The Colombian armed conflict was for a long time the world’s longest running active civil war. It officially began in 1964 with the creation of two guerrilla movements, but the violence had begun long before. After numerous failed attempts, in 2012 a successful peace process was initiated between the Colombian government and the FARC with a final agreement signed in November 2016. Talks between the Colombian government and a second guerrilla organisation, the ELN, are ongoing in 2018.
The armed conflict in Colombia officially began in 1964 with the formation of two separate guerrilla groups, the FARC and the ELN. The violence in Colombia however had started long before. After a number of civil wars between Colombian elites in the second half of the 19th Century, the murder of the anti-establishment Liberal Party presidential candidate, Jorge Gaitan, in 1948 initiated a decade of violence which became known as la Violencia. During this period more than 200,000 Colombians, principally peasant farmers, were killed.
Although it had begun as a popular uprising, la Violencia was being orchestrated by the Liberal and Conservative landowning elite to further their own political and economic interests and in 1958 the two parties came to an agreement to bring an end to the fighting. The agreement ensured the exclusion of all other political parties from the political system.
In the context of ongoing violence during the 1950s peasant farmers began to organise themselves in a series of self-protected and self-maintained areas in the south of the country. The landowning elite however sought to continue their expansion and pressured the government for action against these zones derogatively referred to as “independent republics”. In 1964, Operation Marquetalia was launched against the principal autonomous zone of the same name. When the troops were finally able to enter the village after intense battle, the fighters were long gone. They had redesigned their strategy and began to fight as a guerrilla army. In 1966 this guerrilla army would officially become the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
In the same year as the Colombian Army was launching its attack in Marquetalia, a group of students who had been inspired by the Cuban Revolution and the revolutionary philosophy of Che Guevara returned from Cuba and formed the Army of National Liberation (ELN). In 1965 it launched its first attack in Simacota where it distributed a leaflet, the Simacota Manifesto, which called on ‘conservative and liberal masses to join together to defeat the oligarchy of both parties’.
Whilst paramilitary-type structures were first used by the Conservative Party in the 1950s during La Violencia, the origins of the modern day paramilitaries emerged in the 1980s. These groups saw the coming together of large landholders and business leaders, drug cartels, and the Colombian Army with the objectives of advancing economic interests and combating the threat posed by the different guerrilla groups. From the outset the paramilitary structures enjoyed deep rooted support from the Colombian state and targeted much of their violence against political activists.
In 1997 the disparate but overlapping paramilitary groups united into one national structure called the Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC). This period was the most intense in terms of human rights abuses as the paramilitaries expanded across the country.
In 2002 Álvaro Uribe became president on the back of a campaign promising a hard-line approach against the guerrillas and with the blessing of the paramilitaries. He introduced his trademark Democratic Security policy which led to both an intensified militarisation of the country and a spike in human rights abuses. A 2005 demobilisation process saw the paramilitary structures reorganise into new disparate groups.
The Colombian armed conflict was a direct result of a deep rooted social and political conflict. In spite of huge natural wealth, a large number of Colombians live in poverty. This poverty is particularly concentrated in rural areas. Whilst 30% live below the poverty line in urban Colombia, this number rises to 65% in rural regions. Colombia is as a result one of the most unequal countries in the world.
Throughout Colombia’s history the opportunities for this social inequality to be addressed through the political system has been obstructed by systematic political violence. Opposition parties, progressive political movements, and community activists have been targeted in order to protect the political and economic status quo. Guerrilla organisations emerged in response to this situation and the armed conflict was therefore a direct result of an unanswered social and political conflict.
Colombian State – Represented by the Colombian Army and Police. Received close to $10 billion in predominantly military aid from the United States as part of Plan Colombia introduced in the year 2000. Total troops close to 450,000.
Paramilitaries – Created in the 1980s by a combination of landowners and business leaders, drug cartels, and the Colombian Army. Has largely operated with the support of the Colombian state. Estimated to be in the region of 8,000 belonging to paramilitary groups.
FARC – Created in 1964 after peasant communities were attacked by the Colombian military and with involvement at the time from the Colombian Communist Party. Has sought the political and social transformation of Colombia as its principal objective. Demobilised and transformed into a legal political party in 2017.
ELN – Created in 1964 by students inspired by the Cuban Revolution. Has been strongly influenced by Guevarista ideology and Liberation theology with the search for social justice and political equality fundamental to its existence. Entered into ongoing peace talks in 2017.