Country Briefing

In recent decades, Colombia earned a reputation as one of the most dangerous countries in the world and as home to the notorious Cali and Medellin drug cartels. The country was also home to numerous revolutionary insurgent groups, including the FARC and ELN. As the drug cartels grew in weath and power, links were established between the cartels and insurgents, who became known as narco-terrorists. The Colombian government was under attack, seemingly, from all sides. Colombia became the kidnapping capital of the world.

Remarkably, since 2003, the government of Alvaro Uribe has made major strides to reduce the violence, reduce the power of the drug cartels and demobilize the insurgents. Colombia is undergoing a resurgence as it returns to normalcy.


Colombians declared independence from Spain in 1813 and established the Republic of Greater Columbia in 1819, which included what are now Columbia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Panama. The first President was Simon Bolivar, leader of the Conservatives, who favored a strong central government, affiliation with the Catholic Church and limited suffrage. The opposition Liberals opted for decentralized government, but secular control over education and civil affairs, with more widespread voting rights. For much of its history Columbia has had a democratic, elected government, but it has also suffered from two civil wars - the first in 1899-1902, the second, La Violencia from 1948-1953. La Violencia erupted after the killing of the Labor Party leader and continued between armed Labor and Conservatives until constitutional reform in 1957 guaranteed alternating government control between these two parties.

It’s reported that by the 1960’s American companies controlled 80-90% of banana production and mining and more than 95% of Columbia’s energy production. By 1964 guerilla movements appeared - the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC), led by Manuel Marulanda (a.k.a. “Sureshot”)and Jacabo Arenas, the National Liberation Army (ELN) and later the April 19 Revolutionary Movement (M-19). According to U.S. government sources these revolutionaries were “Cuban-backed insurgencies that sought to undermine Columbia’s traditional democratic system.” The alternative view is that these guerillas were popular movements fighting U.S. imperialist system that benefited the rich and exploited the poor campesinos.

Guerillas fighting continued until 1984 when President Betancur arranged a ceasefire with M-19 leader Jamie Bateman and later with FARC. Betancur initiated talks with the guerilla leaders despite the objections from large landowners, who called the talks “a concession to subversion” and re-established private paramilitaries armies. The M-19 ceasefire ended after Bateman was killed in a suspicious airplane crash. After FARC evolved into the Union Patriotica (UP) a legal political organization, paramilitary violence targeting UP members led to an end of the truce in 1990.
The communist-oriented FARC guerillas declared an independent republic in the remote southern province of Tolima and fought for survival against the Colombian army, while building on its peasant constituency. Over time FARC, which opposed drug production, expanded its areas of control, opening multiple “fronts” against government forces and collecting taxes. Large landowners organized private paramilitary armies and hired mercenaries to fend off the guerillas. Some of the paramilitaries were also involved with drug lords, who were gaining increasing power. To protect their position FARC also became involved with drug trafficking and its forces increased from 300 in 1966 to over 20,000 by 2000.

Initially the ELN was more directly involved with Cuba and guided by a small cadre of with Catholic priests, but failed to develop widespread support, or military capability. It reappeared in 1980, led by Father Manuel Perez, and focused on oil-rich northeastern Columbia, where the ELN raised funds by extorting money from multinational oil companies. It too grew and expanded activities reaching a troop approaching 5000 by 2000.

In addition to FARC and ELN, there are substantial paramilitary forces, known as “autodefensas” or self-defense forces; sometimes these loosely affiliated groups are referred to as the AUC. The paramilitaries attack FARC and ELN forces, operate death squads to kill and intimidate local civilians to diminish support for the guerillas and are also deeply involved in the drug trade. It’s often alleged that AUC paramilitaries are also associated with and supported by the Colombian army, in what becomes a vicious cycle of terror, violence, drugs and a human rights nightmare.

In 1998, Conservative Andres Pastrana was elected President and optimistically vowing peaceful resolution to Colombia’s multi-faceted conflicted and full-scale war against illegal drugs.  As Columbia’s economy faltered, Pastrana introduced the controversial Plan Colombia in 1999. According to Amnesty International, Plan Colombia was initially designed to attract financial aid to support the peace process, but evolved into a primarily military plan to combat drug production and trafficking in order to attract substantial U.S. financial backing. The U.S. then waived requirements for Colombia to improve its dismal human rights practices, including severing its “alleged” relations with the AUC.    

Colombia remains the kidnapping capitol of the world and has fertilized its drug crops with the bodies of hundreds of thousands of people killed in decades of violence. President Pastrana appears to be the only person who believes in his plan for peace, and prosperity without drugs.


A poem by Manuela, age 15

 The world over your head
And the rifle on your back

Over your head of wind,
The parched land and scarce rain

Over your head of rain,
The solid palm and fire dances

Over your head of fire,
The powerful idea, the evil hunger

Over your head and idea of hunger,
The light of independence, the precious jewel

Over your head of jewel,
The forest grows and you fly with hope

Over your head of hope
Love reigns, the fish talk to you

Over your head of fish
The dawn carves the wisdom of the water's old age

Over your head of water
The coffee boils, the homeland is born

Over your tender head
Over your woman guerrilla's head

The world over your head
And the rifle on your back

Turning the Corner Against Violence

Alvaro Uribe, an independent, was elected president in May 2002 on a platform to restore security to the country. He vowed to pursue goals of Plan Colombia. The Uribe government offered to negotiate a peace agreement with these groups with the condition that they would agree to a unilateral cease fire and to end drug trafficking and kidnapping.

In December 2003, the Colombian United Self-Defense Forces (AUC) paramilitary group entered into a peace agreement with the government that has led to demobilization of over 31,000 AUC members. In addition, more than 20,000 members of the FARC, AUC, ELN, and other illegal armed groups have individually surrendered their arms. In July 2005, President Uribe signed the Justice and Peace Law, which provides reduced punishments for the demobilized if they renounce violence and return illegal assets, which are to provide reparations to victims.

As a result of the government's military and police operations, the strength of the FARC has been reduced to approximately 8,000 members in 2010--down from 16,000 in 2001. Since 2000, the FARC has not carried out large-scale multi-front attacks, although it has mounted some operations that indicate it has not yet been broken--including the December 2009 kidnapping and killing of the governor of the department of Caqueta. As its strength has been reduced, the FARC has increasingly turned to asymmetrical attacks. Peace efforts with the FARC in 2010 have stalled.

A Colombian military operation in September 2010 killed the top FARC military commander and member Victor Julio Suarez, aka “Mono Jojoy.” The Colombian Government did not capture or kill any senior FARC leaders in 2009, but it did achieve notable successes against a number of mid-level FARC commanders in 2009. The FARC is attempting to recover from the serious blows delivered by the Colombian Government against the senior FARC leadership in 2008--most notably the July 2008 rescue of 15 hostages, including three American contractors and a former Colombian presidential candidate, Ingrid Betancourt.

Also in 2008, FARC commander Luis Edgar Devia-Silva, aka “Raul Reyes,” was killed during a Colombian Government operation; FARC Commander Manuel Munoz-Ortiz, aka “Ivan Rios,” was killed at the hands of his own chief of security; and FARC founding member Manuel Marulanda-Velez, aka “Tirofijo,” died from an alleged heart attack.

As of May 2009, more than 60 hostages were being held by the FARC. They included 22 soldiers and police whom the guerrillas wanted to swap for government concessions. FARC demobilizations were lower in 2009 (2,128) compared to 2008 (3,027).

Between 2002 and 2008, Colombia saw a decrease in homicides by 44%, kidnappings by 88%, terrorist attacks by 79%, and attacks on the country's infrastructure by 60%.

Although much attention has been focused on the security aspects of Colombia's situation, the Uribe government also made significant efforts on issues such as expanding international trade, supporting alternate means of development, strengthening rule of law, protecting human rights, promoting governance, and reducing poverty.

President Uribe was reelected with 62% of the vote in May 2006.

By improving access to social services--including justice, education, housing, and health--strengthening democracy, and supporting economic development through sustainable growth and trade, the Colombian Government seeks to permanently recover Colombia's historically marginalized rural areas from illegal armed groups and break the cycle of violence.

On August 7, 2010, Juan Manuel Santos was inaugurated as President of Colombia. He served as Minister of National Defense for Uribe’s second presidential term, as Minister of Finance under President Andres Pastrana, and as Minister of Trade under President Cesar Gaviria.

Armed Groups in Colombia

FARC - Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia

Originating in peasant self-defence groups in the 1950s, it emerged in 1964 as the pro-Soviet armed wing of the Partido Comunista Colombiano (PCC). It overshadowed the PCC and became an independent organisation, ostensibly, at least initially, supporting the interests of the poor (it called for example, for agrarian reform, nationalisation of foreign enterprises, a 50% reduction in land and property taxes and a 40% reduction in public utility charges).

In 1983, the FARC accepted the government's offer of a general amnesty to guerrilla groups and a partial cease-fire, , but in 1987 the FARC returned to a policy of "total insurrection". In 1997 FARC set out conditions for entering into peace talks with the government: the dismantling of what it described as the national security doctrine, paramilitary structures and legal self-defence groups (CONVIVIRS); suspension of special public order zones; and the introduction of a number of unspecified democratic reforms.

ELN - Army of National Liberation

Established in July 1964 by Fabio Vasquez Castano, a student leader ideologically linked to the Movimiento de Obreros, Estudiantes y Campesinos (MOEC - Movement of Workers, Students and Peasants), ELN was Colombia's first revolutionary group. A Marxist, pro-Cuban movement, its objective was the "conquest of power for the popular classes". A predominantly student and middle class movement. ELN also had links with guerrilla forces in El Salvador, Peru and Venezuela. Leader: Manuel Perez Martinez, a Spanish-born ex-priest. The ELN previously included the Corriente de Renovacion Socialista (CRS), Frente Simon Bolivar and Frente Antonio Narino but these ceased hostilities (CRS won 2 seats in the House of Representatives in the 1994 elections).



Capitol: Bogata
Area: 1,138,910 sq km
Population: 46,952,000
GNI/Capita: US$2,020

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