about the combatants
are three sets of actors in Colombia's longstanding conflict:
leftist guerrilla groups, right-wing paramilitary groups, and
government security forces. While guerrillas and paramilitaries
do not appear to have a significant support base, most are well-funded
and control significant amounts of territory. All combatants commit
serious abuses of human rights and international humanitarian
Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)
(above): Pedro Antonio Marín, alias Manuel Marulanda
Vélez or "Tirofijo" (Sureshot), Alfonso
Cano, Raúl Reyes, Timoleón Jiménez,
Iván Márquez, Jorge Briceño (a.k.a.
"Mono Jojoy"), Efraín Guzmán
today is the hemisphere's largest guerrilla group began after
a U.S.-supported attack on a Communist Party-inspired peasant
cooperative in southern Tolima department calling itself the "independent
republic of Marquetalia." According to the guerrilla group's
version of events, the May 1964 raid pitted 16,000 military personnel
against a community of 1,000, of which forty-eight were armed.
of the Marquetalia raid founded the FARC shortly afterward, led
by Manuel Marulanda, a peasant guerrilla who had fought since
1948 in a period of partisan bloodletting known as La Violencia.
headed by the septuagenarian Marulanda, the FARC now has about
18,000 members in almost 70 fronts, organized in regional "blocs,"
plus mobile columns and urban militias. The group controls or
operates freely in 40 to 60 percent of country, usually sparsely
populated areas, rural zones, jungles and plains, and rarely in
significant population centers. Its principal strongholds are
east and south of the Andes.
it received limited assistance from the Soviet bloc during the
Cold War, today the FARC finances itself through kidnapping for
ransom, extortion, and involvement in Colombia's drug trade. Together
with the ELN (described below), the FARC is responsible for the
majority of kidnappings committed in Colombia. Over fifty of those
in FARC custody are officials (Colombian legislators, governors,
ex-presidential candidate Íngrid Betancourt, and three
U.S. citizens working for a Defense Department contractor) the
group has held for years, insisting on exchanging them for FARC
prisoners in Colombian jails.
FARC and ELN are responsible for about 20 percent of killings
associated with Colombia's conflict, many of them civilian non-combatants.
The FARC carries out occasional massacres, and has claimed many
innocent lives through indiscriminate use of inaccurate gas-cylinder
bombs. The FARC regularly recruits minors, at times by force.
of Colombia's coca is grown in FARC-controlled areas, and the
guerrillas' link to the drug trade is the source of much controversy.
While this link is chiefly "taxation" of coca-growers
in the areas it controls, the group has some involvement in drug
production and transit, though the paramilitaries likely control
a far greater share of these latter phases of the narcotrafficking
Colombian Armed Forces estimate that the FARC gets about half
its income from involvement in narcotics trafficking, an amount
that is probably between $200 million and $400 million per year
(estimates range from $100 million to $1 billion).
in part by this income source, the FARC grew rapidly during the
1990s, and dealt the Colombian military several humiliating defeats
in 1996-1998. It has since lost some momentum, losing key battles
to the army and some territory to paramilitaries.
FARC was involved in unsuccesful attempts to negotiate peace in
1984-87, 1991, 1992 and 1998-2002. During the first peace process
-- which even brought a cease-fire -- the FARC set up a political
party, the Patriotic Union, which the group had hoped to use as
a vehicle for an eventual entry into non-violent political participation.
Between the Patriotic Union's founding in 1985 and the early 1990s,
at least 2,000 of the party's congress members, mayors, candidates
and activists were killed by paramilitaries, security forces,
and drug cartels. The slaughter of the Patriotic Union left the
FARC's military structure intact, but left the group with few
articulate political spokespeople.
of FARC activity
peace talks page
National Liberation Army (ELN)
"central command" (COCE):
Rodríguez, also known as "Gabino," Antonio García,
Pablo Beltrán, Ramiro Vargas, Oscar Santos
ELN was founded in 1964 by a group of Colombian students who underwent
training in Cuba. The group launched its first military operations
in Colombia's north-central Magdalena Medio region the following
year. Attempting to follow the Cuban model of rural rebellion,
the ELN grew slowly but attracted many radical students and priests.
Among the priests were Camilo Torres, a firebrand who died during
his first combat in 1966, and two Spaniards, Domingo Laín
and Manuel Pérez. Pérez served as the group's maximum
leader from the 1970s until his death of natural causes in 1998.
ELN membership is estimated at about 3,500 members, down from
a late-1990s high of about 5,000. The group, which does not profit
significantly from the drug trade, has lost ground to paramilitary
ELN relies more heavily on kidnapping and extortion to support
itself. It frequently targets Colombia's oil sector, which it
regards as dominated by foreign interests. Bombings of pipelines
and energy infrastructure (such as power lines) are frequent.
The group has also carried out several high-profile mass kidnappings
ELN was involved in brief peace talks with the government in 1991
and 1992, participating together with the FARC in a now-defunct
structure called the "Simón Bolívar Guerrilla
Coordination." The group held sporadic talks with the Colombian
government between 1998 and 2002, and has maintained contacts
with the Uribe government via the Mexican government since 2003.
years, the ELN has declared its intention to negotiate its peace
agenda through a several-month "convention" with Colombia's
civil-society and popular groups.
of ELN activity
peace talks page
Smaller guerrilla groups
has at least three other, far smaller insurgent groups. The Popular
Liberation Army (EPL) is a remnant that refused to go along when
the original EPL, a Maoist-inspired group, negotiated a peace
accord with the government in 1991. Perhaps a few dozen members
remain; the group's leader, Francisco Caraballo, is in prison.
The ERG (Guevarist Revolutionary Army) and ERP (Popular Revolutionary
Army), tiny groups that are essentially satellites of the FARC
and ELN, carry out occasional kidnappings and terrorist attacks.
Self-Defense Groups of Colombia (AUC)
leaders Iván Roberto Duque (Central Bolívar
Bloc), Salvatore Mancuso (Northern Bloc, AUC military
chief), and Ramón Isaza (Middle Magdalena
Bloc) address the Colombian congress, July 2004.
has a long history of privately-financed peasant self-defense
groups, usually suffused with their wealthy patrons' right-wing
beliefs. These groups' numbers began to grow rapidly in the 1980s.
growth coincided with the advent of Colombia's drug trade. Newly
wealthy drug traffickers laundered their profits by buying up
as much as 2.5 million acres of land in northern Colombia during
the 1980s. These new landholders put together private armies to
deal with the guerrillas who kidnapped and extorted wealthy ranchers
in the area. One of the first, and most feared, was a group calling
itself "Death to Kidnappers" (Muerte a Secuestradores,
or MAS), active in the Magdalena Medio region of north-central
funding from drug traffickers and other large landholders, and
close and open collaboration with Colombia's armed forces, the
paramilitaries gained strength throughout the 1980s. Their tactics
-- selective assassinations and forced disappearances, massacres,
forced displacement of entire populations -- quickly made them
one of the country's main human rights abusers. They also played
a strong role in the decimation of the Patriotic Union political
party (see FARC section above).
abuses of groups like MAS caused paramilitaries to be declared
illegal in 1989. Little was done to disband them, though. Human
rights groups have documented widespread post-1989 collaboration
between Colombia's armed forces and paramilitary groups.
In the early 1990s the United Self-Defense Forces of Córdoba
and Urabá (ACCU), a group headed by brothers Carlos and
Fidel Castaño, emerged in northwestern Colombia. Using
extreme brutality toward civilian populations, the group has weakened
guerrillas and established a permanent presence throughout northern
Colombia. The ACCU grew to be a powerful player in the northern
regions of Colombia under the direction of Carlos Castaño.
Fidel was probably killed by guerrillas in 1995.
1997, Carlos Castaño had organized the ACCU and several
other paramilitary groups throughout the country into a national
structure, the United Self-Defense Groups of Colombia (AUC). The
group grew rapidly, from perhaps 4,000 members in 1998 to about
AUC is more of a loose, fluid confederation than a unified structure.
The AUC even dissolved briefly in 2002, with Carlos Castaño's
decision to resign from the AUC's leadership because "everyone
does as he wishes". Divisions within the group over links
to the drug trade worsened during the early 2000s, exacerbated
by the U.S. Justice Department's requests to extradite AUC leaders
for narcotrafficking and the State Department's inclusion of the
AUC on its list of international terrorist groups. At the same
time, a new wave of individuals with long histories as narcotraffickers
has entered the group's top leadership since about 2000. Leaders
like Diego Fernando Murillo ("Don Berna"), Víctor
Manuel Mejía ("El Mellizo") and Francisco Javier
Zuluaga ("Gordolindo") have recently moved from Colombia's
drug underworld to command of key paramilitary blocs.
several years of divisions, including increasing incidents of
combat between groups (particularly in Magdalena and Casanare),
the AUC is now more adequately represented by blocs than by one
singular banner. 2004 has seen the murder of several prominent
paramilitary leaders at the hands of fellow paramilitaries: Carlos
Castaño in April, "Rodrigo 00" of the now-defunct
Metro Bloc in June, and Miguel Arroyave of the Centauros Bloc
has been happening against the backdrop of peace talks with the
government of Álvaro Uribe, which began in December 2002.
The talks, focusing on terms of the paramilitaries' demobilization,
are taking place in a small demilitarized zone in Santa Fe de
Ralito, a town in Tierralta municipality in southern Córdoba
department. The talks face many obstacles, among them the AUC's
non-observance of a promised cease-fire; the entry of narcotraffickers
into the group's top leadership; the likelihood of amnesty or
light sentences for those who committed crimes against humanity;
U.S. extradition requests; and the Colombian government's probable
inability to secure zones currently under paramilitary control.
Northern Bloc - Run by current AUC military leader Salvatore
Mancuso, the Northern Bloc incorporates Fidel and Carlos Castaño's
original ACCU, controlling municipalities in a swath of territory
stretching from the Panamanian to the Venezuelan borders. Mancuso's
deputy in the Caribbean coast is Rodrigo Tovar Pupo, more commonly
known as Jorge 40, whom authorities believe controls much of Colombia's
Caribbean drug routes. Vicente Castaño, Carlos and Fidel's
brother, is a third powerful player - and he is widely believed
to have played a role in Carlos' death.
"Élmer Cárdenas Bloc" - Led by José
Alfredo "El Alemán" Berrío, the Elmer
Cardenas Bloc was originally part of the ACCU, which through a
wave of brutality and massacres gained control of the strategic
Urabá region near the Colombian-Panamanian border during
the 1990s. Substantial evidence suggests that Berrío and
the Élmer Cárdenas Bloc are very strong in drug
trafficking. This bloc is one of few not currently participating
in peace talks.
Magdalena Medio Bloc - Led by Ramón "El Viejo"
Isaza on the west side of the Magdalena river, one of the the
most veteran paramilitaries, and Victor Triana "Botalón"
Arias on the other side of the river.
Central Bolivar Bloc - Deeply involved in Colombia's drug
trade, the BCB rivals (and perhaps exceeds) the Northern Bloc
in size and wealth. Led by Iván Roberto "Ernesto Baez"
Duque, the BCB controls much of the greater Magdalena Medio region
and significant portions of southern Colombia's coca-growing regions.
The "Mineros" Bloc - Though it controls a small area
in northeast Antioquia, the Mineros Bloc is quite wealthy, largely
from narcotrafficking. It is led by Ramiro "Cuco" Vanoy,
wanted by the United States for his participation in the North
Valle drug cartel.
Calima Bloc - Situated in and around Cali and down the Pacific
coast to northern Cuaca, and led by Hernán Hernández,
this bloc formed in 1999 after the ELN staged a kidnapping in
a church in a wealthy Cali neighborhood. Heavily dependent on
drug traffickers' support, the bloc is scheduled to demobilize
by the end of 2004.
"Avengers of Arauca" Bloc - Commanded, at least
on paper, by Pablo Mejia ("El Mellizo"), a Northern
Valle Cartel figure wanted by the United States, this bloc operates
in an oil producing region that has been a principal destination
of U.S. military assistance.
"Libertadores del Sur" Bloc - Operating in the coca-growing
zones of Nariño and Putumayo and led by Guillermo Pérez
Alzate ("Pablo Sevillano"), a noted narcotrafficker
wanted by U.S. authorities.
"Centauros Bloc" - Operating in oil-rich Casanare,
Meta, Cundinamarca and Bogotá's slums, this bloc is disintegrating
following the murder of its leader, Miguel Arroyave, at the hands
of his own men in September 2004. The Centauros have fought a
bloody campaign against the Llanos Bloc in Casanare.
Llanos Bloc - Headed by "Martín Llanos," based
in Casanare and not participating in peace talks, this bloc has
been nearly decimated by repeated attacks from the rest of the
AUC (especially the Centauros Bloc) and the Colombian military.
most publicly recognized leader of the AUC is Salvatore Mancuso.
A former Córdoba rancher, Mancuso is currently the "Maximum
Comandante" of the AUC and chief negotiator in Santa Fe de
Ralito. Mancuso has been sentenced to 40 years in jail for his
participation in the 1997 El Aro Massacre in 1997, and faces eight
different arrest orders. All warrants and charges have been suspended,
however, during the current peace talks.
of AUC activity
of Paramilitary presence over time
Colombia has avoided most Latin American countries' histories
of chronic military coups, its armed forces operate with considerable
autonomy and often challenge civilian leaders. Over the years,
Colombia's security forces, especially its Army, have suffered
from a reputation for corruption, human rights abuse and poor
performance on the battlefield.
military has nonetheless maintained very close relations with
the United States at least since the early cold war (Colombia
even sent a battalion to Korea in 1950). This collaboration has
intensified since 1999, when the bulk of US counter-drug aid shifted
from the National Police to the Army.
Defense Ministry, headed by a civilian since the 1991 Constitution
was ratified, includes the Army (about 180,000 members), Police
(about 150,000), Air Force (about 10,000) and Navy (about 5,000).
law exempts anyone with a high-school education from serving in
combat units. With a large contingent of these "bachilleres"
and many soldiers guarding oil installations and infrastructure,
perhaps half of the Army -- maybe less -- is available to fight
illegal armed groups. The Colombian government has announced its
intention to reduce the number of "bachilleres" and
add professional volunteer soldiers.
armed forces have improved their battlefield performance since
suffering embarrasing defeats at the hands of the FARC in 1996-98.
In 2000 and 2001 the Army won decisive battles in Sumapaz, a zone
50 miles south of Bogotá, in Santander department ("Operation
Berlín"), and in Vichada and Guanía departments
("Operation Black Cat"). Offensives carried out by the
Uribe government have generally been successful. Maintaining control
over re-conquered territories, however, remains a challenge, since
investment in civilian governance is scarce.
their share of direct involvement in killings and disappearances
has fallen in recent years to a current level of about 5-7 percent,
the armed forces nonetheless continue to face serious allegations
of indirect human rights abuse through collaboration with paramilitary
groups. Except for a few high-profile cases, past abusers continue
to enjoy near-complete impunity. [See the reports linked from
the human rights section of this site's "Links"
of military units
government home page