Colombia – The people behind armed conflict Part II: The main participants of the conflict

Hi all! Last week I published the first part of my paper on the internally displaced in Colombia. The previous entry was all about understanding how Colombia reached a breaking point when centuries of disputes and violence between the oligarchy and their parties was no longer tolerable. The social and political injustice that Colombians had suffered resulted in the rise of guerrilla groups out to overthrow the government and provide an alternative to the ruling elite. From this moment on, the armed conflict has escalated into a war between numerous participants who’s power struggle has affected millions of Colombians. This part of the paper will explain the main participants and how they operate within the conflict.


In the 1930s the Colombian Communist Party (PCC) was successful in organising peasant self-defence movements in the rural areas of the country. They wanted to establish alternative methods to the already existing order of the Colombian capitalist model enforced upon the rural population by those few in the dominant elite. Repeated confrontations with the military resulted in the peasant self-defence groups’ evolvement into a revolutionary guerrilla force aiming at expanding their activities across the nation in order to overthrow the government. The first guerrilla group to assert itself in Colombia was the FARC in 1964. Other larger guerrilla groups who have been involved in the conflict are the ELN, ELP and the M-19. In areas were the presence of national government was weak, the guerrillas, would enter as a local power base that would provide basic order and engage in social and economic projects.[12] The overall goals of the various insurgency groups have been aiming at ending state repression and implement political institutions that would aid the marginalised population, cease the oligarchic power and U.S imperialism.[13]


Paramilitary forces

In an attempt to assist the military’s offensive against the guerrillas, the state initiated the decree 3398 of 1965, which legalised civilian self-defence groups. The government had authority to organise and arm civilian forces so they could support the official army during a ‘state of emergency’. The situation between state, guerrillas and self-defence groups during the 80s was badly mismanaged by President Betancur when he ended up infuriating military troops and landowners in his decision to pacify the army and negotiate with the guerrillas.[14] The cease-fire with four of the biggest guerrilla groups (FARC, ELN, M-19 and ADO) meant that counterinsurgent activity was prohibited, but did not stop the military in providing arms to the civilian population, which was still legal under the 3398 decree.[15] The frustration felt by ranchers and landlords led them to mobilising local organisations, which now was also financially backed by the rich rural population. This period proved to be an important stage in the emergence of the hundreds of paramilitaries groups.[16]

Paramilitaries are understood as armed political groups that are on the verge of the state, ‘extra military’ noninstitutional entities that organise and operate with support from important allies, which may include sections of the government. They do not aim at reform or revolution, nor to overthrow the state, but aspire to eradicate those who threaten- or openly goes against the socioeconomic foundation of the political hierarchy.[17] The paramilitaries increasingly replaced the military in the fight against rebel groups and in areas where the state did not fulfil their governmental responsibilities the situation became an armed struggle between paramilitaries and the guerrillas to fill the power vacuum. However, in 1989 the decree 3398 was declared unconstitutional as violence against the state exploded during the war against drugs.[18] Despite being illegalised, the paramilitaries continued their activities with support from some areas of the military and the government, although they were considered criminal entities. During the mid 2000s most of the paramilitary groups demobilised in Colombia, yet former members continued their activities by creating new groups that today are recognised by the government as BACRIMs.[19]


The importance of the drug industry

The drug industry that emerged in Colombia during the 1980s would have a profound impact on the armed conflict in years to come. The immense amount of money that could be obtained by cultivating and trafficking drugs made the involvement in such activities desirable especially for the guerrillas and paramilitaries that occupied the areas favourable for the growing of coca plants. The drug industry was the leading reason why violence and crime exploded in Colombia during the late 80s and early 90s. It funded all actors of the armed conflict as well as reinforcing guerrilla movements, generating more paramilitary and self –defence activities and increasing government corruption.[20] The various drug cartels were concentrated in the cities where they spread fear through the population with assaults on anyone who got in the way of their business. In rural areas, the FARC implemented their own laws to regulate and restrict the drug activities when the cartels started investing in vast land areas and conspired with huge landowners. They started sanctioning the drug traffickers with war taxes and kidnapped members of their family if they refused to pay. The narcos founded self-defence groups with the paramilitaries in the fight against the FARC. Working together they could defend their property and target supposed guerrilla sympathisers.[20]  Overall, the drug industry intensified the armed conflict in rural areas and resulted in the forced displacement of many civilians.


Bandas criminales

In the wake of the demobilisation of paramilitary groups between 2003 and 2006 new armed groups have emerged under the name bandas criminales. BACRIMs were responsible for 19% of the forced displacement between November 2012 and June 2014; in contrast the FARC was responsible for 17% in the same period.[21] In 2014 BACRIMs were known to operate in 168 of the 1,098 Colombian municipalities and located in 27 out of the 32 departments. The advancement of these groups causes concern as their expansion into areas of guerrilla activity puts civilians in a vulnerable situation. The most widespread BACRIM groups are the Urabeños and the Rastrojos.[22] The Urabeños is the only non-state armed group that has increased in size the recent years. In 2014 the group was 2,612 members strong. The BACRIM’s have expanded to rural areas where guerrillas are present to challenge their control of territories important in the drug trafficking industry. The aggressive nature of the BACRIMs territorial strategy is a legacy from the paramilitary groups that they emerged from. Their pursuit of a ‘social policy’ in territorial control includes intimidating the population with violence and claim power over local community associations. Their role is to exert authority in areas important in drug trade by controlling farmers, miners and smugglers who operate there. The BACRIMs are mostly concentrated in western coastal areas and are drawn towards cities, as they are the hubs of international trade, which gives them the opportunity to control drug commerce, mineral shipments and extortion. Unfortunately, the peace talks in Havana between the Colombian government and the FARC has become a point of concern as the BACRIMs have repeatedly shown interest in taking over the FARC’s control of Colombia’s illegal economy if they decide to demobilize.[23]


The Colombian State and Plan Colombia

The history laid out in part I shows the great responsibility of the Colombian state in creating a political environment of which the guerrillas emerged. The development and increasing numbers of participants in the armed conflict are in no small sense a by-product of Colombia’s failed attempt at creating a strong national unity amongst its people. The government and the official military’s involvement in human right violations, such as forced displacement, is impossible to deny after years of legal paramilitary activities and distribution of weapons to self-defence groups. Laws have been implemented, demobilisation and peace talks have occurred, but the Colombian government are still struggling with reaching lasting peace and an end to the conflict.

In 2000 the Clinton and Pastrana government launched Plan Colombia as a response to the overwhelming drug problem that faced Colombia. The US provided financial and military assistance in the war against drugs, however none of the money was to be used in counterinsurgency operations against the guerrillas. After the 9/11 terrorist attack this changed and all US anti-drug aid was permitted in the global fight against terrorism, which included the FARC, ELN and the AUC. The war on drugs and the war against terrorism had evolved into one and the same aim under Plan Colombia and now the US is assisting Colombia in ending the drug trade and the influences from the guerrilla groups, in particularly the FARC.[24] Since its beginning in 2000 the United States has given Colombia about ten billion dollars to support the eradication of drug trafficking and insurgency groups in the country.[25]

In 2001, after decades of internal conflict, many foreign spectators saw Colombia as nation collapsed, or rather, a failed state. Only in 2002, when Álvaro Uribe became President, did Colombians dare look for the light at the end of the tunnel. After his eight years in office, Uribe was celebrated as the President who changed Colombia, however the praise of Uribe’s contribution in bringing Colombia a huge step closer to ending the armed conflict, did not take into consideration the falsos positivos that took place under his administration. False positives are the poor Colombian civilians who are by far those who suffer the most from the country’s violence. The false positives are extra-judicial killings by state and para-state groups that are counted as terrorist kills.[26] The peace talks between President Juan Manuel Santos’ government and the FARC initiated in 2012 is now Colombians’ biggest hope in achieving peace and an end to the armed conflict.

The history and participants mentioned in part I & II of this article are important to understand how deep the armed conflict is imbedded in Colombia. The precursors to the conflict serve as reasons to comprehend its complexity and long existence. The battle between armed groups is not a product of recent history, but a result of Colombia’s failure to create a united country with political stability that could satisfy the majority of the population. Guerrillas have sought power in a country where they felt the government was not able to serve the people rightly. Although present-day Colombia is experiencing smaller amounts of human rights violations, what must be remembered is the damage that decades of conflict has done to the Colombian population who may still suffer from the assaults they were subjected to at an earlier point in their life.

Next Friday, this paper turns its focus on the internally displaced and look at how the conflict and the participants’ war tactics have ended up forcing millions of people to flee their home.


[12] Garry Leech, The FARC, the Longest Insurgency (London: Zed Book Ltd, 2011).

[13] Julie Mazzei, Death Squads or Self-Defense Forces? How Paramilitary Groups Emerge and Challenge Democracy in Latin America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009).

[14] Marc M. Chernick, ‘Report on Chiapas & Colombia: the Paramilitarization of the War in Colombia’, NACLA, Report on the Americas, 31.5 (1998), 28-33 (p. 30).

[15] Julie Mazzei, Death Squads or Self-Defense Forces? How Paramilitary Groups Emerge and Challenge Democracy in Latin America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009).

[16,17] Julie Mazzei, Death Squads or Self-Defense Forces? How Paramilitary Groups Emerge and Challenge Democracy in Latin America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009).

[18] Marc M. Chernick, ‘Report on Chiapas & Colombia: the Paramilitarization of the War in Colombia’, NACLA, Report on the Americas, 31.5 (1998), 28-33 (p. 30).

[19] Elyssa Pachico, ‘Colombia Will Not Negotiate With BACRIM: Minister’, InSight Crime, 15 April 2016 <> Accessed: 15 April 2016

[20] Francisco E. Thoumi, Illegal Drugs, Economy and Society in the Andes (Washington D.C: Woodrow Wilson Centre Press, 2003).

[21] ‘COLOMBIA: Peace Talks Offer BACRIM Opportunity’, Oxford Analytica Ltd. 13 February 2015 Accessed: 10 February 2016.

[22] ‘La Mancha de las Bandas Criminales’, El Tiempo Online, <> Accessed: 2 March 2016.

[23] ‘COLOMBIA: Peace Talks Offer BACRIM Opportunity’, Oxford Analytica Ltd. 13 February 2015.

[24] Oliver Villar and Drew Cottle, Cocaine, Death Squads and the War on Terror: U.S. Imperialism and Class Struggle in Colombia (2011),.

[25] Sibylla Brodzinsky, ‘Plan Colombia’s Mixed Legacy: Coca Thrives, but Peace Deal May Be on Horizon, The Guardian Online, 3 February 2016 <> Accessed: 1 March 2016.09.

[26] Gregory J. Lobo, ‘Colombia, from Failing State to a Second Independence: The Politics and the Price’, International Journal of Cultural Studies, 16.4 (2013), 353-366.

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