Overview of Key Armed Actors

Many questions have arisen, especially among both policy makers and members of the public who have not followed Colombian politics until recently, as to exactly who are the various armed actors in Colombia's political violence who are involved in killing and kidnapping civilians.

There are three main groups of armed actors at this time: the guerrilla armies (mainly three), the official forces (mainly the three branches of the armed forces and the National Police), and the paramilitary or self-styled Aself-defense@ groups. The present guerrilla war dates back to the end of La Violencia of the 1950s, growing out of both Colombian domestic political conflict and the international trends. The main guerrilla forces were formed in the mid-1960s. Paramilitary groups were created by law in 1965 as part of the Colombian military's counter-insurgency strategy. They were formed as groups of civilians armed and directed by the Army to confront the guerrillas. Such groups continued to enjoy the protection of the law until 1989, when they were made illegal. By then, however, these groups had increased in both strength and autonomy, as they had undergone a transformation in the 1980s when drug-traffickers, landowners, and military officers came together in various parts of the country (especially the northwestern regions of Urabá and Córdoba, and in the middle Magdalena valley). In the late 1980s paramilitary groups began to carry out offensive operations, principally against civilians in areas of guerrilla operations, clearing the way for large landowners and others to do business. "The paramilitaries have become part of a strategy to consolidate land holdings and to control economically strategic regions of the country." (WOLA, 1997: 25) The paramilitaries are currently responsible for a large majority of killings with political motives (see statistics box).

At the risk of oversimplification, following are a few notes on the non-official armed actors in Colombia today.

The FARC, or Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, is the oldest armed dissident group in Colombia and in recent year has grown in numbers and military capacity as few such groups have in the history of Latin America. This guerrilla organization has roots in the armed dissident movement of the 1950s and in the earlier peasant struggles of the 1930s and 1940s, when the first agriculture unions and leagues were established.

The origins of the FARC date back to 1947, when the central committee of the Colombian Communist Party decided to organize a self-defense system in opposition to the Conservative regime of Ospina Pérez, who assumed the presidency in 1946. This peasant-based self-defense group later became an armed dissident movement. Its primary social base throughout the 1950s and until the formation of the FARC was made up of peasant communities historically sympathetic to the Liberal party, many of which were forced to migrate eastward from the Andean highlands in what was called a retirada armada, or armed withdrawal, in response to attacks by the right-wing Conservative forces.

Today, the FARC is estimated to have 12,000-15,000 combatants, and a significant presence in about half of Colombia's 1,071 municipalities.

The FARC has financed its operations largely by kidnappings, extortion, and charging a tax on economic activities in areas under its influence or control. In recent years, this has increasingly come to expanding trade in coca leaf, as coca leaf production has skyrocketed, especially in thinly-populated areas of southern Colombia. Yet accusations that the FARC are a drug-trafficking organization have been rebutted by Colombian officials involved in the peace process, and by some Colombian Catholic bishops, among others.

The ELN, or Ejército de Liberación Nacional, was formed in 1965, inspired in large measure by the Cuban revolution, and with a strong base of support among labor sectors in the department of Santander. University students and faculty joined its ranks, as did a number of Catholic priests, following the example set by Father Camilo Torres, who joined the movement and died in a clash with the Army in 1966. The ELN's leader of many years was a Spanish-born priest, Father Manuel Pérez, who died in February 1998.

The ELN has made nationalization of the gas and oil industry a key point of its political agenda; in this context, the ELN has carried out more than 600 dynamite attacks on oil pipelines since 1986. The ELN now has approximately 4,000 to 5,000 members.

The EPL, or Ejército Popular de Liberación, was formed in the late 1960s as the guerrilla army of the Partido Comunista (Marxista-Leninista), a Maoist breakaway from the Communist Party. In 1991 most of the then-members the EPL laid down arms as part of an earlier peace process, and became Esperanza, Paz y Libertad, a political party, leaving about 200 EPL guerrillas. Many of the members of Esperanza, Paz y Libertad signed a truce with paramilitary leaders Fidel and Carlos Castaño, and are alleged to be working with their paramilitary groups today.

Paramilitary Groups: Links between members of the Colombian military and paramilitary organizations have been repeatedly acknowledged, most recently with the Colombian Government's dismissal of Army Generals Rito Alejo del Río and Fernando Millán Pérez. The extent to which the paramilitary should be treated as a criminal extension of state action to repress the guerrillas, or as non-state political-military groups, is a major issue both in attributing responsibility for actions carried out by these groups, and in determining what treatment to accord the paramilitary groups in the current peace negotiations.

The best-known regional paramilitary group is the Autodefensas Campesinas de Córdoba y Urabá (ACCU) and the national grouping in which ACCU is the main force, Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), both led by Carlos Castaño. The names of the various paramilitary groups have evolved over time. In the 1980s the best-known was Muerte a Secuestradores, or MAS, formed initially with the participation of the Medellín drug cartel after the guerrilla organization M-19 captured the sister of the Ochoa brothers, who were key figures in the cartel, in 1982.

Links to the web pages of the key guerrilla, state, and paramilitary actors in the armed conflict can be found at the web page of the Colombia Human Rights Network, http://www.igc.org/colhrnet.


Organization of American States. Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Third Report on the Situation of Human Rights in Colombia. Washington, DC, February 26, 1999.

Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). Losing Ground: Human Rights Advocates Under Attack in Colombia. Washington, DC, October 1997.


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