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Civil War in Colombia

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    Civil War in Colombia.

                Civil conflicts are a major hindrance to the growth and development of political, social and economic growth of a country (David 678).  A war is a contest between nations marked by use of force either in defence, revenge, expansion of business territories, exercise of dominion and superiority of one nation over the other or any other personal interest.  It can also be defined as armed conflict between two sovereign powers.  A civil war is a war between different or opposing groups or parties of the same state.  According to Sandler, a civil war can be arbitrarily defined as a situation in which more than 1, 000 people are killed per year in combat (Sandler 723).

                Civil wars show a significant variation in the period of time which they last.  A survey on civil wars which have happened since 1960s has showed that a quarter of them end within eight months while others last for more than five years and a few go beyond two decades.  The reason behind this great variation can be attributed to the different approaches in resolving the conflicts which might have led to eruption of the civil war (Breton et al 267).

    Wars are very costly to the countries involved and more over, the likelihood of recurrence of a civil war once it has happened are very high.

    The Colombian civil war.

                Colombia has been at war with itself for more than forty years now leaving more than three million people poor and/or displaced in their own country while others have fled into the neighbouring countries including United States, Canada and other parts of S. America.  There has been several phases of the conflict since the year 1819 to date.  These conflicts have led to a major civil war although some people argue that this is not a civil war per se.  Many argue that since the conflict involves the extremist minority concentrated in the poor rural areas of the country, it is not a civil war.  However, this conflict qualifies to be classified as a civil war because it has been marked by a struggle for political superiority in the country for long duration and low intensity. Moreover, the war has mainly been driven by political interests as well as social, economic and military factors (Haavelmo 34).

    History of the conflicts in Colombia.

    The La Violencia period.

                During the early 19th century extending up to the early 20th century, both the Liberal and conservative parties dominated the political arena of Colombia.  Differences in the political ideologies upheld by the two parties kept heating up and oftenly resulted in violence breakouts between the two factions.  In the late 1940s, the Liberal party leader Gaitan who was the leading presidential candidate was assassinated and his killing triggered a conflict which led to mass destruction of property in the county’s capital Bogotá (Aranguren 21).  More conflicts at around this time led to severe confrontations between the Liberals and the Conservative party members.           To avoid further confrontations, the leaders of the two parties settled on an agreement to form an alliance to preserve their oligarchy.  However, two liberal leaders were later assassinated in the year 1949 and this loss saw the Conservative party presidential candidate Gomez win the 1950 party election.  After this elections, there were continued uprisings in the country involving the armed peasants in the rural areas of Amazon region but Gomez responded to this uprising with repression and such strictness that they eventually subsided.  In 1950s, the Gomez-led government elevated its repression to new heights and this resulted in war between the oligarchy and the peasants.  In 1953, a military coup overthrew Gomez from power and replaced him with General Gustavo who immediately sent his military on a mission to reclaim all the properties which had earlier been left by the fleeing farmers and landowners in the rural Amazon region.  In response to this move, the peasants called for agrarian reforms and this led to more violence (Chemick 23-39).

                In an attempt to end this violence, Gustavo issued amnesty to all the peasants by responding too their agrarian reforms and to the Gomezistas by releasing those jailed for acts of terror.  However, those released from jail began killing more innocent peasants forcing them to depart from amnesty and take up arms again.  This resulted in the war of Villarica by the military against the rearmed peasants.  The year 1958 saw the two conflicting parties- the Liberal and the Conservative party come into an agreement known as the National front which saw the two alternate four terms of presidency at which time, power was equally shared.  This agreement brought an end to the 19th century conflict between the two factions of the ruling elite which was known as the La Violencia period (Aranguren 56).

    The civil war begins.

                After the conflict between the Conservative and the Liberal parties had been long solved, there were still many armed peasants most of whom were liberals and communists who had survived the military offensiveness ordered by Gustavo.  The peasants settled and worked in areas they regarded as independent of the ruling government which they highly distrusted for wanting to take over their land.  When the government discovered this, they saw a reason to launch fresh attacks on the peasants through a civil war.  This marked the beginning of the long duration civil war.  In 1964, the government released a large army on the peasants and they responded to the attacks by waging war against the government whereby they dispersed their armed troops to various regions of the country to fight the national army simultaneously.

                In mid-1964, the various groups of armed peasants led by the communist party issued a reform program and two years later, the Las Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) guerilla group was established (Mark 89).  Another guerilla group known as M-19 became popular and notorious through its acts of urban raids which included the takeover of both the Bogota Dominican Embassy in 1980 and the palace of justice later in 1985.  The palace of justice takeover resulted in very many deaths including those of supreme court judges during a to day battle which saw the court house leveled to the ground by the military army.  In the year 1989, the M-19 guerilla group downed their weapons and they formed a political party known as the Democratic alliance M-19.  This alliance formed as a response to the National Front agreement served its intended purpose of securing top positions of power for the members of the Conservative and the Liberal factions.  This led to limited political democracy in the country and it triggered the creation of other guerilla groups in the late 1960s (Breton et al 345).

                The Colombian communist party at around this time started supporting the resolutions passed by the Soviet Communist Party twentieth congress which called for peaceful revolution.  This led to the creation of the popular Army of Liberation (EPL) which was involved in the Marxist philosophy.  In the mid-1990, many members of the EPL group decided to lay down their weapons and participate in a healthy political process although a few of them however still continued fighting in the N. Colombia.

                In 1964, a large number of students from a university in Cuba returned to Colombia to form what was to be the 2nd largest guerilla group in the nation.  This group was named as the Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional (ELN) and it strictly worked in compliance with the ‘Che Guevara’ principles of the rural guerilla warfare.  Between the early 1986 and 1997 the ELN participated in highly destructive acts of destroying the oil industry through more than 600 pipeline bombings.  The ELN also participated in an act of economic sabotage a move which made the FARC and EPL to denounce it thus decreasing its popularity.  ELN was later incorporated into the legal system but fighting has continued between the FARC and the government up to date with some intervals of peace such as the latest three year peace period from 1998 to 2002.

    Causes of the conflict.

                The major causes of the conflict which later erupted into a long term civil war can be classified as political, social and economical.  In this conflict, there are no ethnic, religious or regional inclinations expressed by the actors involved but rather, most of the violence has been found to have been criminal in nature involving the guerilla groups and drug traffickers.

                Political causes;- the Colombian conflict has been seen as a result of power struggles for long durations and low intensities.  Major political conflicts experienced in Colombia were previously dominated by two main parties, that is, the Conservative and the Liberal party but recently a shift towards the minor political parties was experienced leading to a political exclusion (Breton et al 456).  The FARC guerilla group has all along been seeking to be recognized as a legal political party with the aim of taking over the country’s ruling either legally or by overthrowing the government.  The marginalized groups of Colombians who were the perpetrators of the war have  made it worse because they are not considered as a part of the larger political agenda.  In addition, the high level of political violence has been as a result of political corruption and lack of democracy.

                Economic causes;- the conflict was fuelled by the FARC push for economic reforms, anti-corruption policies and reduction of the penalties put against narcotraffickers.  The crimes committed by the drug traffickers especially the Medellin cartel in search for money also accelerated the violence.  The poor state of the Colombian economy led to increased growth of the urban population and many cases of unemployment which served as a trigger for violence.  For instance, many of the rebels from the guerilla groups once they agreed to surrender their weapons and go back to their normal businesses found it extremely difficult to get jobs forcing them to engage in criminal activities and violence in order to survive.  This disrupted the short-lived peace and led to more conflicts.

    According to Pias Libre an NGO which was monitoring the extent of kidnappings in the country during the civil war, more than half of all the kidnappings and most killings were done in pursue of financial gains rather than political agendas (Collier and Hoeffler 564).  The rural populations who lived in mineral rich land were also fought by the Colombian oligarchy and some MNCs which were pursuing an interest of acquiring this highly coveted land.  The U. S government intervention and support for the Colombian armed forces was also economically oriented as they wanted to control the resources and gain political power over the rich nation and this interventions helped to fuel the war further.

                Social causes;- the guerilla groups are said to have been fighting for the rights of the society particularly for justice for the peasant population.  The violence most rampant in the country has been thought to be as a result of social-economic injustices.  Landownership was a major reason for the civil war as the peasants fought the military who were trying to take over their land.

    Tactics used during the civil war.

                For the fifty years that Colombia has been in civil war, the two fighting groups (the guerilla rebels and the government) have exhibited different tactics at different phases of the civil war.  The guerilla groups mostly dwelt on ambush attacks and largely avoided direct combat with the military troops while the Colombian armed forces concentrated mainly on combat operations.  This gave the guerilla groups an added advantage over the military troops since they were able to adequately manage their attacks against their opponents.

                The major tactics used by the FARC and the ELN which are the country’s two largest guerilla mainly included those of the guerilla warfare and this made them avoid direct confrontations with the military groups, made them focus on ambushes and they lived off land where they camouflaged from the government troops.  The rebels acquired good money to fund their operations from kidnappings, offering protection services to the citizens at a fee and from coca growing and drug trafficking activities.  Their weapons mainly included Kalishinkov rifles and other light but crude weapons which were capable of causing major casualties.  The rebels also deployed bombing tactics to attack the country’s vital oil industry with the aim of weakening the government revenue obtained from exporting oil products (Steven and Mario 76).

                The attack on the country’s oil industry forced the government to come up with a new strategy which was dependent on economic tools such as freezing all the assets targeted by extortion as well as setting bounties for the guerilla rebels.  In addition, the government also made a move to inspect all the state finances to ensure that the guerilla groups did not get any financial support from the governors or the mayors.  This was in response to the severe pipeline bombings especially one in S. Colombia which killed around 26 policemen in Nov 1992.  With such tough measures from the government, the collapse of the soviet union in 1992 and the Cuba economy which was offering financial support to the guerillas, the rebels adopted a new tactic of raising their money locally through extortion, drug trafficking and kidnapping (Spencer 297).

                The U. S government also continuously supported the Colombian government by offering financial aid and training their military troops offering the government troops with a counterinsurgency effort and anti-terrorist tactics to fight the rebels (Small and David 74).

    With increased rates of kidnappings of innocent people by the guerilla groups, the Colombian government deployed a new tactic which required their soldiers to pose as journalists or aid workers in order to get access to the people held hostage by the rebels.  However, this was not very successful as it endangered the lives of the genuine journalists and workers from NGOs who were out to provide aid to the affected communities (Richard and Andress 5).

                Negotiation tactics were used by the government at some point when addressing the demands of the guerilla groups who were calling for agrarian reforms but this did not work.  When all other tactics failed, the government resulted in use of military force to attack the rebels as it seemed to be the only hope to end the war.

    Duration of the civil war.

                The civil conflict in Colombia lasted for over four decades with some intervals of peace in between.  The conflicts which started as early as19th century were marked by very severe cases of violence especially in the war which started in 1964 which saw confrontations erupt between the government and the FARC guerilla troops.  The war took place in the Colombian jungle which highly favoured the illegal activities practised by the guerilla groups.

    The long duration experienced by this war is tentative since there are no particular explanations provided by political science on why the periods of civil wars vary.  According to Chemick (578), the duration of the Colombian civil war can be attributed to some internal characteristics which include the economic stability, the political structure of the country, the ethnic fragmentation in the country and so forth.  On the other hand, David (29) has attributed the duration of the Colombian civil war to some external influences especially the intervention of U. S military aid and financial aid.  In addition, the combination of criminal activities such as drug trafficking with the violence exercised by the rebels and the limited external intervention to offer support to the Colombian government side have been sited as major reasons for the long duration in this civil war.

    Experts have argued that if there were adequate negotiations facilitated by foreign interventions during the early stages of the war, the conflict would have ended much faster (David 98).  The U. S intervention though strong was a little bit too late to salvage the already critical situation and in fact, the economic intervention and training given by the U. S government to the Colombian government only accelerated the war (Mandler and Spagat 60).

                The illegal drug trade was also a contributing factor because the guerilla groups continued to accrue revenue from it even after the government developed new strategies to freeze all the assets and any financial aid directed towards the groups.  The money earned from drug trafficking and coca growing helped the rebels to finance their operations and the violence continued.  This drug trade was mostly favoured during war and stopped during periods of peace.  This served as a reason why the rebels never encouraged peace talks as the revenue they got from the illegal trade were likely to be affected if peace resumed.  The fact that the Colombian population has never been divided along ethnic or religious lines may have been an advantage in easing negotiations towards the much needed peace in the country.

    End of the civil war.

                In Aug 1998, the then Colombian President Andres Pastrana entered into peace talks with the FARC rebel group with the aim of ending the more than forty decade old war in the country.  The BBC news report on March 1, 1999 reported that the talks were somehow successful after the government offered a demilitarized zone for the guerilla group in S. Colombia and in return, FARC released the over 3000 hostages it had held for years (Richard and Andress 107).  However, this peace lasted only for three years as in February 2002, the two parties resumed fighting accusing each other of going against the peace agreement.  Some people have argued that this peace talks failed due to FARC’s great involvement in the illegal drug trade while others argue that the timing and the design of the peace talks were inadequate.  It is also thought that the involvement of the U. S in offering military aid may have played a great role in the recurrence of that war.

                Peace talks held in Aug 2002 saw a grim of hope towards the end of the four decade civil war in Colombia.  President Andres Pastrana agreed to hold peace talks with the largest guerilla group in the country in a move to resolve the conflicts between the two parties.  The peace talks were however later called off following the deadly attacks which were being mounted on law enforcers and innocent civilians by members of the FARC group even as the peace talks were in progress Nazi 389).  This dashed all the hopes for peace in the country and at the same time, there was a shift in U. S policy in Colombia aimed at fighting terrorism.  This accelerated the civil war further .  No major breakthroughs have been achieved in the peace talks to date and the violence still continues.


                It has been over forty years of conflict in Colombia with major violence marked by fighting between the government and the members of various guerilla groups.  The most severe form of this war has been marked by fighting between FARC which is the largest guerilla group and the Colombian Armed Forces.  FARC has so far evolved from the small group of peasants it was at the beginning to over 15, 000 armed fighters today and it has control of about forty percent of the country population.  This war has led to deaths, imprisonment, poverty and displacement of millions of people both internally and externally.  Efforts by several Colombian presidents to end the conflict have been continuously thwarted by the U. S policy aimed at combating the illegal drug trade and the country’s political and military elite which is more concerned on preserving the “democracy” a move which has led to marginalization of the majority in the country.  The solution this major conflict lies in the government’s ability to dismantle all the existing paramilitary groups to create a conducive environment for effective peace talks between the government and the FARC guerilla group.

    Works Cited.

    Aranguren, Mauricio. Mi confesión, Carlos Castaño Revela sus Secretos. Bogotá: Editorial        Oveja Negra, 2001

    Breton, Albert, Gianluigy Galeotti, Pierre Salmon and Ronald Wintrobe (eds.). Political

            Extremism and Rationality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002

    Chernick, Mark W. The Dynamics of Colombia’s Three-dimensional War. New York:    Macmillan Publishers, 2001

    Chernick, Mark W. The Paramilitarization of the War in Colombia. NACLA Report on

            the Americas, 28-33, 1998

    Collier, Paul and Hoeffler Anke. Economic causes of civil war. Oxford Economic

            Papers, 50, 563-573, 1998

    Collier, Paul and Hoeffler, Anke. Greed and grievance in Colombian civil war. Working paper, World Bank, 2001

    David, Bushnell. The Making of Modern Colombia: A Nation in Spite of Itself.

                Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

    Haavelmo, Trygve. A Study in the Theory of Economic Evolution. U.S: New Haven, 2006

    Hartley, Keith and Sandler, Todd. (eds.). Economics of Defence. Edward Elgar:

           Aldershot, 2001

    Mandler, Michael and Spagat, Michael. Foreign Aid Designed to Diminish Terrorist

           Atrocities can increase Them. Royal: Holloway, 2005

    Mark, Thomas. Colombian Army Adaptation to FARC Insurgency. Strategic Studies

           Institute, U. S. Army War College, 2002

    Michael, Kohn and Robert, Landon. Colombia. Lonely Planet, 2006

    Nazih, Richani. The Political Economy of Violence: The War-System in Colombia.

                Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs 39, no. 2, 37-81, 1997

    Richard, Hopper and Andrés, Schipani. Colombia Refuses Chávez Hostage Efforts.

                Financial Times 23 January 2008. Retrieved on 18/09/08 from              <<>>

    U. S. Drugs Czar: Colombian Democracy Under Threat: BBC News, March 1, 1999.      Retrieved on 18/09/08 from    <<>>.

    Sandler, Todd. Economic Analysis of Conflict: Journal of Conflict Resolution, 44, 6,

           pp. 723-782, 2000

    Small, Melvin, and David, Singer. Resort to Arms: Colombia Civil Wars 1819-2002. Beverly     Hills, Calif: Sage Publications, 2006

    Spencer, David. Colombia’s Paramilitaries: Criminals of Political Force. Strategic

           Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, 2001

    Steven, Dudley and Mario, Murillo. Oil in a Time of War,  NACLA-Report on the Americas     intervention in Colombia. p. 42, 1998

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