Colombian conflict and its historical implications

Colombian conflict and its historical implications

Mateo Villamil Valencia

Utrecht University


As a protracted conflict, the war in Colombia shows many different dynamics with respect to its roots, its develop, the factors that perpetuate, not only its existence, but also its state of being in force and finally –and which is what we will discuss on this essay– regarding to the historical conditions for the apparently indefinite prolongation of the belligerence.

We will follow the guide from Paul Wher1 for conflict mapping but also go further in our analysis beyond the outlining and framing of the situation. It regards to go deeper into the conjunctural alternates of various actors’ action lines, analyzing the structural political background presented as endemic and irresolute. The historical perspective intends to give a more serious political nuance, which could signify a larger scope to a preliminary study like this, bringing it closer to the holistic vision used by Bergquist, Peñaranda and Sánchez2. The association between Welfare State and violence in Colombia becomes inescapable since this is a country somewhere between the European develop and social peace, and the misery and de-structuration of poor countries. Thus, this concept will be the guide mark in order to fathom in part the Colombian State deficiencies throughout history after the independence.

The Conflict

Colombia is a unitary country and a constitutional republic divided in 32 departamentos. It is located in northwestern South America, bordered by Panama, the Caribbean Sea, Venezuela, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador and the Pacific Ocean.

Indigenous peoples inhabited the territory of modern-day Colombia until the Spanish arrival in 1499. The country became independent in 1819, but by 1830 the Bolívar’s project La Gran Colombia failed when Venezuela and Ecuador seceded. The new nation was a Confederation (La Confederación Granadina) from 1958 and then the Estados Unidos de Colombia in 1863. Finally the República de Colombia was declared in 1886.

With an ethnical diversity product on the one hand of the Spanish colonization and its consequent enslaved human beings importation from Africa and on the other, product of the multiple migrations from countries like Lebanon, Syria and Jordan in the Middle East; Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine and Germany in Europe or Japan and China in the Eastern Asia, during the late XIX century and mainly the first half of the XX, Colombia presents a series of inequalities upon the areas historically more subjected by the hegemonic ethnic group. These

disparities have to do with diverse aspects that would serve as substratum for the development of an atmosphere conducive to conflict.

These peoples are, obviously, afrocolombians and natives. They represent the 10,6% and 3,4% of the population respectively3 and show the worst HDI wherever they live4. All of this turn into a social fracture that despite other issues improvements establishes an obstacle for the consecution of an egalitarian and hence peaceful society. Regardless of the deep implications that this tearing process could imply in the construction of a wealthy and prosperous nation in terms of social, urban, technological and even cultural development, is really important the effervescent emergence of grievances and political actions, legally legitimated or not, that feed the advent of a armed conflict. Azar explains this point as follows:


“Grievances resulting from need deprivation are usually expressed collectively. Failure to redress these grievances by the authority cultivates a niche for a protracted social conflict”

in RAMSBOTHAM, O., Et al. (2011: 86)




The main issues that could describe the roots of the Colombian conflict are the ownership of the land and, probably as an antecedent of this, the abandonment of entire parts of the national territory by the State. Thus, the conflict can be summarized as follows, based on a preliminary study by Deusto University researchers5:

i)  Accelerated concentration of the land ownership, fed by the latifundium – mainly cafetero6- first and by the drug trafficking afterwards.

ii)  “Biased collapse” of the State in some regions and minimal presence of the same one in vast areas of the territory.

iii)  Massive expulsions of peasants from their lands.

iv)  Continuous migration from countryside to countryside with the consequent opening of the agricultural boundaries and overpopulation in the Shanty Towns around the cities because of the migration from countryside to urban centers.

v)  Multiplicity of armed actors or that made part of armed groups, from guerrillas and rightwing paramilitaries in the last period to landowners and political chiefs that would not hesitate to build around them their own self-defense mechanisms in order to protect their fiefdoms. Meanwhile the Army contributed to the recrudescence of the conflict with its legal political violence share. Not rarely its relations with illegal groups formed a gray zone, moral and analytically confusing where the limits among legality and illegality got blurred.


Who was involved in the conflict as a belligerent actor? Were the entire actors belligerent? The fact is that Colombian conflict as such started as a reaction against the élitisation of the power. In the late 50s the traditional political parties monopolized by the elites, took the right to dominate all administrative strata and the whole political spectrum through the Frente Nacional, thus excluding the remainder of the political aspirations, especially the ones that come from the lower urban classes, the peasantry or in short from any other alternative force that threatens their hegemony.

Even so, either the Colombian conflict must be explained as a pugnacious military fight, the actors involved are reduced to the armed bellicose groups. Regardless the history of Colombian conflict has good few of non-armed parties that were important when not crucial in the development of the war.

Thereupon, we can frame an outline of the key actors implicated throughout the conflict (GÓMEZ ISA, F., et. al., 2008: 19-20; BERGQUIST, C., et. al., 1992: 186-187):

Subversive groups

i) FARC: Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia. The organization arised feeling betrayed by Liberals although they began as a liberal self-defense force in the fifties and therefore embraced Marxism-Leninism, fact that bring them closer to de Colombian Communist Party.

Growth in the countryside, is a movement from the agrarian to the urban through political action. Appeal to social sectors excluded from access to land, credit, and commerce.

Its main goals are the control of territory as key to control of population; political route, including participation in electoral politics; involve the people in politics in order to move on later to other forms of struggle; and use of the principle: “War is the continuation of politics using other means”.

ii)  ELN: Ejército de Liberación Nacional. Under the Liberation Theory or Liberation Theology, this aggrupation flourished influenced by the spread and expansion of the Cuban revolution and dropped off FARC as dissidents. Their main goals are the assumption of the Liberation as a way to promote awareness regard to the socioeconomic reality in Latin America, the defense of the life of all, sovereignty over natural resources and the elimination of exploitation, lack of opportunities and injustice in Colombia (and around the world)7.

iii)  M-19: Movimiento 19 de Abril. Growth in the cities, it was a movement from the urban to the rural through military action. Consisting of intellectual youth, appeal to marginalized social sectors in the city, especially professionals and underemployed. It was characterized by the spectacularity of its actions and their mediatization. Their main goals are impact population regardless of territorial control; use politics to mobilize population to military action regardless of position on electoral politics; involve the guerrilla in the nation in order later to involve the nation with the guerrilla; and use of the principle: “Politics is the continuation of war using other means”.

iv)  Small organizations as EPL (Ejército Popular de Liberación) or Quintín Lame.

Reactionary groups

i) CONVIVIR8: private security cooperative. It was created by wealthy industrial men and rich land owners as a self-defense aggrupation in order to repel actions against their properties and connivance of the State Army in weapons, tactics and communication support9. It was the seed for the growth of the paramilitarismo in Colombia in the early nineties.

ii) AUC: Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia. Created as a fighting group that claim to exterminate leftist guerrillas, those self-defense armed groups were supported by rich cattle traders, land owners and drug traffickers, plus multinationals who want to protect their interests in the country10. At some point, the Army and AUC began to cooperate and nowadays there are many evidences that allow one to affirm that the relations between the Army and the paramilitaries became constant.

The Historical Perspective

According to numbers of the government, the Republic of Colombia had in 2010 near 46% of citizens in situation of deep poverty, this is 20.5 million people. Latin America is about 34% of poverty and rubs 13% of extreme poverty. Furthermore, the inequality in this zone of the planet is the most accused of the globe. The public services are, in almost the totality of the countries that constitute Latin America, defective, antiquated and insufficient. We might say that the large remittances and the economic growth of the first decade are practically the only factors that they have contributed to the decrease of the poverty in those countries and that only some of them could have diminished it significant and continuously11.

In spite of the exploitation, spoliation, usurpation and annihilation that supposed the invasion (commonly so called colonization) of the European powers in America –and its resulting relations of economic, political, racial and cultural domination– and the aberrant impoverishment of its inhabitants, product of the plunder of the richness of their lands, we might speak about the absence of development engines that would appear from the 19th Century and that Europe would guard jealously for its own benefit and which Latin America would lack to the present day. The advent of the modernity has not had the developing effect of the technical and technological innovations due to the almost endemic dependence of the production of raw materials without any added value.

The “forced modernization” and as a whole what we could call osmosisation12, they have not done that neither the economic relations nor the policies evolve for a way of reduction of the poverty and insurance of the well-being of the Latin American societies.
The Colombian State and how the Welfare state did not come

After the independence in 1819 and after the fingerprints of Simón Bolívar and Francisco de Paula Santander, their inheritors found in the 40s the political parties that would mark the political history of the country: the Partido Liberal and the Partido Conservador.

As it name indicates, the first party would represent perfectly the spirit of the incipient liberalism, which was claiming a Constitutional State that guarantee the property, the safety and the justice. A State that does not interfere in the economic area and that allows the free trade and the market economy.

The Partido Conservador would be, like the observed in the homologous trends in Europe, a detractor of the separation of the church and the State, jealous defender of the rule of law and the order, and the tradition.

Already by the French second empire the republicans criticized the individualistic philosophy and praised L’État-providence and in Bismarck’s Germany they already spoke about the “Social State” –and in fact, already by then there were kept aspirations similar to these two concepts and even to the same Welfare State from times of the Illustration and in the creation of the modern State as such–, but we certainly know that it is the Keynesianism adopted in the western world in 1945, which tries to unite the democracy and capitalism with social well-being of the citizens, which unleashed the legislation conscientiously carfeul that would make possible to generate well-being and to distribute better the wealth and the benefits of the nation among the entire population, who had remained very affected after the great war.

The appearance of the political parties as in Europe happened in the Latin-American country from mid-nineteenth century stimulated by the renewed wind of the illustrated ideas of the eighteenth century France and the fruits of its revolution –the declarations of Human Rights and the independence ones–; the parliamentary system was formed around the republicanism and Los criollos (autochthonous aristocracy which ethnic and cultural roots reside in the metropolis) were trying to puto into practice what the end of the previous century had left traces in the western world.

Thus, the illustrated Colombians started a race for the consolidation of a liberal State, which in one way or another (“radical” or “conservative”) could sustain the autonomy of the individual and the equality of rights for all its members. In this first half of century we find so decisive envents in the history of the European liberalism (that eventually will dominate the world) as the liberal revolutions against Carlos X the Borbón and the ascent of Felipe I, the opposition to the monarchy and its consequent proclamation of the Second Republic in France; and the independence of Belgium from The Netherlands on the one hand, and the incipient English Industrial Revolution, the creation of the Trade Unions or the publication of the Communist Manifest on the other.

In 1864 it would begin a stage of liberal radicalism, to whose head there was the ideologist Manuel Murillo Toro, co-artificer of the Ley de la reforma agrarian in 1850 during the government of José Hilario López in which was assured that:

The cultivation must be the base of the property of the land and that the accumulation of lands must be bordered by law13

During this stage we can observe the idea already interventionist –though they were many of the liberals in opposition to this practice– of a new State (after the creation of the United States of Colombia in the 1863 constitution) seen in the foundation of the Diario Oficial14 or the modernization of the national infrastructures. The organization of the State would be based on a strong federalism, an administrative secularism and its intervention – theoretically– would be reduced to the foreign affairs, boundaries issues and war.

In 1886 it would end the Olimpo Radical15 and with it the United States of Colombia. It is in this year in which the conservatism bounce into the national politics and founds the Republic of Colombia with a new constitution until 1930 when the Liberal party returns on power where they will remain for sixteenth years, period in which we can speak about a progressive and social impulse from the government.

Nevertheless, after a few years of liberal government, there comes to the power one of the most controversial leaders of the Colombian politics: the General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla. It is in this convulsed stage –that in addition answers to the intention of stabilizing and appeasing a country involved in these primitive partisan civil wars– and in the following coalition period of the Frente Nacional16 where we find the main State emptinesses in social security.

The Second World War would be the eclectic result of the discomfort for the first great war of Germany and Italy –and its respective ideologies–, the expansion of communism and the ascent of the neocolonialism; but if we notice a bit more, it seems to be clear that the Crash of 29 was the responsible of that schism that meant the failure of the liberal promise, which most visible face was the speculation and the credit money.

Is at that time when the “protective State” appears and materializes the aspirations of the social democrats and the grievances of industrial unions and State starts being understood as responsible of the social and economic well-being of its members, understanding this responsibility as a deserved right of the human being as the maker of the products of his society17.

The Growth

The growth is one of the conditions that allows the construction of a Social State based on the rule of law as well as the impulse that a country could need in order to take off towards the modernity and it is achievable fulfilling the requirements as the mechanized work, the existence of a labor market and worker’s supervision, and the introduction of the “businessman”18. The creation of a national industry (that in Europe was done already from middle of the 19th century) and the strengthening of this one to add added value to the autochtonous or imported raw materials, generate not only wealth but also develop the labor market, the production as such, the consumption and the wage increase. In the same way and in the same order, the economic stability and the prosperity that offers the industrial development in a situational frame like that I have just exhibited, are supported by a confidence in what Castel would call the capacity to dominate the future. Here we find also the deferred satisfaction principle19 through which the dynamics of reduction of inequality is lived as a victory a priori on the lacks of a social group that waits the reducing trend to be constant and ascendant.

Individuals Enrollment in Protective Groups

The collective convention, about which Castel speaks to us, is the key of the success of the machinery of the Social State. Though the whole equipment of the well-being is complex and heavy, there is remarkable the role of creating solid linkages between individuals with so clear interests at the moment of claiming the security and the guarantees to live worthily. Also, the regulation of the aspirations and strategies of the employers themselves, make the relation with the employees adjust more to the mold of the Social Security.

Being like that, the State, which in addition has stimulated and protected the resultant groups and the legality of its procedures, becomes necessary as guarantor and guide across the elaboration of commitments that both parts must fulfill in pursuit of the survival of the system.

The processes of individualization are and they will be strongly destructive elements of the collective conscience and they vehemently threaten to destroy the bows that with this one are established.

So, what is happening in Colombia?

Colombia has lived, as we have seen, a crude and sandy climate of violence from before the war of independence and that nowadays is kept with fierce persistence. The disagreements between its settlers (and later citizens) and the vicissitudes that have had to around in what to the imperialism, neocolonialism and neoliberalism it refers (Plan Colombia, Operation Condor, Independence of Panama, etc.), have done that the cohesion has been the real goal in the application of certain type of Social State, rather than the distribution of the wealth in elements as mentioned in this essay. The growth disrupted by the crisis of the 70s has made the redistribution negative.

In Azar’s words, we could conclude the nature of the process through which the Colombian society happens to finish in a conflict with such characteristics:

  1. The disjunction between state and society in Colombia, with its colonial legacy which artificially imposed European racialist and catholic ideas hidden behind the artificial territorial statehood onto different communal groups. Thus, a single communal group (white elites) dominates the entire state machinery and are unresponsive to the needs of the other groups in the Colombian society.
  2. The poverty, non-representation, insecurity and State abandonment suffered by a huge majority constitute the Colombian conflict substratum, it means, needs. Needs, unlike interests (regardless the economic interests within all the conflict history) are ontological and non-negotiable, so that, once the conflict find its roots in this kind of grievances, it is likely to be intense.
  3. Considering the incompetence of the State on development, political access, representation and education needs, the nexus with the paramilitary crimes against humanity, and the evident lack of legitimacy, product of the limited access of the majorities to almost every important issue, we can undoubtedly affirm that the weakness of the Colombian State and its failure, are determinant ingredients to breed that terrible war.


1 Found in RAMSBOTHAM, O., MIALL, H. and WOODHOUSE, T., Contemporary Conflict Resolution. Cambridge. Polity Press. 2011.
2 BERGQUIST, C., PEÑARANDA, R. and SÁNCHEZ, G., Violence in Colombia: The Contemporary Crisis in Historical Perspective. Wilmington. Scholarly Resources Inc. 1992


3 RODRÍGUEZ PALAU, E. et al., Colombia una nación multicultural: Su diversidad étnica. Bogotá. Dirección de Censos y demografía. DANE. 2007.
4 The Chocó region, traditionally African, shows an index of 0,731 and the traditionally native regions of Amazon Group (Amazonas, Vaupés and Guaviare) and Nariño a 0,768 and 0,773 correspondingly. For more information: Colombia rural, una razón para la esperanza. Informe Nacional de Desarrollo Humano. PNUD. 2011.

5 GÓMEZ ISA, F. et. al., Colombia en su laberinto: una mirada al conflicto. Madrid. Catarata. 2008.

6 Related to the production of coffee.

7 Extracted from the ELN website:
8 For more information about this topic, check the multiple statements from the Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos. For example:

9 Some evidence in the Decree-Law 356 of 1994:
10 CHERNICK, M., Negotiating Peace amid Multiple Forms of Violence: The Protracted Search for a Settlement to the Armed Conflicts in Colombia, in ARNSON, C., (ed.), Comparative Peace Processes in Latin America. Washington. Stanford: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, Standford University Press: 159 and following.
11 INTER-AMERICAN DIALOGUE, Pobreza y desigualdad en América Latina. 2009.

12 GWODA, L’Afrique dans le tourbillon des revendications identitaires: le réponse du nationalisme-ethniciste. Conference. Universidad Complutense de Madrid. 2011.

13 JARAMILLO URIBE, J., Antología del pensamiento político colombiano. Bogotá. Talleres Gráficos del Banco de la República. 1970.
14 Es la publicación institucional de la Imprenta Nacional. Como documento histórico recoge día a día el discurrir legal de la Nación. Esta publicación dio comienzo al periodismo diario en Colombia con la aparición de su primer número el 30 de abril de 1864 (Imprenta Nacional de Colombia).

15 VALDERRAMA ANDRADE, C., Atlas básico de historia de Colombia in Credencial Historia Review. Banco de la República. 1992. No25.
16 Coalición de los dos partidos mayoritarios para repartirse el poder y reorganizar el estado después del gobierno de
Rojas Pinilla.

17 Bienestar social y desarrollo de los derechos sociales: jornadas de estudio y planificación de la acción social. Salamanca. 1989. p. 27-30.
18 With regard to W.W. ROSTOW: LYON, D., Postmodernidad. Madrid. Alianza Editorial. 2009.

19 CASTEL, R., La inseguridad social, ¿Qué es estar protegido?. Buenos Aires. Manantial. 2004. p. 48-52.





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