The Colombian Armed Conflict & Current Peace Process

A characteristic unique to Colombia is that an established and pluralist democracy exists alongside a violent and persistent conflict. That is to say, with all its horror and pain, the conflict has done most harm to the peasant and rural periphery and has marginally impacted Colombia’s political and economic center. On one hand, there exists an urban and modern “center” similar to other Latin America countries, with an operational congress, justice system and economy. On the other, a rural periphery exists where government officials share power with armed insurgents acting against them, where legal processes are carried out with rifles in hand, and where those who are the most ruthless, thrive economically.

The Colombian armed conflict has been a failure. A failure for the two largest guerrilla groups, the FARC and ELN, who, after nearly six decades of armed struggle, have moved no closer to taking power since their inception. A failure for the paramilitaries, who in 40 years of barbarous acts, have managed little success in eliminating the guerrillas, and instead have morphed into a mercenary army for the drug trade. A failure for the Colombian State which has not been able to defeat the insurgents, nor control the militias that it created.

In its own horrific way, the conflict has degraded into a matter of routine. Violence is not so much focused on any real or presumed political aim that might lead to some kind of collective welfare, but rather geared to satisfy the aims of the group itself, or of some armed individual. The extreme degradation of the Colombian conflict is due, above all, to the fact that it has no direction. Some have called it a war system, in part economic, fueled by the dollars offered by the drug trade, oil and mining multinationals and the anti-terror and –narcotics programs of the US government. In a sense, the war has been privatized and institutionalized. To the degree in which the actions of armed groups, including the Colombian military, have ceased to be carried out in accordance with a vision, or a certain political logic, other logics have orientated it – primarily greed, power and self-preservation.

The logics of degradation haven taken their toll on the economic, social, political and international context of development. Nevertheless, the more direct impact, a more obvious and dramatic one, is on the individuals, families and communities immediately affected by the war. According to the National Victims Registry, the conflict has left 8,650,169 victims to date. This is more than 17% of the country’s entire population.

Many believe that the conflict has persisted for more than half a century due to the choices and actions of leftist insurgent groups seeking wealth and power. Accepting the first theory requires little to no historical background or analysis in order to come up with a possible response to armed groups challenging the state. The obvious course of action is to confront the rebels militarily, exactly the strategy employed by the Colombian government, with few exceptions, to rid itself of the FARC for decades. As mentioned at the onset, it has failed.

It is due to this failure that the government has made attempts to negotiate an end to the conflict, albeit half-heartedly. Attempts to negotiate are actually implicit recognitions that there are deeper roots to the conflict which cannot be addressed with force – structural factors such as political exclusion, a weak and corrupt state, unequal land ownership and a neglected rural sector.

After roughly four years of negotiations, in November of 2016, both houses of Congress ratified the revised peace agreement thus marking a formal end to the Colombian conflict with the FARC. The contents of the agreement are largely focused on how to deal with five broad issues: comprehensive rural reform, political participation, the end of the conflict, illicit drugs, and victims. While necessary to commend the important efforts by the government to consolidate the process and push through the political firestorm to formalize the end of the conflict with the FARC, the recognition that structural factors exist that have created an environment which is conducive to violence and armed conflict, more than the signed agreements, is perhaps the real progress towards a more just and peaceful Colombia.