Colombians Struggle for Stability Amid Civil War

Stentor Danielson
National Geographic News
June 5, 2002
Armed conflict between guerrilla and paramilitary groups has been raging
in Colombia for 40 years, displacing millions of Colombians and
uprooting the institutions people depend on in their daily lives.

The weakness of the Colombian state has left Colombians searching for social structure and ways of governing themselves, according to journalist and documentary filmmaker Helena Cavendish de Moura.

Many Colombians are compensating for a lack of police and army security by joining paramilitary or guerrilla groups, she said. Others are working to empower themselves and others in efforts to create a better society.

De Moura was inspired by the stories of people she met in Colombia who have dedicated themselves to improving the lives of children who have been affected by the war. She profiled three such men in "Colombia's Forgotten Children," a new National Geographic Channel documentary that airs tonight at 9 p.m.

The program looks at the effects of the war on an estimated two million Colombians who have been displaced by the fighting in the past 15 years, particularly the country's children, who have suffered a heavy toll.

Guerrilla groups often recruit children as young as 10 and 11 years old. Many children have been forced to flee with their families from the countryside to urban areas.

De Moura said civil society and ideological change are needed to bring peace to Colombia. "The hopes I have for Colombia are based on these people I met," she said.

Shifting Balance of Power

The fighting in Colombia is largely between leftist guerrilla groups and illegal paramilitaries.

Two separate guerrilla groups are involved in the conflict. The larger group, Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), is based in the south. It was founded in 1964 by peasants who wanted to spread a Marxist ideology, according to Miguel Ceballos, director of the Center for the Latin American Studies Colombia Project at Georgetown University.

The other group, Ejercito de Liberación Nacional (ELN, the National Liberation Army), is based in the east. Although it is weaker militarily, ELN is a more sophisticated and intellectual leftist group that often targets multinational corporations and oil companies operating in Colombia, Ceballos noted.

FARC and ELN are being challenged by a network of paramilitary groups that formed after the country's weakened government proved unable to stop the guerrillas. The largest of these groups is Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia).

The paramilitary groups' numbers have been strengthened by former guerrillas who laid down their arms in peace settlements with the government, then found themselves targets of FARC violence, Ceballos said.

FARC, ELN, and AUC are all listed as terrorist organizations by the U.S. State Department.

The balance of power shifts constantly, as the various groups seize control of an area and are in turn forced out by other fighters. "It's a moving map," said Gerard Martin, research director for the Columbia Project at Georgetown University.

The situation has developed, the two Georgetown scholars say, because the Colombian army lacks the resources and personnel to control the nation.

"There are not many open confrontations between the Colombian army and the guerrillas, or between the Colombian army and the AUC," said Martin.

Columbia's security budget is roughly 3 percent of the gross domestic product—about half the amount for other Latin American countries, according to Ceballos.

Caught in the Middle

With guerrillas on one side and paramilitaries on the other, "the population is in a sandwich," Ceballos said.

Kidnappings are rampant, because ransom payments are a significant source of funding for guerrilla activities. An estimated 3,500 people were kidnapped last year in Colombia, Ceballos said.

For many of Colombia's children, armed conflict has been a way of life. Ceballos said he had visited a school founded by a Catholic bishop in the town of Granada that takes in children fleeing from guerrilla recruitment.

An economic crisis in Colombia has contributed to mass relocation of people from the countryside to towns and cities, where they come in search of services provided by the government, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and churches.

Despite the prevalence of the guerrillas and paramilitaries, popular support for them is relatively weak, said Martin. He attributes that situation to a national tradition of not seeking violent solutions to problems, noting that Colombia—unlike most Latin American countries—has never had a military regime or a strong army presence in politics.

Despite the military's poor human rights record, Colombians generally trust the army and police. These groups ranked second only to the Catholic Church in terms of popular support in a recent poll, Ceballos said.

The poll, he added, showed less than one percent support for the guerrillas among Colombian citizens. Support "on the ground" is often stronger than ideological support because of the threat of violence against uncooperative citizens. For this reason, Ceballos said, the violence in Colombia cannot be considered a civil war.

Ceballos said that although most Colombians do not agree with AUC's terrorist and criminal tactics, support for the group is growing. De Moura said the government often overlooks the actions of paramilitaries because they do the "dirty work" of battling the guerrillas.

FARC "wouldn't exist if they didn't have some kind of sympathy" at the local level, de Moura noted.

She said the group has been able to win support in the countryside because the guerrillas' Marxist ideology appeals to peasants in the country's semi-feudal rural areas. "FARC has a political motive and a constituency, but the paramilitaries…they don't have a social vision for Colombia," de Moura said.

Hope for the Future

Ceballos, Martin, and de Moura agree that peace, while it will be difficult to achieve, is possible in Colombia.

In 1990, for example, the government was able to make a peace agreement with the M19 guerrilla group. Bogotá, moreover, has been successful in building institutions and programs to combat urban crime over the past decade, Martin said.

Much of what happens will depend on the actions of Alvaro Uribe, who will replace Andrés Pastrana as president of Colombia in August. Ceballos said Uribe's very strong showing at the ballot box gives him a great deal of legitimacy.

Uribe promised in his campaign to get tough with the guerrillas and paramilitaries. Since his victory, however, he has shown a greater interest in the negotiating table, calling for the United Nations to mediate the conflict and planning to meet with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan next week, and eventually with U.S. President George W. Bush.

The move "gives a lot of oxygen to the debate," Ceballos said. He worries, however, that the peace process could take a long time, and that violence may escalate if FARC rejects mediation.

"Colombia's Forgotten Children" premieres June 5 on the National Geographic Channel at 9 p.m. ET.

Join the National Geographic Society

Join the world's largest nonprofit scientific and educational organization, and help further our mission to increase and diffuse knowledge of the world and all that is in it. Membership dues are used to fund exploration and educational projects and members also receive 12 annual issues of the Society's official journal, National Geographic. Click here for details of our latest subscription offer: Go>>

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.