Colombia has long been plagued by one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. Since the 1960s, more than 260,000 people have been killed in violence between left-wing guerrillas on the one hand and military and right-wing militias on the other. Drug trafficking and other criminal activities are a closely intertwined part of the conflict. Millions of Colombians have been forced to flee their homes. In the autumn of 2016, however, the government signed a peace agreement with the largest guerrilla, the FARC. Negotiations with the smaller guerrilla ELN were also initiated but have since stalled.
Ideological contradictions have come to play an increasingly smaller role. Organized crime has long been behind significantly more murders in Colombia than the political conflict. Both the left-wing guerrillas and right-wing militia groups have financed their warfare through drug trafficking and other criminal activities. The connections have also proved to be many to high-ranking politicians and business representatives.
President Álvaro Uribe, who ruled the country from 2002 to 2010, invested heavily in the military to fight the left-wing guerrillas FARC and ELN. With the umbrella organization of the right-wing militia AUC, however, Uribe’s government concluded a peace agreement. According to the official opinion, the so-called paramilitary forces were disarmed and the AUC dissolved in 2006. But many former AUC members joined criminal gangs that mainly engaged in the profitable drug trade.
Juan Manuel Santos, who took office as president in 2010, took a much less uncompromising stance on left-wing guerrillas than Uribe. Santos identified the criminal gangs as the biggest threat to peace and security in the country. At the same time, the FARC continued to suffer setbacks and became increasingly pressured.
In late 2012, the government began peace talks with the FARC, in Cuba’s capital, Havana. Negotiations dragged on, but the parties gradually reached partial agreements on the way to the final agreement: on land reform, political participation of the rebels, a halt to drug production and trade, the legal aftermath of the conflict and how disarmament would work.
In September 2016, a peace agreement was signed in Cartagena, under great international attention. But when a referendum was held on the agreement a week later, it was a cold shower for the supporters: 50.2 percent of voters said no to the agreement. Only a few days later, however, President Santos received recognition for his efforts, when it was announced that he had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
The main reason given by opponents of the peace agreement was that the FARC members escaped too lightly despite the fact that serious crimes had been committed during the conflict. They demanded that at least the leaders be sentenced to harsh punishment. Many also opposed the idea that the FARC would have the right to be transformed into a political party according to the agreement.
However, the parties to the peace talks, the government and the FARC, went ahead to find a peaceful solution to the conflict. In November, a revised proposal was presented and approved by Congress. No referendum was held this time and the opposition continued to oppose the agreement.
During the first half of 2017, up to 7,000 Farcre rebels were gathered in special camps and by the summer, the guerrillas were considered disarmed.
Peace talks also began with the ELN, but they were sluggish and have stalled completely since Iván Duque took office as president in 2018.
Colombia has been plagued by political violence for half a century. When the military suppressed a peasant uprising in the 1960s, the left responded by forming the Farc guerrillas, who then took control of large parts of the countryside. Another left-wing guerrilla, the ELN, gained influence in the cities. The conflict was exacerbated when so-called paramilitary forces in the 1980s took up the fight against the FARC and the ELN.
Over the years, the paramilitary right-wing groups have carried out extensive massacres of alleged left-wing supporters. Both the government army and the left-wing guerrillas are also responsible for many murders of civilians. Both the FARC and the ELN have kidnapped thousands of people and used child soldiers and anti-personnel mines in the war.
But with the right-wing militias entering the scene, the violence escalated considerably. A state-appointed investigation has concluded that just over 262,000 people were killed during 60 years of conflict, until 2018. More than 200,000 lives were required during the most violent period 1996–2004. And right-wing militias are singled out as the main culprits: about 95,000 murders are attributed to them, compared with just under 37,000 for left-wing guerrillas and just under 10,000 for the military. The remaining deaths have either been committed by former right-wing militia members who “laid down weapons” (see below) or unidentified perpetrators. Of the total number of dead, 215,000 were civilians, while just under 47,000 are described as combatants.