The Colombian conflict is one of the world´s oldest of internal armed conflicts. The creation of the main guerrilla groups still active (FARC and ELN) dates from the years 1950 and 1960. The extension of this confrontation can be explained both by internal political developments (weakness of the territorial state presence, exclusive control of power by the two traditional parties) and external influences (diffusion of the revolution in the 1960s, drug trafficking in the 1970s). Since then, the country is developing under the influence of violence. Annually, over 20,000 victims among the civilian population prove the seriousness of the situation. Since the failure of several attempts of negotiations, violence has been increased, thus causing displacement of thousands of people. UNHCR estimates that Colombia is the country, after Sudan, with the highest number of IDPs (internally displaced people).
To understand reasons this extension of the armed conflict, it is essential to elucidate its causes and examine difficulties of its resolutions. Since 1980s, various negotiation attempts took place: their successive failures weigh on both the strategies of the government and guerrilla groups. With the election of Uribe in 2002, the situation was characterized by strategy of open armed confrontation. That prevents any prospect of a negotiated solution and the end of armed conflict seemed possible only by military way. But this didn’t mean the end of armed groups and violence. Since the election of President Santos (2010), the parties have started new negotiations and have confirmed their desire to end the conflict. Therefore the process and results of these negotiations appear to be blurred.
The Colombian armed conflict has its roots in the period of La Violencia (1949-1953), a very bloody civil war between two major political parties: Conservatives, then in power, and Liberals. Violence debuted after the assassination of Liberal Party leader Jorge Elicer Gaitan in 1948. Following a brief period of military dictatorship, the Liberal and Conservative parties came together in 1957 and created a coalition called Frente Nacional. This agreement was intended to put an end to armed clashes, but mainly to prevent another conflicts by a power-sharing agreement. As part of this agreement, liberals and conservatives alternated the presidency and would share the positions of political leadership from the central to local government. The agreement was sustainable: it was established for four presidential terms (1958-1974) and continues thereafter in practices coalition government.
This agreement excluded small armed groups from other political trends that are neither liberal nor conservative. In remote regions, rural communities were organized during the Violencia´s Period in self-defense militias in the context of civil war. Influenced by communist ideas, from the defense of their land and establishment of collective structures of production means, they refused their demobilization at the end of the La Violencia period and rejected the power-sharing pact between liberals and conservatives. In the context of institutions reconstruction, these militias appeared to elites as an obstacle to national reconciliation process. Thus, the government undertook to attack them by force in 1964-1965. Despite the military offensive against them, they are not destroyed. Nor politically integrated into the regime or defeated militarily, they formally came together in organized protest movements that have undertaken the first activities of the Colombian guerrillas. The two most active important revolutionary movements, which were born in reaction to these events, are the FARC and ELN. The EPL group (Ejercicio Popular de Liberación), founded in 1967, was also influential, but demobilized in 1990.
In contrast to these groups, the paramilitaries “paracos” came in addition to the conflict. They are the answer conservative elites have made to defend their economic and political interests in a widespread violence context. It was legalized by Parliament with Decree 3398 of 1965 and Law 48 of 1968. These groups are formed by landowners allied to drug traffickers to fight against guerrillas and support the army in counterinsurgency efforts (cf.Jennifer S. Holmes, p.4). But their actions are no different from their enemies’ guerrillas; violence and terrorize the civilian population. They gained national unity in 1997, under the name of AUC- Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia-. This movement of the right defends the interests of large landowners and has as goal the removal of all communist-types aspirations. Several observers note a direct association between the military and the AUC, and military condone their camps and activities. Yet the paramilitaries, such as the FARC, fueled by income provides drug trafficking. In addition, the United States and the Soviet Union (USSR) sometime supported, according to their own interests, the main protagonists of the Colombian conflict. This international interference has greatly contributed to the degeneration of the conflict.
Other rebel groups, such as M19 (radical nationalist and populist) emerged (1973-1990) and enjoyed a great popularity due to spectacular actions: the theft of 5000 weapons and the occupation of the Embassy of the Dominican Republic (1980) as well as of the law court (1985).
The history and interests that drive the Colombian conflict help to explain the dynamics and transformations that characterize it. These events are developed in a global context where the Cold War was at its peak. Then these groups were more influenced by the diffusion of the victory of the guerrilla in Cuba and the experience of Che Guevara in Bolivia.
Ideologically the Colombian conflict has aimed at the land distribution and social equality. The guerrillas believe that the people are victims from landowners and the military. The FARC and some revolutionaries groups justify their violent on behalf of the Colombian population and they promote their ideals of social justice, equality and solidarity. So they can recruit candidates and save their image to the effect that they are still fighting on behalf of farmers and social justice. Thereafter, the guerrillas abandoned its project of social emancipation and changed in an essentially military action. However, the conflict has been transformed and today has its origins in the drug traffic and land control for the coca cultivation. Consequently, many are questioning its real desire to become a legitimate political party in the actual military and political context.
Negotiation failure and conflict’s complexity
The 1980s would dramatically change the situation, both in political and military point of view. The development of drug cartels have ability to destabilize the government becomes central actors. They can influence politicians by corruption, intimidation and violence: bombings against government buildings, assassination of political leaders and judges, destruction of a civilian aircraft in flight, etc.). For guerrillas, this is a godsend: access to such a source of income allows them to come out of marginality that characterized them. Some groups will accommodate the presence of cartels to share illegal weapons industries. Other groups are going to be directly involved in the drug traffic organization. The relationship between guerrillas and cartels are complex and variable according to the groups, regions and times. But the effect is very fast: the FARC emerged as the powerful group and “increased from an estimated 3,600 combatants in 1986 to 16,500 in 1996, while the ELN went from about 800 in 1986 to 4,500 in 2001” (Giselle Lopez, p.7).
Between 1982 and 1986, the President Belisario Betancur proposed a suspension of hostilities, but without disarmament, in order to realize a national dialogue which should involve the guerrilla’s leaders. In the context of armed truce, the FARC supported some social mobilizations, especially farmers, and constituted a political group (UP-Unión Patriótica) which presented candidates for the elections. The UP got 5% in the 1986 presidential elections, a few seats of deputies and senators, and especially local representatives in areas of the presence of the FARC. But in the context of violence, candidates and leaders of the UP are systematically targeted by paramilitary groups, on behalf of the fact that they are the direct representatives of the FARC.
The end of the 1980s knows a deterioration of the situation. The government then conducts an open war both against the drug cartels, guerrilla groups, and even paramilitary organizations. Guerrillas, meanwhile, continue their control of territorial actions and political influence, with complex relationships in different regions with drug traffickers. Finally, paramilitary organizations become truly autonomous actors: in some regions they serve as auxiliaries to the army, in others they become real enemies of it, establishing a regime of order through violence. And the Colombian crisis of the late 1980s is neither a revolutionary challenge nor conflict of drugs, but the addition of these two aspects.
Peace proposal by institutional reform (1990-1991)
In the violence context, convergence occurs in the late 1990s between different actors with idea to get out the country of the crisis, so the institutions have to be reformed and modernized. Sectors within the government, political parties, groups of intellectuals and student movement mobilized the demand of institutions reform. According to them, the internal crisis can only be solved by changing the rules of the political game that allows renewing the old bipartisan framework, to better represent other options and bring citizens closer to power. The more dynamic group in this process was the M-19, which was characterized by the middle class. Its leaders would be able to integrate into the dynamics of the Constituent Assembly. They accept a quick negotiation that allows them to demobilize and become a political movement, Alianza Democrática M-19, just before the elections to the Constituent Assembly. Getting 27% of votes in the election for the Constituent Assembly, this movement appears to be one of the main actors of the institutions reform. Its candidate becomes one of three co-presidents of the Constituent Assembly, with representatives of Liberal and Conservative Parties.
The Constituent Assembly composition reflects the combination of alliances, contrary to the usual organization of Colombian politics from Liberal and Conservative Parties. The new text maintains political and social rights and acknowledges the political existence of minorities as well as modernizes the functioning of institutions. However, this initiative was short-lived, because the most important groups of guerrillas, FARC and ELN, remain outside of the processes. During the work of the Constituent Assembly, the military clashes continue. Negotiations with the FARC resumed in late 1991 and 1992, but without success.
The hope that the new constitution represents a solution to the Colombian crisis lasts a short time. The two main parties rapidly regain the control of political life. Moreover, the idea of political integration of former guerrillas as way of solution to the armed comfits is seriously called into question. After the Constituent Assembly, the Alianza Democrática M-19 experienced a series of electoral defeats, so that it ceases to exist since 1994. This movement is undermined by internal divisions and has many difficulties to provide a political agenda.
The political reintegration failure of some guerrillas led to the continuation of the conflict and the civilian population is the first victim. The conflict also takes a relatively new face: IDPs of the violence. Hundreds of thousands of Colombians fled the armed groups to find a precarious refuge in different cities, especially in their peripheries. The phenomenon is so massive that the government request in 1997 UNHCR to intervene and support the displaced.
The new negotiations continue between the government and guerrilla (1998-2001). President Andrés Pastrana, would grant the demilitarization of a vast area (40,000 km2) to begin negotiations with the FARC, with support from the international community (especially European countries). Under this agreement, the fighting would continue outside this area. According to some critics, President Pastrana gave the feeling of more concessions to the guerrillas that he got the progress on the path of appeasement. Again, negotiations bogged down for months without substantial progress. In February 2002, this negotiation is definitely over. Like all presidential terms since 1982, the Pastrana´s presidency begins with a limited period of armed conflict and ends with the widespread continuing clashes. And in turn, it indicates a failure of new negotiation to escape the armed conflict.
New conflict management (2002-2010)
The election at the presidency of Alvaro Uribe (2002) marks a rupture in the treatment of armed conflict. The new government took more drastic measures than its predecessors in order to regain control of the country. During his campaign, unlike his predecessors, Uribe announced its intention to make an open war against the drug cartels and guerrillas, to not seek negotiation or political agreement. Under “democratic security”, he includes the fight against armed groups as part of the institutional strengthening. But how?
Uribe has implemented a series of special measures, including the recruitment of thousands of peasants as soldiers and informers. But such a measure has created a climate of distrust in communities and dividing people. This strategy does not help to create sense of confidence in the population. In addition, the relationship between the paramilitaries and the government undermines the legitimacy of this.
Under Uribe’s government, the Colombian society is subject to a military power rather than local government. The military replaces the municipal authority and has full authority over the people movement, the imposition of the curfew and the prohibition on the right to protest. In addition to this, there is a weak judicial system that does not guarantee the application and enforcement of the order according to the fundamental rules of law.
Since the President Uribe interrupts any negotiations with the FARC and ELN, the new strategy of the government is based on the direct confrontation. “Plan Colombia”, launched in September 1999, is part of this policy. The plan is funded by the international community to strengthen the military and institutional capacity of the Colombian government in its fight against drug trafficking. So the plan converted into military aid especially from the USA. But according to the critics, the sustained interest of the USA in Colombia has been tied to research oil in order to reduce its dependence on the Gulf countries. With only 20% of its exploited oil resources, Colombia offers a unique opportunity.
Between 2000 and 2005 the assistance from USA to Colombia is estimated at about $ 4 billion, making Colombia the third recipient of U.S. aid in the world. This assistance allows the acquisition of modern equipment by the Colombian army. These funds also allowed the creation of additional battalions. It also means the permanent presence of the U.S. military in the country for the training of Colombian elite units’ army and for intelligence work as well as the military aerial surveillance. This aid is an opportunity for army reform: “Between 1998 and 2002, the armed forces in Colombia grew by 60% to 132,000. (… ). By the end of Uribe’s second term in August 2010, the Colombian military reached 283,000” (June S. Beittel: 2013, p.11).
The foreign military presence has a negative impact on the conflict. It allows guerrilla movements to stress the motivations of the USA are appropriated to Colombian oil on the detriment of Colombian population. This claim is reinforced by the fact that U.S. forces are closely located to the oil infrastructure. The United States are financially and politically supporting the Government of Colombia against “narco-terrorism”, but they also pursue their own interest.
The poverty and inequality in the society helps to maintain the FARC position, which accuse the government of working against the poor people. This has contributed to the perception that the government favors a rich minority at the expense of poor majority and working in connivance with the USA to meet their oil interests in exchange for weapons.
The USA and Colombian army strategy also is questionable. In order to tackle the drugs problem, thousands of hectares have been fumigated. This program raises concerns, because fumigation is highly chemical and destroys the legal agriculture, while having a serious impact on the environment and the health of local populations. But this program has had no success. Moreover, coca production has increased since the beginning of fumigation. This is explained by the fact that coca production can easily be relocated and may extend into areas less accessible by the army. This is also explained by the transfer of the coca production from other countries in the region. However, conflicts involving the easily exploitable natural resources such as diamonds, oil or drugs, are more difficult to solve than any other, because the promoters have the interest to continue the fight (Cf. Karen Ballentine:2003, p.48).
Demobilization of AUC: a blurred case
Negotiation of government with the guerrillas was not possible, but conversely it was with paramilitaries. However, paramilitaries have greatly benefited from drug trafficking to increase. Their tactic consists of controlling the strategic areas of the production and the export of drugs through violence and the use of terror (massacres and displacement of the civilian population, systematic elimination of any political or social contestation).
The Uribe´s government proposed a negotiation, which involved the demobilization and reintegration assistance of AUC members as well as a sentence reduction. Several Colombian and international non-governmental organizations have criticized the juridical gap in this process and the impunity that the government has offered this group, which was responsible for over 50% of cases of human rights violations in Colombia. This negotiation process had no legal framework itself that would have a significant impact on the judicial process of AUC criminals. Because of that, some communities are taking the law into its hands, using violence, and thus the violence cycle is renewed.
The demobilization agreement, signed formally in February 2006 led to the end of paramilitary organizations. The demobilized AUC had three choices: After receiving the sentence reduction, they are either integrated into the battalion of the Army or reintegrated within cooperatives and private vigilance to protect private companies or properties. Finally, and this is the third choice, some of them are joining the urban criminal groups linked to paramilitaries.
It is important to note that members of the AUC have controlled the majority of cities because of their non-formal mandate to secure urban areas, helping the police and military to regain control of the country from the hands of the guerrillas. Moreover, the AUC demobilization was in no way a guarantee that the other groups would follow this process. On the contrary, the violence is persisting in the regions of these demobilized combatants and groups are reconstituted in order to control the drug trafficking. The free areas that were left by the AUC are quickly taken over by these paramilitary or other guerrilla groups. In this context, the paramilitary demobilization is only apparent: numbers of their members are still active and maintain strategies for territorial control through violence.
The most obvious sign of balance of power in favor of military forces is weakening the FARC. But the effects of the army reinforcement were not immediate. Until 2003, the FARC are obtaining military success by attacking army bases or abduction of many politicians, ministers, governors, deputies, soldiers and police, considered as political hostages, held for a possible prisoner exchange. The prolongation of the conflict is gradually inducing a change in the power balance. Since 2001, the FARC is being in the longest period of armed confrontation, without truce or partial agreement. The army is focusing its actions on the regions of presence of members of the FARC Secretariat and multiplying the success. Therefore, the number of offensive actions, taken by the FARC, has decreased, compared to previous years. Access to funding sources (drug trafficking, kidnapping) is much more difficult. Since 2007, dozens of regional leaders were arrested or killed and the group is decreased considerably. Different liberations of hostages are also reflecting its internal difficulties.
The death of different historical leaders such as Manuel Marulanda, Tirofijo in May 2008, reinforces the impression that the FARC weakening is real. Marulanda was the head of the organization since its foundation. FARC is certainly weakened, but not destroyed. Regional groups persist and maintain real action capabilities. In addition, this weakening does not mean the reducing levels of violence.
The lack of a formal framework for political negotiation obligates Alvaro Uribe to undertake the total destruction of armed groups. But politically, it is a bad strategy. These groups will be more difficult to demobilize without a common national political structure. Otherwise, local emancipations of these groups will continue to exercise the political and social control through violence.
From his government beginning (2010), President Santos is trying to make contact with the guerrillas. This is the fourth round of negotiations in three decades between the both parties. Since early 2012, Timoshenko – the new commander of the FARC- confirmed the guerrilla willingness to continue secret talks with the government. The first dialogue phase began in February 2012 and ended in August 2012 in Havana (Cuba), with the signing of the General Agreement to end the conflict and build stable and durable peace. The point discussions of the negotiations are: complete agricultural development policy; guarantees for the participation of the political opposition; the end of the conflict; the solution of the problem of illegal trafficking drugs; right of the victims; and the implementation of the final negotiated agreement. The second phase began in Oslo (Norway) in October 2012. The third phase consists of the simultaneous implementation of all agreements, during which the government will guarantee verification mechanisms and promote process participation of civil society.
Unfortunately the peace talks were suspended after the abduction of the Colombian Army General (Ruben Alzate) in November 2014 by the guerrillas, who claim a bilateral cease-fire. Since 2012, the guerrillas undertook not to remove civilians against ransom, while reserving the right to capture the police or military as prisoners of war. Two years after the start of discussions, these events seem to put at risk the peace negotiations.
The points-discussions mentioned in the negotiation are important for the solving of Colombian conflict. But in this negotiation process, there are only the government and the FARC. The ELN expressed its intention to enter into the negotiation process, but there are still no official statements about it. Besides guerrillas, where are the paramilitaries in this case? These groups or bands are also major actors in the crisis. In addition to this, peace in Colombia involves social and political issues. It is not just a matter of government and the armed groups, but also of the whole society. In this sense the different key sectors or organizations of civil society are under-represented in the negotiation process. This can be a failure element in the process of negotiation for the peace and the end of violence, because all concerned parties are not involved in the process.
The Colombian conflict cannot and should not be analyzed under its current form. It is the result of a long history of violent appropriation of land – and some parts of the rich territory in resource- by the dominant sectors of the country. It also results in an unfair distribution of wealth. This process, supported by an emerging class that has benefited from an alliance of interests between powerful local and regional authorities and the army and drug traffickers, gave birth to a narco-paramilitary phenomenon. At the same time, by violence or by more subtle institutional mechanisms, this process led to the exclusion of popular organizations from the main centers of power. This makes the resolution of different politics issues impossible, which keep armed conflict going. These conflicts involve communities of different regions of the country and are continually increasing the statistics of victims and displaced populations. Consequently, “there are several complex factors that have contributed to the Colombian civil war. These factors represent not only the root causes of the conflict but also forces that have allowed for the continuation of the war and the escalations of violence that characterize its evolution” (Giselle Lopez, p. 7).
The Colombian conflict has multiple components, such as social, economic and political, etc. These must be disabled to create conditions for sustainable peace. The direct armed confrontations against the guerrillas confirm the government’s claim to deny the political dimension of armed groups and resolve the political conflict by war. The continuation of justifying the war against armed groups under the pretext that it would be a war of democracy against the narco-terrorist is a clear paradox example. However, for some politicians war is, in principle, the easy way for resolving a conflict. When the internal situation is confused and aggravated, a declaration of war becomes the most effective way to clarify the record. But the conflict between the government and armed groups are known for their increasingly frequent violations of humanitarian and human rights.
In a country that has known war for over fifty years, peace attempts also require a long negotiation. In most cases, these attempts have been designed to establish a cease-fire between the armed actors. Beyond the announcement effects, they don’t have lasting consequences on peace. On contrary, they have generally led to a reorganization of the conflict, making its management a structural characteristic of Colombian politics. More specifically, the discourse on peace allows regulating the armed conflict, sometimes intensifying it, but never terminating it.
The resolution of the Colombian armed conflict requires political work and dialogue, where all parties (the government, the armed groups and the civil society) can talk together, communicate their wishes, negotiate and give up to resolve disagreements. In addition, all parties must recognize each other. In the negotiation process, any group should not be excluded. All groups involved in the conflict must be represented. This is the weakness of current negotiation process that includes only the FARC and the government. In many cases, the government seeks to negotiate exclusively with some groups, such as was the case with the M19 and Paramilitary groups. A correct mechanic must be created to integrate all groups into the process, because the FARC is not the only group involved in the conflict. Many other major groups, such as the FLN, do not participate in the actual negotiation process. In addition, separate negotiations between the government and groups do not seem an effective and sustainable solution. It has been so in previous negotiations: all concerned parties have never been at the same time around the table of negotiation. In the negotiation process there was always exclusions of some actors of the crises. In this case, a successful exit from the crisis is not too obvious.
Violence in Colombia is not quite a civil war, but is increasingly against civilians. Some analysts argue that political motivated guerrillas (FARC, FLN) are still legitimate. Others believe that drug trafficking would have altered their ideological pretensions and have transformed into pure economic interests. In this context, in which some actors have interest to maintain the current level of violence, any peace initiative remains difficult. In addition, considering the antagonistic perceptions of the causes of conflict and, especially, financial motivations of each other, any resolution must first and foremost take into account the root, which caused the conflict, namely the income provided by the traffic drugs. In addition, we must also consider the link between armed groups, members of the government and international networks. According to the interpretation of the economic and political conflicts advanced by T.Addison and Murshed, violence is an alternative to peaceful production as a form of economic activity (Cf.:1998, p. 666). This theory claims that conflicts exist and persist because they are financially profitable. In this sense, the perpetuation of violence is a rational decision that allows realizing more profit than in time of peace (Cf. Crocker A Chester:2001, p.143). According to this theory, in Colombia, the primary objective is therefore not ideological, but economic. Without violence, the lucrative drug traffic could not take place. Production of the drug is easy and inexpensive, and additionally extremely profitable.
According to this theory, the parties are rational and their decisions, either they feel favorable to peace or war, are related to the defense of their own interests. The persistence of conflict is based on the fact that violence is the objective of the parties. If they want to resolve the conflict, the dialogue would inevitably seek to change this dynamic. They would try to make peace “profitable”, or at least also profitable as war, inviting the parties to the negotiating table. Such solutions necessarily imply a change in the balance of power, but how is it possible to break the impasse? On the one hand, the government forces fail to eliminate the rebels, on the other; the rebels are not able to gain power. Added to this, there is another fundamental challenge: how to restore trust between the different parties, after many failures of previous peace attempts?