Colombia (1964 – first combat deaths)

Ploughshares Americas

 

The Conflict at a Glance

Who (are the main combatants): Historically the Colombian government and military, supported by the United States, have opposed left-wing guerrillas, especially the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN). In 2016, the government and FARC, the largest rebel group, signed a historic peace treaty. However, right-wing paramilitary gangs remain a threat to both parties.

What (started the conflict): In the 1960s, social, political, and economic problems led to conflict between the government and left-wing guerrillas, primarily FARC and ELN. In the 1980s and 1990s wealthy landowners backed right-wing paramilitary groups to fight the guerrillas. During this time, drug cartels also fueled major violence; both guerrillas and paramilitaries profited from the drug trade. All parties committed serious human rights abuses, including executions, bombings, and kidnappings. The government has been accused of extra-judicial killings, including killing civilians and then dressing them in FARC uniforms.

When (has fighting occurred): The conflict began in the 1960s; violence peaked in the 1980s and 1990s. Since 2002, FARC ­­and ELN memberships have declined significantly with loss of popular support. Between 2003 and 2006, the government of President Alvaro Uribe and the United Self-Defence Forces (AUC) negotiated a disarmament deal. With the 2008 process and extradition of its leaders the AUC declined and dissolved into less powerful splinter groups. Since then, the splinter groups have gained traction and become a threat to national security—during recent peace talks between the government and left-wing rebel groups, for example. FARC and the government of President Santos began serious peace negotiations in 2012, which culminated in a historic peace treaty in 2016. Over 220,000 people, approximately 80 per cent civilian, have been killed during the 50-year conflict.

Where (has the conflict taken place): Fighting has taken place in virtually all regions of Colombia. In recent years FARC and the ELN have maintained only a few strongholds, but have waged sporadic attacks and ambushes in various parts of the country.

 

 Summary

2017 Important strides were made in the peace process, although implementation of the 2016 peace deal remained complicated. In June, the United Nations Mission in Colombia certified that more than 7,000 FARC rebels had handed over their weapons and demobilized. By the end of the year, approximately 11,000 former rebels had disarmed. As the handover of weapons and demobilization are key conditions of the peace deal, such actions were promising. Furthermore, the transformation of FARC from an armed group to a political party opened the possibility for FARC to run in 2018 Colombian elections; the Colombian senate approved 10 congressional seats for former FARC members. However, this development was not welcomed by everyone and many citizens felt that FARC rebels were being treated too leniently. The Special Jurisdiction for Peace, a transitional justice mechanism that was to try rebels accused of crimes against humanity, using both restorative justice measures and other forms of sentencing, had yet to be set up. Approximately 800 dissident FARC rebels did not disarm and seemed likely to join drug gangs.

The Colombian government appeared to be making progress in peace talks with the National Liberation Army (ELN) that began in February in Quito, Ecuador. But, ELN violence and kidnappings continued, especially against activists and community leaders putting the talks at risk. In areas previously under FARC control, more than a 100 human rights activists and community leaders were assassinated in 2017. A significant number of those killed were Afro-Colombian or Indigenous.

2016 The Colombian government and FARC took major steps toward peace. President Santos was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October. Shortly after, the two parties signed a historic peace agreement, which was ratified by Congress after revisions to a first draft did not pass a popular referendum. FARC began to lay down arms and form a political party. The ELN also began peace talks with the government, which stalled when, late in the year, ELN bombed the Cano Limon pipeline multiple times. Right-wing paramilitary gangs continued to wage acts of extreme violence. FARC alleged that Los Urabenos (AGC) aimed to disrupt the peace process. Over a two-day period, AGC killed five people, forcing the closure of schools and business over much of the country.

2015 There was a breakthrough in the Colombian peace process following the FARC ceasefire in December 2014. Peace talks were disrupted in April after a FARC attack in the Cauca region. In October FARC and the Colombian government reached a ground-breaking agreement by establishing a “Jurisdiction for Peace” that gave rights to victims and punished those responsible for the most serious crimes. Both President Santos and Timochenko, leader of FARC, stated that the peace agreement would be signed in 2016.

2014 In 2014 Peace talks continued. In June the government and the National Liberation Army (ELN) confirmed that they were engaged in exploratory talks. Government peace negotiations continued with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The Popular Liberation Army (EPL) expressed a desire to join the peace process in July. On December 17 FARC announced an indefinite, unilateral ceasefire. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA) reported that during these peace talks there has been a decrease in mass displacements of people and incidents involving anti-personnel mines and unexploded ordnance, but an increase in threats and infringements on people’s freedom of mobility. The prevalence of paramilitary successor groups and other non-state armed groups continues to threaten the security of civilians; attacks on infrastructure are ongoing, particularly in the city of Buenaventura.

2013 The level of fighting was similar to that of previous years. Peace talks between FARC and the government continued in Cuba throughout the year, culminating in agreements on two points of the six-point peace agenda. On 26 May, an agreement was reached on rural development and on 6 November on political participation. In February, FARC proposed legalization of the cultivation of coca, marijuana and poppy for certain uses. In July, the State Court reinstated the legal status of the leftist political party that is supported by FARC, the Patriotic Union. In August, the Constitutional Court approved the Legal Framework for Peace and set “interpretation parameters” for the prosecution of serious crimes. A “National Agrarian Strike” began in August, while a two-month peasant strike in Catatumbo region ended in an agreement to negotiate. Peace talks with the ELN were discussed, but did not begin in 2013. Concern remained for violence inflicted upon civil society leaders such as land restitution activist Ever Antonio Cordero, who was killed in April.

2012 A new round of peace talks between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the government began in October 2012 in Oslo. This process, together with the FARC declaration of a unilateral ceasefire from November 20, 2012 to January 20, 2013 raised hopes for a resolution to the 50-year conflict. Constitutional reforms granted immunity to many rebels, except those deemed “most responsible” for crimes. The entry into force of the Victims and Land Restitution Law was a step toward returning millions of acres of land stolen from farmers, although as of September no land had been legally returned. Several high-level members of militant groups were arrested or killed, along with major drug traffickers. Approximately 250 people, mostly militants, died in the conflict in 2012.

2011 FARC leader Alfonso Cano was killed in November in a battle with government troops and succeeded by Timoleon Jimenez. In the ongoing “para-politics” scandal, in February the Supreme Court sentenced Mario Uribe Escobar, cousin of former President Alvaro Uribe, to seven years and six months in prison for his dealings with paramilitaries. In April, Colombia, Chile, Mexico and Peru increased economic ties by signing the Pacific Accord. In June, the government enacted the controversial Victims’ Law, which seeks to restore millions of hectares of stolen land to its rightful owners. In the same month, high-profile lands rights activist Ana Fabricia Cordoba was shot dead. In October, despite heightened security during nationwide municipal elections, 41 candidates, including two mayoral candidates, were killed.

2010 The number of internally displaced people rose this year and the number of Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels decreased. In February, the constitutional courts rejected a referendum that would have allowed Alvaro Uribe to run for a third term as president. In June, former defence minister Juan Manuel Santos won the presidential elections, vowing to continue Uribe’s Democratic Security Policy to tackle FARC. Santos put forward a bill that would restore land to internally displaced people and compensate victims who had been abused by state agents. In July, FARC leader Alfonso Cano offered to begin a dialogue with Santos. As a precondition to talks, Santos demanded the release of all hostages. Venezuela broke diplomatic ties with Colombia after Bogotá accused it of harbouring FARC rebels; ties were restored in August. In September, the Colombian army killed FARC top commander Jorge Briceno, also known as Mono Jojoy, in an air strike.

2009 FARC’s ongoing campaign of kidnapping and its assaults on indigenous people led to a backlash from the Colombian population. FARC and ELN continued unity talks, but government officials remained skeptical that an alliance would come about. There were reports of higher numbers of FARC deaths, but the army was also accused of killing civilians and dressing them in FARC uniforms. Colombia prepared for elections in May 2010. The constitutional court declined to rule before January 2010 on a referendum to extend presidential term limits.

2008 Negotiations between FARC and the government continued during 2008. The government rescued high-profile hostage Ingrid Betancourt and 14 other hostages from a FARC encampment in mid-2008. Sporadic fighting between the government and rebels continued during the year, with approximately 70 civilians, rebels and police officers killed. After the deaths of three top FARC officials, ELN and FARC initiated talks to form a guerilla alliance. A Colombian air strike in Ecuador sparked a regional crisis, but by August, relations, although strained, were back to normal. The United States pledged to assist the Colombian government in a campaign against ELN in 2009.

2007 The two main rebel groups, FARC and ENL, continued to fight a brutal turf war, killing more than 100 people and displacing thousands. The Uribe government was mired in scandal with the discovery of links between paramilitary groups and high-ranking government officials. Despite a fifth round of talks between the ENL and the government, prospects for sustainable peace remained poor. FARC released the first video footage of kidnapped 2002 presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt in years. The government claimed the footage proved Betancourt had been tortured and confirmed that three prominent U.S. hostages were still alive.

2006 Levels of violence were down, although periodic attacks and military clashes continued, mainly between FARC and the government, resulting in the deaths of 160 people and the displacement of more than 2,500. President Alvaro Uribe was re-elected to a second term in May. The ENL agreed to a formal peace process, while negotiations for a hostage exchange between FARC and the government collapsed after FARC was blamed for a violent incident. The demobilization of paramilitary fighters continued; early in the year, Uribe declared that the AUC no longer existed. Later in the year Uribe’s government was accused of having connections with paramilitary warlords.

2005 Fighting between FARC and the government escalated after a government offensive was launched early in the year. After four years, the UN ended its mediation efforts between FARC and the government. Umbrella paramilitary group AUC continued to disarm while the Colombian congress approved a demobilization framework with reduced sentences for paramilitaries that voluntarily disarmed. Preliminary talks began in Cuba in advance of 2006 peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the ELN.

2004 Fighting between rebels, paramilitaries and government security forces and attacks on civilian targets continued; estimated conflict deaths were between 3,000 and 4,000, most civilian. FARC gained a new leader, known as Alfonso Cano and U.S. involvement in Colombia increased substantially. Almost 3,000 AUC paramilitaries had demobilized by year’s end; the government established two “safe havens” for other AUC troops awaiting demobilization.

2003 Fighting between rebels and government security forces continued unabated in spite of promising developments, including the initiation of disarmament efforts by the umbrella paramilitary group, the United Self-Defence Forces (AUC). Intensified government counterinsurgency, assisted by U.S. military equipment and training, resulted in the announcement by the two largest rebel groups, FARC and ELN, of their intention to join forces in their fight against the government. As many as 4,000 people, most civilian, were reported killed in the conflict in 2003.

2002 The new government of President Alvaro Uribe was elected in May and vowed to ratchet up its military response to the rebels. The conflict killed approximately 3,500 people, many civilian, this year.

2001 Fighting intensified again in 2001 among all sides of the conflict—government troops, rebel guerrillas and paramilitaries—and combatant and civilian deaths increased to at least 1,400. Analysts suggested an August law, which gave the military sweeping new powers, was behind the spike in violence. Prospects for peace were dim by the end of 2001.

2000 Fighting intensified between government forces and rebels and paramilitaries launched into more civilian killings following U.S. President Bill Clinton’s visit to Colombia in August. An independent group reported 1,200 conflict deaths by the end of the year.

1999 Conflict violence increased. Government forces clashed with rebel groups, but failed to halt—and even supported—the operations of paramilitary groups. Most of the year’s 2,000 to 3,000 conflict deaths were at the hands of non-state agents.

1998 After a July meeting between president-elect Andres Pastrana and FARC and meetings between ELN and Colombian civil leaders in Germany a week later, violence restarted with a major rebel offensive in August. During 1998, between 2,000 and 4,000 people were killed in major clashes between rebels and government troops and by paramilitary attacks on civilians. Estimates of the death toll since 1964 are not available, but as many as 40,000 people died in the fighting and related political violence between 1986 and 1998.

 

Type of Conflict

State control

Parties to the Conflict

1. Colombian Government: The government is currently led by President Juan Manuel Santos. He was elected in August 2010 with the largest majority in a free and fair election in Colombia’s history. Under predecessor Alvaro Uribe (2002-2010), Santos held the position of defence minister. He is also the great-nephew of former president Eduardo Santos (in power 1938 to 1942). The Colombian government comprises three branches – the executive, the legislative, and the judiciary – and functions under the 1991 constitution.

2. Fuerzas Militares de Colombia/Military Forces of Colombia: The Colombian army is responsible for implementing the government’s strategies. However, they have been accused of cooperating with paramilitary groups in carrying out extrajudicial killings.

Formerly fighting against

3. Paramilitary groups: In the 1980s, right-wing paramilitary groups formed to protect landowners from leftist fighters who often extracted “revolutionary taxes” from local populations. Right-wing paramilitaries received some funding and arms from government security forces. To finance their activities, they participated in Colombia’s lucrative drug trade. In 2002, President Alvaro Uribe declared the paramilitaries illegal and attempted to defeat or disarm them.

One such group, Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia/United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), was particularly well-known and labeled a terrorist organization by many countries. Landowners and drug traffickers formed the group in 1997 to respond to other rebel groups. Following the AUC’s 2002 decision to enter into peace talks, several militant factions, such as the Águilas Negras/Black Eagles, splintered off to continue their armed campaign. Carlos Castaño led the AUC until his death in 2004. In April 2006, the government announced that the AUC no longer existed. In 2008, Colombia extradited many of the AUC’s former leaders to the United States.

Supported by

4. The United States: Since 2000, the United States has spent over $1-billion to provide Colombia’s military forces with training, equipment, and intelligence to combat drug traffickers. Ninety per cent of the cocaine in the United States originates in Colombia. In 2009, the U.S. military was approved to use several Colombian air bases to counter drug trafficking and terrorism. The United States strongly supported peace talks with FARC. In early 2016, U.S. President Barack Obama announced Peace Colombia, a new framework for bilateral collaboration. Obama pledged $450-million to aid Colombia in their peace efforts (Human Rights Watch).

Versus

Leftist Guerrilla Groups

5. Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia/Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC): FARC is the oldest and largest of Colombia’s left-wing rebel groups and has traditionally wielded power in southwestern Colombia (Cauca, Narino, and Putumayo departments) and in the northeast (Arauca department). FARC was formed in 1964 to violently overthrow the government and install a Marxist regime. It used the drug trade to raise money to mount an effective response against right-wing paramilitary reprisals in the 1990s. In 2006, an indictment by the U.S. Justice Department stated that FARC generated more than 50 per cent of the world’s cocaine and more than 60 per cent of the cocaine that entered the United States.

In 2004, FARC’s long-time leader Manuel Marulanda was replaced by former head of ideology Guillermo Sáenz, also known as Alfonso Cano. In November 2011, Cano was killed by Colombian military forces and replaced by Timoleon Jimenez. In April 2015, FARC still had approximately 7,000 fighters, many opposed to decisions of senior FARC leadership (Global Security). In 2012, FARC began serious peace talks with the Colombian government. When the talks made good progress, FARC was “suspended” from the European list of terrorist organizations in September 2016 (The City Paper). In November 2016, its momentous peace treaty with the government was approved by Colombia’s Congress (Reuters). In the treaty, FARC agreed to lay down their arms and form a political party.

6. Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional/National Liberation Army (ELN): Formed in 1965, the ELN is a left-wing paramilitary group, inspired by the Cuban Revolution and Marxist ideology. ELN initially stayed out of the drug trade and generated funds through kidnappings and extortion, but has recently engaged in drug trafficking. ELN remains on U.S. and European lists of terrorist organizations. After two years of preliminary discussion between ELN and the government, talks were postponed in December 2016 until the ELN agreed to release a politician that they were holding hostage and the government released two unidentified rebels (Reuters). As of May 2017, ELN was thought to have approximately 1,500 fighters (Al Jazeera).

7. Ejército Popular de Liberación/Popular Liberation Army (EPL):  EPL was one of Colombia’s largest guerrilla groups before it demobilized in 1991. Small factions of EPL are still active in Norte de Santander’s Catatumbo region and are heavily involved in drug trafficking.

Versus

8. Paramilitary criminal gangs (“BACRIM”): Following the government’s demobilization of right-wing paramilitary groups, small factions remained active, reorganizing into new groups known collectively as BACRIM (Human Rights Watch). The government has referred to BACRIM as the new enemy and the biggest threat to Colombia’s security. In addition to the Los Urabenos (AGC), which made headlines in 2016, known groups include the Black Eagles, Erpac, and Rastrojos. These “criminal bands” seek to control the drug trade and engage in extreme violence, but do not have any obvious political agenda. In some areas, authorities believe the BACRIM have joined forces with left-wing militants in drug-trafficking operations, although the new gangs and leftist guerillas have clashed in other areas (BBC). These successors to the paramilitary groups continue to commit widespread human rights abuses (Human Rights Watch). In 2016, President Santos said that he would allocate all of his resources to fighting gangs such as Los Urabenos (Reuters).

 

Status of Fighting

2017 The disarmament of FARC concluded on August 2017; 17 containers of arms had been collected in the previous year. FARC also provided information on the remaining arms caches located in remote regions. This entire process occurred under the supervision of the United Nations, with the Colombian state assuming responsibility for the demobilization and safety of FARC ex-combatants.

Although the Colombian government called on the ELN to end its practice of kidnapping, the kidnappings continued, threatening a potential bilateral ceasefire agreement. In June 2017, two Dutch journalists were kidnapped. Still, in September, the two sides reached a bilateral ceasefire agreement, which started on October 1 and was set to end on January 12, 2018, with the possibility of renewal. On October 5, Colombian security forces killed five farmers and wounded 20 during protests in the southwestern region of Tumaco over the eradication of the coco leaf. The authorities initially suggested that FARC dissidents were responsible for the violence.  

2016 In April, a uniformed criminal gang known as Los Urabenos (AGC), killed five people and forced a two-day closure of many schools and businesses. FARC claimed that Urabenos’ efforts were an attempt to disrupt the peace process in Colombia. Since FARC announced a unilateral ceasefire in June 2015, abuses attributed to them have declined sharply (Human Rights Watch). In September, the government and FARC signed a historic peace agreement that was narrowly defeated in a referendum in October. The government and FARC came up with a revised deal, which Congress approved in November (BBC). Ongoing ELN attacks sabotaged the peace process it had entered into with the government (International Crisis Group). At the end of the year, the ELN bombed the Cano Limon pipeline multiple times, halting crude oil production in late November (Reuters). After several weeks, the pipeline was able to restart production (Reuters). From January to October 2016, there were 91 reported threats against journalists. Eighteen trade unionists were killed between January 2015 and February 2016 (Human Rights Watch).

2015 On March 10, President Santos ordered a 30-day suspension of airstrikes on guerrilla camps, which helped bolster FARC’s unilateral ceasefire (International Crisis Group).The 36th round of government-FARC negotiations began on April 28, despite tensions following a FARC ambush in the Cauca region that killed 11 soldiers and wounded 20 others. President Santos declared the attack to be in violation of FARC’s unilateral ceasefire and announced the resumption of government airstrikes. FARC ended their unilateral ceasefire on May 22, the day after a government air raid left 26 guerrillas dead and 400 civilians displaced (International Crisis Group). By June the violence had escalated to its worst level in years. FARC agreed to a ceasefire on July 20; the government suspending bombing July 25. While overall violence in Colombia was at its lowest level in 50 years, murders of social leaders, union members, and political activists rose 35 per cent in 2015 (Reuters).

2014 Since the start of the peace process, mass displacements and APM/UXO injuries and deaths have declined, while mobility restrictions and threats have increased, according to UN OCHA.  Between July and September, there were 186 reports of aggression, including murders and threats, against human rights activists. Sixty-four attacks on oil infrastructure by guerrilla groups cost the industry $460-million (U.S.) this year, according to El Pais. On July 28 a guerrilla attack blew up an electricity tower in the city of Buenaventura, cutting off power for 450,000 people. UN OCHA reported that countrywide, 1.4-million people faced constraints to movement and barriers in accessing basic services, 84 per cent because of armed actions. Gender-based violence and violence against children, including the recruitment of children into armed groups continued, particularly in remote and rural areas. On December 17 FARC announced an indefinite ceasefire on the condition that the military abstain from an offensive.

2013 The two-month FARC ceasefire, which led to a large decrease in FARC offensives, expired on 20 January. FARC and ELN kidnappings continued during the year and clashes between rebels and government occurred sporadically. In March, President Santos declared that there were fewer than 8,000 FARC fighters and that the government had destroyed a large drug facility that was funding FARC. In April, FARC and ELN announced a plan to cooperate in fighting extractive projects and multinationals in certain regions. A prominent land restitution activist was killed in Córdoba. Four people were killed in June during protests over coca eradication. In August, FARC reportedly killed 14 soldiers; five were killed and 205 injured in violent protests; and Santos announced that he was prepared to begin peace talks with ELN. In September, talks with the ELN were postponed after they kidnapped three pipeline workers. In October, the government launched a large-scale counterinsurgency initiative in the south. Regional leader of New Illegal Armed Group (NIAG) Urabeños surrendered with 17 NIAG members. In December, President Santos stated that the military offensive would continue, after an attack on a police station killed nine and injured 40. FARC proclaimed a 30-day ceasefire, starting 15 December. A yearend report by the Colombian armed forces claimed that they had confiscated 91.4 tons of explosives and 18,000 detonation devices, and captured 3,700 members of FARC, ELN and other criminal groups.

2012 Until the November 20 ceasefire, insurgents attacked almost daily, displacing tens of thousands of people. March was the bloodiest month; FARC attacks killed 11 soldiers and retaliatory attacks killed 69 rebels. In June 2012, the military successfully launched a new counterinsurgency plan against FARC. Despite FARC’s unilateral ceasefire, the government continued operations. Incidents of extrajudicial killings have decreased dramatically since 2009; 539 army members have been successfully prosecuted for these crimes. Kidnapping also has declined significantly since 2000.

2011 FARC leader Alfonso Cano was killed on 4 November by government troops during Operation Odyssey. He was immediately replaced by Timoleon Jimenez (better known as Timochenko). In May, according to Colombian police, FARC guerrillas killed a police officer and three civilians in two attacks in the remote town of Bete, in the department of Choco. In Choco later that month, FARC blockaded the Atrato River, holding as many as 200 civilians hostage for two days. Between January and August, 16 civilians were killed and more than 100 injured by landmines and unexploded devices. In July, FARC set off a car bomb, killing three civilians and injuring more than 100. In October, FARC killed 10 soldiers in a military unit, the worst attack on Colombian forces in 2011. In December, FARC announced that it would release six hostages who had been held captive for over a decade, but would continue to hold 16 soldiers and a police officer. In June, high-profile lands rights activist Ana Fabricia Cordoba was shot dead. In October, despite heightened security during nationwide municipal elections, 41 candidates, including two mayoral candidates in the municipality of Campamento in the Antioquia department, were killed.

2010 In February, 20 people were arrested in several Colombian cities after a two-year anti-drugs investigation supported by U.S. agents. In August, newly elected President Santos said he would only agree to talk with FARC if it released all its hostages. In August and September, FARC killed 30 police officers in attempted kidnappings. In September, the number of FARC attacks increased. On 23 September, the Colombian army killed FARC top commander Jorge Briceno, also known as Mono Jojoy, and 20 other FARC rebels in an air strike. In October, the Colombian army killed three children, one of whom was raped; a bicycle bomb exploded, killing four soldiers and three civilians; and the Colombian army killed two FARC commanders near Tame. According to Amnesty International, paramilitaries continued to threaten the civilian population.

2009 An army crackdown resulted in a disproportionate number of rebel deaths in 2009. FARC’s continued campaign of kidnapping and assaults on indigenous people created a backlash among the Colombian population. Rebels resorted to bombings and small ambushes in urban areas to avoid direct confrontation with the army. FARC and ELN continued unification talks. FARC held 22 hostages for a prisoner swap and 700 for extortion purposes. FARC released six hostages in early 2009 in what it called an act of goodwill.

2008 Approximately 70 people were killed in armed clashes involving FARC, the government and ELN. People were killed in an uprising of farmers and indigenous people and in FARC attacks on civilians. FARC commander Raul Reyes and another high-profile FARC commander were killed. ELN approached FARC with a proposal to unite.

2007 Fighting between FARC and ELN during the year caused more than 100 civilian deaths and the displacement of thousands. Despite a fifth round of peace talks with the government, ELN continued to wage a brutal turf war with FARC over control of key cocaine export channels. Local community leader Yolanda Izquierda was murdered by gunmen. Reports from the Uribe government that violence was beginning to subside were met with skepticism.

2006 The Colombian army engaged in periodic fighting with leftist guerrilla groups, primarily FARC. Conflict erupted between FARC and ELN. The year saw more than 150 conflict deaths, hundreds of kidnappings and the displacement of more than 2,500 people.

2005 Heavy fighting between FARC and government forces included both large clashes and guerrilla-style attacks. Colombian forces also fought with paramilitary forces, despite ongoing disarmament talks. Bombings and kidnappings in urban and rural areas continued.

2004 Government clashes with rebel groups and paramilitaries, fighting between paramilitaries and rebels and attacks on civilians killed hundreds of combatants and civilians. FARC rebel attacks on coca fields caused significant civilian casualties, including 34 in one incident. Signs that the intensity of violence was declining included an off-and-on ceasefire by United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC).

2003 Fighting among FARC and ELN, government security forces and paramilitaries remained intense for much of the year. Most violence was attributed to rebels, primarily FARC. In addition to clashing with government security forces and paramilitary fighters, rebels stepped up their attacks against political figures. Thousands of civilians were killed in 2003, many from more than a dozen bombings across the country. Meanwhile, peace talks between paramilitary umbrella group AUC and the government reduced violence to a degree. But the conflict threatened to expand beyond Colombia’s borders after an attack by the Venezuelan air force on paramilitaries operating along the shared border strained Colombia-Venezuela relations. Major rebel groups and paramilitaries continued to use child soldiers.

2002 Fighting between the government, the paramilitaries, and rebel groups remained intense. The new government of Alvaro Uribe stepped up its security efforts in an attempt to end the civil war through military force, a move which sparked reprisal attacks by rebel groups and paramilitaries.

“President Alvaro Uribe’s government plans to arm 15,000 peasants to support the armed forces in the fight against outlawed rebel and paramilitary groups, Colombia’s defense minister said yesterday,” [boston.com, August 23, 2002]

“Guerillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, broadened a wide-ranging offensive with attacks in the north and south of the country.” [washingtonpost.com, August 7, 2002]

2001 There was a dramatic increase in the fighting in 2001 between the government, rebel groups, and paramilitaries. In August, the Colombian government enacted a law giving the military sweeping powers over civilian authorities, new powers of detention and the right to establish martial law in certain areas.

2000 Clashes between government forces and rebels intensified following U.S. President Bill Clinton’s visit to Colombia in August. Fierce fighting was reported in southern Colombia, where 50 per cent of the country’s coca is produced and which is increasingly a target of U.S. counter-narcotics operations. Paramilitary groups attacked civilians suspected of being sympathetic to the left-wing guerrillas.

1999 Government forces clashed with rebel groups, but failed to halt—and even supported—the operations of paramilitary groups responsible for civilian massacres. Across the country, civilians were kidnapped and executed by paramilitary and guerrilla groups as violence increased.

1998 A secret July meeting between president-elect Andrés Pastrana and FARC, and meetings between ELN and Colombian civil leaders in Germany a week later raised hopes for peace negotiations. But hopes were dashed in August by a major rebel offensive against government troops and paramilitary attacks on civilians.

 

Number of Dead and Displaced

Total: In 2017, Colombia’s Victim’s Unit indicated that approximately 268,000 people have been killed in Colombia’s conflict since 1985 (Amnesty International). It also reported more than 7 million people forcefully displaced, 46,000 forcible disappearances, 30,000 cases of hostage-taking, over 10,000 torture victims, and 10,800 injuries due to anti-personnel mines and unexploded ordnance (Amnesty International). The CIA reported 6.3 million displaced persons (CIA Factbook).

Death tolls were highest after the 1980s, when paramilitary groups emerged. Between 1996 and 2005, someone was kidnapped every eight hours on average and someone was hurt or killed by an anti-personnel mine every day in Colombia. In 2005, Colombia overtook Cambodia as the country with the highest land-mine casualty rate. In 2006, landmines killed 1,000 civilians.

At the end of 2017, 7.7 million Colombians had been displaced over the period that began in 1985 (Human Rights Watch).

2017 According to the UN, more than 100 human rights activists and community leaders were killed in 2017 by hitmen, most in former rebel-controlled regions (The Guardian). According to Human Rights Watch, more than 48,000 people were displaced between January and November. Although the number had decreased since 2015, displacement continued to be a problem in certain areas (Human Rights Watch).

2016 In 2016, the conflict displaced approximately 35,000 Colombians, a significant decrease from the 2015 figure of 140,000 (Human Rights Watch). Landmines and unexploded ordinances killed three and injured 19 civilians between January and October (Human Rights Watch). Community activists and human rights defenders continue to be threatened and targeted by paramilitaries and approximately 75 were killed this year (Amnesty International).

2015 According to the International Crisis Watch Database, approximately 78 people were killed as the result of the conflict, the majority soldiers and police (International Crisis Group). With the resumption of peace talks, the number of casualties decreased. In January Colombia had more than 5.7-million internally displaced persons; by June the number was 6.5-million (UNHCR). FARC’s unilateral ceasefire followed a government air raid that displaced 400 residents in Guapi (Cauca) (International Crisis Group).

2014 UN OCHA reported that between January and June 2014, there were 188 victims of APM/UXO accidents, bringing the total number of victims to 1,179. One person was killed and more than 60 injured in a January 16 FARC attack in Predera, Valle. In retaliation, the military killed 27 FARC militants and captured 21. A bomb attack on February 25 killed four and injured 10 in Quibdó, Chocó. On November 5 FARC killed two guards in Cauca. In December FARC killed five soldiers and captured one in Cauca. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Colombia reported that between January and September, 40 human rights activists had been murdered.

Refugees and IDPs: Human Rights Watch warned of critical population displacement after more than 13,000 residents of the port city of Buenaventura were forced from their homes in 2013 by threats and violence by paramilitary successor groups.  Official reports indicate that armed violence caused the countrywide displacement of 566,435 individuals between 2012 and October 2014. UN OCHA reported that between 2012 and June 2014, 56 per cent of the total population in Colombia had experienced displacement. Indigenous and Afro-Colombian citizens, who make up 13 per cent of the population, suffered disproportionally. In July 2014 there were 5,700,381 internally displaced persons in Colombia, as well as 397,079 refugees and 16,118 asylum seekers originating from Colombia, according to UNHCR.

2013 At least 100 people were killed and 300 wounded as the result of armed conflict. In August, violent protests resulted in approximately 250 civilian injuries and five deaths. At least 26 members of FARC and ELN, including a number of commanders, were killed during the year. More than 66 government troops died in fighting, including 15 in July, at which point President Santos ordered the army “not to stop shooting” until the conflict was over.

Refugees: Between three and five million people are registered as internally displaced persons (IDPs), with more than 100,000 newly displaced each year. Unregistered IDPs would add to this number. The majority of displaced people are rural, indigenous, or of African descent.

2012 Armed conflict resulted in approximately 244 deaths, including 17 civilians, 123 militants and 61 security forces. At least 12 trade unionists were killed in 2012, down from 30 in 2011. Twenty-five civilians were killed by landmines in the first half of 2012.

2011 It is estimated that between 130 and 155 people were killed in the conflict this year. Further estimates indicate that FARC killed between 10 and 20 civilians, between 40 and 50 security forces and 10 police officers. Forty-one electoral candidates were killed during nationwide municipal elections. Human Rights Watch indicated that 30 trade unionists were killed. Sixteen civilians were killed by landmines and improvised explosive devices. Dozens of police and soldiers were killed in clashes with FARC and other rebel forces, including 10 in an attack on a Colombian military camp.

2010 Between 100 and 115 people, including approximately 50 civilians, were reportedly killed this year in conflict-related incidents. The army killed an estimated 23 FARC rebels, including top commander Jorge Briceno, and was accused of killing three children. FARC killed an estimated 30 police officers and five others during attempted kidnappings. Paramilitaries killed three people. According to Human Rights Watch, 51 trade union activists and five human rights activists were killed. A bomb placed on a bicycle killed three soldiers and four civilians. According to the United Nations Human Rights Council, by mid-2010, Colombia had 3.4 million internally displaced people and the highest rate of internal displacement in the world.

2009 There were approximately 221 conflict-related deaths, including 27 Awa indigenous people massacred by FARC rebels in February. The number of FARC deaths was unclear, as the army was accused of killing civilians and dressing them in FARC uniforms.

2008 There were approximately 70 conflict-related deaths.

2007 More than 100 people, many civilians caught in the turf war between FARC and ELN, were killed in the conflict. Seen as one of the most pressing issues facing Colombia, landmines killed more than 1,000 civilians.

2006 One hundred and sixty deaths, 28 civilian, were directly related to the conflict. More than 17,000 people reportedly died violently.

2005 At least 1,000 civilians and combatants were killed, as fighting intensified. Precise numbers were difficult to obtain, but could be two to three times higher.

2004 According to the U.S. State Department, between 3,000 and 4,000 people were killed in 2004. Because much of the fighting took place in remote regions and many deaths were unreported, exact numbers are not known.

2003 As many as 4,000 people were killed in the conflict. Because much of the fighting took place in remote regions and it is not possible to know how many of the 22,000 homicides relate directly to the conflict, precise numbers are unknown. Thousands of people were abducted for ransom, many by rebel groups seeking to fund their activities.

2002 An estimated 3,500 were killed this year, many civilian.

2001 More than 2,500 people died in the conflict. Numbers of civilian deaths range from 1,400 for the year to more than 9,000 for the first two-thirds of the year. In December, the Colombian military issued a report stating that it had killed 1,000 rebels and 100 paramilitaries in 2001; civilians were not mentioned.

2000 According to the Colombian Commission of Jurists, 1,200 people were killed, most by paramilitaries.

1999 There were between 2,000 and 3,000 political and extrajudicial killings.

1998 Between 2,000 and 4,000 people were killed.

 

 

Political Developments

2017 In February 2017, the Colombian government and the ELN held peace talks in Quito, Ecuador. Both parties agreed to a ceasefire from October 2017 to January 2018, and the ELN agreed to stop the recruitment of child soldiers and the use of landmines. As part of the 2016 peace accord, FARC promised to release its remaining child combatants and those who were recruited when they were under 18. In September, FARC presented itself as a new political party and looked to run in 2018 Colombian elections. The 2016 peace accord guaranteed the newly rebranded political party 10 seats in the Colombian Congress until 2026. Despite their name change from Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) to Fuerza Alternativa Revolucionara del Común (Common Alternative Revolutionary Force), the infamous FARC acronym remained.

2016 In January, the UN Security Council established a mission with a tripartite mechanism—the UN, the Colombian government, and FARC—to monitor and confirm a bilateral ceasefire and termination of hostilities (Human Rights Watch). In May, the government and FARC agreed on the release of child soldiers from rebel custody, beginning with the immediate release of children under 15 and developing an exit plan for remaining minors up to 18 years of age (New York Times). On June 23, the government of Colombia and FARC signed a bilateral ceasefire agreement in Cuba (Amnesty International). By September, FARC had released 13 teenagers and apologized for kidnapping thousands of people to fund its half-century conflict (Reuters). Santos acknowledged the state’s responsibility in killing thousands of members of a leftist political party 30 years ago and pledged to prevent such assassinations from occurring again. He promised to guarantee former rebels’ safety after they laid down their arms. On September 27, Colombia signed a peace treaty with FARC, but the agreement was narrowly rejected by voters in a referendum (BBC). In early October, President Santos won the Nobel Peace Prize (Amnesty International). On November 13, the government and FARC reached a new peace agreement, which was approved by Congress on November 30. This began the six-month period during which FARC members must lay down their arms and form a political party (Reuters). In the 2016 peace accord, the government pledged to provide support to help demobilize child soldiers, provide psychological counselling, and reintegrate them into society (Reuters). The peace agreement also created a Special Jurisdiction for Peace to legally try those responsible for gross human rights violations (Human Rights Watch).

In March, the National Liberation Army (ELN) announced that it would begin negotiations with the government (New York Times). In December, talks were postponed for a month when the parties were unable to agree to a prisoner swap (Reuters). By June, the Attorney General’s Office had investigated more than 3,600 alleged misattributed killings by security officials between 2002 and 2008, and convicted more than 800 state agents, most low-level officers (Human Rights Watch). On October 26, Colombia’s Defence Minister, Luis Carlos Villegas, announced that the armed forces would begin air raids on gangs involved in drug trafficking and illegal mining (Reuters).

2015 President Santos stated that Colombia was on track to meet the deadline to end the conflict by early 2016. The agreement signed with FARC rebels included reparations and justice for victims (BBC). Negotiations were briefly put on hold following an April 14 FARC ambush in the Cauca region. The government reached a key de-escalation agreement with FARC on July 13. FARC agreed to a one-month unilateral ceasefire and the government committed to curtailing its efforts against guerrillas for the first time since peace talks began in 2012 (Economic Times). In October FARC and the government reached a breakthrough agreement on transitional justice by establishing a “Jurisdiction for Peace” that included court trials for those accused of committing serious crimes during the conflict. President Santos and FARC leader Timochenko agreed that the final peace agreement would be signed by spring 2016 (International Crisis Group). In November the government and FARC agreed to implement humanitarian measures to locate displaced victims of the conflict. In December, FARC promised to stop recruiting soldiers and purchasing weapons. FARC and the government agreed to launch a truth commission. Congress also approved a government-supported bill to ratify the peace agreement by plebiscite. “In July, ‘femicide’ – the murder of a woman because of her gender – was made illegal in the country to prevent and prosecute gender-based violence” (HRW). Gender-based violence has been a major issue in the conflict, “as more than 214 girls have been subjected to rape, forced sterilization, forced abortion, and other forms of sexual violence at the hands of guerillas” (HRW).

2014 Government peace talks with FARC continued. On June 10 it was confirmed that the government and the ELN had been engaged in exploratory talks since January. On July 25 EPL asked to join the peace process. President Juan Manuel Santos, a supporter of the peace process, was re-elected on August 7. In June the government and FARC agreed to create a truth commission to examine the deaths and human rights violations that took place during the conflict. In August a working group was organized to facilitate the end of conflict. The points set for negotiations included the permanent end of hostilities, the disarmament and reintegration of FARC into society, and security assurances. The government and FARC further agreed to put an end to the illegal drug trade once peace had returned. The Historical Commission on the Armed Conflict and its Victims, mandated to examine the origins and reasons for the conflict, was established in August.

2013 Peace talks in Cuba between FARC and the Colombian government reached agreement on two of the six points in the peace agenda. On 26 May, the two parties announced an agreement on rural development, which dealt with land use and access, rural development programs, health and education for rural poor, and food security and improved nutrition. The deal will create a land bank to redistribute farmland; offer loans, technical and marketing assistance to farmers; and provide legal and police protection. In July, the State Court reinstated the legal status of FARC’s political party, the Patriotic Union, which was lost in 2002 when the Patriotic Union failed to present candidates for election. On 6 November, an agreement was reached on political participation and negotiations moved on to the third point on the peace agenda: illegal drugs. FARC presented 10 “minimum proposals” for drug policy in December, before talks concluded for the year.

In February, FARC proposed legalization of the cultivation of coca, marijuana and poppy for certain uses. In August, the Constitutional Court approved the Legal Framework for Peace and set “interpretation parameters” for the prosecution of serious crimes. A “National Agrarian Strike” also began in August, while a two-month peasant strike in Catatumbo region ended in an agreement to negotiate. Peace talks with the ELN were discussed, but not begin in 2013. Violence directed at civil society leaders, such as land restitution activist Ever Antonio Cordero, who was killed in April, remained a concern.

2012 Each year of the conflict more than 100,000 people were displaced and subsequently lost their land. In January, the Victims and Land Restitution Law came into effect and could bring justice to four million victims. FARC proposals in early 2012 to revive peace talks were rejected by a wary government. In February, FARC announced plans to release military and police hostages and cease kidnappings for ransom. By early April, kidnappings had stopped, although civilian hostages were retained. The first round of peace talks between FARC and the Colombia government in more than a decade began in Oslo, Norway in October. Items for discussion included agrarian development, political participation, ending the conflict, deescalating illegal drug trafficking, victim restitution, and peace plan implementation and monitoring. FARC declared a two-month ceasefire from 20 November 2012 to 20 January 2013. In December it was reported that FARC attacks had dropped 70 per cent since the beginning of the ceasefire. The government implemented a ‘Truth Commission’ and made constitutional reforms that permitted the use of judicial and non-judicial tools in the peace process and granted immunity to many perpetrators of abuses, except those deemed “most responsible.” The government also opened up the possibility of limited political participation for demobilized fighters.

2011 On 1 January, Colombia began a two-year term as a non-permanent member of the Security Council. Part of the ongoing “para-politics” scandal, Mario Uribe Escobar, the cousin of former President Alvaro Uribe, was sentenced by the Supreme Court to seven years and six months in prison in February for his dealings with paramilitaries. Escobar was arrested in 2010 after being accused of garnering the support of paramilitaries for his senatorial election run in 2002. Since 2007 more than 120 former Congress members have been investigated for their ties to paramilitaries and 40 have been convicted. In April, Colombia, Chile, Mexico and Peru signed the Pacific Accord, which creates an integrated market to compete against larger economies and trade groups. In June, the government enacted the Victims’ Law, designed to restore millions of hectares of stolen land to the rightful owners. Analysts say enacting the controversial law will be extremely expensive and could take a decade. In October, an estimated 130,000 candidates vied for 13,000 positions in nationwide municipal elections, including governors, mayors, assemblymen and council members. To secure the safety of the candidates and an estimated 30 million voters, President Santos deployed 300,000 troops across the country.

2010 In February, the constitutional courts rejected a referendum that would have allowed President Uribe to run for a third term. Juan Manuel Santos won the presidential elections, promising to pursue the Democratic Security Policy, including tackling the drug trade and the FARC, put in place by Uribe. The Santos government vowed to address the plight of the three to four million internally displaced people by giving priority to land issues and displacement. In July, Venezuela broke diplomatic ties with Colombia after Bogotá accused it of harbouring FARC rebels; diplomatic ties were restored in August. In October, Colombia adopted the Convention on Enforced Disappearances, which states that no one is to be subjected to forced disappearances and acts considered crimes against humanity as defined under international law. Also in October, Spanish police arrested 41 people for allegedly financing FARC with money laundered from drug trafficking. Santos introduced draft legislation that would return land to displaced people.

2009 Colombia prepared for May 2010 elections. The constitutional court said it would not rule on whether to hold a referendum to extend presidential term limits until January 2010. President Uribe did not indicate if he would run again if the limits were extended. FARC freed governor Alan Jara, held by the rebel group for eight years, in an act of “goodwill.”

2008 Colombia launched an air strike on FARC rebels in Ecuador, sparking a regional crisis. Ecuador immediately expelled Colombia’s ambassador and mobilized its forces on the border. Regional leftist leaders, including Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez, led the charge to break diplomatic ties with U.S.-backed Colombia. President Uribe apologized for the strikes in Ecuador, defusing tensions. Tensions again rose when computer files of dead FARC commander Raul Reyes (killed in the cross-border attack) appeared to show links between Venezuela and FARC. In July, the Colombian army rescued high-profile hostage Ingrid Betancourt and 14 others, dealing a blow to FARC. In response to the 2007 “para-politics” scandal, in which high-ranking political officials were linked to various paramilitary groups, 29 political officers were detained and 38 remained under investigation by the end of 2008. The government dismissed two generals and 24 soldiers suspected of killing 11 civilians and dressing their bodies in FARC uniforms to inflate the number of rebel deaths. The incident led to the resignation of the army’s commander. The attorney-general investigated more than 1,550 cases of extrajudicial killings by the army. The year was marked by protests. A 45-day strike by judicial workers halted legal proceedings. A petition to change the constitution to allow Uribe to run for a third term was launched. Parliament took preliminary steps to allow Uribe to run for a third term in 2014, after four years away from the presidency.

2007 The government was mired in scandal when a computer seized from a high-ranking paramilitary leader revealed that many top-ranking officials of the Uribe government had links to paramilitary groups. A fifth round of peace talks between the government and the ELN resulted in a temporary ceasefire, but Peace Commissioner Luis Carlos Restrepo stated that a ceasefire would take place only when the ELN ended its campaign. The government released 56 FARC rebels into demobilization programs in a “goodwill gesture” by President Uribe, who was seeking the release of prominent hostages being held by the group. Near the end of the year, FARC released video footage of French-Colombian hostage Ingrid Betancourt and three other prominent U.S. hostages. The video was the first footage of Betancourt released in years.

2006 President Alvaro Uribe was elected to a second term in May. In 2006, 17,560 paramilitary fighters were disarmed, bringing the total demobilized since 2003 to more than 32,000. The Uribe administration announced that AUC had officially ceased to exist and the demobilization process came to a close, raising concerns that without peace talks these demobilized groups would transform into gangs. Uribe held peace talks with the ELN prior to his re-election in May, and later in the year ELN commander Antonio Gracia declared that he was in favour of an amnesty agreement for imprisoned rebels. The ELN agreed to move toward full-fledged peace negotiations. A prisoner-hostage exchange between the government and FARC was called off after a car-bomb explosion. Accusations surfaced that Uribe and other political elites had connections to paramilitary groups that were responsible for attacking guerillas and killing civilians.

2005 Demobilization of AUC fighters continued after Colombia’s congress passed a law that reduced sentences to paramilitaries in exchange for disarmament; Colombian civil society and international rights groups condemned the action. FARC held 60 hostages, including foreign citizens, in a prisoner-hostage exchange deal. The government began preliminary talks on peace negotiations with ELN after Francisco Galan, one of ELN’s top commanders, was temporarily released from prison. The United Nations suspended efforts at mediation between FARC and the Colombian government. Colombia’s constitutional court lifted the limit on presidential terms, clearing the way for President Alvaro Uribe to run for re-election in May 2006.

2004 The AUC demobilized nearly 3,000 troops by yearend in the latest step to full demobilization by the end of 2005. The government established two safe havens to be used by AUC soldiers prior to demobilization. FARC’s long-time leader Manuel Marulanry, presumed dead or dying of cancer, was replaced by Guillermo Saenz, known as Alfanso Cano. Ricardo Palmera, the public face of FARC during recent failed peace negotiations, was captured and sentenced to 35 years. Luis Ospina, head of a unit of FARC suicide bombers, was captured. The government continued peace negotiations with the AUC and ELN; no progress was made with FARC. The United States significantly increased its commitment to Colombia, doubling its troops and boosting aid. The Colombian government signed a deal with Brazil and Peru to combat arms and drug smuggling across their borders. According to the government, the number of kidnappings dropped in 2004 as a result of hard-line policies. With three million people internally displaced, Colombia boasted the world’s third-worst refugee crisis. Reports of mass rapes of women in Colombia emerged in 2004.

2003 Paramilitary umbrella group United Self Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) began negotiations with the government, leading to the disarmament of almost 1,000 paramilitary fighters by yearend—the first stage to full disarmament of AUC fighters by the end of 2005. Several paramilitary groups refused to adhere to a ceasefire before the rebels were defeated; the amnesty granted to disarmed fighters, some of whom had committed grave human rights violations, drew heavy criticism. The two main rebel groups, FARC and ELN, united forces against the government. In response, President Alvaro Uribe intensified counterinsurgency operations.

2002 In February, the government broke off peace talks with ELN. In May, Alvaro Uribe replaced Andrés Pastrana as president, promising a new security strategy to defeat rebel forces and paramilitaries. The Uribe government enacted emergency legislation to increase military spending by $210-million (U.S.) and create a network of civilian informants, some of them armed. The United States branded AUC, ELN and FARC terrorist groups, increased military aid to Colombia, and agreed for the first time to allow this aid to be used directly against rebel groups. In December, the AUC and a number of other paramilitary groups agreed to a unilateral ceasefire.

2001 Government attempts at peace negotiations with Colombia’s largest rebel group, FARC, failed. Negotiations with the second-largest rebel group, ELN, ended in August, with the rebels refusing to negotiate with Colombia’s President Andrés Pastrana. Under Plan Colombia, the United States gave Colombia $256-million (U.S.), mostly to purchase military equipment.

2000 FARC formed a political party in March—the Bolivarian Movement. In June, the United States approved $1.3-billion (U.S.) in aid to Colombia; the package included 60 helicopters and training for three anti-narcotic battalions.

1999 In October in the town of La Uribe in southeastern Colombia, the government and FARC officially launched peace talks based on a 12-point agenda. By yearend, no significant progress had been made.

1998 Early in the year, a guerrilla group and the main paramilitary alliance signalled a willingness to begin talks with the government. In June, rebel leaders held a brief meeting with President Andrés Pastrana at a secret location. By yearend there was no decrease in fighting, nor did rebels or paramilitaries appear willing to engage in direct talks.

 

Background

Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, Colombian politics was dominated by the Liberal and Conservative parties. Both included fiercely loyal factions made up of peasant and elite members. In the early 20th century, communist labour and agrarian reform movements developed alongside the Liberal Party, and by the 1940s they had produced a leading Liberal presidential candidate, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán. The assassination of Gaitán in 1948 triggered rioting in Bogotá and uprisings throughout the country, marking the beginning of La Violencia, a conflict between Liberal and Conservative supporters that killed an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 people over the next 10 years.

In 1958, elite members of the two major parties implemented a power-sharing agreement. This arrangement, called the National Front, mandated that the parties share the presidency in alternating four-year terms and distributed all other public positions evenly between the parties.

During the years of the National Front (1958 to 1974), poverty increased, particularly in rural areas. In the mid-1960s, the struggle of peasants to acquire land, their sense of being excluded from the “limited democracy” of the partisan power-sharing of the National Front, and the influence of Cuban revolutionaries added fuel to peasant insurgencies. Increasingly centralized, armed self-defence movements, such as Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), the Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional (ELN), the Ejercito Popular de Liberacion and others, took control of wide areas of the country, taxing the population and establishing schools, health care and other social services.

Beginning in the 1970s, Colombian drug traffickers, who had previously dealt mainly in marijuana, became increasingly involved in transshipping and processing cocaine from other parts of South America, dominating the trade by the end of the decade. Rebel groups such as FARC took advantage of the opportunity to increase troop strength and acquire new weapons by levying taxes on coca grown in the areas they controlled. But this partnership eroded as wealthy narco-traffickers were increasingly targeted for kidnapping by guerrillas to provide an additional source of income. In response, the drug cartels created paramilitary groups to protect themselves.

In the 1980s, the Colombian drug trade came to be dominated by a small number of large, highly centralized drug cartels, the most prominent based in Cali and Medellin. Drug lords became immensely influential, even in political circles; for example, Medellin boss Pablo Escobar was elected to the Colombian congress. Their influence over the nation’s politics culminated in “narco-democracy” under President Ernesto Samper, whose election was supported largely by drug lords.

In the 1990s, as coca plantings were eradicated in Peru and Bolivia, cultivation expanded radically in Colombia. The countryside was transformed as thousands of small farmers, hard hit by falling coffee prices, began to grow the lucrative illicit crop. Meanwhile, narco-trafficking became increasingly intertwined with Colombian armed groups, particularly leftist guerrillas and rightist paramilitaries. This linked drug trafficking to the international arms trade, further fueling Colombia’s violent conflict.

During the 1990s, Colombia was one of the most violent places on earth, with 3,500 kidnappings a year. Drug cartel leaders killed three presidential candidates during the 1990 election campaign. In 1991, a new constitution was created, which led to the development of the constitutional court and the human rights ombudsman. After Colombian security forces killed Medellin cartel leader Pablo Escobar in 1993, several smaller trafficking organizations were formed. By 1998, neither the Medellin nor the Cali—the two major drug cartels—existed.

President Andres Pastrana Arango launched peace talks with the guerrillas in 1998. To secure their cooperation, he offered FARC a safe haven in the southeast. However, the rebels continued their attacks while seizing towns. In 1999, Plan Colombia began with over $1-billion (U.S.) in aid from the United States. It was designed to end Colombia’s conflict by eliminating drug trafficking and promoting other economic and social development strategies. Because the vast majority of cocaine arriving in the United States had come from Colombia the United States was interested in fighting Colombian drug gangs and curtailing coca production. Pastrana implemented the plan in 2001.

In 2011 under President Juan Manuel Santos, Colombia began to focus its foreign policy on Asia, as well as repairing ties with Latin American neighbours. In 2012, the president and FARC began negotiating a peace deal, which significantly lowered violence and casualty rates. Peace negotiations continued in 2015, culminating in a historic peace treaty in September 2016.

Arms Sources

Colombia is home to Latin America’s largest arms-trafficking network, which fuels the battle between paramilitaries, left-wing guerrillas and citizens. Small arms take sea routes to Central America and are then carried through Panama, the largest single transit hub for Colombian weapons. According to the UN, the use of weapons in Colombia strictly controlled and regulated by the state and illegal groups. Since the flow of illegal weapons into Colombia is limited, weapons are recycled internally and used efficiently. FARC was producing its own 9 mm submachine guns, which resemble the U.S.-produced Intratec 9. Often weapons are exchanged for drugs. Gun violence incurs health expenses of $40-million (U.S.) a year.

According to an Ecuadorean army general, the FARC seized explosives, weapons, and ammunition from a secret Ecuadorean arms factory close to the Colombian border after peace talks began in late 2012. Ecuador has long been accused of collaborating with FARC and is believed to be one of their largest weapons suppliers. The Ministry of Defence reported that its security forces seized 38,236 illegally trafficked weapons in 2013, including 16,466 revolvers and 9,940 shotguns (United Nations Office on Drugs and CrimeCountry Fact Sheets: Summary Data From Country Responses on Fire Arms Seizures and Trafficking, 14).

Between 2003 and 2006, the Colombian government implemented a demobilization process for the 37 armed groups in the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) paramilitary umbrella group. The government claimed to have demobilized 30,000 people and eliminated the paramilitaries; however, successor groups were estimated to include between 4,000 and 10,200 members.

Colombia allocated the greatest percentage of its national income to defence of any country in Latin America. In 2011, Colombia’s military expenditure was $5.63-billion or 1.72 per cent of GDP. This figure had grown to $13.1-billion in 2014, including spending on domestic police forces, but declined to $9.84-billion in 2015 (The Military Balance, 2016, 389). In 2012, almost 60 per cent of U.S. aid to Colombia ($244-million of $482-million) went to the military and police. Yet this was a significant reduction from the approximately $600-million per year sent by the United States from 2003 to 2007.

In 2013, 61 per cent of Colombia’s arms imports came from the United States, 22 per cent from Germany, and seven per cent from Spain. Colombia also imported weapons from Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Finland, and Israel, and was expanding its domestic defence industry. In early 2016, U.S. President Barack Obama announced “Peace Colombia”: a framework for bilateral collaboration to support peace efforts in Colombia. Obama pledged $450-million for the 2017 fiscal year to Colombia to aid in peacekeeping initiatives (Human Rights Watch). Colombia expressed a desire to join NATO.

Although FARC disarmed in 2017, Colombian authorities remained concerned that the arms factories used by the rebels would be seized by dissidents.

 

Economic Factors

Economic inequality in Colombia is among the highest in the region; in 2012, the top 10 per cent of the population held 42 per cent of national household income, while the bottom 10 per cent possessed just 1.1 per cent (CIA World Factbook). The disparity between impoverished peasants and land-owning elite is a factor in the duration of the conflict, which has, in turn further entrenched poverty (World Bank, Colombia Policy Notes: Towards Sustainable Peace, Poverty Eradication and Shared Prosperity, 3). In 2015, Colombia’s unemployment rate was declining, reaching a record low of 8.9 per cent (World Bank). In recent years, the Colombian economy has been relatively healthy. Colombia’s GDP grew by 4.9 per cent in 2013, 4.6 per cent in 2014, and 3.1 per cent in 2015 (World Bank).

Over the last 25 years, landowners lost seven million hectares in various conflicts, primarily with rebel forces. In 2011, a controversial law was established to restore millions of hectares of stolen land to an estimated four million victims. The Victims’ Law was expected to take up to a decade to implement; by June 2013, it had ordered restitution in just one per cent of the 43,000 land claims. By July of that year, only one family had returned to live on their land as a result of the Victims’ Law. By August 2014, less than 30,000 ha of land belonging to peasant farmers and 50,000 ha of indigenous land had been ordered returned. During 2013 peace negotiations, President Santos and FARC agreed to create a land bank to redistribute farmland, offer loans, provide technical and marketing assistance to farmers, and provide legal and police protection. By 2016, courts had issued rulings in only 4,100 of 93,000 claims (Human Rights Watch).

The conflict has been funded and sustained by the illegal sale of cocaine and crude oil. The government’s reliance on oil exports to finance its war against insurgents has led to rebel attacks on oil pipelines. FARC attacks forced the periodic shutdown of one pipeline in 2008. The ELN continued attacks into 2016, bombing the Cano Limon pipeline multiple times and causing the shutdown of oil production at the oil field for weeks (Reuters). Paramilitaries have siphoned up to 7,000 barrels a day from pipelines, selling the oil at below-market prices.

Both paramilitary and rebel groups have supported themselves through the drug trade. At the end of 2008, President Alvaro Uribe announced the failure of the U.S. “Plan Colombia” to reduce coca production. However, subsequent government efforts resulted in some success. The White House Office of the National Drug Control Policy estimated that pure cocaine production dropped from 700 to 195 metric tons from 2001 peak production to 2011. In 2012, in accordance with the Policy of Territorial Consolidation, the government spent nearly $250-million to inhibit coca cultivation and advance development, especially in Nariño, Antioquia, Putumayo, Huila, and Cauca departments. Land used to cultivate coca decreased from 64,000 hectares (ha) in 2011 to 48,000 ha by the end of 2012.

But rebel groups found other ways to fund themselves. FARC taxed every piece of machinery entering its territory, earning about $240,000 a month (Stanford University). Rebel groups participated in the mining boom in Colombia and neighbouring Peru, selling gold instead of drugs. In August 2015, FARC earned an estimated five times as much from gold as it did from cocaine (Stanford University). Rivalry over mining resources has resulted in heightened violence between some armed groups.

Between 2000 and 2016, Colombia received $150 billion in foreign direct investment. There was some reason for optimism about future economic development following the peace deal with FARC, with foreign companies eager to invest. However, local referendums against foreign investment, most notably in the mining and oil sectors, led to a 3 per cent decline in FDI between January and September 2017. According to the CIA World Factbook, falling global oil prices and insurgent attacks in Colombia contributed to an economic slowdown in 2017.

 

map: CIA Factbook

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