Colombian conflict humbly explained in a rather simplified fashion
Many countries and places come with some reputation. For some reason, in many cases, it’s often not the best one. For instance, Amsterdam, which was once home to many world’s famous painters, is not exactly a popular destination because of its exceptional museums and galleries. Similarly, the English stag-doers don’t visit Prague to commemorate Franz Kafka, nor they’re interested in the city’s beautiful architecture.
But when it comes to Colombia, reputation takes things to another level. I mean that Netflix hasn’t exactly picked Gabriel García Márquez‘ 100 Years of Solitude to base their series on, because they have decided to cash in on a mass-murdering Nacro baron instead. Just ask yourself: What comes to your mind when you hear the word Colombia?
What defines Colombia?
That is a complex question to answer. Is it one of the best writers who ever lived? Or is it his cultural and ethical nemesis from the popular Netflix show mentioned above? Things are not black and white. This beautiful country is not only about cocaine, kidnappings and narco-barons as quite a few people tend to think. On the contrary, Colombia is mainly about beautiful and diverse nature, it’s about salsa and coffee or endless colours and fruits, it’s about its friendly people, the Andes, two oceans and vibrant history.
A rich and vibrant history that has witnessed numerous pre-Columbian civilisations, a successful independence movement with the birth of Gran Colombia, a massive state that included today’s Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Panama and parts of Peru as well as Brazil. A history where numerous cultures mixed to form a unique Colombian identity as we know it today.
Unfortunately, a significant part of Colombia’s history is also scarred with numerous conflicts, among which, the most infamous is the longest-running Civil War in the world, that’s known as El Conflicto, which gets us to the subject of this post. Upon my visit, I’ve realised that many travellers, including myself, were not exactly well informed about the tragedy the locals went through in recent history so I’ve decided to make a humble attempt to describe at least the basic facts and events of what went on during the Colombian conflict in the country in the last 1/2 century.
Please note that this is not intended to be an academic text – and despite a massive simplification, which must be applied in order to describe events that took place over 52 years in one text – it won’t be exactly a short read. With that in mind, here’s my humble attempt to offer at least the very basic understanding of such complicated and continuous tragedy.
El Conflicto in numbers
Between 1958 and 2013, the conflict has claimed as many as 220 000 lives (177 307 civilians and 40 787 combatants) and a further 25 000 disappeared. Furthermore, it forced 5.7 million people to flee their homes, generating the world’s second-largest population of internally displaced people.
Among the displaced population, there were as many as 2.3 million children and they were the luckier ones because according to UNICEF, as many as 45 000 children were killed. In total, one in three of the 7.6 million registered victims of the conflict are children.
Now please take a moment
and let those staggering horrible numbers sink in
So how did things get this far?
If we were to look back in order to find out what sparked such a bloody and long-lasting conflict, we’d have to first look at a wider historical context and the consequent economic setup, where many locals found themselves at the very wrong end of wealth distribution. First, it was the Spanish Crown that was taking most of their resources away and not long after gaining independence, they’ve begun to feel the greed of their new leaders and landowners.
You might be thinking that this would be the case for quite a few Latin American countries. Well, to a large extent it’s true, after all the victorious revolutionary blood inherited from the successful independence campaigns in the region, in combination with this massive ongoing inequality ignited many left-wing movements all around the region. However, in Colombia’s case, we’re talking about a significantly large gap between rich and poor, in fact, we’re talking about one of the largest inequality gaps in the whole world.
In practical terms, for the poorest classes in Colombia, we’re talking about the very basics such as access to drinking water, medical services or elementary education, most people in Europe, even the poor ones take for granted. So if we go back in time, to mid 19th century, way before El Conflicto shed first blood, we’re talking about very highly flammable or let’s say explosive social situation in Colombian society.
A critical historical event proved to be an 1848 assassination of a socialist presidential hopeful Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, which triggered a bloody civil conflict (La Violencia) between the Conservative and Liberal political parties. After 10 years of fighting, which took staggering 200 000 lives, the rivals agreed on a power-sharing peace deal that brought La Violencia to an end.
This conflict and its aftermath however gave birth to several other organised groups that begun calling for a fairer distribution of wealth as well as lands. The former rivals from the Conservative and Liberal parties however decided to exclude these new groups from their peace agreement. As a result of that, the more radical left-wing groups resolved to an armed uprising against the government.
Consequentially, numerous anti-communist paramilitary groups and crime syndicates decided to join the fight as well, only to make the already bad situation even more complicated and dirty. And here we have El Conflicto, the longest-running Civil War in the whole world ):
El Conflicto however, was never a simple three-way fight of government vs the left-wing guerillas vs the right paramilitaries. It was a set of multiple overlapping and interconnected conflicts involving more than 25 guerilla, paramilitary and crime syndicate groups, all of which were guilty of numerous atrocities and war crimes nationwide or regionally only. Furthermore, some of those groups worked together for a while and turned against each other the next moment.
If you think that there were regions held by certain rebel groups that maintained some sort of order and policing within, you are not far from the truth. The same groups were however not always able to hold the same areas and the new “rulers” would ruthlessly punish those who somehow cooperated or were forced to cooperate with the previous “rulers” hard. Just a brief look at the map of Colombia would give one an idea of where the conflict areas were as the existing infrastructure gives away a large clue about where the government was present.
For example, the Caribbean coast, a few hours drive southwest of Cartagena would have been taken over from guerillas by paramilitary groups, which were often blamed to be doing the dirty work for the government, allegedly covering nearly 80% of political murders in the country. It was (is*) a dirty mess full of civilian, journalist and political murders, while over the years, the power and greed kept gaining points against the original clash of ideologies.
Who was involved in El Conflicto then?
I’ve decided to list all of the combatant groups I could find here because written down it illustrates how crazy this conflict really was (is*). From the names, one can sometimes see what they were fighting for, especially in the 60s, at least before their ideologies got corrupted by greed. So except the official Colombian forces, the following are the involved parties:
- United Self-Defenders of Colombia (AUC: 1997-2008)
- American Anticommunist Alliance (AAA: 78-99)
- Death to Kidnappers (MAS: 81-90s)
- Special vigilance and private security services (CONVIVIR: 94-07)
- Peasant Self-Defenders of Córdoba and Urabá (ACCU: 64-09)
- The Black Eagles (06-16)
- Los Paisas (08-14)
- Los Rastrojos (04-16)
- Los Tangueros (83-90s)
- Libertadores del Vichada (10-17)
- Bloque Meta (10-17)
- ERPAC (64-10)
- Clan del Golfo (still active)
- Oficina de Envigado (still active)
- Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC: 64-17)
- Popular Liberation Army (EPL: 67-91)
- Indigenous Revolutionary Armed Forces of the Pacific (FARIP:
- People’s Revolutionary Army (ERP: 85-07)
- Simón Bolívar Guerrilla Coordinating Board (CGSB: 87-90)
- 19th of April Movement (M-19: 64-90)
- Peasant Student Workers Movement (MOEC: 64-99)
- Quintin Lame Armed Movement (MAQL: 64-91)
- The Ernesto Rojas Commandos (ERC: 64-92)
- Guevarista Revolutionary Army (ERG: 64-08)
- Workers Revolutionary Party of Colombia (PRT: 64-91)
- National Liberation Army (ELN: 1964-??)
- FARC dissidents (2016-??)
The biggest guerilla players were the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. FARC was mainly composed of various peasant self-defence groups and militant communists, while their smaller left-wing rivals National Liberation Army (ELN) were mainly students, Catholic radicals and left-wing intellectuals. Those two major groups both claimed to represent the rural poor against Colombia’s wealthy classes.
As for the paramilitaries, those were originally organised by the Colombian military following the documented recommendations made by US military advisers. Various organisations such as AAA (American Anticommunist Alliance) or Death to Kidnappers (MAS) were formed, the latter for example by various bodies such as members of the infamous Medellín Cartel, the Colombian military, the U.S.-based corporation Texas Petroleum, small industrialists, and wealthy cattle ranchers.
United Self-Defenders of Colombia (AUC) could be called a big player in the latter stages of the conflict. Many of the right-wing paramilitaries were however just crime syndicates fighting for their own (and sometimes also Uribe‘s government) interests only, especially when the big money from the cocaine trade started to flow in, which naturally made the already bad situation much worse.
In the 80s, a new powerful “player” emerged on the scene and it was the cocaine trade. Cocaine arrived with a blast, generating such huge profits that it altered the cause of previously ideological conflict towards a profit-based Mafia war as it introduced the already troubled Colombia to many powerful crime syndicates, including the Netflix-promoted mass-murdering evil people (I refuse to drop his name here).
While the left-wing groups first opposed cocaine as being “anti-revolutionary”, later they joined the game and the whole thing has pretty much switched from “fighting for the poor” to fighting for the cocaine-trade territories and influences. For example, it was estimated that just FARC was making between $500 million and $600 million annually from the drug trade.
And that’s just a fraction of how much money cocaine produces. It’s just crazy. For illustration, I’ll just leave you with a little hint to use your imagination: A street value of a higher quality gram of this drug in Europe almost doubles the price you’d pay for a gram of gold. Isn’t that crazy? I mean – it’s just a plant – it’s not a rare mineral…
The whole cocaine trade craze is another complex problem because it generates so much money (for instance, a significant portion of Miami is pretty much built on cocaine money) that it creates many extremely wealthy and powerful criminals. The reasonable solution is presenting itself quite clearly. Decriminalisation and the consequent taxation of the trade would take away all the profits and therefore the power and influence away from those criminals but…
…but things are not as simple. For example, Nixon‘s War on Drugs, which’s been going on since the 70s is also a money machine, while it can be hardly called a success because the drug trade is still here as powerful as it was in the 70s. Just as well as the drug trade, the War on Drugs also generates massive profits that go into the pockets of private contractors, running the private prisons and so on.
FYI, the US spends $51 billion annually on these initiatives and this excludes the private security companies trade or the private prisons. That’s however a whole different story and it takes us off the topic. I will therefore only mention one more fact to illustrate the size of this ugly scam on the American taxpayers: There is someone arrested in the USA for drug possession every 25 seconds, so imagine the cost and the consequent private contractors’ profits, the taxpayer covers here.
In conclusion to this “subplot”, the drug cartels need the War on Drugs because the legalisation would eliminate their profits, while the War on Drugs and their private prison stepbrothers obviously need drugs to advocate its huge bill. If you throw the corruption in – some of which it’s now called “lobby” – it’s a pure and very dark mess.
Just imagine if the whole profit both sides of this conflict produce was split into education, green policies and health services instead…
Back to Colombia: Recent developments and 2016: FARC peace deal
1990: Colombian government began negotiations with several smaller guerrilla movements. The first guerrilla group to demobilize in exchange for blanket amnesty was M-19, arguably the most respected – or let’s say the last ideological – guerilla group in the country, followed by Popular Liberation Army and Quintin Lame Armed Movement.
2002: Álvaro Uribe wins the presidential election based on a campaign to take a hard-line stance against the remaining guerrillas. Uribe delivered the promise by bringing a large offensive against FARC, dwarfing their ranks from about 20 000 combatants down to an estimated 8 000.
2008: A tremendous “false positives” scandal of extrajudicial army killings of thousands of civilians in order to get large bonuses or holidays for killing the alleged guerillas hit the press.
2010: Uribe‘s defence minister Juan Manuel Santos is elected president. With the coordination of the Norwegian People’s Aid, UN and Cuban Government his government begins negotiations with FARC leaders.
2016: After nearly 6 years of complicated negotiations, in 2016 Colombian government signs a deal to end the conflict.
The 2016 peace deal
The historical agreement proved to be a massive success, especially when considering the fact that except few temporary ceasefires, the negotiations were taking place in the midst of many bloody incidents between the government and FARC. In addition to that, during the 2014 presidential elections, Uribe‘s party (Centro Democrático) called for a hard-line military solution instead of a peace agreement.
The consequent political divide resulted in the loss of the peace plebiscite (referendum) President Santos called to ratify the deal by the general public. Santos’ peace deal lost by 0,4% to Uribe‘s NO side. After all, not many families in Colombia were not direct victims of the conflict so Uribe‘s calls for hard-line military solution were heard easily.
However, the renegotiated deal, enriched by certain cosmetic changes was approved by pragmatic parliament in a fast and proactive mode. After its signing, armed conflict-related fatalities in Colombia dropped from about 3000 to less than 80 annually at the time. Juan Manuel Santos received a Nobel Prize for Peace.
An interesting fact was the increased positive role that women play in talks. In 2013, at the National Summit of Women and Peace, nearly 500 women from across Colombia gathered in Bogotá to demand inclusion in the peace process. Santos heard the call and included the ladies in the talks while offering them greater decision-making powers on behalf of the Colombian government.
With the talks advancing, the role of women grew and in 2014, the delegations of survivors of the conflict addressed negotiating parties, 60% of whom were women. This was the first time that women negotiating on both sides may meet with women affected by conflict.
The deal itself is too complex to explain here in detail but the government granted “the broadest possible amnesty” to the FARC fighters in return for their demobilisation and testimonies. Crimes that were not eligible for amnesty or pardon were submitted to the special court (JEP). There were numerous sanctions, including financial and penal punishments. Furthermore, to learn how to live in peace, there were also various repatriations and victim programmes as well as integration programmes for former combatants put in place.
Access to universal education, access to drinking water and various subsidies were also part of the deal. Furthermore, a crop-substitution programme was designed to decrease the amount of coca grown in the country. Another major issue was to deal with was the power vacuum created in the areas previously held by FARC forces.
Further political developments
2018: Uribe‘s Democratic Centre Party candidate Iván Duque Márquez is elected president.
Uribe Duque begins to revisit the agreement from the legal perspective, calling the punishments “too lenient” as well as by cutting the funds for some of the above-mentioned programmes.
While the punishments for the most violent criminals from FARC is an emotional card to play in the election because it is understandable that many victims felt cheated when people who murdered their families were released from prison after 7-8 years. However, the practical implications of revisiting the deal however come with negative consequences for the long-term future of Colombia.
One of such consequences is that the lives of many former combatants turned from bad to worse and as a result, many of them are turning back to what they know the best. Currently, it is estimated as many as 3-5 thousand fighters returned to the old business, either joining various crime syndicates or the remaining guerilla groups.*
Following the election, the crop-substitution programme was cancelled, plus various victim programmes and subsidies were paused. Furthermore, the officials who were meant to manage the process of revitalisation never arrived in numerous rural areas. Turning back to growing coca became the only way to survive for many farmers.
Yes, the plan was very ambitious and delivering such massive developments of previously forgotten rural areas was never to be easy, nor it was going to be cheap. The drop in oil prices, the major source of financing such huge projects also didn’t help. According to the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, currently, only about 25% of nearly 600 provisions off the deal were carried out. The remaining promises are apparently in a “state of minimal implementation” or had not yet even been touched.
As for the power vacuum created by FARC’s demobilisation, there are now many previously FARC-held areas where the government hasn’t arrived in force, creating lawless places other armed groups took advantage of. The results are again working against the long-term implementation of the peace deal.
Except for the executions of the former FARC combatants, there are also attacks on activists as well as journalists, all running high, in hundreds): Such actions and no-actions of
Uribe ‘s Duque‘s government are a reason why many, Colombians believe that their country is slowly sliding backwards. Are the 52 Years of Solitude over yet?
2021: Caused by the ongoing policies of President’s Duque‘s government regarding the marginalised communities in Colombia in combination with the pandemic-related restrictions, the country has been experiencing escalating violence that emerged from the peaceful protests against Duque‘s plan to raise taxes. In the first three weeks alone, it is reported that 47 people have died and hundreds got injured, according to officials. Local and international human rights organisations have blamed the police for the killings.
*El Conflicto now. Who keeps fighting?
“New” FARC. Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia was originally the largest rebel force in Colombia and apparently, nearly 10% of the active FARC forces (approximately 1000 fighters) rejected the peace process and continue their activities.
ELN. Following the 2016 peace deal with FARC, the National Liberation Army are now the biggest ‘rebel army’, with an estimated force of 3000 active personnel. ELN’s official ideology is often described as “Catholic Communism”, however like all current armed rebel groups in the country, they are also accused of being drug traffickers.
EPL. The majority of the Popular Liberation Army ranks demobilized in the early 90s, but like in the case of FARC, a number of fighters decided to continue the fight. The EPL likes to be considered a Maoist group that disagreed with the Soviet line, needless to say, that they are also accused of being a criminal organisation. Their current strength is estimated to be in the low hundreds.
FARIP. The Indigenous Revolutionary Armed Forces of the Pacific are a guerrilla group formed by indigenous people in the rural areas of Colombia. Its original purpose was apparently more of a (left-leaning) protection force for the indigenous ethnic minority, rather than a revolutionary group. It is estimated that FARIP only has a few hundred active fighters.
Clan De Golfo. For many, the clan is only a drug trafficking gang, with some right-wing paramilitary group signs that stepped up right into a massive power vacuum created by the exit of FARC. It is estimated that their force is around 3000 fighters. Update, October 2021: With a $5m bounty on his head, the leader of the powerful clan, was seized in a raid by military and police.
Except those, there are numerous crime syndicates and other bodies holding power in certain areas of the country, mainly in the Pacific region and Darién Gap which turned to be one of the darkest places on Earth right now.
So while the largest rebel groups from the Colombian conflict are non-existent now and the 52 years of solitude appears to be over, the Civil War itself is not over yet, although the scale of the atrocities committed nowadays are now smaller.
It is true that the general conditions improved for many Colombians but the numbers are indicating that the policies of the current government are not exactly helping the long-term future of the country, especially when not addressing the trends of rising combatant’s ranks as well as not hearing the calls for help and protection from rural Colombians.
Murders of human rights activists are on the rise, the tensions have been slowly rising and recently, Colombians appear like that they have had enough of this government’s policies and the 2019 national strikes or the 2021 bloody protests following
Uribe‘s Duque‘s announcement to raise the taxes only confirm that ):
© Credits: Visual materials by other authors have been used in this article. There is no attempt to breach to ownership other authors' intellectual property. This article is not monetized and the images by Jesús Abad Colorado,Bogota Archives, Princeton as well as the clip from Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979) are used for illustrational purposes only.