Conflict in Colombia: A War on Many Fronts


December 26, 2012 17:53 EDT
The dynamics of violent conflict in Colombia combine leftist guerillas, drug cartels and former paramilitaries.

Over a half-century, violent conflict has displaced 5.3 million Colombians from their homes, creating the world’s largest population of internal refugees.  The fighting between leftist guerillas, rightwing paramilitaries, drug cartels and government forces, combined with the systematic expulsion of small-scale peasant farmers from their lands by wealthy landowners has made the Colombian countryside one world’s most lawless and chaotic.


The dynamics of violence in Colombia are multifaceted.  Drug cartels traffic cocaine into Mexico, bound for the US market.  Marxist insurgencies rely on taxing drug traffickers or selling them the coca leaf directly, in order to fund their ongoing revolutions.  Many former paramilitary militias, once contracted by the government to fight the leftist guerillas, have transformed into dangerous criminal organizations themselves.


Drug cartels no longer wield the same power in Colombia that they did in the 1980s and 1990s.  During the era of Pablo Escobar, the Cali and Medillín cartels exerted direct control over the population and political system.   In response, the Colombian Government, backed by billions of dollars in US military assistance, killed and captured most major drug kingpins, creating fragmentation among the country’s two main cartels.

For nearly 50 years, leftist guerillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) have controlled large swaths of territory throughout the countryside. Over time, FARC membership has fluctuated from 18,000 combatants during the late-1990s to around 8,000 today.  Starting in October of 2012, the Colombian government began peace talks with the FARC guerillas.  The dialogue has made significant progress, with both sides expressing optimism at the prospects of a peace agreement.


During the 1990s, the Colombian government consolidated hundreds of paramilitary militias into a single organization known as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC).   In 2003, under pressure from the US government, Colombia demobilized these irregular forces.  However, many refused to disband, opting to continue their operations as organized criminal syndicates known as Bacrims.


How is Organized Crime in Colombia Relevant?

Straddling the Caribbean, Central and South America, Colombia represents an important diplomatic, economic and political player in the western Hemisphere.    For many different actors, Colombia is a keystone country in Latin America.   The US relies on Colombia as one of its strongest allies in the region and the country often serves as a liaison for conducting diplomatic relations with the rest of South America.  In April 2012, Colombia hosted the Summit of the Americas, a meeting between member countries of the Organization of American States (OAS).  


Many US companies are involved in the extraction of Colombia’s agricultural, mineral and energy resources.  Given Colombia’s importance, over the last twenty years the US has spent an estimated $9bn on military assistance with the objective of purging the country of criminals and insurgents powerful enough to challenge the sovereignty of the central government. 

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