PBS Premiere: July 19, 2011Check the broadcast schedule »

In Context

Despite having one of the most well-balanced constitutions in Latin America, Colombia has suffered the longest running armed conflict in the Western Hemisphere. For more than 40 years, continued and recurring confrontation between government, guerrilla and paramilitary forces has made organized criminal activity and extreme violence a way of life in many regions of Colombia, with civilians suffering murder, rape, torture, kidnappings, looting, threats, extortion, deaths from landmines and forced displacement. In 2002, an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 civilians were killed in fighting; in 2001, more than 4,000 children were killed. Of Colombia's 44 million people, 3 million have been displaced, many of them forced not only to leave their homes, but to leave all their possessions behind as well.

Today's violence can be traced back to the period of fighting between liberal and conservative parties that lasted from 1948 to 1958, killing an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 people and displacing more than 2 million, mostly from rural to urban areas. The displacements led to a shift in landownership, an increase in socioeconomic disparity and the rise of the leftist rural movement, which sought to defend beleaguered ordinary Colombians.

The leftist movement gave rise to several guerrilla groups, including two that persist today: the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN). Beginning in the 1980s, self-defense paramilitary groups formed in response to the guerrilla groups, often with the complicity and support of businessmen, public officials and drug traffickers. By the 1990s, these paramilitary groups boasted both independent military and political power. They then united under the right-wing umbrella organization the Colombian United Self-Defense Groups (AUC), estimated to have tens of thousands of members.

Photo Caption: Colombian paramilitary
Credit: Wikipedia User Cropbot, Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported

» Council on Foreign Relations. "FARC, ELN: Colombia's Left-Wing Guerrillas."
» Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. "COLOMBIA: Government response improves but still fails to meet needs of growing IDP population."
» International Center for Transitional Justice. "Factsheet: Colombia."
» U.S. Department of State. "Background Note: Colombia."
» Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict. "Colombia's War on Children."