By Douglas Farah 

Colombia is undergoing one of the world’s most complex armed conflicts. For many years, unlike other guerrilla wars in Central and South America, the fighting in Colombia did not so much pit a government army against guerrilla forces as paramilitaries against guerrillas with the army providing tacit support. Recently, many of the paramilitaries have demobilized, but the war goes on and its legacy of violence and displacement continues to distort Colombian society.

Colombia has a long history of bloody political fighting, including the quasi civil war of the 1940s and 1950s known as La Violencia, which pitted armed militias of the Liberal and Conservative parties against each other and nearly destroyed the country. The violence never entirely ceased. It was remnants of the Liberal party militia that formed the first and most prominent guerrilla movement, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), in the 1960s. And it was in response to the rekindled guerrilla threat, first from the FARC and then from the National Liberation Army (ELN), that the first paramilitary formations were set up as ancillary units to the Colombian army.

Colombia, then, has remained mired in a vicious circle of violence and retaliation for several decades. Much of it was cyclical and retaliatory in nature. Both the guerrillas and the paramilitaries regularly resorted to killing members of one another’s families. And as they did so, the violence progressively grew more personal and unstoppable. But however bad the violence was in the past, the access of all sides to tens of millions of dollars of drug traffickers’ money made the round of internecine fighting and political violence that began in the early 1980s more wide-reaching and less discriminating than ever before.

The money obtained from drug trafficking gave the guerrillas and the paramilitaries access to the international arms market while freeing them from previous constraints on how they used the new weapons they acquired. Their tactics changed as well, although this would probably have happened with or without the involvement of the narcotraffickers. Freed from dependence on States which once supported them as liberation movements (and which might have been expected to pressure them to refrain from certain types of operations), the principal guerrilla groups, the FARC and ELN, have increasingly resorted to kidnappings, assassinations of elected officials, and attacks on oil pipelines. The result has been further, massive displacement of the civilian population. For their part, the paramilitaries engaged in counterinsurgency have carried out massacres, enforced disappearances and torture. And though the number of crimes attributed to the paramilitaries has dropped since they agreed on a ceasefire in 2002, some paramilitary groups appear to be reforming as mafia-like organized crime syndicates, and continue to exercise control through violence and intimidation. A recent law designed to encourage the demobilization of fighters has been criticized for failing to promote accountability for past crimes, and the government has shown little will to stand up to paramilitary leaders.

Following the election of Alvaro Uribe as president in 2002, the Colombian government stepped up its military campaign against the guerrillas. The guerrillas have been pushed back in some areas, but the army has faced repeated charges of killing civilians; on occasion they have allegedly dressed victims in guerrilla outfits so they could record them as having been killed during combat. The continued targeting of civilians by all sides has led to a major humanitarian crisis, one that continues to be largely unknown outside Colombia. It has been estimated that between two and three million people have become internally displaced from their homes because of the conflict.

The Colombian crisis would exist with or without the drug traffickers. But while they are not at the root of the war, or of the social and historical events that provoked it, they are at the root of the criminalization of the conflict, itself a malign development in contemporary Colombian history. The drug traffickers have shown themselves willing to work with and finance both sides. The situation is far from the ideological contest that marked the Colombian conflict thirty years ago. Guerrillas and paramilitaries alike have grown rich off the war, and the profits that the war has engendered make the prospect of peace that much more elusive.

In the wake of the narcotraffickers have come common criminals who are willing to work for any group willing to pay for their services, and, of course, are even less mindful of the laws of war than the guerrillas and paramilitaries themselves. Perhaps predictably, the violence of the conflict has spilled over into almost every corner of Colombian life. The country is among the most violent in the world. The annual homicide rate in Colombia reached 78 per 100,000 inhabitants a few years ago, and is currently about 44. In contrast, the homicide rate in the United States is about six per 100,000 inhabitants.

This mixture of war and crime—the fighting can be shown to wax and wane according to the amount of narcotics money being channeled to both sides—makes the Colombian conflict very difficult to understand. What is clear, however, is the readiness of all sides to commit grave violations of humanitarian law, although certain groups have tended to commit some violations more than others.

For example, while all sides rely on forced abductions, the FARC, and to a lesser extent the ELN, have come to use kidnapping and hostage taking of civilians both as a political weapon and as a means of obtaining funds. The FARC tends to target politicians and land owners—most notoriously the former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt who was seized in 2002—while the ELN has been more prone to kidnap foreigners, especially those whom they believe can be ransomed for large sums. But there are no hard and fast rules. And while kidnapping remains primarily the tool of the guerrillas, the tactic has also been used by right-wing paramilitary organizations.

Massacres and summary executions are another instance of a tactic which, while engaged in by all sides, has been more commonly used by one of the belligerents. It was the paramilitary squads, according to human rights reports, that were the main offenders. Fighters loyal to two former paramilitary leaders, the brothers Fidel and Carlos Castano (both now thought to be dead), were for many years seen as the most frequent users of the tactic.

As has so often been the case in Colombia, the Castanos’ war against the guerrillas was motivated in large part by family history. The brothers’ father was kidnapped by the FARC in the 1970s and held for ransom. The family negotiated with the guerrillas and eventually paid a ransom, but the father was killed anyway, and his body dumped on family property. It is not surprising, in the Colombian context, that upon reaching manhood the Castano brothers founded paramilitary organizations that were responsible for some of the worst massacres Colombia has ever known.

In the case of the Castanos, political violence and crime soon became all but impossible to separate. Their forces were financed by the sale of cocaine, and, in late 1997, Carlos Castano was identified by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) as a major drug trafficker. In the field, the Castanos’ fighters made a practice of going in the middle of the night to a civilian area with a list of suspected leftists, dragging those they could find from their homes, executing them, and dumping the bodies where they would be seen by as many people as possible. Apparently, it was in retaliation for these acts that the FARC kidnapped and then reportedly killed Fidel Castano in 1994. Carlos Castano is now believed to have been killed in 2004 at the orders of a third brother, Vicente Castano, to prevent his giving evidence to U.S. authorities about the family’s drug-trafficking.

The practice of carrying out summary executions has been routinely compounded by the use of torture. Torture is used to extract information, but it is also employed as a punishment and as a deterrent to others. Such killings are only one element in the pattern of direct and indiscriminate attacks against the civilian population in which all sides have regularly engaged. The result of these attacks, which have been little reported even in the Colombian press, has been hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people both in areas controlled by the guerrillas and areas controlled by the paramilitaries. This toll of internally displaced may be the most catastrophic human effect of all of the Colombian conflict. Even less noted has been the environmental disaster the fighting has caused. Despite widespread international protests, the ELN has regularly blown up oil pipelines that run through virgin jungle, fouling waterways and killing wildlife.

Following the paramilitaries’ declaration of a ceasefire in 2002, the government began negotiations over demobilization. At the center of the peace process has been the question of how far fighters who said they were ready to give up violence should be held to account for war crimes they had committed. The Justice and Peace Law, passed in 2005 after years of debate, allowed reduced sentences for war crimes charges without requiring full and truthful confessions, and did not oblige paramilitary leaders to use their often vast fortunes to compensate the relatives of victims. Altogether over 30,000 people have gone through the demobilization process, though many are thought to have been common criminals rather than paramilitaries. In the meantime, human rights organizations say that in many cases the paramilitary groups have kept their internal structures intact and evolved into drug-trafficking cartels that control local politics through intimidation and bribery. In May 2006, Colombia’s Constitutional Court overturned parts of the demobilization law, saying that fighters should only benefit from its provisions if they confessed to their crimes and paid full compensation. These new obligations, if enforced by the government, may solve some of the problems of the demobilization process.

Although there has been a reduction in violence over the last couple of years, most independent observers believe that it is too soon to speak of a fundamental improvement in Colombia’s prospects. Despite its riches and the talents of its people, Colombia remains a society totally permeated by violence. In one sense, it is a very special case. But, at least to a degree, the drawn-out war in Colombia resembles some of the recent conflicts in Africa in which the decline of the State, and the triumph of a murderous criminality, has led to a fundamental undercutting of the very bases of humanitarian law.

Related posts:

  1. Guerrillas
  2. Paramilitaries