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, Colombia has lacked national cohesion since its independence in 1810. As a result of the country’s three Andean mountain ranges - which act as natural barriers to integration - and the division of society by class interests, Colombia has historically suffered from a weak state with large areas of territory in which the government is unable to exercise effective control.
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-1960s, 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 on Communist enclaves led to the transformation of the peasant communities into mobile guerrilla groups, especially following the Cuban Revolution of 1959.
By the late 1970s 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).
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 inception, both guerrilla and paramilitary forces have become increasingly involved in criminal activity, including as kidnapping, extortion, bombings, murder, and hijacking, 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 de-legitimisation 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. However, reports of people being paid to falsely present themselves as AUC members suggests that this figure is likely to be unreliable. Importantly, most paramilitary blocs also held on to the majority of their weapons and their 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 (2002-08), President Alvaro Uribe oversaw a massive military assault on the guerrillas that was supported with US funding. This took place through the continuation of the Plan Colombia, that was initiated by Uribe's predecessor, Andrés Pastrana Arango, and the implementation of the Plan Patriota. This tough strategy inflicted significant damage on the rebels, allowing the government to reassert control over large areas of the country, and resulted in a huge increase in Uribe's domestic approval rating.
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 of people killed is disputed. The practice had artificially inflated the apparent success of the government in its fight against the guerrillas by as much as 40% in 2007, and indicates how much violence has become part of Colombian society.
Colombia remains the closest ally of the US 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 guerrillas, 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 means that nothing can be taken for granted, there are high hopes among the population that the current peace process could be the one that finally holds, and brings lasting peace to Colombia.
Last updated: August 2009