MADRE Articles

Colombia's Conflict: The Basics

Posted on: Friday, September 27, 2002

Keywords: Peace Building, Latin America and Caribbean, Colombia

Over the past decade, Colombia has become the leading recipient of US military aid in the hemisphere and, at the same time, the worst violator of human rights. As in Central America in the 1980s, the US is supporting repressive military strategies in Colombia to combat guerrillas, quell popular unrest and facilitate the exploitation of national resources by US companies. *

The Conflict in a Nutshell

  • Colombia is potentially a very wealthy country, rich in oil, gold, silver and coal. But its wealth is highly concentrated and most of the population lives in misery, which has led to violent confrontation throughout the century. Today's war is an outgrowth of the conflict over resources, especially land.
  • In the mid-1960s, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) arose as a peasant movement demanding land redistribution and social reform.
  • In the 1990s, the conflict changed from a face-off between the military and the FARC to a more complex, three-way conflict: the FARC seeks to overthrow the government and control the state; the government is fighting to retain power; and brutal paramilitary groups function symbiotically with the Army to protect the interests of powerful elites.
  • Instead of battling one another directly, Colombia's armed groups usually attack civilians suspected of siding with their enemy. The main victims of the conflict are women and families, hundreds of thousands of whom have been assaulted, displaced from their homes or killed.

The Government

  • The Colombian government has historically refused to address the desperate conditions of the poor majority, opting instead to criminalize all political and social opposition.
  • Colombia has long been controlled by elites organized into two ruling parties hence its designation by the United States as Latin America's model democracy.
  • Since 1946, the government has utilized the military and, more recently, the paramilitaries, to kill or silence critics. Groups ranging from armed guerrillas to labor organizations, human rights workers, popular movements, indigenous organizations, oppositional political parties, peasant movements, intellectuals and religious leaders, youth and student groups and neighborhood organizations have all been targeted with violence.
  • The election of ultra-rightwing conservative president Alvaro Uribe in 2002 has led to a further deterioration of human rights conditions in Colombia. Uribe has exploited the climate of the US "War on Terror" to call for an increase in military power and heightened surveillance of human rights and other civil society organizations.


  • The FARC is an 18,000-strong guerrilla force that controls large territories in Colombia. Its demands revolve around issues of social welfare, economic development, agrarian and judiciary reform and reorganization of the military. However, the FARC's overall political platform is murky. Some progressives charge that the organization has no coherent program other than to perpetuate its own existence.
  • In opposition to US driven economic policies, the FARC has called for freezing privatization of the state's assets, subsidizing the energy and agriculture sectors and protecting local businesses from foreign competition.
  • Although the FARC has a strong support base in some areas, it lacks credibility because of its brutal tactics, including massacres of civilians. In 1999, three US-based activists, including former MADRE staff member and Indigenous rights activist Ingrid Washinawatok, were tortured and killed by FARC combatants.
  • The FARC has a history of crushing independent social movements and uses kidnapping and drug trafficking to generate income.

The Paramilitaries

  • Colombia's 19 paramilitary groups are under the central command of the United Self-Defense Units of Colombia (AUC). These forces use extreme violence to protect the interests of various elites, including US-based corporations, large landowners and drug traffickers.
  • Because paramilitaries are not formally linked to the state, the government avoids accountability for their violence. Yet the paramilitaries operate with the tacit approval and sometimes open support of the military. Human Rights Watch reports that half of the Army's 18 brigades have clear links to paramilitaries.
  • Amnesty International estimates that paramilitaries are responsible for 75% of Colombia's human rights abuses. Paramilitary massacres, such as the killing of 40 peasant farmers in Alto Naya in April 2001, often occur in areas controlled by the Army.
  • According to AUC leader Carlos Canstao, 70% of the AUC's funds come from drug trafficking.
  • The Uribe administration is pushing for legislation to grant immunity to members of armed groups including those accused of grave human rights violations who give up arms voluntarily. This policy explicitly denies justice to Colombian civilians who have been victimized by paramilitaries and will likely enable paramilitary groups to re-organize themselves under the guise of legality.

How has the Conflict Impacted Women and Families in Colombia?

  • In 2003, according to Amnesty International, over 3,000 people were killed in politically-motivated murders, 2,200 were kidnapped and 600 were "disappeared". During the first nine months of 2003, over 175,000 people were forcibly displaced. Violence against women, especially rape and forced servitude, is systematic and widespread.
  • Two million of Colombia's 44 million people have been displaced from their homes as a result of the conflict, giving Colombia the third-largest displaced population in the world after Sudan and Angola. According to the Colombian government, 71 percent of all people forced from their homes were displaced by paramilitaries and about 14 percent by the guerrillas.
  • Indigenous Peoples and Afro-Colombians are disproportionately affected by displacement: they make up over one-third of the displaced population.
  • Most displaced families end up in overcrowded and impoverished urban slums. Almost 60% of displaced women have no job or source of income.
  • Women account for more than 55 percent of all displaced people, and more than half of displaced families are headed by women. Because women's social roles revolve around the home, women tend to carry the heaviest burden when a family is displaced and to experience the most severe destruction of their social identity. Moreover, sexual abuse of displaced women and girls is widespread.
  • Women also make up an increasingly large proportion of FARC troops. Over 30 percent of FARC fighters are women, most of whom are drawn to the FARC as teenagers by aggressive recruitment and a lack of economic and educational opportunities.
  • One quarter of all paramilitary and guerilla soldiers are under the age of 18, a total of 11,000 children and young people.
  • Amnesty International has reported that the Uribe government is actively pursuing policies which threaten to drag the civilian population further into the conflict. One hundred fifty thousand "peasant soldiers" have been recruited to fight guerrillas, converting their homes and communities into bases for the conflict. Uribe also intends to create a network of one million paid civilian informants.

What has been the role of the US in Colombia's Conflict?

  • The rise of paramilitarism in Colombia can be traced directly to the United States. According to declassified State Department documents, a 1962 US Special Forces mission to Bogot advised the Colombian military to use "paramilitary terror" against "communist proponents" (defined as virtually anyone who challenged the status quo).
  • During the Kennedy Administration, the US began giving weapons and training to the Colombian military. This policy marked the onset of the National Security Doctrine, which the US eventually instilled across Latin America. The strategy uses the military to wage war on the domestic population as a means of safeguarding elite interests.
  • Since 1997, US military aid to Colombia has increased six-fold. Colombia is the largest recipient of US aid in the Western hemisphere. The US has given over three billion dollars since 2000 to "Plan Colombia", more than 75 percent of it to fund the military and police. About 400 US military personnel are now in Colombia on any given day, more than in 1980s Central America.
  • The Bush Administration is already pushing to extend Plan Colombia in 2006.

The "War on Terror" and the "War on Drugs"

  • The "war on drugs" and the "war on terror", like the "threat of communism" before them, have each in turn served as justification for US intervention in Colombia. Indeed, opponents of elite interests in Colombia are now referred to as narco-terrorists.
  • Under the guise of the war on terror, the Bush Administration has escalated US involvement in Colombia. The US now funds operations against leftist guerillas directly, rather than channeling funding through counternarcotics missions. For the first time since the 1980s, the US is undertaking a counterinsurgency effort in Latin America, giving weapons, training and money to a government that relies on paramilitary death squads.
  • The US "war on terror" has fueled Colombia's armed conflict and given the government a green light to further subordinate human rights and democratic processes to its counter-terrorism operations. A new "anti-terrorism bill" grants the Colombian military sweeping powers, including the right to detain people as young as 16 without a trial. The bill also allows the government to declare a State of Emergency under which constitutional rights are suspended.
  • The counter-terrorism measures adopted by the Uribe government have been used mainly to harass social activists and human rights workers, who made up more than half of those detained under the new measures in 2003.
  • Both the war on drugs and the war on terror exacerbate the poverty and inequality that lie at the root of Colombia's conflict. For example, drug fumigation destroys food crops and water supplies as well as coca leaves, further impoverishing and threatening the health of Colombia's rural population. Increased militarization leads to increased displacement and further destroys Colombia's social fabric.

Colombia's "Terrorist Organizations"

  • In September 2001, the FARC and the AUC were designated by the US State Department as terrorist organizations.
  • The AUC, however, is friendly to US policy and economic interests in Colombia and works closely with the Colombian military, an ally of the US. The FARC, on the other hand, has consistently challenged Washington's program of neo-liberal economic reforms and attacked US holdings in Colombia.
  • So while the AUC's brutality is an embarrassment to Washington, it is the FARC that is perceived as a threat to US interests in Colombia.
  • The apparently even-handed "terrorist" designations may therefore be selectively invoked to combat the FARC, but have little impact on the AUC's treatment by Washington.

Making the World Safe for Occidental Petroleum

  • Colombia is the 10th largest supplier of oil to the US. Given the US's massive dependency on oil, its lack of policies to curb consumption or develop alternative energy resources and the potential threat to continued access to Middle Eastern oil, Latin American oil supplies have become more important to the US.
  • In 2003, US military aid to Colombia included $98 million to train Colombian soldiers to guard the 480-mile Cano Limon pipeline, which belongs to US-based Occidental Petroleum. The FARC, which opposes foreign exploitation of oil, succeeded in shutting down the pipeline for most of 2001.
  • Oil is Colombia's most lucrative export, bringing in roughly $4.5 billion a year. Indigenous Peoples who have opposed oil exploration on their lands have been killed by paramilitaries said to be in the service of oil companies. Tens of thousands of Indigenous Colombians have been displaced from their ancestral lands, which are now controlled by oil companies including Occidental and British Petroleum.

Neoliberalism in Colombia: Fueling the Fire

  • The root causes of Colombia's conflict poverty and inequality have been exacerbated since the advent of US-driven neo-liberal economic reforms in 1990. President Uribe is currently negotiating with the US to further these reforms.
  • Under neo-liberal policies including wage suppression, debt servicing and public sector budget cuts:
    • Absolute poverty has increased. In rural Colombia, almost eighty percent of the population lives below the poverty line. About half of this group (46 percent of the entire rural population) lives in extreme poverty, unable to meet even basic subsistence needs.
    • 140,000 jobs have been lost in the agricultural sector and 700,000 hectares of land have been taken out of cultivation.
    • Unemployment has risen. In 2003, official figures showed 14 percent of the labor force was unemployed and 32 percent was underemployed.
  • Today, the richest ten percent of Colombians control 46 percent of the country's wealth. The bottom 20 percent has three percent.

Reverse Land Reform

  • In the 1990s, the International Monetary Fund ordered the Colombian government to stop subsidizing its agricultural sector (although the US and Europe maintain this lucrative practice for themselves).
  • Without subsidies, small farmers were unable to compete with large-scale agribusiness and have been driven off their lands by the tens of thousands.
  • Displaced farmers generally have four options:
    • Joining the ranks of the guerrillas and paramilitaries;
    • Moving into the jungle to cultivate coca (the one crop that promises a profit);
    • Becoming laborers on large plantations or in urban factories, usually with low pay and poor working conditions;
    • Migrating to the urban slums to join the informal economy.
  • Notice the same neo-liberal policies that concentrate land ownership in the hands of a few also create conditions that perpetuate the armed conflict and feed the drug trade. Conversely, the forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of Colombians each year by the armed conflict creates a labor force for the factories and plantations created by neo-liberal policies.

How Can We Support Peace and Justice in Colombia?

  • MADRE is now working in partnership with two community-based women's organizations in Colombia to offer support to women and families who have been displaced from their homes by the armed conflict.
  • And MADRE is demanding a more just US policy towards Colombia. We believe that instead of fueling Colombia's war, the United States should act as part of the international community to support a negotiated settlement to the conflict, one that addresses the poverty and inequality at the root of Colombia's crisis.

LIMPAL is a women's human rights organization that enables women who have been driven from their homes to provide for their families through small income-generating projects and to reconstitute "home" for themselves and their children. Through LIMPAL, women come together to share experiences and support one another, defying the isolation and social breakdown that result from displacement. LIMPAL women run community alert programs to respond to street and domestic violence; organize social safety nets among displaced families; and educate themselves about their constitutional and human rights. LIMPAL's advocacy work draws international attention to the crisis of displaced families and creates leadership roles for women in Colombia's peace process.

Taller de Vida offers displaced Afro-Colombian and indigenous women, children and youth critical services, including: trauma counseling to help them heal from the effects of violence and displacement; remedial education to help displaced children catch up on their schooling; a crafts program that combines principles of art therapy with an income-generating project for women; a video production project that enables young people to document and process their experiences; and after-school sports, art and theater programs for young children.

By Yifat Susskind, Communications Director

* Information in this backgrounder is based in part on Guerrillas, Oil and Corporate Profits, a Guatemala Solution for Colombia? Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala Newsletter, Spring 2002.

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