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Colombia: The Quest for Peace


By: Adriana Baiz


Colombia’s armed conflict is among the oldest in contemporary history. Characterized as one of the most serious cases of internal human displacement in the Americas, it has involved an extensive use of violence on behalf of its belligerents – mainly the government, guerrillas, and paramilitary groups. Colombia’s conflict has attracted scholars from across the world who seek to find the political, judicial, and military balance needed to end the situation. This obscure quest for peace has pushed the Colombian state to attempt a wide spectrum of strategies, from military tactics to actual negotiations with the armed groups, to an interesting effort to implement transitional justice (as used by South Africa, Chile, and Argentina in the past). On their behalf, civil society has also begun to take bottom-up action to fight for the rights of victims and demand an end to the situation.

Recognizing the contentious nature of this conflict is crucial for understanding why Colombia seems far from achieving a successful transition into peace. Many argue that the root of the conflict lies in quarrels over land. Claims made by the FARC guerrilla and local social movements regarding local farming and their opposition to the state’s neoliberal agenda directly clashed with the elites’ interests in what Marx would call the maintenance of systems for capital accumulation – more commonly known as profit making. It is also important to recognize that this conflict would not have survived so effortlessly for almost 50 years if it were not for the lucrative narcotics economy. The drug market is not limited to the armed groups, but permeates significant sectors of society. As Professor Jasmine Hristov comments, “eventually the narco-capital invested in industry, commerce and finance, converted drug-traffickers into an economically powerful and politically influential actor.” The best example of this was the emergence in 1995 of El Proceso 8,000 (Process 8,000) whereby the judicial bodies in Colombia opened investigations on politicians or candidates whose political campaigns were likely funded by drug capital. To better understand the dialectical relations between these actors it is necessary to understand the relevant historical context in which the Colombian conflict is embedded.

Historical Context

With the emergence of the modern state of Colombia in 1863 came significant economic transformations, as the elites – in attempt to modernize the country – adopted capitalist policies to boost national exports like coffee, tobacco, and sugar. This transition to export agriculture combined with state legislation that enabled prosperous market conditions marked the creation of the landless people in Colombia. Dispossession emerged due to state-sponsored privatization of land and an excessive supply of available labour for a limited job capacity in the capitalist farms. Simultaneous to the struggles over land ownership, the elites also fought among themselves in an attempt to codify state organization. This eventually led to the creation of the Conservative and Liberal parties during the 1940s.

In 1947 the elites’ structural power block was for the first time directly challenged when charming liberal leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán ran for presidency. Gaitan was critical of the oligarchical rule in the country and promoted a gradual transition into policies that would incorporate sectors of the population excluded by previous governments.

Despite the widespread support he received from the working class and a significant portion of the middle class, Gaitan’s vision never materialized as he was murdered on April 9, 1948. Claims surrounding responsibility for the assassination remain purely speculative. While the most prominent theory accuses the Conservative party, backed by the CIA and Washington, nothing has been officially confirmed. The assassination continues to be one of Colombia’s most intriguing historical events.

Gaitan’s legacy lies not in that he could have been president, but rather in how his ideas transformed political discourse within Colombian society. His assassination first unleashed El Bogotazo, urban riots of angry citizens; secondly it marked the beginning of the period known as La Violencia (The Violence), where an estimated 200,000 civilians were killed. La Violencia was a civil war fought between the conservatives and the liberals over political power across the country. In 1958, both parties negotiated an end to the violent exchanges by agreeing to form the National Front. This consisted of equally sharing state power by dividing four presidential terms solely between the two parties.

To further consolidate their power in 1966, the National Front banned Colombia’s Communist Party from the conventional political process. It is worth noting that the latter was the only party that, since 1910, had joined and voiced the peasants’ social movements.

Class conflict, exemplified by the exclusionary nature of Colombia’s political process, further manifested itself through the development of communist-oriented peasant armed groups who refused to accept the amnesty offered by the Conservative government. In May, 1964, the Colombian state, backed by the United States’ containment policies, unleashed severe repressive measures on the Leftist guerrillas. The survivors managed to reorganize and in 1966 presented themselves as Las Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), and the Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional (ELN).

To this day, political exclusion is one of the major points of contention in the current Peace Negotiations in Havana, Cuba, which began in 2012 between the government of Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC. While one of the guerrilla’s requests is entry into the conventional political process, past peace negotiations have led to weak assurance of safe demobilization for the armed groups and deceitful cease-fire agreements. This has exacerbated tensions in the negotiations and perpetuated more violence across the country.

The Dual Colombian Reality

The interesting thing about the Colombian situation is the ability of the functional and dysfunctional to coexist within the same territory. In her book The ‘Definite’ History of Paramilitarism, Maria Teresa Ronderos proposes that Colombia should be studied as a dual society. While the state administration is, in comparison to other Latin American countries, relatively de-bureaucratizedIn addition, Ronderos proposes that the Colombian government does not posses complete monopoly over the use of coercion in the country. Such a scenario is worrisome because the decentralization of force is distributed among the non-state armed actors, which as Ronderos argues can further facilitate not only paramilitary and guerrilla activity, but also the propagation of the narcotics economy.

Who are the Paramilitaries? 

In response to the guerrilla presence in the country the government passed Law 48 of 1968, whereby it authorized the Ministry of Defence to provide weapons – usually restricted for the use of the armed forces – to civil patrols and self-defence groups. Law 48, therefore, can be seen as the legal foundation of the right-wing paramilitaries that emerged at the end of the 1970s. These groups were responsible for providing security to the landowners, but eventually expanded their position to directly combat the guerrilla.

Even after paramilitary groups were outlawed in 1989 their terror continued, and in 1997 the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) was formed. The AUC today is considered a terrorist group by many countries. This adds another layer of parainstitutionality, which the Colombian state must address if it is to achieve any stability.

Understanding the conflict through Ronderos’s dual society helps explain how the concept of transitional justice was uniquely incorporated into the Colombian case.

Transitional Justice Without A Transition?

The International Centre for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) defines the concept of transitional justice as a “set of judicial and non-judicial measures implemented in order to redress the legacies of massive human rights abuses.” Based on the idea of achieving the recognition of rights of victims, and the strengthening of democratic rule, the organization also states that it is an “approach to achieving justice in times of transition from conflict and/or state repression.” In the case of Colombia, however, this theoretical framework was introduced during the conflict. Historically, such mechanisms have been applied once a peace agreement is reached, as in the case of South Africa.

Professor Jaime Rowen at the University of Toronto explores precisely this juxtaposition of judicial and political policies of transitional justice, and how they can be implemented during an active conflict. Her research focuses on how the concept has been understood and widely adopted in Colombian society through a process known in sociolegal scholarship as diffusion.

Transitional justice in the Colombian context is characterized by a synthesis of legal and political spaces, known as the judicialization of politics. As a result, many decisions traditionally addressed in the political arena are transferred to the judicial field. This has two important consequences: First, social actors previously excluded from the traditional political process are now able to formulate their claims in juridical terms. Second – akin to the South African controversy surrounding the provision of per-case amnesty to those accused – is the dilemma that in order to ensure truth and justice for the victims through alternative judicial mechanisms, some form of incentive must be offered to those accused of human rights violations in order for them to confess their crimes.

The first law to be introduced in Colombia based on transitional justice standards was the Law of Justice and Peace (Ley 975) in 2005 under President Alvaro Uribe. This law promoted financial incentives for armed groups to demobilize through alternative criminal judicial mechanisms with the possibility of less severe sentences. Additionally, Law 975 established the National Commission on Reparation and Reconciliation (NCRR), a truth-seeking entity responsible for providing monetary reparation to victims and investigating human rights abuses. Uribe’s presidency left two important legacies. On one hand his government saw the emergence of transitional justice as a popular discourse that was continued by later governments. On the other hand, his policies focused primarily on demobilizing the right-wing paramilitaries while implementing military force against the guerrilla groups. This clearly shows the complexity of introducing policies of transitional justice while simultaneously directing military operations that promote the continuation of the conflict.

Despite being highly criticized by local victim rights organizations and political opponents like current President Juan Manuel Santos for excessive militarized methods, Uribe’s Democratic Security Policies led to a decrease in violence, crime, and kidnappings in the urban parts of the country, outcomes which boosted his popularity among large parts of the Colombian populations in the cities, especially the elites.

Nevertheless, local and international NGOs have criticized Law 975 for masking the impunity of terrible human rights violations and crimes against humanity committed by the armed groups. The fascinating part, however, is that these organizations utilize the same vocabulary from transitional justice to criticize the law and further frame their social movements. For example, they place a special focus on the principles of truth, justice and peace (Verdad, Justicia y Paz.).

In 2012, President Juan Manuel Santos’s government amended the Colombian constitution by introducing a Legal Framework for Peace incorporating principles of transitional justice for a future peace agreement. The introduced framework prioritizes the prosecution of crimes that violate international law, while giving others alternative legal proceedings or reduced sentences. The rationale behind this is that by reducing certain sentences, you further promote demobilization and facilitate potential negotiations with armed groups, specifically the guerrilla. However, this framework is vulnerable to state manipulation and corruption.

Ending Remarks:

Colombian scholar Gabriel Sánchez categorizes transitional justice as a space of confrontation between social actors with distinct “power accumulations.” By and large, Colombia still has a long path before achieving nationwide peace. It seems that the conflict has deeper roots than the popular ones portrayed in the media, such as the War on Drugs. Though the continued presence of the illegal narcotic economy has helped sustain and escalate the conflict, it is not its principal cause. Violence and bottom-up movements in the country can therefore be understood as symptoms of a more severe social issue.

If indeed social and class inequalities are at the bottom of the conflict, then peace negotiations through a transitional justice legal framework won’t suffice unless some structural changes are taken into consideration. Personally, I think that the continuous securitization of the country, though effective in the main urban areas, is actually a very fragile mechanism to sustain peace.


Adriana Baiz is a third-year student studying International Relations and Sociology at the University of Toronto.

Featured Image: “Marcha en Colombia: no mas FARC” by AlCortéz is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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