Colombia's Civil Conflict

Author: Danielle Renwick
Updated: October 3, 2016

John Vizcaino/Reuters

Civil conflict in Colombia, one of the closest U.S. allies in Latin America, has left as many as 220,000 dead (PDF), 25,000 disappeared, and 5.7 million displaced over the last half century. By the early 2000s, fighting among the military, left-wing guerrillas, and right-wing paramilitaries had left the country on the brink of becoming a failed state.

But a sustained peace process between the government and leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (known by its Spanish acronym, FARC), the country’s largest insurgent group, brought violence to an end by 2016. The process suffered a setback in October 2016, however, when Colombian voters narrowly rejected a landmark peace deal, which had been reached after four years of negotiations. Experts say low voter turnout—only 37 percent of eligible voters participated—may have affected the results. Critics of the accord said it amounted to amnesty for perpetrators of violence, and leaders of the “No” vote said they would seek to renegotiate the deal under less lenient terms for the rebel group.

History and Ideology

The FARC and ELN were founded in the 1960s in the wake of a decade of political violence in Colombia known as la Violencia (1948–58). Excluded from a power-sharing agreement that ended the fighting, communist guerrillas took up arms against the government. The FARC was composed of militant communists and peasant self-defense groups, while the ELN’s ranks were dominated by students, Catholic radicals, and left-wing intellectuals who hoped to replicate Fidel Castro’s communist revolution in Cuba. The U.S. State Department has designated both groups as foreign terrorist organizations.

Although some say the ELN is more ideological than the FARC, the two groups have similar programs. Both oppose the privatization of natural resources and claim to represent the rural poor against Colombia’s wealthy. Historically they have cooperated in some parts of the country and clashed in others.

Right-wing paramilitary groups emerged in the 1980s as landowners organized to protect themselves from the guerrilla groups. The largest paramilitary group, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), was on the U.S. State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations until July 2014. The group formally disbanded in 2006, but splinter groups, known as bacrim (short, in Spanish, for criminal gangs) remain.

Kidnappings and Acts of Terror

The FARC and ELN long used violence, kidnappings, and extortion as sources of leverage and income. In one of its most high-profile kidnappings, the FARC abducted presidential candidate Íngrid Betancourt in 2002. The group held her and three U.S. military contractors until 2008, when Colombian forces rescued them and twelve other hostages. Other notable incidents include the FARC's assassination of a former culture minister in 2001 and its hijacking of a domestic commercial flight in 2002, during which rebels kidnapped a senator aboard. Colombia's National Center for Historical Memory estimates that guerrilla groups kidnapped twenty-five thousand people (PDF) between 1970 and 2010. More than ten thousand people, including nearly four thousand civilians, have been killed or maimed in landmine explosions, most of which were planted by the FARC, according the Colombian government.

Drug Trafficking

In the early 2000s Colombia supplied as much as 90 percent (PDF) of the world's cocaine, and the production, taxation, and trafficking of illicit narcotics provided the FARC with much of its revenue. Right-wing paramilitary groups were also involved in the trade, fueling conflict as the groups competed for territory. In 2009, the U.S. government reported that the FARC was responsible for (PDF) 60 percent of Colombian cocaine exported to the United States, and the U.S. Treasury Department has frozen the assets of several FARC members it identified as significant narcotics traffickers.

Estimates of the income the FARC derives from the sale of narcotics vary. In 2012, InSight Crime, an online publication that specializes in organized crime in Latin America and the Caribbean, estimated the figure at $200 million; that year Colombia's defense minister, Juan Carlos Pinzón, said it could be as high as $3.5 billion.

The ELN, after shunning drug trafficking for many years as "antirevolutionary," has recently turned to the trade. In late 2015, authorities found a massive cocaine processing complex run by the rebel group in western Colombia. Rebel groups have also reportedly turned to illegal resource extraction, including gold mining, for additional income.

Coca cultivation fell by more than half between 2007 and 2012, and Peru surpassed Colombia as the world's leading cocaine producer from 2010 to 2014, according to U.S. White House figures. However coca production is again on the rise in Colombia, with 2015 production levels nearly on par with 2007 figures. Experts attribute this to the Colombian government's decision to halt aerial spraying of coca crops, citing health concerns, as well as moves by the FARC to encourage coca cultivation in hopes that greater cultivation would give them more leverage in rural development programs.

“The government programs will be in areas where there is coca, so one interpretation is that those who grow the most coca will get the most government benefits,” Jorgan Andrews, director of the narcotics section at the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá told the Washington Post.

Plan Colombia and Uribe's Crackdown

In 2000 U.S. lawmakers approved Plan Colombia, an aid package that aimed to help the country combat guerrilla violence, strengthen its institutions, and stem drug production and trafficking. The United States has spent more than $10 billion in the sixteen years since. The United States is also Colombia’s largest trading partner, and a bilateral free trade agreement between the two entered into force in 2012.

Colombians elected Álvaro Uribe to the presidency in 2002. Campaigning on the heels of President Andrés Pastrana's failed efforts to broker peace, Uribe pledged to take a hard-line stance against the guerrillas. As his administration cracked down on the leftist rebel groups, violence fell dramatically: the homicide rate fell by 40 percent and kidnappings by 80 percent during Uribe's first term. But international rights groups have accused Uribe's administration of human rights violations. Colombian courts have also investigated allegations that Uribe has links to right-wing paramilitary groups. No evidence of direct links have been found.

By the time the FARC agreed to negotiations in 2012, their ranks had fallen to around seven thousand members, down from sixteen thousand in 2001, according to government estimates.

During Uribe's crackdown, both the FARC and ELN sought refuge in rural areas bordering Venezuela and Ecuador, and Colombian military incursions across those borders have sparked tensions with its neighbors. In 2008 the Colombian military claimed to have found evidence that Venezuela and Ecuador provided material support to the FARC, a charge both governments denied. Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez did, however, facilitate communication between the Colombian government and the FARC, particularly between 2007 and his death in 2013.

Many experts say that the Uribe administration's crackdown laid the foundation for the current peace talks. By the time the FARC agreed to negotiations in 2012, their ranks had fallen to around seven thousand members, down from sixteen thousand in 2001, according to government estimates. The group's founder and leader, Manuel Marulanda, reportedly died of a heart attack in 2008, and military raids have claimed other high-ranking officials in recent years.

The ELN, which operates mainly in northeastern Colombia, is estimated to have about two thousand members, down from as many as five thousand (PDF) in the late 1990s. The ELN began formal talks with the government in March 2016. Still, many experts question the group's commitment to reaching a truce—in May ELN members kidnapped a group of journalists. (They were released less than a week later.)

Prospects for Peace

Juan Manuel Santos, who served as defense minister under Uribe, was elected president in 2010, and his administration began formal peace talks (PDF) with the FARC in 2012. The governments of Chile, Cuba, Norway, and Venezuela acted as hosts, mediators, and observers to the Havana-based process, which became the fourth round of talks between the government and the rebel group in thirty years. The two sides reached a bilateral cease-fire in mid-2016, and Santos and FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño (popularly known as Timoshenko) signed a peace treaty in the Caribbean city of Cartagena in September 2016. International leaders, including Pope Francis and U.S. President Barack Obama had expressed support for the peace agreement, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry attended its signing.

A week later Colombians defied polls to narrowly reject the accord in a popular referendum, sowing uncertainty over Colombia's prospects for peace.

Negotiations centered on five principles (PDF):

  • the FARC's political participation,
  • rebels' reintegration into civilian life,
  • illegal crop eradication,
  • transitional justice and reparations, and
  • rebel disarmament and implementation of the peace deal.

As part of the agreement, Santos' administration also pledged to spend billions of dollars in rural areas, which many Colombians—including the rebels—say have been long neglected. Many hoped the investments, which experts said could cost between $80 and $90 billion over the next ten years, would create economic alternatives to the drug trade.

Questions of transitional justice proved particularly difficult to negotiate, and many opponents of the accord said the agreement was too lenient on the rebels. Government and FARC leaders had agreed to establish a special tribunal made up of Colombian and international judges to collect testimony and evidence, oversee reparations, and mete out punishments to those found guilty of serious crimes.

Some critics say the peace agreement would amount to amnesty for human rights violators. Former President Uribe led the campaign against the peace accord, saying the deal was tantamount to “surrender” to the FARC. The U.S.-based monitoring group Human Rights Watch said though leaders were “right to celebrate” peace, the agreement would nonetheless “ensure that those responsible for atrocities on both sides of the conflict escape meaningful punishment.”

The peace agreement had called for the FARC's roughly seven thousand rebels to gather in twenty-three hamlets across the country and turn in their arms to a UN commission. The accord also outlined a plan for the military to clear landmines scattered throughout the countryside that have killed or injured 11,000 people over the last twenty-five years. Santos had appealed for international support to finance development, public services, and justice institutions in former conflict areas, and in June 2016, the U.S. House Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs approved roughly $490 million in aid (PDF).

Many proponents of the “No" vote had said they would seek to renegotiate the terms of the agreement, something Santos had said before the referendum he wouldn't pursue. Following the election results, Santos and FARC leaders said the bilateral cease-fire would remain in place, and Santos, whose term ends in 2018, vowed to “continue to search for peace until the last moment of my mandate.”

Additional Resources

This Congressional Research Service paper (PDF) outlines Colombia's peace negotiations.

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos outlines his peace plan in this September 2014 address.

This Washington Post article explains how the Colombian government weakened the FARC.

The National Center for Historic Memory's report ¡Basta Ya! (PDF) (Enough Already!) chronicles Colombia's decades of civil conflict. (In Spanish.)

Bogotá-based journalist John Otis assesses the FARC’s current role in illegal drug production, taxation, and trafficking in this Wilson Center report (PDF).

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