With peace promised, Colombia faces both benefits and challenges

As three-year old peace talks between the government of Juan Manuel Santos Calderón and the leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionaries de Colombia, FARC) continue in an effort to end 51 years of armed conflict, Colombia’s political climate could now be on the verge of significant change. Both sides agreed in September 2015 to set a deadline by which a final peace accord must be signed – March 23, 2016 – and both sides agreed that rebels would lay down their weapons within 60 days of such a deal being signed.

Good Prospects

A 14-year military offensive has weakened the FARC and cut its numbers by more than half to stand at around 7000 fighters today, leading to a significant decline in guerrilla violence and improved security as a result. This has spurred robust economic growth in Latin America’s fourth-largest economy and record foreign investment in recent years. As guerilla violence ebbs, Colombia has grown in confidence as the country looks to emerge from its troubled past. The National Planning Department (Departamento Nacional de Planeación, DNP) has estimated that a peace accord could bolster economic growth in Colombia by up to 1.9 percentage points. Former guerrilla strongholds concentrated in the southern provinces and jungle areas will further open up to both local and foreign investors.

Since Santos was re-elected to serve another four-year term in 2014, his key focus has been on peace talks with the FARC. While the government edges ever closer to signing a peace deal, it is clear that a post-conflict Colombia will pose both challenges and opportunities. Job creation and the establishment of infrastructure and state services, such as schools and hospitals, in former guerrilla strongholds will be key to reducing the wide gap that exists between rural and urban areas. In addition, dismantling organised crime networks will remain a key priority. At the international level, Colombia maintains a policy of economic and diplomatic openness, including active participation in regional groups.

Democracy Interrupted

Democratic elections, which have been held in Colombia since 1914, were interrupted between 1953 and 1957 by a brief military dictatorship led by General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla. The 1950s were also marked by a period of political violence – known as La Violencia – between the two main political parties, the Colombian Liberal Party and the Colombian Conservative Party. The violence ended in 1958 when the parties reached a power-sharing agreement. Excluded from the deal, left-wing guerrilla groups – including the FARC and the smaller rebel group, the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN) – took up arms against the government in the 1960s. These two guerrilla insurgencies have defined Colombia’s recent history and profoundly shaped its politics and society.

The FARC was formed in 1964, after a small group of communist militants and peasant self-defence groups took up arms in an agrarian reform movement, inspired by Marxist ideology and the Cuban Revolution to defend the rights of poor and landless farmers, under the leadership of Manuel Marulanda Vélez. With the aim of toppling the government and establishing a socialist state, the group briefly flirted with conventional politics, forming a political party, the Patriotic Union (Unión Patriótica, PU), in 1984.

Leftist Heights

In the 1980s the FARC turned to cocaine trafficking and kidnapping of politicians, landowners and business leaders for ransom to boost its war coffers. By the 1990s, the FARC was at the height of its power, with around 20,000 fighters, controlling swathes of the country, particularly in southern Colombia. Successive governments have accused the FARC of seizing towns and bombing civilian targets, tactics that have alienated the majority of Colombians from the group’s cause, which garners little support among society at large. Though the leftist group denies being a major player in the global drug trade, it is considered a drug-running terrorist organisation by the US and the EU.

A Difficult Period

In response to guerrilla violence, paramilitary groups were formed by wealthy cattle ranchers in the 1980s. They became powerful armies organised under the umbrella group of the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia ( Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, AUC). The AUC also became involved in drug trafficking and were responsible for human rights abuses against civilians they branded as guerrilla sympathisers. An estimated 4000 members of the FARC’s PU party were killed by right-wing paramilitaries, according to Colombia’s National Centre for Historical Memory (NCHM). The AUC had the tacit support of some lawmakers, and dozens of politicians have been imprisoned for their links with paramilitary groups. The AUC expanded to include over 30,000 armed fighters and was on the US State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organisations until the middle of 2014. The group began to disarm in 2003 and finally disbanded in 2006.

By 1980 Colombia was in the midst of a crisis. Along with guerrilla and paramilitary groups, the Medellín cocaine cartel, led by drug lord Pablo Escobar, bombed civilian targets and kidnapped and killed politicians as the government stepped up its campaign against drug traffickers. Escobar was shot dead by police in 1993. The conservative president Andrés Pastrana Arango started peace talks with the FARC in 1998, granting rebels a demilitarised area the size of Switzerland in south-east Colombia. After nearly four years of stop-start talks, peace talks ended abruptly in early 2002 after rebels hijacked a plane. Pastrana accused the rebels of using the safe haven to regroup, take hostages and continue drug trafficking. Under Pastrana (1998-2002), a US aid package known as Plan Colombia began, worth $1.3bn in military hardware and anti-drug operations.

A New Era

On the back of the failed peace talks, Álvaro Uribe Vélez was elected president in 2002, marking a watershed in the country’s political direction and the fight against the rebels. Uribe, whose father was killed in a botched kidnapping by the FARC in 1983, vowed to crush the guerrillas on the battlefield and launched a US-backed military offensive, using air power against the rebels. This placed the rebels on the back foot, pushing them away from the cities and deeper into the more remote jungle and border areas. Under Uribe, improved security saw Colombia attract increasing foreign direct investment, mainly to the oil and mining sectors.

AUC Peace Process

While Uribe focused on a military defeat of the FARC, from 2003 onwards, he began a peace process with the AUC that led to nearly 32,000 paramilitary fighters handing in their weapons. In exchange for maximum eight-year prison sentences, top paramilitary commanders confessed to human rights abuses. In 2008 nine warlords were extradited to the US on drug-trafficking charges. Some of the former paramilitary combatants morphed into new bandos criminales, criminal gangs, known as BACRIM, while others demobilised and joined government-run reintegration programmes. Between 2014 and 2015, nearly 27,000 former paramilitary fighters, as well as demobilised guerrilla soldiers, were enrolled in reintegration programmes.


Uribe was re-elected in 2006 in a climate of improved security. In 2008 the FARC suffered a series of heavy defeats and losses, most notably the killing of top rebel commander, Raul Reyes, who was the first member of the FARC’s ruling seven-man secretariat to be killed in combat by the Colombian military. In the same year, the FARC’s founding leader, Manuel Marulanda Vélez, died from a heart attack. Furthermore, in July 2008 the Colombian army rescued the FARC’s highest-profile hostage, Ingrid Betancourt, a presidential candidate, held in captivity for six years, along with 14 other hostages.

2010 Elections

Santos, who was then defence minister under Uribe, was elected president in 2010 on a pledge to continue the military offensive against the FARC. The rebels suffered another big loss in late 2011 when guerrilla leader, Alfonso Cano, was killed in a military raid. Santos also spearheaded the landmark Victims and Land Restitution Law in 2011, which is seen as the centrepiece of Santos’ efforts to provide reparations to war victims, promote reconciliation and bolster rural development in a conflict that has killed 220,000 people, according to the NCHM. The law allows people to file claims for seized land and claim compensation for relatives killed or missing. According to the government’s official war victims’ register, 7.5m Colombians have been affected by the conflict, of which 6. 5m have been displaced.

Peace A Priority

In September 2012 Santos announced during a televised address that the government would hold peace talks with the FARC, saying, “There are people like me who haven’t known a single day of peace.” Two months later, peace talks started in Havana, Cuba, centred on a five-point peace agenda: land reform, the FARC’s political participation, the drug trade, reparations for war victims and the demobilisation of fighters.

Santos won re-election in 2014, with the support of the Alternative Democratic Pole party, the country’s biggest left-wing party. Santos appealed to Colombians to give him another term to complete peace negotiations. He faced vocal criticism from Uribe, who became an influential senator in 2014 and founded the conservative Democratic Centre (DC) party, the main opposition party. During the election campaign, Santos faced rival Óscar Iván Zuluaga Escobar, a protégé of Uribe, who was running for the DC party. Zuluaga was critical of the peace talks, playing to the fear felt by many Colombians that the government was capitulating to the rebels and that FARC leaders could escape prison time and hold political posts as part of a peace deal. Santos won almost 51% of the vote in a tight run-off second round, while 45% of voters backed Zuluaga, reflecting how divided Colombians were over the peace talks.

Areas Of Agreement

Santos’ second term in office has been dominated by the peace talks. Important progress has been made, including a FARC unilateral ceasefire that has led to a significant drop in guerrilla violence. In response to the FARC ceasefire, Santos ordered the suspension of air strikes against rebel camps, but other military operations continue. After three years of negotiations, both sides have agreed deals on rural development and land reform to tackle unequal land distribution, the rebels’ participation in politics, the drug trade rights and reparations for the victims of war.

The biggest breakthrough came in September 2015. In an unprecedented joint announcement and a historic handshake between Santos and FARC leader, Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri – also known as Timochenko – the two sides pledged to sign a final deal by March 2016. They also agreed to create special courts to try guerrillas and members of the military, with a maximum eight-year detention to be imposed on those who admit to war crimes. “The justice agreement was the most complex, the most difficult. It’s a very important step to be able to end the conflict soon,” Santos told local media in December 2015.

At the time of writing, the pending issues at the negotiating table are how to end the conflict, including the disarmament and demobilisation of guerrilla combatants. Any peace deal will be put to referendum, in which 4.5m Colombians will have to vote in favour for it to be approved. A December poll showed 61% would approve a peace deal to end the conflict in a referendum. However, some Colombians still distrust the FARC and are divided over the issue of a unilateral ceasefire. In a November 2015 poll, 46.5% of Colombians said they disapproved of a government ceasefire, and 60% said they did not believe the FARC was truly willing to reach a peace deal.

Effects Of A Peace Deal

Peace with the FARC would cement huge security gains made over the past decade and is likely to attract increasing amounts of investment to Colombia. According to a December 2015 report by the DNP, a peace accord could triple the levels of annual foreign direct investment, from $12bn in 2015 to $36bn, and bolster Colombia’s potential economic growth to 5.9%, spurred in large part by improved consumer confidence.

The agriculture and construction sectors stand to benefit the most from a peace deal, which is also expected to more generally contribute to the diversification of exports. In a March 2015 interview, Santos told The Telegraph newspaper, “Many studies calculate that peace will add at least 1% and most probably 2% to Colombian growth – forever.” In political terms, any peace deal is likely to undermine support for Uribe and his DC party, as well as open the political scene to new left-wing parties, including those formed by ex-FARC combatants.

Lower Poverty Rates

Improved security and robust economic growth has brought progress on poverty reduction, particularly in urban areas. In 2014, 784,000 Colombians were lifted out of poverty, according to the National Administrative Department for Statistics (Departamento Administrativo Nacional de Estadística, DANE). In September 2015 Santos said Colombia’s middle class had overtaken the number of poor, with 67.5% of the country’s citizens now defined as middle class, while 28.2% live in poverty, according to DANE. In Colombia, a person is defined as poor if they earn less than COP217,043 ($79.87) a month. But poverty remains stubbornly high in rural areas, where the poverty rate is 40.1%, according to DANE, with a disproportionate number of Colombia’s indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities, particularly those located along the Pacific Coast, living in poverty.

Security Issues

In June 2014 the Santos government announced it had started exploratory peace talks with the 1500-strong ELN guerrilla group. However, formal negotiations have yet to start. The ELN is involved in illegal mining and extortion, and is particularly active in the oil-producing province of Arauca and Norte de Santander and Chocó provinces. The ELN, along with the FARC, continued to carry out attacks on oil infrastructure, including the blowing up of oil pipelines in 2015. Organised crime networks, or BACRIM, are regarded by the national police as a security threat. BACRIM emerged to fill the void left behind by the drug cartels dismantled in the 1980s, and also more recently those linked to former paramilitary groups. According to police authorities, the main criminal networks involved in drug trafficking, extortion rackets and illegal gold mining are the Urabeños or Clan Usuga – the biggest criminal group with around 2500 members – and the Rastrojos.

In the past decade, overall murder rates in Colombia have fallen. But with 27 murders per 100,000 people in 2015, the homicide rate is still nearly double the Americas’ average of 15.5 murders per 100,000, with cities near the western Pacific Coast, particularly the port city of Buenaventura and Colombia’s third city of Cali, more affected. In Cali, while the murder rate has dropped to a record 20-year low, the city recorded 66 murders per 100,000 people in 2015. Bogotá has one of the lowest homicide rates of any major city in Colombia, with 14 murders per 100,000 people.

Economic Outlook

According to the World Bank, “Fiscal management [in Colombia] continues to be among the strongest in the region.” In 2014 the Colombian economy grew by 4.6%, above the regional average of 1.5%. But Latin America’s fourth biggest oil producer has seen its economy hit by a decline in the global price of oil since late 2014. Crude oil is Colombia’s biggest export and a leading source of foreign currency. The government expects growth for 2015 to be 3.2%, and reduced its 2016 estimate to 3.5% from 3.8%. The World Bank, meanwhile, estimates the economy will grow by 3.2% in 2016. The unemployment rate rose to 8.2% in October 2015, up from 7.9% in the same period of 2014, according to DANE.

Foreign Policy

Buoyed by improved security and ebbing guerrilla violence, Colombia has looked to expand its diplomatic and trade ties. In 2013 Colombia started an accession process to join the OECD. More recently in 2015, Santos pledged 5000 more troops for UN peacekeeping missions over the next three years. The US has provided more than $8bn in military aid for counter-narcotics and insurgency operations from 2000 to 2011, making Colombia one of its closest allies in Latin America. The US is Colombia’s largest trading partner, a position boosted by a bilateral free trade agreement signed in 2012.

Santos has placed increasing emphasis on forging new trade ties with Asia as well, in particular China. In 2013 a free trade agreement (FTA) with the Republic of Korea came into effect, marking Colombia’s first FTA in the Asia-Pacific region. Colombia is also engaged in ongoing free trade negotiations with Japan and Turkey. Under Santos, Colombia has also pushed for regional integration and has been an active member of the Pacific Alliance, a trading bloc made up of Mexico, Chile and Peru created in 2012. In addition, Colombia is part of the Latin American Integrated Market, which was established in 2011 and comprises the bourses of Chile, Colombia, Peru and Mexico. Colombia is also an active member of the Union of South American Nations, of which the former Colombian president, Ernest Samper, is secretary-general. Diplomatic relations with Venezuela were fraught in 2015, culminating in a border dispute in September that led to the closure of several border crossings the two countries share.


Santos has reiterated that he is confident a peace accord will be signed by the time the March 2016 deadline rolls around. “We’ve never been so close to a definitive agreement before,” Santos wrote on Twitter in December 2015. If a deal is signed and then a referendum approved in 2016, it will mark a turning point in Colombia’s history and will draw a line under one of the world’s longest-running guerrilla insurgencies. Government efforts will then be able to focus on building a post-conflict Colombia.

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This article is from the Country Profile chapter of The Report: Colombia 2016. Explore other chapters from this report.

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