilians of supporting the paramilitaries and executing them. After public outrage at large-scale killings of civilians committed by paramilitaries in the late 1990s, the AUC publicly committed to becoming more “selective” in its operations. According to human rights organizations, this has led not to fewer killings but to a tactical change: People are abducted into the forest, and bodies are found in separate locations. Both the FARC and the AUC have forcibly displaced civilians to control territory, and assassinations by both groups have increased during election campaigns to influence the results.

Causes of the War

The causes of the conflict—that is, why the rebel movements formed and managed to attract members and supporters—have been outlined in detail in the foregoing sections. Throughout Colombia’s history, each period of economic growth led to growing economic inequality, and the political establishment was reluctant to address issues that concerned the poorer majority of the population. In particular, issues involving land ownership and labor rights were ignored, despite their having caused several previous periods of social unrest. To further enhance the lack of trust in the state, government and police officials had not managed to provide the population with basic services or security. Indeed, it can be argued that territory under guerrilla control provided less corruption and a more secure system of law and order than had been provided in supposedly “free” areas. However, there were undoubtedly some events during the late 1970s that propelled the conflict from regionalized, low-intensity rebellions to a civil war.

It should be noted that the time of escalation of the Colombian conflict from low-intensity clashes, ongoing since the mid-1960s, to civil war is disputed and not based on precise information, owing to the difficulty of distinguishing between violence related to the conflict and violence related to criminality. Regardless, a number of developments in 1975-1979 changed the nature of the conflict substantially. The political situation in the country was tense, with opposition against the Frente Nacional system and increased political violence during the 1970s. The disgruntled public began to organize nationally, through unions and organizations for indigenous peoples’ rights, and regionally, through local civic committees concerned about incapacities of local government (Pearce 1990). Government corruption and economic recession led to an increasingly vocal labor opposition and culminated with the first national civic strike in the country in 1977 (Pearce 1990, 172; Thoumi, 1994, 47). The winner of the presidency in 1978, Julio César Turbay Ayala, had campaigned on a platform of decentralization, economic reform, and defeating the growing insurgencies. A large-scale military and police “dirty war” was launched in 1978 against guerrillas and drug producers, leading to the most repressive Colombian government experienced. Imprisonment and torture became systematic, as suspected guerrilla supporters were also targeted. Fighting increased, while the repression led to further antigovernment sentiment and the growth of guerrilla groups and paramilitary self-defense militias (Pearce 1990, 172).

The guerrillas were also getting more ambitious in their approach to the conflict in 1978. The FARC had established a general secretariat in 1974 and initiated a process of expansion. The election of the hard-line president Turbay made the M-19 increasingly impatient with urban tactics, and it devised an attempt to establish itself in rural areas, especially the region of Caquetá.

Finally, an additional factor behind the increased fighting in the late 1970s was the establishment of the second wave of drug business. The trade in marijuana had started to diminish, and a police offensive in 1978 eradicated many of the remaining producers, but the trade was replaced by the cocaine industry. Thousands of peasants, including unemployed people from the cities, started to colonize new areas of Colombia to grow coca, even though most of the raw material was imported from Peru and Bolivia. Most of the marijuana trade had been controlled by American and Mexican distributors and thus provided only limited income for the Colombian contacts. In the mid-1970s, some Colombians had begun smuggling small quantities of cocaine into the United States and quickly made huge profits. Soon, connections were made with coca-growing peasants in Peru and Bolivia, and Colombian-led distribution networks were established using contacts among Colombian emigrants in the United States (Thoumi, 2002). The drug cartels considered it more beneficial to establish their operations in guerrilla-held territory, providing the insurgents with increased resources to fight the government.


The civil war in Colombia is ongoing and has escalated during the last years. There have, however, been some serious attempts to stop the conflict through negotiations that seemed to be successful before they rather suddenly broke down. Of the four main rebel movements in the conflict, two have chosen to sign peace agreements and have become political parties; a third one, the FARC, tried as part of the first peace process.

Conflict Status

On February 20, 2002, the Colombian president, Andrés Pastrana, ordered the military to expel the FARC from the demilitarized zone they had been allowed to occupy during three years of peace negotiations. Operation Thanatos (Death) was launched a day later, when some 13,000 soldiers took control of the territory while the FARC forces quickly withdrew (UCDP 2005). More than three years of peace talks had been marred by numerous terrorist attacks by the FARC in attempts to force the government to agree to their terms, and the final incident was the hijacking of a commercial airliner with a Colombian senator aboard (Isacson 2003, 3) During the same time period, the paramilitary AUC had continued to attack guerrillas and civilians and had increased its control of territory as well as the drug trade. The majority of Colombian civilians had become weary of the guerrillas and the lack of progress in the peace process; in the presidential elections in May 2002, Alvaro Uribe Velez was chosen president. As a governor of Antioquea department in the mid-1990s, Uribe supported the formation of paramilitary groups, and he campaigned under the slogan “Firm Hand, Strong Heart!” and promised to defeat the guerrillas (DeRouen and Heo 2005). Fighting escalated dramatically in 2002, although the guerrillas mainly tried to avoid the government and paramilitary offensives and withdrew into terrain or bases along the borders of Venezuela. As it has throughout the conflict, most of the violence has been directed against civilians accused of collaborating with the opposition (Restrepo, Spagat, and Vargas 2006; UCDP 2005) This tactic has been most often used by the paramilitaries, the AUC, and the largest guerrilla group, the FARC. According to the AUC, all labor organizers and human rights workers are considered guerrilla supporters and thus qualify as military targets.

Uribe has increased military spending, and U.S. military support has increased during the past few years, after the Colombian civil war was included in the War on Terror. Uribe’s strategy has been to increase military and police presence throughout Colombia and to try to effect settlements or demobilizations with one armed group at a time.

The first secret contacts between the government and the AUC were reported in November 2002, and the group announced a unilateral cease-fire starting on December 1, a precondition for negotiations, according to the government. In July 2003, representatives of the AUC, the government, and churches signed the Accord of Santa Fe De Ralito to Contribute to Peace in Colombia. The agreement is not strictly a peace agreement, as the AUC did not have any strong political demands of government policy except a general rejection of the guerrilla ideology. By August 2005, some 5,000 paramilitary troops had been demobilized, but the process has been subjected to severe criticism from several commentators. The main objections have focused on the possibilities for AUC members to rejoin their organizations or local units of the armed forces, and the extent of impunity for former human rights violations offered to the paramilitaries (Human Rights Watch 2005 ; Koth 2005). It has also been observed that former paramilitaries remain in de facto control over their territories and are starting to infiltrate local political structures (Jansson 2005). Despite the demobilization process, clashes have continued in 2005 between the FARC and AUC, and there have also been some reports of clashes between different AUC members. The process so far has had limited success in decreasing the violence.

Duration Tactics

The resources available to the guerrillas and the paramilitaries from kidnappings and drug industry have caused analysts to conclude that a military solution of the conflict is almost impossible. These mainly economic resources, combined with the geography, the population’s support of the groups, and the groups’ ability to cross borders into neighboring countries all influence the ability of different groups to keep fighting. Recent estimates suggest that the FARC makes about US $300 million annually from its drug trafficking activity alone—about 60 percent of its income, more than enough to maintain the current level of war (McDermott 2004, 29). It is generally expected that the AUC is receiving similar figures, as the group is more involved in the illegal drug industry and has managed to take control of more drug-producing areas in the past few years. During the expansion of AUC since 1997, the group has been able to offer new recruits higher salaries than Colombia’s gross national income per capita (Human Rights Watch 2005, 19).

External Military Intervention

There has been no official military intervention by foreign troops in the conflict, although the Colombian government has received substantial aid, including military observers, from the United States. The guerrillas have fostered cross-border contacts with insurgent groups in neighboring countries and have been accused of receiving limited support from Venezuela. U.S. involvement in the development of the Colombian armed forces, and especially their counterinsurgency tactics, has been detailed previously. Furthermore, one reason why the conflict escalated in 1978 was U.S. pressure on the Colombian government to act against the growing drug industry (Thoumi 2002). In the two decades that followed, it was the export of drugs that directed U.S. policy toward Colombia. President Ronald Reagan declared a war on drugs in Latin America in 1982 and further enhanced the objective when drug trafficking in 1986 was declared a threat to U.S. national security, thus legitimizing the use of military forces to fight the drug war beyond U.S. borders (McCoy 2003, 443). During the 1980s, support consisted mainly of arms transfers and the training of Colombian military at the School of the Americas (Stokes 2005, 77). By the end of the Cold War, the United States had decided to step up the drug war. An increased five-year plan was offered to the Andean nations in 1990, providing they agreed to use the military forces against drug traffickers, and the United States also began to provide the Colombian army with communications equipment, helicopters, aircraft, and the tactical assistance of Special Operations units (McCoy 2003, 446). No new initiatives were launched during the 1990s, but the United States still supplied the Colombian military wth arms worth more than $60 million annually (Stokes 2005, 89). As negotiations began between the guerrillas and the government in 1998, the United States was preparing another initiative against the Colombian drug industry. In 2000, the United States launched Plan Colombia, which consisted of an $860 million aid package to be used against drug producers rather than guerrillas. The plan included some drug eradication measures but mainly consisted of more military resources and additional advisors (McCoy 2003, 449; Stokes 2005, 93). At first, the U.S. resources allocated to Plan Colombia were not intended for fighting the insurgents; but reports suggested that the Colombian military ignored that aspect. After the United States launched the global War on Terror in 2001, the original plan has been substantially revised (Taylor 2005). The AUC, the ELN, and the FARC were all listed as terrorist organizations by the United States; Plan Colombia has received additional funding since 2002, and the emphasis has shifted from counternarcotics to counterinsurgency (McCoy 2003, 449). The most recent aid package, called the Andean Regional Initiative, has largely financed the government offensives since 2002, when Colombia became the third-largest recipient of U.S. military aid in the world (Stokes 2005, 5, 106-107).

Conflict Management Efforts

In Colombia, negotiation attempts have been launched following popular movements for peace rather than as a result of outside intervention. During the latest negotiations (1998-2002), several international initiatives were formed to support the peace process after negotiations had begun. Regardless, two concerted efforts have been made to end the war peacefully, and attempts to make the armed groups stop their fighting have been partially successful.

The first peace initiative grew out of the failure of the repressive policies to defeat the insurgencies in the late 1970s. As a consequence of the dirty war, the government was criticized internationally; sympathy for the guerrilla struggle, if not support for it, spread among the Colombian population. All candidates in the 1982 presidential election campaigned on the issue of peace, and the most powerful guerrillas at the time, the FARC and the M-19, were planning to continue their struggle as political parties (Pearce 1990, 174-175). The administration of Belisario Betancur (1982-1986) started by setting up a broad peace commission and offering unconditional amnesty to all political prisoners. After two years of negotiations, the FARC signed a cease-fire and started organizing a left-wing political party, the Unión Patriótica, which was officially launched in April 1985 and consisted of former guerrillas and Communist Party sympathizers (ACEU 2004, 9; Rabasa and Chalk 2001). Some FARC members were critical of the peace process, and groups such as ELN that rejected the negotiations or demanded more government concessions (such as M-19) gained increased support. The main reason for the failure of UP to become a viable option for left-wing policies was a campaign of political assassinations launched by paramilitaries supported by wealthy landowners, church officials, and factions of the army (Pearce 1990). Several thousand UP members were killed in 1985-1993 in an upsurge of violence that eventually contributed to paramilitaries being declared illegal in 1989 and the return to fighting by FARC in 1987 (Pearce 1990, 281).

Three months after the FARC cease-fire in 1984, another agreement was signed with the M-19, the EPL, and a smaller guerrilla group called Autodefensa Obrera (Workers Self-Defense [ADO]). The “armed truce” did not hold for long, but negotiations continued, and the M-19 was actively trying to build up its political support by organizing public demonstrations and setting up offices in urban slums (Pearce 1990). In May 1985, the army launched an attack on the M-19 headquarters in Calí, and the M-19 officially declared that it considered the truce to be over. In November of the same year, M-19 counterattacked with a spectacular operation, a takeover by forty-one rebels of the Palace of Justice in Bogotá (Carrigan 1993). The military response using rocket grenades and tanks was broadcast on Colombian television and seemed to symbolize the definitive end of the peace process.

The M-19 had become severely weakened after the Palace of Justice incident, and after President Virgilio Barco (1986-1990) introduced socioeconomic changes and a reform of the Constitution, the organization became a political party on November 29, 1989 (Boudon 2001, 75; Pearce 1990, 218, 229). A few months before the M-19 signed the peace agreement, the group applied to become a legal paramilitary militia and to keep their arms, which further accelerated the process of making paramilitaries illegal (Zárate-Laun 2001). Negotiations with M-19 had been ongoing for a year and a half, and the apparent success of the process led to renewed talks with the FARC, the EPL, and several smaller groups; even the ELN agreed to—temporarily—stop blowing up oil pipelines (Pearce 1990, 285). Throughout the negotiations, paramilitary organizations continued to attack the guerrillas, and when the military launched offensives against FARC- and ELN-controlled territories in 1990-1991, the talks were interrupted. However, the EPL signed a peace agreement in January 1991, and so did several smaller guerrilla groups such as Quentín Lamé and the Partido Revolucionario de los Trabajadores (Revolutionary Workers Party [PRT]), who all joined the new political party Alianza Democrática M-19 (Boudon 2001, 75).

The partial success of the peace process and the violent excesses of the paramilitaries against civilians and the UP created strong public opinion in favor of renewed negotiations. A citizens group managed to gather 10 million signatures in a campaign propagating a “Mandate for Peace” in 1997, and the presidential elections the following year focused mainly on the possibilities for renewed talks (García-Durán 2004). To facilitate negotiations, the government established a 42,000-square-kilometer Zona de Despeje (demilitarized zone) in November 1998, consisting of five municipalities under FARC control (Rabasa and Chalk 2001, 3). The existence of the FARC zone made it difficult to initiate negotiations with ELN, as they too demanded a demilitarized zone in return for participation in the peace process (Isacson 2003, 9-10). After the process had begun, the parties agreed to some Group of Friends initiatives to help provide good offices. For the negotiations with FARC, the Group of Friends consisted of representatives from twenty-six countries, the secretary general of the United Nations, and the European Commission, whereas the ELN talks were facilitated by representatives from five countries (García-Durán 2004). As the negotiations were making slow progress, several incidents led to increasing suspicion of the other parties’ intentions. The armed forces of Colombia were being modernized as part of the Plan Colombia, the paramilitary forces were becoming increasingly powerful, and the FARC constantly disrupted the process by spectacular attacks to pressure the government to make further concessions. Colombian public opinion became impatient with the process, and in 2002 the talks were abruptly broken off as the conflict escalated.


The Colombian civil war has been fought for the last twenty-five years and counting, but more or less organized violence has plagued the country for more than a century. It is difficult to generalize about how the conflict is experienced in Colombia, as there is no cross-national context of conflict. The grievances concerning unequal income and land distribution and the apparent failure of the political system to administer change, which existed before the conflict began, largely remain; but Colombia has developed into a different country during the course of the conflict. The foundation of the guerrilla movements continues to be control of territory and support in the rural areas, even though the country is 75 percent urbanized (Thoumi 2002). The importance of protecting the income-generating drug, emerald, gold, and kidnapping businesses has influenced the guerrillas’ strategy, and there seems to be some internal disagreement about whether “winning” the conflict is desirable. During the latest attempt of negotiations with the guerrillas, the main obstacle to settling the conflict was the fractionalization within the different parties. Different guerrilla groups, and even different guerrilla fronts, were pursuing different objectives. At the same time, the political establishment and the armed forces of Colombia— with notoriously unclear links to the paramilitaries—were also unable to present a unified front and make credible commitments (Isacson 2003, 23). The current demobilization of the paramilitaries seems to be a positive development, but several question remains unanswered, such as whether the process will simply lead to an official assimilation of the paramilitaries into the armed forces and whether the AUC would remain demobilized if the government managed to open a similar process with the guerrillas. Looking at the history of the Colombian civil war, one must acknowledge that each attempt to resolve the conflict has led to counterinitiatives by groups that would benefit more from cementing the present system or even the armed conflict. Violence and criminality have become lucrative businesses in Colombia, and many actors benefit from the continuing low-intensity warfare and the lack of state presence in parts of the country.

The victims of the conflict in Colombia, as in most civil wars, are the civilian population. Since the main actors in the conflict largely try to avoid open confrontation, the majority of violence is directed toward civilians accused of being informers, collaborators, or sympathizers for the other side. Most soldiers are less concerned with the ideology and politics of their organizations than with the steady source of income the organization can provide. It is a known fact, for example, that several paramilitary fighters have been recruited from the guerrillas by the offer of a higher salary (Human Rights Watch 2005). At the same time, many drug-producing peasants prefer to be on territory controlled by the FARC, for the guerrillas offer a better price than the paramilitaries do (Jansson 2005). Indeed, the Colombian conflict is a labyrinth that has become more and more intricate over time. The best approach to solving the conflict would include all the different actors among the guerrillas, the paramilitaries, and the political establishment in the future peace process. Somewhat ironically, the one thing all actors agree on is that such an approach is not possible.