In Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ a defining characteristic of the town of Macondo is its isolation; from generation to generation, the isolation of its inhabitants results in all sorts of feelings and reactions. The theme is one very familiar for Colombians, for whom the absence of the state has been a long-running concern, an absence which has contributed to the forming of numerous illegal armed groups. On a regional level, Colombia’s political isolation is well-known, particularly tensions with Venezuela and Ecuador.

As Colombia approaches its 200th anniversary of independence, Colombians are naturally minded to assess the capacity of their state to govern at this milestone. In particular, strong opinions have been expressed about the continuing ability of the state to maintain the rule of law and provide social welfare to its citizens across the whole breadth of the territory of Colombia. The scale of drug-trafficking, and its impact on society and politics as a whole, remains a serious concern.

The current administration of Alvaro Uribe has sought to strengthen the state largely through a security policy and strengthening the military, particularly in remote areas of the country. This policy has included notable military successes against the FARC guerrillas, notably killing of one of their leading commanders (Raul Reyes) and the rescue of the hostage Ingrid Betancourt after 7 years. Uribe’s ensuing popularity won him re-election in 2006. A topic of much debate is where the constitution will be changed to allow him to stand once more in this year’s elections. (The Colombian constitution, which had previously barred re-election, was changed in 2006 to allow him to stand once more, and would need a further change to allow a third term).

Though the hardline policies of Uribe have won him many supporters, he has faced consistent criticisms from human rights groups and political opponents over his strengthening of the military and also alleged links to paramilitary organisations. The most damaging allegations came in with the 'False Positives' scandal in 2008, in which high-ranking officers and soldiers were involved in the murder civilians, who were passed off as rebels by members of the armed forces. This involves many cases of missing people cases, with families denouncing the authority’s claims that their dead people did not belong to any illegal armed group.

Civil society has played a vital role in maintaining vigilance on Colombia’s increasingly-militarised state; for example, Ideas Para La Paz produce a monthly bulletin on the conflict in Colombia, as well as many other articles, and it was a report by the Coordinación Colombia-Europa-Estados Unidos (CCEEU), an alliance of civil society organisations, that submitted a report on hundreds of missing people in the ‘False Positives’ scandal.

Despite the severity of these allegations, many Colombians continue to back a ‘mano dura’ (hardline) military strategy on the part of the government. After 200 years of independence, will this strategy succeed in bringing long-term peace to Colombia? Ideas Para La Paz warn us against thinking there will be any easy solutions:

"Colombia’s armed conflict stands out due to its complexity: illegal armed groups or alliances among them, with different origins and structures, operate throughout the country, surrounded by organised crime networks. The split trend within every group is strong and their characteristics change as the geography does. Any effort for peacebuilding in Colombia has to start by understanding this complexity."

Daniel Pardo, Insight on Conflict. February 2010.