by William Camacaro National Co-Coordinator for Alliance for Global Justice
Anher Ordonez International Political Studies Pepperdine University
The armed conflict in Colombia was one of the longest-running conflicts of the
Twentieth Century and continues on some level even today. The conflict was marked by a high
level of activity on the part of irregular armed groups, and tied to a variety of other social
problems, including land and indigenous issues 1. The conflict decimated Colombia’s economy,
and spawned the rise of Colombia’s problematic yet lucrative drug trade. The resolution of the
armed conflict was for many years sought through the implementation of the peace deal, yet
when this peace deal was finally implemented in 2016 the violence directed against civil society
leaders did not cease. With the upcoming elections taking place in May of this year, concerns
over the possibility of electoral fraud and political disruption taking place are at an alarming
high. The conflict in Colombia was historically sparked by a clash between the Liberals led by
Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, who had a moderate pro-worker agenda, and the Right, which was
determined to defend traditional oligarchic interests. The Liberals were on course to win the
elections and take over the government. The right wing sectors of the country saw these
developments as a threat to their interests.
Gaitan was assassinated on April 9, 1948, leading to a massive rebellion known as El
Bogotazo, which was followed by a ten-year period of civil war known as La Violencia that
included the military dictatorship of Gustavo Rojas Pinilla that was marked by the widespread
repression of rural communities, labor leaders, and political opposition. In this period leftist
groups began emerging to fill the void left by Gaitan’s assassination. However, the repression
did not end with the removal of Rojas Pinilla from power in 1958. In fact, in the period
following, the Pentagon sent the Yarborough Commission to Colombia, which advised the
Colombian government to organize paramilitaries and organize campaigns of “terror” in
unilateral assaults against peasant autonomous zones. The Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de
Colombia were formed from militias organized to defend these zones after a particularly large
assault on the Marquetalia area in 1964.
The Left in Colombia had traditionally enjoyed support from the Peasantry and industrial
workers, and had already participated in a rebellion that had been ruthlessly crushed. Other rebel
groups such as the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN), launched their own guerilla wars
hoping to emulate the Cuban Revolution, while the Ejército Popular de Liberación (EPL) took
inspiration from Maoism. The violence would ramp up in the following decades, affecting the
entire country across social lines.
What had originally been a low-intensity conflict in the countryside sparked by calls
for greater equality and land reform was thrown into further chaos around the 1980s. The siege
on the Palace of Justice carried out by the 19th of April Movement(M-19) exposed how
volatile the situation was in the country. Two new factors were introduced into the conflict
that tore up the established dichotomy.
The first of these factors was the rise of far-right paramilitary factions. As the state’s
hold on the country weakened, large landowners began financing armed groups to assume
the bulk of the fighting against the guerillas 2 . The paramilitaries also acted as a vigilante
force, carrying out targeted assassinations against “undesirables”, often targeting the most
vulnerable people in society. Their influence grew so great to the point where the
Colombian state struggled to contain their power. It is also important to point out the
connections that paramilitaries and their patrons had with drug trafficking; much of their
funding came from this elicit business.
For many years the likes of Pablo Escobar projected an image of Colombia as a lawless
country to the outside world. Indeed, the clout that the drug trade had in Colombia was
significant; nearly every aspect of society became permeated with drug cartel influence. The
drug trade added an explosive ingredient to the already toxic civil war; many of the previously
mentioned paramilitary groups became involved with drugs such as cocaine and heroin.
Prominent drug cartels included the Medellin Cartel, the Cali Cartel, and los Rastrojos, a
Mexican cartel responsible for distributing Colombian drugs.
The nature of Colombian politics helps illustrate why it has been so hard for the country
to achieve peace and stability. Electoral fraud has persisted in the country for much of its
modern history. A notable example of this was the 1970 presidential election, where
now-candidate and former dictator Gustavo Rojas Pinilla alleged, with sufficient evidence,
that fraud was committed on behalf of the winning candidate, Misael Pastrana Borrero 3.
More recently, several irregularities were reported in the 2018 election where Ivan Duque
won the presidency versus Gustavo Petro.
The son of Pastrana Borrero, Andres Pastrana, would also go on to become president.
This political dynasty had been entrenched in Colombia for years. The election of the younger
Pastrana came amid suspicion of electoral fraud, reflecting the sameness of the Colombian
political class of yesterday and today. Pastrana would go on to preside over the first attempt at
a peace process from 1998 to 2002, creating demilitarized zones.
These demilitarized zones involved FARC retreating from various parts of the country,
while FARC hoped to secure political legitimacy and a negotiated settlement. FARC also hoped
to address other issues including agrarian reform, drug trafficking, and the presence of right wing
paramilitary groups. These FARC fighters, considered dissidents following the end of the cold
war, were marginalized from society and their activities criminalized. This was part of a global
effort led by the US in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, which undoubtedly influenced
There is little doubt FARC felt uncomfortable with the idea of demobilizing and
becoming targets for violent reprisal. Based on the experiences of the Union Patriotica
party 4, the demobilized EPL and other dissident groups, there was clear hesitance to give
up arms and reincorporate into civil society. This feeling persists to this day among
still-active elements of the guerillas.
The 1998-2002 peace process led by Pastrana ended up failing, worsening relations
between the state and FARC. After this failure there was little appetite left for another attempt
at a peace deal. FARC was further convinced to double down by the precedent of the Union
Patriotica leftist party. It had originally been formed by former FARC members looking to
capitalize on the discontent of poor Colombians towards the two biggest political parties, the
Conservatives and the Liberals. They chose the peaceful democratic path, but were violently
purged before elections through assassinations. It is estimated that at least 1,163 members of
the UP were assassinated 5 ; notable among these victims is Manuel Cepeda Vargas, father of
Colombian leftist senator Ivan Cepeda.
The Colombian government increased its cooperation with the US as part of Plan
Colombia, which among many things included the training of Colombian troops and selected
paramilitary forces. Its official purpose was to combat drug trafficking, yet today there is more
drug production and trafficking in Colombia than ever 6. Andres Pastrana’s popularity
plummeted as a repercussion of the failed peace talks, and conservative sectors of society
began to organize and prepare for the upcoming elections.
This led to the election of Alvaro Uribe as President in 2002. Alvaro Uribe comes from
one of the richest landowning families in Colombia, linked closely with illegal activities such
as drug trafficking and paramilitarism 7. The election came amid a time of great societal turmoil
and political violence, with the Union Patriotica party having been violently purged and
paramilitary violence spreading throughout the country. The election result reflected a profound
disdain that the conservative sectors of society felt towards the prospect of peace with FARC.
These sectors hoped that with the election of Uribe, any remaining possibility of peace
would die. Uribe was firmly opposed to any prospect of peace with the guerillas. He came from
the wealthy landowner class, his family linked with the drug trafficking business. Uribe spoke of
the fight against FARC and the guerillas as part of the “War on Terrorism” and showed no room
for compromise or flexibility in regards to the conflict 8 . The dissidents were now referred to as
“terrorists”, reflecting the unipolar US-centered international climate of the time that came as a
result of the cold war ending and the criminalization of dissidence. Uribe echoing the rhetoric of
Bush consolidated his short-term political prospects 9.
Uribe also pushed through the controversial Justice and Peace Law(2005) which granted
amnesty for members of irregular armed groups who gave up their weapons and demobilized.
The law was perceived by many sectors in Colombia and human rights organizations as being
too lenient on paramilitaries who had committed a number of atrocities. This law only served to
enrage the FARC, and for the entirety of Uribe’s presidency it continued to mount deadly
military attacks and offensives.
Uribe’s hardline strategy for dealing with the conflict led to less accountability for the
actions of the state. His presidency saw a rise in human rights violations committed by the state,
catalyzed by the falso positivos scandal which involved the killing of civilians by the army, and
the presentation of the corpses as being those of rebel fighters. The victims were lured by the
promise of work to rural areas, and were killed off by the army. Another factor that challenged
Uribe’s position were allegations of his connections to the illegal drug trade. These scandals
weakened Uribe’s prospects to become a protagonist of the peace process, and he would go on
to maintain a hardline stance against the insurgency.
The conflict spread to neighboring Ecuador and Venezuela. As the Colombian
government pressed on with its offensive against FARC, the rebels sought to take haven in
the porous border areas between Colombia and the neighboring countries. Along with the
difficulty that these countries have in controlling their remote areas, any efforts by
Colombia to cooperate with its neighbors on counterinsurgency were hampered by the
Uribe Administration’s strained relations with Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa and
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Chavez in particular was seen as a foe by Uribe, as the
Colombian President had repeatedly accused Chavez of supporting FARC and allowing them
use of Venezuela’s territory.
Hugo Chavez of Venezuela would play a major role in developments during the latter
phases of the conflict; believed to wield influence with FARC, he was seen as a key cog in
any potential peace process due to his ability to put pressure on the guerillas and bring them
to the table. Chavez and Uribe often clashed during their presidencies; Chavez eventually
became dismayed by Uribe and his political cohorts, citing the Colombian military incursion
into Ecuador, allegedly in hot pursuit of FARC guerillas.
An example of this can be seen in the Acuerdo Humanitario process of 2007. After a
series of high profile FARC kidnappings, Colombian Senator Piedad Córdoba, with the
approval of Uribe, persuaded Chavez to talk with the FARC, with the condition that the talks
take place in Venezuela. The FARC representative demanded that Chavez request a new
demilitarized zone, and soon afterwards Chavez, Cordoba, and French President Nicolas
However, Uribe became impatient with Chavez, and imposed upon him the deadline of
December 31. Chavez responded by directly contacting Colombian military leaders, which
Uribe saw as a red line violated. Uribe essentially “fired” Chavez from the talks, and Chavez
retaliated by calling Uribe a “liar”. The feud between the two escalated to a point where both
countries suspended relations with each other. The killing of Raul Reyes and Mono Jojoy, two
founders of FARC with vast knowledge of the group’s functions, further raised the threat of
the armed conflict spreading to Ecuador.
With his communication with Uribe closed, Chavez decided to move ahead with his own
initiative to free the hostages. As part of Operation Emmanuel FARC agreed to release three
high profile hostages, and in January Venezuela Army helicopters labeled with Red Cross
insignia at the request of Colombia successfully rescued the three hostages. The Colombian
government later launched its own rescue mission, Operation Jaque, that freed fifteen hostages.
Though both were successful, they were in essence unilateral actions that did little to
address the fundamental issues of the conflict, and tensions remained high between Colombia
These tensions ultimately reached their peak in March of 2008, sparked by an incident
that took place in the Ecuadorian border area. The Colombian army had raided a FARC
encampment with the primary motive being to kill the FARC second in command Raul Reyes.
Ecuador responded furiously, declaring that Colombia violated Ecuadorian sovereignty. Chavez
rushed to defend his ally Correa, and ordered his army to deploy to the border with Colombia.
The raid had involved cooperation with the Manta US Air Force Base in Ecuador, and the raid
led to Correa ordering the base’s closure and exit from the country.
Both Ecuador and Venezuela cut off relations with Colombia. The situation was further
complicated by Colombia’s announcement of recovered “FARC files” which they claimed
revealed FARC ties with foreign actors, including Chavez. The computer’s chain of custody was
interrupted and its whereabouts unknown for several hours after it was seized, and, when
recovered, files showed evidence of tampering. The files were contained inside a computer
which received extensive and often hyperbolic media coverage, to the point where it was
mockingly referred to by Colombians as the “magic computer”. After a vicious war of
words between the three leaders, a further escalation of tensions was avoided in the Rio Group
meeting on March 7 in the Dominican Republic, which marked Uribe, Chavez, and Correa
shaking hands and restoring relations 10. A Track II initiative sponsored by the Carter Center
and the OAS also sought to restore ties to normal. Even with the threat of war removed, the
danger of Colombia’s guerilla war to the region remained clear, yet by the end of Uribe’s
presidency there appeared to be little hope of a negotiated solution.
Uribe’s successor, Santos, echoed much of his predecessor’s rhetoric concerning the
conflict. Having served as Defense Minister under Uribe, Santos was a supporter of the
campaign against FARC and the guerillas. As defense minister under Uribe, he had been
involved with the falsos positivos killings by which peasants had been lured to remote parts
of the country with promise of work, massacred, then presented to the press as guerillas killed
in combat 11. Even so, his ascension to the Presidency was a welcome change for Chavez; the
two countries had once again cut off relations during Uribe’s last months. Santos and Chavez
promptly restored relations. Santos also began making overtures to Cuba as a possible venue
for potential peace talks. Santos’ decisions regarding Cuba and Venezuela reflected an
understanding on his part of the necessary ingredients for peace negotiations; the participation
of those countries was needed in order for the FARC to feel confident of its own involvement in
It was during these years that the most progress was made towards a peace deal. With the
governments of Colombia, Venezuela, Cuba, Norway, and Chile, along with the FARC working
together there was growing optimism that a deal could soon be reached. Hugo Chavez especially
was highly committed to this; so much that after his death in March 2013 President Santos said
that “The best tribute that we can give to the memory of Hugo Chavez is accomplish his dream
that he shared with us all of reaching an accord for the end of the conflict and seeing a Colombia
The FARC lead negotiator, Ivan Marquez, as well as the government lead negotiator,
Humberto De la Calle, both attempted to isolate themselves from developments occurring
outside the talks. This attitude was challenged by a number of developments. Unabated by
the talks, individual FARC commanders continued to launch attacks, while former President
Uribe turned on Santos and called him out for his “betrayal” for supporting the talks.
Pressure from the United States as well as media leaks over private details of the talks
threatened to sabotage the peace process. The outside challenges to the talks manifested
themselves with the 2014 elections, where an emboldened Uribe was leading an effort to
unseat Santos. His hand picked candidate used incendiary rhetoric in regards to the talks,
labeling FARC as “terrorists” and “the main drug cartel in the world”.
Aware of the delicate situation, FARC had declared two temporary ceasefires during the
elections, in a clear signal to the government of its desire for continued negotiations. It
evidently served as an acceptance of FARC of its “marriage” to the Santos government in their
joint bid for successful peace talks. The continuing Havana negotiations continued to employ a
variety of diplomatic tactics, including allowing victims of the conflict time with the negotiators,
and managed to make progress on issues such as the clearing of land mines and IEDs. Such
progress won support from international actors. However, issues in Colombia persisted and
occasional military conflicts still took place. In order to save the peace process, Cuba and
Norway proceeded to get tough on the parties, and pressured for greater de-escalation.
The calls for de-escalation ultimately succeeded as FARC ceased their attacks and Santos
ordered the cessation of attacks on the guerillas. Finally in September 2015, the two parties
reached an agreement on transitional justice that was described as “historic” by the Colombian
media. The agreement involved careful mediation over deeply dividing issues for the parties
involved. The negotiators, seeing themselves limited in their ability to find a compromise,
chose to delegate power over the issue to six designated jurists, who managed to craft a
resolution. The parties involved also made sure to incorporate positive press; on September 23,
Santos and FARC commander Timochenko shook hands with Raul Castro present. This was
seen as a decisive moment in the peace talks. But a definitive end to the conflict still had a
ways to go.
This was seen with the 2016 Peace Agreement Referendum, in which the No vote
narrowly defeated the Yes vote. This was a major political victory for Uribe, and left Santos
with limited authority for the remainder of his term. Political violence has not receded in the
aftermath of the peace agreement signing. Since the signing of the peace accord in September
2016 up until the present, according to INDEPAZ, 1,287 social leaders and 306 signers of the
peace accord have been killed. 13 The presence of a Colombian peace process is no guarantee
of actual peace for ordinary Colombian citizens. According to the Colombian Ombudsman’s
Office 1,863 civilians were assassinated in 1999, the first year of the original peace process that
lasted from 1999 to 2002. In recent years the violence has spilled over into neighboring
Venezuela. There has been a rise of prolific gangsters in Venezuela, with the most notable being
el Conejo. After a security operation in Aragua state, captured henchmen of el Conejo said that
they had received training and financing from Colombian paramilitaries. 14 The Caracas
neighborhood of Cota 905 is considered an important fulcrum for armed gangs that the
Venezuelan state believes to have ties to Colombian paramilitarism, led by the likes of el Vampi,
el Koki, and el Garbys. 15
With elections set to take place in May of this year to elect the next President of
Colombia, the role of center-left candidate Gustavo Petro is a central one for this election.
According to polls he is the center-left candidate with the greatest chance of winning since
Gaitan more than 70 years ago. This poses an uncomfortable dilemma for the country- can
a center-left candidate truly win in such a political climate given the obscenely routine practice
of political assassination in Colombia(Pizarro, Galan, Leal etc.)? 16 Over the past weeks reports
have come out of Colombia concerning payments that have been made to three hitmen totaling
around 1500 million pesos, or $365,539. The purpose of these payments is to kill Petro at a
public meeting in the department of Risaralda. The Petro campaign has also had to suspend
activities in a region due to threats from a paramilitary group known as La Cordillera. 17
President Ivan Duque has insisted that they are “strongholds” of the criminal groups.
From last Thursday, May 5, to Tuesday, May 10, the paramilitary group the
Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia, or Gaitanistas, declared an armed work stoppage to
protest the extradition of their leader, Otoniel, to the US on drug trafficking charges. The
Gaitanistas cynically named after Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, even though their politics are the
opposite of what Gaitan stood for. This armed siege of Colombian territories, especially, but
not only, in the north, shows that the organization is cohesive on a national scale. They killed
at least 26 persons and managed to paralyze and frighten up to 178 municipalities in 11
departments, according to figures from the JEP’s Investigation and Accusation Unit. 18
To aggravate the situation, for months Mexican drug cartels appear to have been shipping
high-powered weapons to Colombia to purchase shipments of cocaine; it is believed that there
are more weapons in the hands of civilians than the army itself. 19 At the same time, it is
disturbing that with less than a month to go before the presidential elections in Colombia,
President Ivan Duque has given a salary increase to the Colombian police of more than 35%,
the highest in more than 29 years. The police generally act brutally against peaceful protests
and in many cases have close relationships with different paramilitary groups. 20
It would be a catastrophe if Gaitan’s case were repeated after 74 years. At this critical
moment, the international community must accompany the Colombian people and must be
alert to any eventuality that could cause a new wave of violence that could have undesirable
and unpredictable consequences for Colombia and the entire region. The Colombian people
are already tired of violence and deserve to live in peace.