During the first years of the 2000s, the regular military’s violence against civilians also increased, at the same time as, above all, the FARC but also the ELN weakened. The right-wing umbrella organization AUC was officially disbanded in 2006, but new leagues called “bacrim” ( bandas criminales emergentes , roughly “emerging criminal gangs”) replaced them and have since accounted for much of the violence. In 2016, the government changed the name of the leagues, from bacrim to Organized Armed Forces (GAO). Following the peace agreement with the FARC 2016, some former FARC members have similarly joined criminal gangs, and in some places the violence has increased when various armed groups fight to fill the power vacuum that arose when the FARC laid down its arms.
La Violencia and the National Front
To understand today’s Colombia, one must go back to another violent period called La Violencia (which means “violence”). It followed the assassination in 1948 of a left-liberal politician, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, who had promised social reforms and received the support of the workers. Everything indicated that he would win the presidential election when he was killed.
The assassination led to a popular uprising in Bogotá and violence spread across the country. The conflict was mainly between conservatives and liberals and resembled a civil war, although there were rarely any regular battles. Instead, countless very brutal scenes of violence took place between people. By 1958, more than 200,000 people had been killed.
After a conservative election victory in 1949, the repression of dissent increased. Then peasant armies and guerrilla groups were formed and the country ended up close enough in anarchy. A coup in 1953 put an end to the worst violence. General Gustavo Roja’s Pinilla seized power with the support of both major parties, Liberals and Conservatives. But Roja’s Pinilla failed to calm down and was deposed in 1957.
Liberals and conservatives then formed the National Front (Frente nacional), where the two parties divided the presidency, seats in Congress and important offices between them.
The system excluded other political groups from politics. It particularly affected the left and contributed to the emergence of today’s guerrilla movements.
After the military suppressed a peasant uprising in the Tolima region of central Colombia, in 1964 what became the largest guerrilla organization, the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (Fuerzas armadas revolucionarias de Colombia, Farc), was formed.
The FARC had its roots in liberal and communist self-defense groups in rural areas in the 1950s and was founded by Manuel Marulanda, who led the movement until his death in the spring of 2008. Towards the end, the guerrillas were strongest in southern and eastern Colombia. The FARC, which largely funded its activities through drug trafficking and kidnappings, was branded a terrorist by the United States and the European Union. According to US figures, the FARC accounted for about half of all cocaine production in the world. The guerrillas also raised money by collecting “taxes” from the rural population.
The National Liberation Army (EJército de liberación nacional, ELN) was also formed in the 1960s, by students, intellectuals and radical priests inspired by the Cuban revolution.
The guerrillas have their strongest stronghold in the northeast and have, among other things, sabotaged the oil industry and power lines. The ELN finances its activities through kidnappings and has had a stronger position in the cities than the FARC. In recent years, drugs have also become an increasingly important source of income for ELN. The FARC and the ELN also gradually came to largely lack political visions and mostly engage in extensive criminal activity.
The coalition between liberals and conservatives in the National Front formally ended in 1974, but it was not until 1986 that the front had fully played its role. During this time, violence in Colombia diminished, but agricultural land remained with landowners and poverty continued to grow.
To protect large landowners from the guerrillas, several so-called paramilitary groups were formed in the 1980s that functioned as private armies partly built with the support of the military. The activities of these right-wing militias intensified the conflict.
The right-wing militias waged war against all those suspected of sympathizing with the cause of the left-wing rebels. Thousands of human rights activists, trade union leaders, peasant leaders and journalists were murdered. Prosecutors and judges, who tried to convict government soldiers or paramilitaries accused of aggravated assault, have also been affected. Militia groups were also behind the murders of drug addicts, the homeless, street children, prostitutes and homosexuals.
A number of right-wing militias gathered in the 1990s in Colombia’s United Self-Defense (Autodefensas unidas de Colombia, AUC) which soon accounted for most of the violence in the country. The AUC was strongest in the northwest but made inroads in the south in the Farc areas. In some places there was close co-operation between the AUC and the military, mainly with local commanders. The US and the EU also put the AUC on their lists of terrorist organizations.