Beyond Violence 


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Violence has been a cornerstone of Colombian life for over four decades due to armed political conflicts and clashes between illegal and military forces over land and resource control. This has forced around 5 million civilians from their lands, leading them to become Internally Displaced Persons.


► Overview

Violence is a central tool in the Colombian armed conflict as different guerrillas, paramilitaries and Government forces seek to influence politics and compete for resources. Violence is used to intimidate and coerce people to work on lands that guerrilla and paramilitary offshoots seek to control and use for drug, military and mining operations. This propellant factor means that many families have had to flee their lands, causing Colombia to have the highest number of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in the world [1]. IDPs can be defined as “persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights, or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized border.” [2] Each major actor in the conflict is heavily armed and has a large amount of power and money. Historical injustices committed by each group mean trust is low and finding resolution is difficult. However, the promotion of peace talks between President Santos, the FARC and the ELN bring hope for change.

► Key issues


Guerrilla groups emerged in the middle of the 20th century in response to the alignment of the major parties in the Colombian government. Both the Liberal and Conservative parties were demonstrating similar goals of economic neo-liberalisation. In response, the guerrilla group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) emerged with Marxist-Leninist values and the aim to encourage a new system of agrarian reform that was more sympathetic to the large portions of the Colombian population that were poor, particularly rural farmers. In the mid-1980s a round of peace negotiations led to a treaty that enabled FARC members to form the Patriotic Union political party and run for election. Right-wing paramilitary groups proceeded to massacre over 4000 Patriotic Union party members and supporters to eliminate the competition to the right-wing political parties [3]. The distrust caused by this failed political venture has made further peace negotiations difficult and fraught with tension.

Government efforts

The actions of left-wing guerrillas have been largely characterised by violence over the last 40 years and the government has responded with force. With the assistance of the United States, paramilitary groups sprang up around the country as the conflict escalated [4]. These contracted armies protected private land and were recruited to assist military forces, but turned to operating on their own or in the commercial or political interests of private elites. Though demobilisation efforts by the Government over the last decade have been promoted as highly successful in decreasing the amount of paramilitary activities, the ‘Smoke and Mirrors’ report by Human Rights Watch 2005 points out that the Government gave combatants reduced prison sentences and guarantees against extradition without receiving adequate information about the paramilitaries’ assets and processes in return [5]. This meant that though many combatants laid down their arms, they did not have to confess to any crimes and the remaining paramilitary members retained their operations and could easily recruit more people as replacements [6]. Allegations of cronyism and corruption in government persist as many politicians, particularly in local government, are thought to maintain contact with and influence over some paramilitary groups [7]. For the first time, in 2011, paramilitaries were responsible for an equal or greater number of mass displacements as guerrillas [8]. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre notes that the Government will only refer to these groups as “criminal bands” in order to deny the failings of the demobilisation process, and thus the people they displace do not qualify for IDP assistance [9].


Aside from politics, the activities of paramilitaries, their offshoots and guerrilla groups centre around the highly profitable drug trade and illegal mining operations. These illegal operations require vast amounts of land and have led different groups to occupy and control large rural portions of the country. In territories controlled by illegal groups, civilians face the constant threat of violence and recruitment. People who stay in conflict zones are often forced to work in illegal activities to survive after their crops have been taken, and operate under the threat of death. The average age for recruitment to illegal armed forces is estimated to be 11.8 years [10]. Many families thus leave their lands in violent areas out of fear for their children, constituting a major driving factor for IDPs to flee to urban areas. Sexual violence is also employed methodically against female recruits and civilians as a weapon of fear to increase guerrilla, paramilitary and military control over different areas by making people too afraid to defy the controlling group [11]. The Army is reportedly responsible for 54% of sexual violence cases in conflict zones with 89% of their victims under 17 years of age [12]. Groups have been known to lay landmines on the borders of controlled areas, not only to stave off adversaries, but to restrict civilians from fleeing so that they may continue to recruit them or use them for labour [13]. Colombia has the third highest number of landmine casualties after Afghanistan and Cambodia [14]. Because of the restrictions on movement, many IDPs can only flee by pretending they are visiting a neighbouring village for the day, and have to leave all their belongings behind, including their official documents.

IDPs and Poverty

1 in 10 people in Colombia are now thought to be internally displaced [15] due to conflicts and natural disasters, placing a massive strain on the country’s infrastructure. Most clashes happen in rural areas so certain populations are disproportionately affected. Around 29% of IDPs are identified as indigenous and Afro-Colombian, compared to only 10% of the national population [16]. Disproportionate amounts of IDPs are women who face sexual violence and harassment after displacement. 65% are under the age of 25 though only 48% of the population are in this age group [17]. Rural families generally escape to urban centres to find work and stay with friends. However, unemployment is high and the skills of farmers are not usually transferable to a city environment. Thus IDPs are often rendered jobless and end up living in shacks made from trash at the edge of the city. Expansive communities of this sort have sprung up rapidly around the largest cities in Colombia [18]. As unemployment is rife in city centres and IDPs compete with city residents for jobs, they often face a great amount of resistance and prejudice from people in urban centres. In 2010 97.6% of IDPs reportedly lived below the poverty line, 78.8% lived in extreme poverty [19] and 65% had experienced food insecurity [20]. IDPs are thought to be an ‘invisible’ group living in fear on the margins of the city without proper access to basic necessities and government services.

Victims Law

The Government has recently responded to international pressure by adopting the Victims Reparations and Land Restitution Law in 2011 to provide more support to IDPs. However the enactment of this law has been very slow and riddled with logistical difficulties. The process that IDPs must go through to receive support is allegedly underfunded and understaffed, overly complicated and requires resources (such as literacy or money for postage) that some IDPs do not have [21]. On top of this, instances of fraud have been reported as poorer communities feel that IDPs monopolise benefits that should be going to everyone in the poverty belt. Thus people have posed as IDPs to try and receive welfare [22]. This leads to more stringent checks and conditions that IDPs must go through to obtain assistance [23], making the support process even more complicated. IDPs without their official documents are often unable to meet the requirements and thus do not receive funding. Fear, the main motivator driving IDPs to leave, maintains its presence in the cities as IDPs are threatened by members of the illegal groups and are too afraid to name the guerrilla or paramilitary force that has displaced them. This makes it even less likely that they will receive Government support. They also face stigma from city residents as IDPs from conflict zones are often thought of as ex-guerrillas seeking welfare [24].

Restitution and Integration

A large proportion of government efforts are currently focused on returning IDPs to their former lands. However, this drive can be problematic. The International Committee of the Red Cross reports that 80% of IDPs do not want to return to their lands because the threat of violence is still very present there [25]. Furthermore, IDPs may not have a home to return to due to unpaid mortgages or fines on abandoned properties [26]. Refugees International recommends that urban integration needs to be a top priority in the Government’s implementation of the Victim’s Law, and needs to involve programs that help IDPs find jobs, housing and security in their new urban locations. They note that at the moment IDPs are able to receive housing subsidies but still need to obtain mortgages in order to be able to afford homes. As banks rarely give mortgages to people without regular full-time employment, very few IDPs are able to do this and so housing subsidies are frequently unused [27].

► Key actors

The Colombian Government

The Colombian government is headed by President Juan Manuel Santos, whose popularity rating recently hit an all-time low due to concerns that the illegal groups are gaining power. Santos is part of a very large and rich family that has been in Colombian politics for 80 years, providing two other Presidents in the past. They also have business interests that are closely tied to the Colombian media, as the Santos family has owned, directed and edited the country’s largest newspaper El Tiempo, operating as the paper’s largest shareholders from 1913 to 1997. The Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index ranks Colombia at #129 out of 179 countries in 2013 [28]. Santos served as the Defence Minister for President Álvaro Uribe during his reign in the early 2000s. Uribe’s presidency was plagued with a ‘Parapolitics Scandal’ in which several officials connected with Uribe were accused and found guilty of having paramilitary connections. Such economic and political webs give the Colombian public little faith in the political process.


The largest left-wing guerrilla group is the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia or the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) [29]. At their birth they declared that they would fight for the protection of the rights of the rural population, the majority in 1964. Many believe that their political character may have become lost in the use of terror as intimidation [30], arbitrary killing, extortion and kidnapping. FARC is presently thought to have around 8,000 members. In 2011 its leader was killed by the military and this blow was thought to weaken the group considerably. The other major left-wing group is Ejército de Liberación Nacional, the National Liberation Army or ELN [31], thought to have around 5,000 members. They originated with the objective of fighting against the privatization of the national enterprises such as the oil companies, and also turned to kidnapping wealthy Colombians, as well as using extortion and bombing multinational oil pipelines, killing many civilians [32].

Paramilitaries and offshoots

Major paramilitary groups such as the AUC were originally financed by elite political and private interests in order to fight against guerrillas and to protect private land from drug traffickers and protestors. These paramilitary groups were officially disbanded in 2003; however, they have transitioned from legal counter-insurgents to illegal armed groups. The testimonies of displaced persons confirm that their members formed or joined other military groups known as criminal bands (Bacrims) and they continue to spread fear, causing massive displacement and violating the rights of women and men [33]. These offshoot groups include Las Aguilas Negras (The Black Eagles), Los Rastrojos, Los Urabeños and Los Machos. They control large amounts of the drug and mining trades.

Both paramilitary and guerilla groups largely operate in rural areas and have used kidnappings, landmines, threats, homicides and massacres to obtain their goals. They engage in competition for territory and resource control that results in the mass displacement of Colombian citizens.

Venezuela and Cuba

As the politics of the guerrillas have similarities to Venezuelan and Cuban societies, these countries have had some limited involvement in the conflict. During his presidency, Hugo Chávez acted as a mediator between the Colombian government and the guerrilla groups, and pushed for a diplomatic solution to the conflict. The latest round of peace negotiations took place in Cuba, but many were pessimistic about their progress after the death of Chávez.

The United States

The U.S. has put billions of dollars into Colombian counter-narcotics, counter-insurgency and military defence forces [34], while at the same time pressuring the Colombian government to do more to end Colombia’s drug trade. U.S. money has also armed and trained paramilitary forces at various times during the conflict in order to combat communist sympathies [35]. Combatants linked to the drug trade in Colombia face extradition to the U.S. to receive harsh penalties. Refugees International notes that USAID already invested a large amount of money into supporting the implementation of the Victims Law. However, they recommend that a larger proportion of the U.S. money going to Colombia should be directed to this purpose rather than defence spending [36].

► Violence

During the Colombian armed conflict violence has been used to murder political competition and opposing presidential candidates. It is also used to threaten and murder witnesses, plaintiffs, prosecutors, defendants and judges in trials to ensure court processes barely ever reach completion and prosecutions for atrocities are rare. Violence is used strategically to scare and murder opposition sympathisers, and murder NGO and humanitarian workers who seek change. It is employed privately to massacre members of Trade Unions and people who protest the activities of large corporations. It is used as a military strategy to wipe out entire towns thought to contain opposing groups. It is employed as a form of resource control to appropriate crops, precious minerals and oil. It is used to force civilians to work in illegal operations and to recruit civilians to armed forces. Sexual violence is also enacted in the routine internal and external operations of armed forces. It is important to note that no group holds moral superiority in its use of violence, as some of the worst atrocities have been committed through state-sanctioned practices and enacted by the country’s military security personnel.

Violence is operationalized in Colombia’s political, economic and military processes. These attitudes have impacted day-to-day Colombian life, where domestic violence rates are high. Also, violent robbery and urban homicide rates are high, though declining [37], and death threats are common for anyone working in social service sectors. Human Rights Watch survey findings indicate that 37% of Colombian women reported intimate partner violence in 2010 [38]. On the other hand, it is easy for many Colombians, particularly in urban areas, to avoid the conflict and avoid dangerous places and people. For most Colombians the country feels much safer than it did two decades ago, and the negative press it continues to receive is a bane for its citizens who are proud of their country and want visitors to enjoy and admire it too.

► Prospects for non-violent peace transformation

Colombians need to be able to believe they can create political change in order to demand a non-violent conflict resolution. As most Colombians have mobile phones and around half have access to the Internet, such motivation can be promoted through dialogue and social media campaigns. Belief in the ability to create profound positive change in Colombia would dramatically affect the political landscape that presently appears to operate based largely on self-interest, fear and apathy. Educational and motivational social media campaigns, for example, on the precarious situation of IDPs could reduce stigma against the victims [39] and motivate those outside the IDP community to demand greater results from the Government.

Colombians need to obtain greater transparency and accountability in government in order to create public faith in the political system. The Colombian people need to demand that corruption be investigated, prosecuted and eradicated in government, particularly political links to paramilitary groups. Human Rights Watch recommends that, in order to receive political benefits for laying down their arms, paramilitary members should have to give more information about their groups’ operations, and all benefits should be revoked if they are later found guilty of crimes they have not confessed to [40]. The Colombian people need to demand that such government responses to the conflict be implemented with increased diplomacy rather than increased militarism. International groups should mirror this aim by directing financial aid towards the purpose of policy implementation rather than defence spending.

Primarily, many Colombians need to acknowledge that, unfortunately, the idea that the conflict has already ended is not a reality yet. Positive change can not occur if Colombians do not face the fact that there is still a protracted conflict in Colombia from which many suffer. The first recognition to be made is that, while there are an uncountable number of beautiful, vibrant, positive things about Colombian life, denying the existence of the conflict will not make it disappear.

Peace talks, protest marches and Peace Festivals in Colombia are all evidence of the national desire for peace and security, which is a powerful motivating force behind any political situation. With motivational and educational campaigns change may happen but it needs to start with the people demanding what they deserve. Colombian lives should be free from fear, and conflict and violence should be shunned from its entrenched place in Colombian society.

► Sources

[1]Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. “IDMC Global Statistics: IDP country figures.”

[2]U.N OCHA and The Brookings Institute. Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, 2004.

[3]Schemo, Diana Jean. “Colombia’s Death-Strewn Democracy.” The New York Times, July 24, 1997.

[4]Tate, Winifred. “Paramilitaries in Colombia.” The Brown Journal of World Affairs 8.1 (Winter/Spring, 2001): 164.

[5] Human Rights Watch. "Smoke and Mirrors: Colombia’s demobilization of paramilitary troops." Aug. 1, 2005: p. 2.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Human Rights First. “Baseless Prosecutions of Human Rights Defenders in Colombia: In the dock and under the gun.” Feb. 2009: p. 42.

[8] Refugees International. “Colombia: Transformational change must include urban IDPs.” Sept. 13, 2012.

[9] IDMC. “Colombia: Improved government response yet to have impact for IDPs.” Dec. 29, 2011.

[10] International Crisis Group. “Improving Security Policy in Colombia.” Latin America Briefing N°23 June 29, 2010: p. 5.

[11] International Organizations Position Paper. “The Humanitarian Crisis in Colombia caused by the armed conflict.” June 2011: p. 8.

[12] Hansen-Bundy, Benjy. “Sexual Violence Employed Methodically in Colombia’s Armed Conflict.” Colombia Reports, Mar. 18, 2013.

[13] International Organizations Position Paper. “The Humanitarian Crisis in Colombia caused by the armed conflict.” June 2011: p. 9.

[14] Landmine & Cluster and Munition Monitor. "Landmine Monitor 2012." 2012: p. 33.

[15] Ibid., p. 2.

[16] IDMC. “Internally Displaced People (IDPs) in Colombia- At A Glance.” Dec. 31, 2012.

[17] Ibid.

[18] International Organizations Position Paper. “The Humanitarian Crisis in Colombia caused by the armed conflict.” June 2011: p. 6.

[19] IDMC. “Work and livelihood opportunities and coping strategies.” Sept. 5, 2011.

[20] IDMC. “Right to Food.” Sept. 5, 2011.

[21] Refugees International. “Colombia: Transformational change must include urban IDPs.” Sept. 13, 2012.

[22] Carrillo, Angela Consuelo. “Internal Displacement in Colombia: humanitarian, economic and social consequences in urban settings and current challenges.” International Review of the Red Cross 91.875 (2009): p. 538.

[23] Ibid.

[24] ABColombia. “Colombia’s IDPs.”

[25] Carrillo, Angela Consuelo. “Internal Displacement in Colombia: humanitarian, economic and social consequences in urban settings and current challenges.” International Review of the Red Cross 91.875 (2009): p. 537.

[26] Manrique, Daniel. “Restitution for Internally Displaced Persons: A step towards peace and recovery in Colombia.” Housing and ESC Rights Law Quarterly 5.1 (Mar. 31, 2008): p. 9.

[27] Refugees International. “Colombia: Transformational change must include urban IDPs.” Sept.13, 2012.

[28] Reporters Without Borders. “Press Freedom Index 2013.” 2013.

[29] FARC’s webpage.

[30] Kydd, Andrew H. and Barbara F. Walter. "The Strategies of Terrorism." International Security 31.1 (2006): 49-80.

[31] ELN’s webpage.

[32] Stephanie Hanson.“Colombia's Right-Wing Paramilitaries and Splinter Groups.” Council of Foreign Affairs (2008)

[33] Ibid.; Chris Kraul."New gangs run Colombians off their land." Los Angeles Times, Dec. 3, 2008. ; Acción Social. ‘El Desplazamiento: En qué vamos? Expulsión de Personas Enero 2011,’ Observatorio Nacional de Desplazamiento Forzado 1.1 (2011).

[34] Refugees International. “Colombia: Transformational change must include urban IDPs.” Sept. 13, 2012.

[35] Tate, Winifred. “Paramilitaries in Colombia.” The Brown Journal of World Affairs 8.1(Winter/Spring 2001): p. 164-5.

[36] Ibid.

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. “Global Study on Homicide 2011.” 2011: p. 54.

[38] Human Rights Watch. “Colombia: Obstacles to Care for Abused, Displaced Women.” Dec. 14, 2012.

[39] IDMC has initiated an “IDP Voices” project to humanise the life stories of the internally displaced persons who are too often rendered as just numbers on paper.

[40] Human Rights Watch. ‘Smoke and Mirrors: Colombia’s demobilization of paramilitary troops.’ Aug. 1, 2005: p. 2.

► Further reading