According to popular Colombian lore, a bridge was inaugurated in Eastern Colombia to much fanfare in the mid-twentieth century. Colombia’s Eastern Plains are a vast flatland with roaring rivers, and so the bridge was engulfed by the river a few rainy months later. By the time the dry months returned, the river had settled on a different course, leaving the bridge alone, rising awkwardly above a dry patch of land.

I have heard the story several times from different sources, but I don’t know if it’s true. It deserves to be, since it captures something about the paradoxes of Colombia.

This is a country that in 1991 drafted one of the most modern and enlightened constitutions, consecrating a vast array of citizens’ rights, and during the following decade saw around 3 million of its citizens, more than one in fifteen, internally displaced. Colombia boasts one of the longest democratic traditions in the Western Hemisphere, 120 years of contested elections and peaceful transfers of power; but, in a slow year, more than a thousand Colombians, including union leaders, journalists, and human rights activists, fall victim to political violence. Sometimes the number is two or three times that. An exemplar of prudence and professionalism in its economic management, Colombia hosts one of the largest illegal economies in the world, as the international leader in cocaine production. Life in Colombia’s cities goes on as it would in any other country—and probably with more partying—while right-wing death squads roam the countryside. By some estimates, they have killed more than 40,000 people since the late 1980s, including women, children, and the elderly.

There is no agreement on when Colombia’s plight began or even what to call it. Most say it started 40-50 years ago; however, in 2008 Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez spoke of its “sixty-year war,” while an influential World Bank paper from 2000 places its origins between 1980 and 1984. Colombia’s orgy of killings during the 1940s and ’50s went down in history as the period of La Violencia (The Violence), a generic name suggesting just how difficult it was to comprehend. Similarly, Colombians often refer to their current situation as the “armed conflict,” thus avoiding a more conventional label such as “civil war.” The sitting administration of Álvaro Uribe refused to use the word “conflict” for a while, offering instead “attack against democracy.”

The Colombian and American governments claim that the violence in Colombia—whether twenty or 60 years old, whether armed conflict or civil war—seems to be turning a corner. Such bouts of optimism are an invitation to careful analysis. With a land mass comparable to that of Alaska (and South Africa) and a population of 45 million (comparable to that of the West Coast of the United States), Colombia is a significant presence, and events there reverberate from the Caribbean to the Amazon basin to its sizable diaspora. Future textbooks in Colombia will likely refer to the end of the current conflict as the foundation of a new republic. But after decades of bloodshed, what kind of republic will it be? Will it enshrine the violence or will it bequeath to new generations the peace, tolerance, and solidarity that evaded previous ones? Both outcomes are possible and only time will tell.


The war begins

If we date the onset of the war in Colombia by the founding of the main insurgent organization, it is 44 years old. When the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (known by their Spanish acronym FARC) was founded in 1964, it represented something fundamentally new. To be sure, it emerged from La Violencia, but unlike earlier militias, it was not attached to either of Colombia’s two historic political parties (Liberal or Conservative) and instead had ideological affinities (some say dual-membership) with the Communist Party.

Originally the FARC was a band of displaced peasants seeking a modicum of self-governance in the land they occupied at the end of La Violencia. But it soon styled itself as the avant garde of a communist revolution and grew to become the main insurgent organization in the country. The FARC was too small to have much impact in its early years, which is why some date the war to the early 1980s, when its activities began in earnest. Still, the group’s main leader, Manuel Marulanda Vélez, who recently died of natural causes in his old age, was already fighting an armed conflict around the same time that Fidel Castro launched his revolution.

Longevity is not the only reason the FARC stands out among Third World guerrilla organizations. In contrast with others that sprouted throughout Latin America in the ’60s—many of them products of the radicalized, urban, and educated youth—the FARC was and remains to this day fundamentally a peasant group in a country that is more than 70 percent urban. Though it has made some inroads in the cities, its core support is rural.

In the 1980s, amid peace talks that would eventually fail, the FARC created a political party, the Patriotic Union (UP). What ensued was one of Colombia’s greatest political disasters. A few years after its auspicious beginning, the UP was eliminated with diabolical efficiency. Up to 3,000 supporters—roughly 1 percent of the party’s total votership, or the equivalent of 600,000 U.S. Democrats—died. One by one they were killed, up the rungs of the organization from militants to small-town activists, local elected officials, congressmen, and, ultimately, the two chairmen and presidential candidates. The thoroughness, precision, and impunity of the slaughter was made possible by an unholy alliance of drug lords, rural economic elites, and rogue elements of the armed forces.

Thus began one of the bloodiest, longest, and dirtiest counterinsurgency campaigns in Latin America—which is saying a lot. Over the next fifteen years, the gangs that formed would grow to become Colombia’s current paramilitary groups, responsible for the political assassinations, massacres, and displacements of civilians that have earned Colombia its infamy among human rights groups.

To readers familiar with Latin America, talk of a counterinsurgency campaign usually evokes the image of a tightly centralized operation, coordinated from the highest echelons of power. That is not how it works in Colombia. If anything, it was precisely the incapacity of the Colombian state to curb the guerrillas’ activities in several cattle-growing regions that led local landlords to create their own militias. Of course, such “bottom-up” initiatives depend for their success on good friends, sometimes very good friends, in high places, sometimes very high places. Such friendships were, in fact, plentiful. But the evidence available so far does not allow us to conclude that this “dirty war” was orchestrated by the central government. There is no Colombian Ríos Montt or Pinochet.

Although the duration of Colombia’s war defies explanation, one cynical factor cannot be ignored: until it hit the wealthy and the middle class, it didn’t matter.

With the annihilation of the UP, a crop of articulate activists more attuned than the historical FARC membership to the practice of politics, the FARC was cut down to its rural roots. The survivors never came in from the cold, never abandoned their militaristic outlook and, ultimately, learned again the lesson of the guerrillas pardoned and then killed after La Violencia: never trust the government’s peace overtures.

Even under normal circumstances, such a hardened group of armed peasants would have been a significant thorn in the side of a government chronically unable to assert its authority. But circumstances were far from normal. In a perverse confluence of premodern and postmodern challenges to the nation-state, these peasants linked up with that most globalized of supply chains: the drug trade. The coca crops migrated northward from Bolivia and Peru into Colombia’s outermost rural periphery in the Southeast, the region with the weakest state presence. Operating in this area, the FARC was able to create an embryonic state. It meted out justice on matters ranging from land disputes to marital law and acquired a sizable tax base, the envy of other guerrilla groups and of many governments. By the mid-1990s, the FARC possessed a formidable fighting force, able to inflict heavy casualties on elite units of government soldiers.

It is impossible to overestimate the impact of the drug trade on Colombia’s warfare. A country fights the civil wars it can afford. The inflow of drug money, apart from allowing the FARC to sustain a deadly arms race with the right-wing death squads funded by the same sources, profoundly transformed the conflict. With its political structures in ruin and its military fronts gaining strength, the FARC began to act in several areas of the country as an occupation army. Before it took on the government, it was shelling civilian targets, recruiting minors, planting land mines, and kidnapping citizens for ransom in a pattern of abuses that was as morally repugnant as it was politically tone-deaf.

But while the corrupting effect of drug money runs deep inside the FARC, the widespread view of the group as an overgrown criminal racket (recently the government coined the “FARC cartel”) is very likely exaggerated. The FARC spends abundant resources in keeping a fighting force larger than would be necessary to run a drug operation. Reportedly, it also maintains, at significant cost and risk, several underground political activities.


Game of mirrors

Colombia’s paramilitary started as little more than a particularly deadly kind of security detail for landowners. Over time, however, they, like the FARC, have grown in size, complexity, and wealth, and become increasingly involved in the production and processing of cocaine. As the FARC’s political arm has atrophied, the paramilitary groups have developed new societal and political ties, probably the most lasting consequence of this game of mirrors.

Caught in the crossfire, Colombian peasants have displayed the same everyday ingenuity and political volatility as their counterparts in many other rural conflicts in the world, shifting allegiances depending on which army can provide security. Thus, even such bastions of working-class radicalism as the oil refineries in Barrancabermeja or the banana export concerns in Urabá—presumably home to ideological allies of the FARC—became paramilitary strongholds through a time-honored tactic: first, ruthlessly kill as many political contacts of the enemy as possible, then terrorize the population and impose law and order. In due course, loyalty follows, especially if the other faction is nowhere to be seen. It works.

Although both armies recruit heavily from the Colombian peasantry, the paramilitary have been more successful in tapping into the slum youth that had already found in urban organized crime a ticket to respect among peers, a modicum of wealth for their families (often their single mothers), and early death. They have been more successful in accessing political and economic power, too.

Born out of the landowning elites in contentious regions, the paramilitary groups have continued to nourish these connections. In what has become known as the “parapolitics” scandal, since 2006 more than 60 congressmen have been investigated for links to these illegal armies, and about half of those investigated have been indicted.

Far from simply cultivating contacts, the militias have also become more assertive in pursuing their own political aspirations. In recent elections, several local machine politicians have been defeated by dark horses sympathetic to the aims of militias and their elite patrons, a phenomenon that suggests the paramilitary’s considerable power.

The political successes of the militias mark something of a reversal. During La Violencia the patrician classes found it difficult to oversee their estates and, while absent, lost much of their political hold in the countryside. The result was the emergence of a new class of politicos, more plebeian in their origins and more tied to the parties and the state bureaucracy. The present war will likely bring back a political class with closer ties to private economic concerns, similar to the one displaced decades ago.


The global economy intrudes

Although the duration of Colombia’s war defies explanation, one cynical factor cannot be discounted: for years it did not matter. Until the ’90s the insurgency festered in the countryside, largely sparing the Andean region, where most Colombians live and where most of the GDP is produced.

But Colombia’s economic geography is changing. Over the past two decades, coffee has been displaced as the leading export, first by oil, then by coal. Today, remittances from migrant workers are the largest source of foreign capital. A new set of natural resources has enormous potential: palm oil for biofuels, timber, and, presumably in a post-conflict future, the natural beauty of the landscape itself, attractive to eco-tourists. Whereas coffee historically has been grown in the dramatic slopes of the Western Mountain Range, cultivated in middle-sized plots, and hand-picked in a labor-intensive operation, the new exports are produced in the vast Eastern Plains and the Atlantic and Pacific coastal areas and involve large industrialized, capital-intensive land holdings.

The new frontier of agro-exports coincides strikingly with the flashpoints of the war. Through eviction and intimidation, the paramilitary groups have accumulated huge swaths of land in the newly exploited regions, and in the process created one of the world’s worst crises of internally displaced people.

No Colombian president has been as uncompromising with the FARC—or engaging with the right-wing paramilitary—as Álvaro Uribe.

Now the war matters for the most consequential political constituencies and economic agents (of course, it always mattered to those ravaged by it). For the urban middle classes, that powerhouse of electoral mobilization, the war has come to their doorstep not only in the form of displaced beggars but, more shockingly, kidnappings for ransom at the hands of the FARC. The psychological effect of the kidnappings—frequently on key roads—cannot be exaggerated. For Colombia’s urban middle classes, the weekend outing means a cherished respite from congested cities in distant but familiar small villages—often, in a country of recent urbanization, places of childhood memories and elderly relatives.

Other forces propelled the war to the forefront of Colombia’s politics. While its export base moved internally, Colombia, no stranger to the neoliberal reforms that swept South America in the ’90s, eagerly plugged into the world’s capital flows. It has since run up considerable trade deficits, to the obvious pleasure of Colombians, who have embraced the luxury cars, glitzy boutiques, daring restaurants, and exotic vacations that followed the wave of foreign investment.

Just as the global drug trade placed the coca frontier men of Putumayo in the same transactional chain as the overworked young executives of New York, the global economy has thrust Colombia’s peasant guerrillas onto center stage. If it is to keep receiving foreign investment, Colombia needs to overcome its “country risk.” It needs to end the war. Thus, over the past ten years, citizens have voted repeatedly to do just that, in 1998 through negotiations, in 2002 and 2006 by force.



On February 20, 2002 the FARC hijacked a regional plane and kidnapped Senator Jorge Eduardo Géchen Turbay. Even more than the FARC’s brutality and military prowess, what shocked Colombians was the timing. On the heels of other provocations, the hijacking brought an end to the longest and most thorough peace process ever offered the FARC by any government.

From the point of view of the Colombian public, there was nothing the FARC could have disliked about the peace process, which had been initiated by President Andrés Pastrana in 1998. As a temporary gesture to facilitate talks, though not as a “final status” concession, the government had granted the FARC a demilitarized zone the size of Switzerland, a fact never neglected by the process’s critics.

The kidnapping occurred in the thick of the electoral season, and in a matter of weeks, voters flocked to the one candidate who had denounced the peace process: Álvaro Uribe. Before the kidnapping, Uribe had languished in the polls, but on election day he crushed his nearest rival and won an absolute majority of votes, precluding the need for a secondary election. Just as spectacular as Uribe’s rise in the national vote was his performance in the major cities: in Bogotá and Medellín he obtained twice as many votes as any previous successful presidential candidate.

The speed, vehemence, and bitterness with which the electorate, especially city-dwellers, turned toward the most hawkish candidate suggest that large segments of the citizenry had accepted the peace process only through gritted teeth. They had come to view the FARC as an alien army to be defanged, by force if possible, negotiations if necessary, rather than a wayward group of countrymen with whom reconciliation was desirable.

President Uribe enjoys approval ratings unprecedented in a country notorious for its political cynicism. It would be a mistake to discount the friendly role of the media—the country’s main national daily, El Tiempo, was owned by the family of Vice President Francisco Santos Calderón until 2007 and remains a staunch ally of the administration—but more important is Uribe’s novel security policy. He has pursued an all-out military effort against the FARC, with only perfunctory gestures at dialogue; and, in a radical departure from previous practices, a sui generis peace process with the paramilitary groups. No predecessor has been as uncompromising with the FARC or as willing to engage with the paramilitary.

Indeed, it is in the offensive against the FARC that the government has had its biggest success. Certainly the anti-drug effort has made little progress. Uribe’s first Minister of the Interior, Fernando Londoño, predicted that the coca crops would be eradicated in eighteen months. The hardy plants are still there, and their crop is still widely available at relatively low prices in U.S. cities. But the Uribe government’s aggressive tactics against the FARC themselves have forced some fighters to surrender and led to the rescue of numerous hostages. One of the most serious blows was the death of Raúl Reyes, the FARC’s second-in-command, who met his end in a Colombian army operation across the Ecuadorian border, which triggered a significant international crisis.

By conservative estimates, the FARC is now half the size it was five years ago.

Before Uribe, the government had always officially rejected negotiations with the militias. (Unofficially, several members of the armed forces have been complicit in their substantial growth.) The Uribe administration changed course by offering them a settlement in the context of the “Law of Justice and Peace.”

Under the terms of the agreement, the paramilitary groups can obtain some judicial benefits if they confess their crimes and offer compensation to their victims. As a result several paramilitary leaders are serving prison sentences and some foot soldiers have laid down their weapons. In a surprising move, Uribe also extradited the most prominent leaders of the paramilitary to the United States, where they face charges of drug smuggling.

The paramilitary’s most visible leadership has thus been dismantled, but Uribe may have mortgaged the possibilities of the accord on their punishment: under these new circumstances, will remaining paramilitary leaders cooperate? Moreover, extricating the army from the paramilitary has proven a Sisyphean task, and the victims’-compensation process moves at glacier speed. There is little chance that evicted peasants will be returned to their lands.

Some critics of the administration suggest that Uribe is in cahoots with the paramilitary, and whatever the government’s intentions, clearly the paramilitary obtained a deal better than anything currently on offer to the FARC. The paramilitary entered talks in a position of strength. They suffered no pre-negotiation offensive intended to soften them up. With the FARC, the government always continued fighting until the day before talks and made clear that, should the talks fail, new attacks would come.

The paramilitary’s vast political and economic connections offer them high-level protection. Thanks to decades of carefully preserved connections, the militias have the capacity to blackmail “respectable” figures in Colombia’s public life. To revert their land-grabs, in both the critical new export sectors and in the more traditional cattle-growing areas, would require legal and institutional commitments that the government appears unwilling to make.

Moderate progress has been made outside of government, however. Working under the tight deadlines of the Law of Justice and Peace, some jurists and human rights activists have brought charges against the paramilitary leaders. This legal pressure has resulted in several confessions, and, especially of late, media portrayals have exposed Colombians to the brutality of the paramilitary campaigns.

As for the FARC, it has proven remarkably resilient, but recently has suffered the worst blows in its long history. Conservative estimates put membership at 8,000, possibly half the size of five years ago. In many countries insurgent groups much smaller than this have been able to mount major challenges to their establishments. Yet for several years, the FARC has all but acknowledged that military victory is not feasible. Whenever it leaders articulate their goals, an exercise that does not come easy to guerrillas unaccustomed to politics, they talk of a “transitional government of national unity.” In other words, they’ve given up on the pie, and are prepared to settle for a slice. In its most optimistic flights of imagination, the FARC would consider it a huge victory (as no doubt it would be) if, in exchange for laying down their weapons, its members were allowed a permanent foothold in Colombian politics. They would rejoice at a deal similar to the one the Maoist guerrillas in Nepal only grudgingly accepted.

Even a FARC defeat would not necessarily bring closure to the Colombian conflict. Its forces may, in the way of guerrillas of the ’50s, degenerate into social banditry and linger for years. The Colombian conflict may never know the type of closure that came to Spaniards from Franco’s entry into Madrid or to South Africans from the historic handshakes in Kempton Park.


Orangutan in coattails

Among the many victims of the war may be Colombian democracy, that oddity once described by Darío Echandía, a prominent leader of the Liberal Republic of the ’30s and ’40s, as “an orangutan in coattail.” Coattails are no longer de rigeur for public ceremonies, but Colombians have shown time and again that they like their heads of state in civilian clothes.

When not busy with elections, campaigns, and congressional debates, the orangutan has been growling. In an off year, the number of political assassinations and disappearances in Colombia would humble any military dictator from the Southern Cone. Much of this bloodshed is perpetrated by the FARC, a peculiar type of spokesman for the downtrodden that has killed several peasant and indigenous leaders. But political dissidents, murdered at the hands of the paramilitary or even the state’s agents, make up the bulk of victims.

In the not-too-distant future, Colombians probably will enjoy a much-needed decline in violence. Incidences of kidnapping and assassination are already falling. Lower levels will likely create a new normal. But how shall we describe the resulting democracy? How likely is it, as some liberal thinkers would have it, that Colombian democracy can provide a neutral realm where free and equal citizens can decide together where to take their society?

No society can start from scratch. In Colombia the war has already reshaped land ownership and displaced thousands of families. The next generation of rural labor markets will feed off the dislocation of peasant, indigenous, and black communities. Labor unions, decimated by years of attacks on union activists, will have a lot of rebuilding to do. The emerging political order will be profoundly unequal.

Today, Colombia is mobilized with ever-increasing vigilance and cost against an enemy that by all objective measures has been contained.

But structural injustice will not be the war’s only anti-democratic legacy. As his own term approaches its end on August 7 (an attempt to run for a third term was shot down by the Constitutional Court), and the presidential campaign heats up, Uribe keeps warning of FARC plots to seize power via the electoral process and implicating members of some opposition parties. He has also proposed that university students in Medellín be paid to spy on each other. If what Uribe says of the FARC is true, then the FARC is more powerful today than ever before. That’s not very unlikely. But it would be a serious indictment of the Uribe government’s policy if, after eight years of military efforts, it has not achieved the one task it was elected to accomplish.

Such disingenuous statements—despite the comfortable lead of the pro-government candidate, former Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos—and attempts to militarize society suggest something else at work: the entrenching of a permanent counter-revolution, a political climate in which the country is mobilized with ever-increasing vigilance, and at ever-increasing cost, against an enemy that by all objective measures has already been contained. Threat inflation is standard operating procedure, which allows the government to treat the legal opposition as a fifth column for a terrorist plot.

Santos’s likely opponent, former Bogotá mayor Antanas Mockus, is distancing himself from the most unsavory practices of the current government (such as illegal wiretappings of political opponents), but offers no wholesale rejection of the policies in place. Little suggests that he will look for a comprehensive peace accord or significant improvements in economic equality. With either Santos or Mockus, the anti-democratic elements in Colombian politics will remain influential.

To be sure, Colombia may be able to stand down and pursue a more equal and democratic future. Peace is possible and may not even be particularly difficult. Colombia’s combatants share the same ethnic, religious, and linguistic background. There is no call for secession, and there will be no forced collectivization of private property. Several decades from now, Colombia’s conflict may appear to have been the growing pains of a society whose modernization process of inclusion and prosperity hadn’t kept pace on an agrarian frontier where only the drug trade and the occasional ill-fated resort to armed struggle offered hope. In that case, Colombia would not be the first country to overcome this condition.

The poorest 20 percent of Colombians live on 3 percent of the country’s GDP, as the defense budget inches toward 6 percent of GDP. Political choices, rather than harsh economic realities, stand in the way of better days.


A new U.S. policy

One of President George W. Bush’s last acts in office was awarding Uribe the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a testament to the ties that bound them through their tenures. Even by the standards of Colombia—probably the most U.S.-friendly country in the region for decades—the closeness between the presidents was unusual.

The political elites of Bogota and Washington have converged in an approach to drugs that fuses interdiction with counterinsurgency, with an occasional tug-of-war between both. But this is not the only possible strategy. After all, the paramilitary are as active in the drug trade as the insurgency, and arguably the flow of people into the coca frontier could be reverted if the land grabs in cattle-growing areas could be rolled back. Yet this alternative is beyond the bounds of political discourse.

Even with Uribe soon to be out of office, it is hard to imagine any U.S. administration taking another approach. Doing so would require an unprecedented willingness and ability to diversify contacts with Colombian society. One could say President Obama needs to get out more, but that would not change anything if his chauffeur and his translators are the same and if they drive him through the same neighborhoods.

Nor will the current electoral cycle in Colombia deliver a whole new cast of characters. The next president promises to be no great “change agent,” and recent legislative elections have returned a Congress remarkably similar to the previous one.

Last summer the Obama administration finalized an agreement to allow the U.S. military access to seven bases in Colombia, with a mandate that covers everything from drug interdiction to counterterrorism in whatever vaporous definition suits the circumstances. This was to be expected. From the U.S. point of view, Colombia is not a crisis flashpoint; with a crowded foreign-policy agenda, why try something new with a firm ally? Colombia is undergoing profound structural changes that make its economic model more volatile, its social inequalities more salient, its political system less democratic, all as a result of brutal counterinsurgency—but this does not make it an urgent national interest for U.S. policymakers.

Colombia’s displaced population will not be beached at the U.S. coast, not any time soon. Drugs will continue to find their way into the United States, as they have for decades. The human rights situation in Colombia will experience its ups and downs dictated by the typical fluctuations of the war, prompting the U.S. government to go from congratulations to admonitions and back, but without any serious challenge to the government.

If Obama were a community organizer, he would encourage the government to restore peasants to their land, instead of fumigating the countryside in service of a futile coca-eradication policy. He would call for a massive grassroots effort to restore peasants’ economic, social, and political rights and a plan for community-centered crop eradication and substitution.

If he were a professor of constitutional law, he would be concerned by the way Colombia’s warlords became entrenched in the political system after destroying dissent in many regions and hollowing out the country’s democratic promise. He would issue stern warnings about the need for an independent judiciary to get to the bottom of the matter, and to breathe new life into the country’s institutions.

If he were a state senator leery of military adventures, he would be alarmed that Colombia’s government has closed off paths to political settlement with the insurgency and exaggerated its danger. He would note that the U.S. response—an ever-growing footprint in Colombia—risks embroiling his country in conflicts with Colombia’s neighbors, such as Venezuela.

If he were a bridge-building candidate, he would be appalled at how the lack of political will perpetuates a war that grows more pointless as time goes by. He would use his position to call all parties to a stance that opens the door for a nonviolent settlement.

But he is President of the United States, and this severely limits his options.