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Tuesday, 8 January, 2002, 15:19 GMT
Colombia's explosive mix
farc rebels during training
FARC has continued to wage war while talking peace
By Jeremy McDermott in Bogota

Colombia has entered its 38th year of civil conflict and it looks set to be the bloodiest to date.

The ceasefire announced by the rebel National Liberation Army (ELN) ended in January, the larger Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) persists with attacks, and the right-wing paramilitaries of the United Self Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) have promised to unleash more vengeance on their Marxist enemies.

These three warring factions fight each other and the state to differing degrees, and the violence, kidnapping and the drugs trade associated with these illegal armies continues to grow. Between them they control more than half of the country.

The drug trade has fuelled the war
All of the country's illegal armies exploit the drugs trade
No other nation has this explosive mix and no other nation has done so little to try to remedy such a situation.

Indeed, in the past 20 years, Colombia has lurched from crisis to crisis. Its presidents, barred from serving a second term, employ temporary solutions, patching over the holes until they can pass on the leaking ship to their successor.

Peace process with the FARC

Current President Andres Pastrana has tried to bandage his wounded nation via an ambitious peace process.

He has granted the FARC a 42,000sq km safe haven in the south of the country, which the group promptly turned into its own Marxist mini-state.

After three years of talks, the two sides have not reached a single agreement on a peace treaty. The FARC has used the zone to build up its military might to some 18,000 fighters and continued to wage war while talking peace.

Turning to the ELN

With the FARC process getting nowhere, President Pastrana turned to the smaller ELN, which he had largely ignored throughout the administration. He was working on the assumption that if an agreement could be hammered out with the FARC, the ELN would follow suit.

Bloody conflict
More than 2m people have fled their homes in 10 years
Drugs trade reaps hundreds of millions of dollars a year
The military has been expanded
US has donated $1.3bn of mainly military aid
But with the FARC peace process in tatters, and keen to restore some faith in the possibility of a negotiated solution, President Pastrana began talks with the ELN.

When it became clear that good intentions would not be enough to reach an agreement with the FARC, President Pastrana set about expanding the Colombian military.

This was aided by $1.3bn of mainly military aid from the United States, which was granted on the condition it be used only in the war on drugs.

But since all the warring factions are involved in the drugs trade, the restrictions are fairly cosmetic.

Farc began the New Year by attacking six towns
FARC began the New Year by attacking six towns
With the creation of the Rapid Deployment Force, a mainly airborne quick-reaction force, the military has been able to put an end to years of consistent defeats at the hands of the FARC and begun to turn the tables.

But the Colombian armed forces are still far from being in a position where they can win the war militarily, if it could ever be possible in a country so suited to guerrilla warfare.

The paramilitaries

More than any other warring faction, the paramilitary army of the AUC has enjoyed explosive growth. This group of right-wing death squads, pledged to eradicate Marxist rebels from the country, has more than doubled in size in the past four years to more than 9000 fighters - 15,000 if their feared warlord Carlos Castano is to be believed.

The AUC has now become the single largest violator of human rights in Colombia, perpetrating massacres and assassinations across the country.

Support for this group has been fed by continuing guerrilla attacks and kidnappings and the perception that the rebels are not interested in making peace.

AUC leader Carlos Castano
Carlos Castano's paramilitary group has enjoyed explosive growth
The Colombia security forces seem able only to control the ground they stand on. When they move on to another operation, it reverts back to whatever illegal army dominates the area.


Drugs are the fuel that feed the fires of war. All of the illegal armies derive most of their income from the drugs trade.

They earn hundreds of millions of dollars every year, allowing them to buy the latest weaponry and communications equipment. This ensures that in many cases they are better equipped than the average Colombian soldier.


More than two million Colombians have been driven from their homes over the past decade by the fighting, as the warring factions 'cleanse' all those they perceive to support their opponents.

The army is beginning to put an end to years of defeats
The army is beginning to put an end to years of defeats
The refugees swell the already overcrowded city slums. With the economy crawling out of recession and the government broke, there are no jobs or social security net there to welcome them.

Those who can get visas abroad are lining up at foreign embassies in the capital, seeking refuge anywhere. The perception is that anywhere has to be better than Colombia.

This exodus has created a brain drain as the educated people flee, taking with them the expertise and resources needed to get the stumbling Colombian economy back on its feet.

Is there any hope?

Colombians are pessimistic that any short-term solution can be found. There are so many problems to be dealt with at once, even for a state with all the instruments of government.

Colombia has no such instruments. It is riddled with corruption, lacks a professional civil service and has a justice system groaning under the strain of rebellion, drugs and common crime.

Many believe that an open war will be necessary before any peace agreement can be reached, to show the guerrillas they will never take power by force and to ensure they negotiate peace in earnest.

But to reach such a state of affairs many more Colombian lives will be lost and many more years of conflict will pass.

See also:

17 Dec 01 | Americas
Colombia rebels in Christmas truce
22 Dec 01 | Americas
Colombia resumes rebel dialogue
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