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In Context

In the late 1980s and 1990s, amid a period of ever-escalating violence that saw the assassination of three presidential candidates, as well as a steep rise in kidnappings and extortion, the Colombian government held peace talks with both the FARC and the ELN. Though no lasting agreements were reached, the government did reach agreements with several smaller splinter groups, including one called M-19. This led to the adoption of a new constitution in 1991 and the incorporation of M-19 into the official political spectrum. In November 1998, President Andrés Pastrana ceded a sparsely populated section of the country, an area about the size of Switzerland, to the FARC as a neutral zone where peace negotiations could take place; the FARC continued its violent attacks and expansion in coca production, and the move was considered unsuccessful.

In 1999, with backing from the international community, including the United States, the government under Pastrana launched Plan Colombia, an offensive against violent groups and drug traffickers. The plan entailed drastically increasing the size and budget of official military forces. This offensive included (and still includes) an aggressive coca eradication campaign consisting of the aerial fumigation of millions of acres of coca and poppy crops, an effort that has been denounced by numerous non-governmental organizations and rural communities for its negative impact on the environment, subsistence economies and human health. According to a 2001 report from Human Rights Watch, the paramilitary groups maintain close ties with the government, army brigades and police, which work with and even profit from the violent groups.

In 2002, Alvaro Uribe was elected president on promises of restoring security and reaching a peace settlement with paramilitary groups. His policy of "democratic security" mobilized Colombian military for war, which resulted in the state regaining control in some areas of the country and forced the FARC into defensive positions. Uribe's administration bargained with paramilitary groups, offering pardons for fighters and reduced prison sentences for leaders, which resulted in the demobilization of 30,000 fighters in the AUC paramilitary organization and 20,000 guerrillas. Uribe's popularity spiked as a result, and congress amended the constitution to allow him to run for a second four-year term in 2006. The demobilization proved short-lived, however, with many of the groups later reemerging and many of the confessions of paramilitary members going unprocessed.

In the meantime, the emergence of a truth and reconciliation commission has been an important step for human rights battles in Colombia. Judicial institutions have begun investigating and prosecuting related war crimes and listening to the grievances and accusations of victims and civilian groups who have traditionally been silenced by the war.

Critics argued that Uribe's peace process actually represented a final incorporation of the paramilitary into the Colombian state and economy, rather than an eradication of it. In 2008, the government extradited 15 paramilitary members, including seven top commanders, to the United States on drug charges, a move that ultimately allowed them to escape the Colombian justice practices set up to process former paramilitary. Nevertheless, violence decreased drastically under Uribe, as did the strength of the FARC, which shrank from 16,000 members in 2001 to 8,000 in 2010; in September 2010, a Colombian military operation killed the top FARC military commander, Victor Julio Suarez Rojas, a.k.a. Mono Jojoy.

Despite the decrease in violence, Colombia competes with Sudan for the greatest number of displaced people in the world. Over the past decade, more than 2.4 million people were forcibly displaced from their homes. Fully 98 percent of these displaced persons live below the poverty line and 82.6 percent are considered to be living in extreme poverty. Most displacement occurs around areas rich in mineral resources opened up to multinational corporations in the past decade. Recent revelations of corruption and misallocation of government subsidies, extrajudicial executions by the army and illegal wiretapping of government critics have clouded Uribe's legacy.

Colombia's current president, Juan Manuel Santos, elected in August 2010, has vowed to work to strengthen human rights in the country and investigate corruption. In June 2011, the congress passed a historic law known as the victim's law that aims to return stolen and abandoned land to internally displaced Colombians and provide reparations -- including financial compensation -- to victims of human rights violations and infractions of international humanitarian law.

Photo Caption: Casa de Nariño, the presidential palace in Bogotá
Credit: Wikipedia User Cargnym, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

» Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict. "Colombia's War on Children."
» 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."
» North American Congress on Latin America. "Coercion Incorporated: Paramilitary Colombia."
» U.S. Department of State. "Background Note: Colombia."
» The World Bank. "Colombia Country Brief."