Forgotten Wars - Colombia


Written by Richard Parker
30 Monday 30th June 2008

Could you try to give us some idea of the roots of this conflict?

The current conflict in Colombia is usually traced to the killing of Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, a very popular politician who was assassinated in the 1950s by unknown killers. His assassination triggered several years of widespread killings between liberals and conservatives known simply as “La Violencia” (the Violence). By the end of that period, over 200,000 people are estimated to have died. Around that time, various guerrilla groups started to develop, mostly around communist ideas. The most prominent that survives to this day is the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which has been engaged in a brutal conflict with government forces for decades.  Meanwhile, in the 1970s and 80s, wealthy drug traffickers and landowners formed paramilitary groups - essentially death squads to protect their interests from the guerrillas. The paramilitaries rapidly expanded in the 1990s, often with the toleration and acquiescence of important sectors of the military. Both paramilitaries and guerrillas are well financed due to the drug trade, which has added fuel to the fire.

What kind of human rights abuses are happening in Colombia on a regular basis?

Kidnappings, targeted killings, enforced disappearances, forced displacement and other abuses are widespread. While kidnappings have dropped in recent years as the FARC and another guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), have retreated from some areas, both groups continue to engage in it. The FARC is well known for holding civilians hostage for ransom or for political reasons for years on end in horrific conditions. The guerrillas also regularly recruit children as combatants, and in recent years have frequently used antipersonnel landmines, which are banned under international humanitarian law. The paramilitaries, after a period of rapid expansion in the 1990s marked by frequent large-scale massacres of peasants and killings of anyone who could oppose them or who they associated with the left (labor leaders, prosecutors, human rights defenders), have in recent years consolidated their control of many regions. They now maintain that control through threats, selective killings and enforced disappearances. The army in recent years has also increasingly been committing extrajudicial killings of civilians; the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has reported on a pattern in which, after killing a civilian, soldiers dress him or her up as a combatant and then they report the victim as a combat death.


What kind of impact is the conflict having on the people of Colombia today - the local communities and civilians?

If you visit some of the wealthier sectors of major cities like Bogota, Medellin or Cartagena you might never notice there is a conflict going on. However, in poorer neighborhoods and rural areas, civilians suffer terrible consequences; even if they are not directly killed or injured, hundreds of thousands of people every year are forced to flee their homes. More than 3 million people are estimated to be internally displaced, which means that Colombia has the second largest population of internally displaced persons in the world after Sudan, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Who are the biggest victims of this turmoil?

Those who are most affected usually belong to particularly vulnerable sectors of society, including indigenous and afro-colombian communities, as well as women and children in rural areas.

Are there ways that anyone reading this can help or at least avoid exacerbating the situation in Colombia?

The UK government currently provides an unknown, but apparently substantial, amount of military assistance to Colombia. Readers could help by calling on the UK government to condition its military assistance on improvements in the military’s human rights record - including accountability for abuses by the military. The UK could also help Colombia by providing more assistance directed at strengthening institutions of justice and civil society, particularly victims’ organisations and local groups advocating human rights and democracy.

What hope for the future does the current situation hold?

Colombia’s conflict is extremely difficult to resolve due to the constant influx of resources into armed groups coming from the drug trade. Moreover, Colombia’s institutions of democracy are now facing a serious threat due to the infiltration of paramilitaries in large sectors of the Colombian state. More than 60 Colombian Congressmen - nearly all from the coalition of current president Alvaro Uribe - are under investigation for collaborating with paramilitaries. The best hope for starting to address some of Colombia’s problems is in supporting these investigations, which were started by the Supreme Court, as well as other efforts to strengthen the rule of law, human rights and democracy. Unfortunately, while the Supreme Court and some other institutions of justice have been very brave in trying to face down the paramilitary threat, they are very much alone; the Court has repeatedly come under attack from high-ranking government officials and even President Uribe himself.

Visit Human Rights Watch here.

Write to your MP about the UK's military support of Uribe's government here.

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