The Colombian Civil War Giselle Lopez Policy Briefing

Policy Briefing
Giselle Lopez
The Colombian Civil War
Potential for Justice in a Culture of Violence
For decades Colombia has been plagued by an internal armed conflict that
is rooted in a complex history of socioeconomic inequality, political corruption, and
a culture of violence. Due to the state’s inability to effectively address widespread
instability and corruption, the civilian population has been placed in the midst of
horrific violence and clashes between various armed groups. Colombia’s culture of
violence and the prevalence of impunity underscore grave humanitarian concerns that
demand a solution. In an effort to explain the complex history of this conflict and the
factors that allowed for the enormous suffering of its victims, this essay will outline
the background, causal factors, and the nature of the violence. To establish a lasting
peace and to address the suffering of the civilian population in this conflict, this essay
recommends that the Colombian government take actions to strengthen and establish
mechanisms that promote security, accountability, and justice.
he internal armed conflict in Colombia
has been characterized by decades of
widespread internal violence, political instability,
and blatant disregard for norms of international
law. The conflict has ravaged the country,
displaced millions, and effectively placed the
majority of the civilian population in the middle
of violent clashes. In Colombia, the government
has attempted to deal with rebel forces using its
own military and the assistance of paramilitary
groups. In light of strong evidence that exposes
the extremely unlawful tactics used by the
paramilitary forces, the state’s reliance on these
external groups to fight this war has greatly
undermined its legitimacy. Although illegal
armed groups have been weakened and policies
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have aimed to address victims’ rights and
establish accountability, several of these policies
have proved inefficient and inequitable, and
sustainable security and peace remain objectives.
This essay will explain the complex background
and causal factors of the conflict, the nature
of the violence, and potential for future action.
In light of recent developments, I recommend
that the Colombian government take actions to
strengthen the judiciary, to establish local citizensecurity initiatives, and to pass critical legislation
that will address the enormity of crimes and
suffering of victims; these steps are essential to
promote peace, security, and accountability and
to regain the trust of the Colombian people.
The Colombian Civil War
The long-standing internal armed
conflict in Colombia has its roots in an extensive
history of struggles for political, economic, and
social rights. Since its beginnings in a civil war of
the 1950s, the war has involved multiple armed
actors and agendas of violence, power, drugs,
and greed.1 These agendas have complicated
the development of the conflict and have
overshadowed the political partisanship and
ideologies – borne out of socioeconomic
inequities and political exclusion – that provided
the original backdrop for this violent war.2 For more than a century, ruling power in
Colombia has been shared between two political
parties, the Conservatives (Partido Conservador
Colombiano, or PCC) and the Liberals (Partido
Liberal Colombiano, or PL); throughout the
twentieth century, the intense rivalry between
these parties was exacerbated by vast social and
economic inequality, and often led to violence.3
From 1949 to 1958, in the midst of widespread
internal unrest, a partisan civil war emerged
and claimed the lives of an estimated 280,000
people.4 La Violencia, as it was called, marked
the beginning of the violent internal armed
conflict that has lasted for more than half a
century.5 The emergence of armed groups led
to continuation and escalation of hostilities
with widespread violence that undermined
the legitimacy of state power. Leftist guerrilla
groups emerged in the mid-1960s as a reaction
to factors such as exclusion of political
movements outside of the National Front, the
marginalization of the rural poor, the influence
of communist and socialist ideologies, and the
ineffectiveness of the judicial system.6 The
Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia
(Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia,
or FARC) had its beginnings in La Violencia
and was a mostly rural movement composed
of a loose association of peasant self-defense
groups; it later came increasingly under the
influence of the Communist Party and declared
itself a revolutionary army in 1964.7 With a
strong presence throughout Colombia, the
FARC is considered the most powerful guerrilla
group in the conflict.8 The National Liberation
Army (ELN) is another guerrilla group that had
its roots in La Violencia and continues to be
one of the main parties to the conflict.9 The
guerrilla forces have expanded their forces over
the course of the conflict: the FARC increased
from an estimated 3,600 combatants in 1986 to
16,500 in 1996, while the ELN went from about
800 in 1986 to 4,500 in 2001.10 In the 1980s, paramilitary forces were
created by the military with U.S. aid; though
they were created to combat revolutionaries,
the paramilitaries were soon engaged in drug
trafficking and were terrorizing the citizens of
Colombia.11 Kidnappings, summary executions,
and armed violence against civilians became
characteristics of daily life in cities and rural
areas, and this forced greater efforts to meet
demands of the revolutionaries, further
undermining state power.12 With an inefficient
judiciary and the shift of coca cultivation from
Bolivia and Peru to Colombia in the mid-1980s,
drug cultivation also began to prosper. The
wealth generated from the drug cartels fueled
violence and corruption and strengthened both
guerrilla and paramilitary activity.13
For the past 25 years, Colombian
governments have alternated between strategies of war and peace in efforts to deal with illegal
armed actors who have defied the authority of
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While negotiations led to the
disarmament of several smaller armed groups,
a number of failed attempts to form peace
agreements with the FARC and the ELN have
“Kidnappings, summary executions, and
armed violence against civilians became
characteristics of daily life in cities and
rural areas, and this forced greater efforts to
meet demands of the revolutionaries, further
undermining state power.”
allowed the internal conflict to continue to
plague Colombia and its citizens.15 In 2002,
after the breakdown of peace talks between
President Andrés Pastrana and the FARC, and
just before the election of President Uribe, the
government of Colombia abandoned the peace
process and announced plans to destroy the
revolutionary groups using military offensives.16 After 2002, violence declined as guerrillas and
paramilitaries were militarily and financially
weakened; homicides and kidnappings decreased
significantly from 2000 to 2007.17 While security
conditions have improved, the violence and
displacement has continued, particularly in rural
areas.18 In addition, while the demobilization of
the Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a
right-wing paramilitary force, led to a dramatic
decline in paramilitary violence, it also generated
dozens of new criminal and drug-trafficking
organizations and networks that continue to
terrorize the civilian population.19
The internal armed conflict in Colombia
is shaped by a complex history of tensions and
struggles between armed groups and the state.
For decades this conflict has led to widespread
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violence and wholesale violations of human
rights and international humanitarian law by all
sides of the conflict, and continues to be a major
issue concerning the international community.
Causes of the Conflict
There are several complex factors
that have contributed to the Colombian civil
war. These factors represent not only the root
causes of the conflict but also forces that have
allowed for the continuation of the war and
the escalations of violence that characterize its
evolution. Structural deficiencies historically
contributing to widespread inequalities,
institutional weaknesses of the state, and
proliferation of the drug trade are all primary
contributing factors that have influenced the
conflict and the humanitarian crisis that exists in
the country today.
Structural Deficiencies and Inequality
Although the urban population in
Colombia represents the majority of the total
population, the historical roots of political
violence are primarily rural. A history of
unequal access to land and natural resources
and struggles to gain political and economic
power has traditionally characterized the status
of Colombia’s rural population.20 Political
exclusion throughout the twentieth century
favored economic elites and neoliberal trade
interests, and led to unequal access to land and
resources.21 A combination of availability of
natural resources – including land, agricultural
resources, and oil – and high levels of inequality
transformed rural areas into a battleground
The Colombian Civil War
between guerrilla and paramilitary groups
as they competed for resources.22 With the
increased violence in the countryside, entry of
displaced people into local communities also
led to additional widespread violence in conflict
over land and resources.23
The roots of violence in Colombia lay
in a foundation of economic inequality tied to
poverty, unemployment, and lack of education.24
Despite positive growth rates in the 1980s and
1990s, in 2001 52% of the population lived in
poverty, unemployment remained at 20%, 63%
of the campesinos (farmers) owned less than
5% of the land, and drug traffickers owned
more than half of the most productive land.25 This marginalization had significant effects on
the conflict, contributing to insecurity of the
population and highlighting inadequacies of
state institutions.
Weaknesses of the State
“[L]evels of violence in Colombia
would likely decline if the central government
and state institutions were strong enough to
create and enforce rule of law and repress
violent challenges to state authority.”26 The
historic weakness of the Colombian state stems
from its institutional deficiency. With large
portions of Colombian territory lacking a strong
state presence, the state is inefficient in tax
collection and has an extremely weak resource
base.27 Because of this lack of resources, the
Colombian military is small and weak by Latin
American standards.28 As a result of poor
training and organization, the military was
unable to assert itself in territory controlled by
guerrillas, and relied on paramilitary forces to
deal with rebel forces.29 The unlawful methods
used by paramilitaries against rebels and civilians
undermined the legitimacy of state authority.30 Colombia’s physical and political
geography also has proved a major obstacle
to state building; with several discontiguous
communities remain in semi-isolation as limited
participants in the economy and politics of the
nation.31 As a result, Colombian rebels have
been able to consolidate their operations in areas
where the state presence is weak; it is in these
stateless areas that illicit drug cultivation is also
most prevalent.32
These weaknesses are a significant root
cause of the conflict and highlight reasons for
the government’s inherent inability to form
a lasting peace and mitigate the effects of the
“...Colombian rebels have been able to
consolidate their operations in areas where the
state presence is weak; it is in these stateless
areas that illicit drug cultivation is also most
Drug Trade and Escalations of Violence
Over the course of the war, the drug
trade has provided a steady source of income
that fueled the conflict and contributed to
its intractability.33 As their profits from the
cocaine trade in the 1980s were converted into
immense power within the economy and society,
drug traffickers expanded their operations:
they terrorized the judicial system through
systematic assassinations of judges and police,
bombings of newspaper offices, and the killing
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of pro-extradition politicians.34 They also
began to support the rebel forces – while the
ELN distanced itself from the drug trade, it is
estimated that 70% of the FARC’s income is
derived from the trade.35 Tired of being targeted
by guerrillas, drug traffickers turned on the
left and began to finance paramilitary squads:
“through the support of the drug traffickers,
the paramilitaries became increasingly effective
in terrorizing the populace in communities
perceived as supporters of the guerrillas.”36 With cultivation of illicit drugs, guerrillas and
paramilitaries have engaged in a deadly conflict
for control of coca fields and trade routes,
essential resources for those involved in both
insurgency and counter-insurgency.37
Coca itself is subject to a global regime
of opposition to illicit drugs, dominated by
the United States.38 This opposition has had
numerous unintended consequences: it has
given coca extraordinary value as “lootable”
wealth appropriated by combatants in civil wars;
it has made it difficult for the government to
appropriate directly the profits associated with
drug cultivation, allowing non-state actors to
capture most of the profits of the trade; and
the coercive military and police activities of the
“War on Drugs” has simply shifted the flow
of profits to a different set of private actors.39 While there were a series of tactical successes
in the 1990s, U.S.-promoted antidrug policies
have actually strengthened the FARC; they
pushed coca cultivation into FARC-dominated
areas, providing the FARC with opportunities
to extract resources from the cocaine industry
and deepen its insurgency against the state.40 The large-scale deficiencies in state sovereignty
have also allowed for the growth of the drug
trade and the expansion of the guerrilla forces
in stateless and politically vulnerable areas.41 10
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The causal factors of this conflict are
numerous and complex, and involve a deep
history of institutional problems in Colombia
and destructive developments that thrive on the
state’s weaknesses and the marginalization of the
population. In addition to these internal factors,
the involvement of the international community
presents some critical external factors that
have affected the nature of the conflict and the
potential for a lasting peace.
The Role of the
International Community
In the 1980s and 1990s, the “war on
drugs” shaped U.S. policy directives in the region;
in 1999 the United States supported Colombia’s
efforts to combat drug trafficking by financing
an anti-narcotics battalion and its operations.42 In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the
war on terror drove U.S. foreign policy concerns
to combat insurgencies, including a fight against
armed groups in Colombia.43 U.S. involvement
in the region throughout this period had serious
implications for hopes of a lasting peace.
The most significant and historical
milestone in Colombia-U.S. relations was Plan
Colombia, formed in a partnership between
President Clinton and then-Colombian
President Andrés Pastrana.44 Plan Colombia
was a multi-billion dollar plan to strengthen the
Colombian state. From 2000 to 2007, Colombia
received more than US $5 billion for its military
and police to conduct counterinsurgency and
antinarcotics operations, and for oil pipeline
protection.45 Plan Colombia was widely criticized
for worsening the situation in Colombia: rather
than fighting various drug cartels or rightwing paramilitary groups (who have admitted
The Colombian Civil War
that 70% of their money comes from drug
trafficking), the plan targeted the FARC, turned
Colombia into the third-largest recipient of U.S.
military aid in the world, and helped escalate
the war by pushing the FARC deeper into drug
trafficking.46 Additionally, from 1993 to 2003,
more than 35,000 Colombians were killed,
the vast majority (about 82%) at the hands of
death squads operating in collusion with the
Colombian military, which was backed by the
United States.47 Involvement from the rest of the
international community has been primarily
directed at attempts to form peace agreements
to end the conflict and negotiate cease-fires,
demobilization, and exchanges of prisoners.
Third parties have played a marginal role in
peace negotiations in Colombia: no third party
has ever served as a full-fledged mediator, and
the UN has never sent a peacekeeping or peacebuilding mission to help implement any peace
“[F]rom 1993 to 2003, more than 35,000
Colombians were killed, the vast majority
(about 82%) at the hands of death squads
operating in collusion with the Colombian
military, which was backed by the United
accords.48 As a result, there have been no real
outside enforcement mechanisms in place to
implement afor parties to a peace accord.
Within the region of Latin America,
relations between Colombia and other countries
have also been strained due to drug trafficking
and guerrilla activity in border areas, as well as
disagreements over Colombia’s management
of the conflict. Tensions with Ecuador and
Venezuela have heightened as a result of a
series of events that included the suspension of
Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez as mediator
for a hostage exchange with the FARC, the
military incursion into Ecuadorean territory that
killed FARC leader Raul Reyes, and the emergence
of information linking the Venezuelan and
Ecuadorean governments, among others, to
the FARC leadership.49 Such tensions between
Colombia and neighboring countries have made
it difficult to create solidarity in the region and
to realize common goals of peace.
Public resentment of U.S. support
for a corrupt military, counterproductive
interventions, insufficient involvement of the
international community and strained relations
with other countries in the region have all been
obstacles in the development of lasting peace
initiatives and a permanent end to the war.50 Yet these failures of outside intervention also
underscore a historic inability of the state to
effectively and lawfully deal with the threat of
illegal armed actors, a fact that has had significant
implications for the nature of the conflict and
the suffering of its victims.
The Nature of the
Violence and Violations of
International Law
There are several implications of
international humanitarian law in this conflict.
The two provisions of the Conventions that
apply to internal armed conflicts are Common
Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions and
Additional Protocol II.51 To protect civilians,
Article 3 prohibits violence, murder, mutilation,
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torture, hostage taking, degrading treatment, and
extrajudicial killings or passing of sentences.52 In temporary agreements, all armed parties have
demonstrated a willingness to act in accordance
with the laws of war.53 In practice, however, all
armed parties have committed grave violations
of these laws to the detriment of the Colombian
Violations by the State and Paramilitary
According to Human Rights Watch, at
the root of many violations of the war is the
Colombian army’s consistent and pervasive
failure or unwillingness to distinguish civilians
“Both killings and torture of civilians have
been used to spread terror,63 and Colombia has
become known as the “kidnap capital of the
world”: between 2002 and 2009, more than
17,000 people were kidnapped – including
prominent legislators, government ministers,
presidential candidates, businesspeople, and
U.S. contractors..”
from combatants in accordance with the laws
of war.54 Paramilitary groups, allied under the
name United Self-Defense Groups of Colombia
(AUC), have engaged in particularly brutal
violence in the conflict; paramilitaries see their
non-state status as a carte blanche to combat
guerrilla groups by using their same tactics.55 The
ties between the state forces and paramilitaries
are significant:
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[massacres] were perpetrated by members
of the armed forces passing themselves
off as paramilitaries, joint actions by
members of the armed forces or police and
paramilitaries, or actions by paramilitaries
enjoying the complicity, support or
acquiescence of the regular forces.”56
When questioned about executions and
massacres conducted by joint paramilitary units,
leaders of the armed forces have denied military
participation in the operation and claimed that
the victims were guerrillas, fugitives, or their
In addition to engaging in indiscriminate
attacks, the army and paramilitaries have been
implicated in crimes of torture, widespread
forced displacement, death threats, and attacks
on groups protected under international law.58 In its efforts to weaken rebel groups, the
government even came close to setting off an
international conflict. The 2008 Colombian
army’s invasion of a rebel camp in Ecuador,
which led to the killing of Raúl Reyes and other
FARC leaders, nearly provoked an international
war as Ecuador and Venezuela sent troops to the
border and protested Colombia’s violation of
Ecuador’s territorial integrity.59 The conflict was
prevented, but this signaled the extreme actions
that the government is willing to take to combat
guerrilla forces.
Violations by Guerilla Groups
“Each night they kill groups of five or six
defenseless people, who are cruelly and monstrously
massacred after being tortured. The screams of humble
people are audible, begging for mercy.” 60
- Virginia Bouvier, 2009.
The Colombian Civil War
Just as army and paramilitary forces
have engaged in gross violations, the tactics used
by guerrilla groups in the conflict have been
characterized blatant disregard for international
norms. A large number of crimes against civilians
have been attributed to the FARC and the ELN
rebel groups; in 2009, among other violations of
international humanitarian law, there were at least
27 massacres, 18 indiscriminate attacks, acts of
terrorism, forced displacement, torture, sexual
violence against women and girls, kidnappings
and hostage-takings, and attacks on medical and
other public buildings.61 While guerrilla groups
have claimed that they respect international law,
they have demonstrated support only when
there has been a political advantage to do so.62 Throughout the conflict, the guerrilla
forces have used several tactics to terrorize the
civilian population and support their military
objectives. Both killings and torture of civilians
have been used to spread terror,63 and Colombia
has become known as the “kidnap capital of
the world”: between 2002 and 2009, more than
17,000 people were kidnapped – including
prominent legislators, government ministers,
presidential candidates, businesspeople, and U.S.
contractors.64 Widespread recruitment of child
soldiers, use of anti-personnel land mines, sexual
violence, torture, and enforced disappearance
have also characterized the extremely inhuman
tactics utilized by the guerrilla groups against the
civilian population throughout the war.65
In contrast to the FARC, the ELN was
one of the first insurgent groups in Colombia
to begin an internal discussion of humanitarian
law. In the 1990s, the group adopted a “Guerrilla
Code” that expressed general compliance
with Protocol II in regulating the behavior of
militants.66 Nevertheless, the ELN, like the
FARC, has continued to engage in indiscriminate
attacks, massacres, kidnappings, torture, and
other acts that violate the laws of war.67 Violations of humanitarian law have
been common practice by all sides throughout
this conflict, and have effectively placed the
civilian population at the center of its violence.
Forced Displacement
The effects of this conflict on the
population are most clearly reflected in the
numbers of those forced to flee their homes
from the violence. According to the UNHCR,
an estimated 3 million people remain displaced
throughout Colombia as a result of the conflict.68
Since 1980, all parties have provoked forced
displacements of the civilian population.69
Displacement has led to a number of concerns:
displaced populations have lost millions of
hectares of land, much of which has been taken
by illegal armed groups; threats against and
murders of leaders of displaced communities
have become prevalent;70 and with an estimated
4.3 million undernourished persons in Colombia
and the interruption of activities to obtain food,
the conflict has led to acute food insecurity
for those internally displaced.71 The issue of
forced displacement clearly illustrates the widely
destructive and indiscriminatory nature of the
conflict and represents one of the most serious
issues surrounding the Colombian war.
Recent Developments
The last decade has seen several
positive developments in Colombia’s conflict.
During the Uribe administration and the new
Santos administration new developments have
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been made that demonstrate an encouraging
willingness to establish accountability and
security mechanisms and to curb corruption.
Yet while some of these developments represent
major gains for victims’ rights and justice, others
portray the limitations of corruption, limited
resources, and political interests. Progressive
measures are critical to advancing claims to
justice and peace, but each measure should be
analyzed critically to determine its sustainability
and effectiveness.
Following the 2002 breakdown of peace
talks between President Andrés Pastrana and the
FARC, Álvaro Uribe was elected president based
on his commitment to all-out military victory over
the guerrillas.72 While this new approach has led
to improved security conditions in many large
cities and towns, the violence and displacement
has continued, particularly in the rural areas.73 Additionally, while the demobilization of the
Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) led
to a decline in paramilitary violence, it also
generated dozens of new criminal and drugtrafficking organizations and networks that
continue to terrorize the population.74 The
Uribe administration succeeded in promoting
constitutional order and institutional stability,
yet politicking and corruption at lower levels of
government institution has prevailed.75 In addition to a shift in the government’s
approach toward counterinsurgency, the
disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration
(DDR) process in Colombia, which began in
1992 and continues today, represents the goal of
transitional justice; this process has the objective
of securing the rights of citizens and creating
space for the reintegration of demobilized
armed groups.76 The process involves provision
of amnesty to any former combatants not
under investigation, and reintegration through
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provision of benefits.77 While there is hope that
this process may provide a basis of peace and
justice, “it remains to be seen if the Colombian
DDR and transitional justice model can be
implemented so it satisfies both the requirements
for an immediate cessation of violence while
also meeting victims’ demands for reparation.”78 As part of DDR and for the prosecution
of alleged crimes, the government passed the
Justice and Peace Law (JPL) in 2005.79 With
this law, combatants charged with violations are
eligible for trial and benefits after relinquishing
illegally acquired property and ceasing illegal
activities, child soldiers are handed over to
authorities, and demobilized individuals receive
benefits if they provide information.80 While
thousands have demobilized and applied for
benefits through the JPL, challenges remain.
Implementation of the law was stymied by
relative disinterest of the Uribe government
in promoting victims’ rights, and problems
were exacerbated by deficiencies in the judicial
process and in reparations, as well as persistence
of the conflict.81 While political issues have hindered
progress at the national level, initiatives by
civil society organizations, in alliance with
disempowered groups and victims, have
helped to create a more inclusive system to
address major issues of the conflict.82 At the
local level, Colombian citizens have carried
out negotiations with armed actors to release
kidnap victims, prevent displacement, and
allow safe passage of food and medicine; they
have also addressed corruption and created
opportunities for economic development.83 Because the government has prioritized efforts
to reestablish security above interests of justice
and victims’ rights, initiatives such as the JPL
have hindered the progress of justice.84 With
The Colombian Civil War
an ability to address concerns of communities,
the participation of victims and civil society is
absolutely crucial to any plan for peace.
Victim’s Rights and Justice Initiatives
While the Justice and Peace Act of 2005
was precedentialset important precendents, the
Act had numerous shortcomings and flaws. It
required war criminals to surrender voluntarily
to receive amnesty in return, placed restrictions
on the investigative and prosecutorial process,
gave reduced sentences for all accepted charges,
and made paramilitary crimes domestic political
crimes to prevent war criminals from being tried
by the US or the ICC.85 Most significantly, the
decree denied all state responsibility in the crimes
perpetrated.86 According to numerous articles
published on the subject, the Act exemplified
the government’s failure to adequately address
gross violations of international law.87 In
addition, reparations have been hampered by the
slow judicial proceedings and limited inventory
in the fund for victims reparations.88 By placing
an emphasis on economic reparation, it has
undermined efforts at establishing the truth
behind the crimes that these individuals suffered
and the responsibility of the criminals.89 For
these reasons, the Justice and Peace Act has
represented an incomplete application of justice.
The Santos administration’s “Victims’
Law” was sent to Congress on September 17,
2010, and if passed may represent the most
significant advancement in human rights and
justice to date. It builds on the 2009 draft, which
failed because the Uribe administration opposed
key elements that would have investigated
state abuses and violations of international
humanitarian law.90 The new law extends
protection to all victims who suffered damage
in the conflict, includes victims of crimes
committed by state agents, provides financial and
non-financial reparations to victims, provides
special protection and legal aid, and gives priority
to vulnerable groups.91 This law would mark a
major advancement in fully recognizing victims’
While the bill is consistent with
international standards and would represent a
major step forward in recognition of victims’
rights and application of justice, several
problems with the bill have been identified. First,
the bill allocates only $22 million for reparations
over 15 years, which is a meager amount when
taking into account the vast measures that would
have to be implemented to enforce its claims. In
addition, as identified by Amnesty International,
there are several major concerns regarding
“The Santos administration’s ‘Victims’
Law’ was sent to Congress on September 17,
2010, and if passed may represent the most
significant advancement in human rights and
justice to date.”
the law: ambiguity about addressing crimes
of international humanitarian law, denial of
compensation to future victims of the conflict
and to victims of state agents other than security
forces, failure to effectively address restitution
of land misappropriated by paramilitaries and
acknowledge state responsibility in abusing
human rights and violating IHL, and ineligibility
of thousands of recent victims of paramilitary
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violence because the government denies that
such groups still operate.92 These concerns
are valid and important for the government of
Colombia to consider. To maintain legitimacy, it
is essential that all victims of violence receive
the same access to reparations and justice and
that there are adequate resources to provide
reparations. Nevertheless, the urgent interests
of justice and victims’ rights demand swift
actions; this bill has potential as a comprehensive
and progressive resolution to address crimes
committed by all groups and to promote the
principles of justice and peace.
For the armed parties to the conflict,
impunity has generally remained the rule.
These groups have failed to comply with
humanitarian law by neither investigating nor
punishing individuals who commit violations.93 With flagrant violations of the laws of war
and a highly incompetent judiciary, Colombia’s
government has historically failed to fulfill its
responsibility to promote accountability and
protect its citizens. With issues of corruption,
there have been recommendations by civil
society groups that the ICC bring a prosecution
against officials of the Colombian government
for their support of war crimes.94 However,
recent developments have provided grounds for
hope of more effective systems of accountability
and recognition of human rights. Although
there is room for improvement, initiatives such
as these are crucial to establish accountability for
the crimes committed, to implement initiatives
that strengthen security and curb corruption,
and to regain the confidence of the Colombians
in their government.
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Recommendations for
Future Action
“If you want peace, work for justice.”
– Pope Paul VI
The civilian population of Colombia
has suffered extensively from the culture of
violence and unlawfulness that has characterized
this conflict. These citizens have demanded
justice and compensation for their suffering as
victims of the conflict. Although there have
been advancements in favor of justice and
peace initiatives, there is still a desperate need
for more effective initiatives to promote peace,
accountability, justice, and security. In order to
realize these goals, I strongly recommend that
the Colombian government strengthen the
judiciary and curb corruption in the government,
establish and strengthen local citizen-security
initiatives, and pass critical legislation to address
the enormous suffering of all victims in this
Recommendation 1: Strengthen judiciary and
curb corruption
“The judicial system too often is unable
to bring offenders to justice. Its capacity and
independence need to be strengthened so it
can better address high levels of impunity.”95
The inefficiency and partiality of the courts in
Colombia has been a significant concern in the
pursuit of justice, and has gravely undermined
citizen trust in judicial institutions. During the
Uribe administration the judiciary and executive
had a troubled relationship; allegedly, the DAS
The Colombian Civil War
(Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad), a
state-sponsored intelligence agency, was involved
in wire-tapping several judges and opposition
politicians.96 Since becoming president, Santos
has disbanded the DAS and has promoted the
establishment of a new agency that is subject
to oversight by the judiciary rather than the
presidency.97 Such measures can strengthen the
integrity of the judiciary and combat corruption
in the government. Implementation of these
measures by the Colombian government is
“With flagrant violations of the laws of
war and a highly incompetent judiciary,
Colombia’s government has historically
failed to fulfill its responsibility to promote
accountability and protect its citizens.”
necessary not only to provide legitimacy to state
authority, but also to promote realization of
domestic justice for perpetrators and victims.
Recommendation 2: Establish and
strengthen local citizen-security initiatives
With an increase in urban violence since
2008 and a limited and generally uncoordinated
state response to such violence, citizens-security
initiatives that promote local enforcement and
strengthen the role of civil society groups
should be a priority. Fighting corruption in law
enforcement agencies, engaging local authorities,
and providing more intelligence to investigate
individual perpetrators and criminal structures
are essential actions that the government should
take to achieve this aim. The Citizen Security
Law, passed in October 2010, would address
some of these goals. The package’s preventive
measures, however, are outbalanced by its other
objectives involving reactive, repressive actions
that may fill already overcrowded jails with more
prisoners than they can handle.98 For violence in
the countryside, the government should engage
with local civil society groups to understand
their concerns and develop detailed protection
plans. Citizen-security efforts can provide
environments in which state representatives
can operate and citizens can engage with them
without fear of being targeted by armed groups.
As discussed, structural deficiencies,
socioeconomic inequality, weaknesses of the
state, and the drug trade in Colombia have been
highly influential in the proliferation of tensions
and escalations of violence during the conflict.
Addressing these factors is critical to the
political, social, and economic stability of the
country and its citizens, and will greatly benefit
peace initiatives. Civil society organizations have
and can continue to help the government reach
marginalized groups of the population, facilitate
discussions on peace initiatives, and engage in
communication with armed groups.99 These
groups help to consolidate state presence in
more vulnerable regions and therefore reduce
the weaknesses of the state. For all of these
reasons, local initiatives are essential to promote
peace and security and to give a voice to citizens.
Recommendation 3: Pass critical legislation
to promote justice and victims’ rights:
Victims’ Law
Although human rights groups have
identified fundamental problems in the Victims’
Law, this bill represents a bold initiative and a
willingness of the government to acknowledge
not only the crimes of rebel groups but also
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Giselle Lopez
those of paramilitaries and state forces. Passage
of this bill is critical to establishing truth behind
the crimes and justice through reparation for
the suffering of the victims. An urgent need
for justice and sustainable peace requires that
the government pass this law to acknowledge
the rights of victims and provide assurance
that they will never again endure such violence
and flagrant violations of the law. For decades,
impunity has remained the rule in Colombia;
recent developments provide grounds for
hope of reversing this trend by establishing
more effective systems of accountability and
recognition of human rights. It is absolutely
crucial for the Colombian government to pass
such initiatives in order to establish accountability
for crimes and to regain the confidence of the
Colombian people.
historically hindered progress toward peace.
Yet there remains a great deal of progress to
be made. A sustainable peace in Colombia will
require the strengthening of social and political
institutions to restore the legitimacy of the state
and to protect human rights. The establishment
of thorough and effective accountability
mechanisms for violations of international
humanitarian law is essential to reconstruct vital
social and community structures and to restore
the confidence of the civilian population. For the
future of Colombia and interests of domestic
and international security, the Colombian
government must rectify its failures to provide
security and respect human rights. By supporting
initiatives that promote the interests of peace,
security, and justice, the government can bring
a formal end to this conflict and formally
acknowledge the suffering of its victims.
“Restoring the State’s capacity to meet its
responsibilities depends on a process of social and
community reconstruction. For this reason, peace is
not a simple question of political will… peace must
be constructed gradually. State institutions must be
developed and strengthened in order to guarantee security
and respect for the rights and freedoms of all citizens in
all parts of the national territory.” 100
-Chalres Bergquist, et al, 2001.
In the 21st century, Colombia faces
numerous challenges in consolidating the
central power of the state, building a foundation
for peace and security, and restoring its
integrity among the population. With recent
developments, the Colombian state has taken
important steps in addressing many of the
political and socioeconomic problems that have
Vol. 2 - No. 1
Bouvier, Virginia Marie, Colombia: Building Peace in
a Time of War (Washington, D.C.: United
States Institute of Peace, 2009), 3.
Ibid., 3.
“Colombia: Recent History,” Europa World Plus,
Routledge Taylor and Francis Group,
accessed April 22, 2010, http://www.
Bouvier, 9.
“Colombia: Country Profile – September 2008
Main Report,” Economist Intelligence Unit,
September 2008, accessed April 29, 2010,
War Without Quarter: Colombia and International
Humanitarian Law, Human Rights Watch
(New York: Human Rights Watch, 1998),
The Colombian Civil War
Ibid., 131.
Ibid., 161.
Bouvier, 43.
Rebeca Toledo, War in Colombia: Made in U.S.A.
(New York: International Action Center,
2003), 44.
Ibid., 44.
“Colombia: Country Profile.”
Bouvier, 9.
Ibid., 9-10.
Toledo, 44.
“Colombia: Country Profile.”
Bouvier, 10.
Ibid., 10.
Caroline O.N. Moser and Cathy McIlwaine,
Encounters with Violence in Latin America:
Urban Poor Perceptions from Colombia and
Guatemala (New York: Routledge, 2004), 71.
Ibid., 35.
Moser, 72.
Ibid., 72.
Ibid., 88.
William Avilés, “Institutions, Military Policy, and
Human Rights in Colombia,” Latin American
Perspectives 28, no. 1 (2001): 36-37.
Alex McDougall, “State Power and Its
Implications for Civil War Colombia,” Studies
in Conflict and Terrorism 32, no. 4 (2009): 326.
Ibid., 327.
McDougall, 333.
McDougall, 332.
William Avilés and Eduardo Posada-Carbó,
“Assessing Colombia’s Political System,”
Latin American Perspectives 28, no. 1 (2001):
Bouvier, 4.
Avilés, “Assessing Colombia’s Political System,”
Bouvier, 62.
Avilés, “Assessing Colombia’s Political System.”
Moser, 73.
Mark Peceny and Michael Durnan, “The FARC’s
Best Friend: U.S. Antidrug Policies and the
Deepening of Columbia’s Civil War in the
1990s,” Latin American Politics & Society 48,
no. 2 (2006): 96.
Ibid., 96.
Ibid., 95.
Avilés, et. al., “Assessing Colombia’s Political
System,” 166.
Bouvier, 5. “Colombia: Recent History.”
Ibid., 5.
Ibid., 5.
Ibid., 5.
Ibid., 56.
Toledo, 51.
Avilés, et. al., “Institutions, Military Policy, and
Human Rights in Colombia,” 49.
“Colombia: Country Profile.”
Bouvier, 12.
War Without Quarter, 21.
Ibid., 24.
Ibid., 44.
Ibid., 102.
United Nations, and United Nations Human
Rights Council, Report of the United Nations
High Commissioner for Human Rights on
the Situation of Human Rights in Colombia
(Geneva: United Nations, 2008), 16.
War Without Quarter, 66.
Ibid., 81-84.
Bouvier, 12.
Ibid., 100.
United Nations, 14.
War Without Quarter, 133.
Ibid., 138.
Bouvier, 5.
United Nations, 10-14.
War Without Quarter, 162.
Ibid., 171-178.
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees,
“2010 UNHCR country operations profile
– Colombia,” accessed April 22, 2010,
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Giselle Lopez
War Without Quarter, 205.
United Nations, 15.
United Nations, 17.
Columbia: Beyond Negotionation, Human Rights
Watch (New York: Human Rights Watch,
2001), 10.
Ibid., 10.
“Colombia: Country Profile.”
Paula Torres, Yaneth Giha and Sergio Jaramillo,
“Transitional Justice and the DDR: The
Case of Colombia,” International Center
for Transitional Justice, June 2009, accessed
May 5, 2010,
Colombia_ResearchBrief_RB_2009.pdf, 3.
Ibid., 2.
Ibid., 3.
“Correcting Course: Victims and the Justice and
Peace Law in Colombia,” International Crisis
Group, October 30, 2008, accessed May
5, 2010,
Bouvier, 13.
Ibid., 14.
“Correcting Course.”
“Colombia: President Santos’s Conflict Resolution
Opportunity,” International Crisis Group, Latin
America Report, October 13, 2010, 9.
A. Bolletino, “Crimes Against Humanity in
Colombia: The International Criminal
Court’s Jurisdiction Over the May 2003
Attack on the Betoyes Guahibo Indigenous
Reserve and Colombian Accountability,”
Human Rights Review 9, no. 4 (2008): 495.
“President Santos’s Conflict Resolution
Opportunity,” 9.
Vol. 2 - No. 1
Ibid., 22.
“Colombia: Congress must not approve seriously
flawed ‘Victims’ Law,’” Amnesty International,
November 24, 2008, accessed December
3, 2010,
Colombia: Beyond Negotiation, 26-28.
Ibid., 500.
“President Santos’s Conflict Resolution
Opportunity,” 18.
“Colombia politics: Fissures emerge,” Economist
Intelligence Unit, ViewsWire, November 12,
2010, accessed November 22, 2010, http://
“President Santos’s Conflict Resolution
Opportunity,” 15.
Bouvier, 14.
Charles Bergquist, Ricardo Penaranda, and
Gonzalo Sanchez, Violence in Colombia: 19902000 (Rowman and Littlefield, 2001), 233.
Giselle Lopez
is originally from
Austin, Texas, and is a senior in the Jackson
School majoring in International Studies with a
focus in Human Rights, Law, Society and Justice. She has an interest in international humanitarian
law, human rights, and conflict resolution,
particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin
America. After graduation, Giselle plans to earn
a masters in international affairs and to pursue a
career in foreign diplomacy or with the United
Nations. This paper was originally writen as a
Qualifying Paper for SISME 420, a course on
International Humanitarian Law, taught by
Professor F. M. Lorenz.
Paper edited by Kelsey Barrett.