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Background on Colombia

Longest-Running Civil War in the Americas

Background on Colombia

Longest-Running Civil War in the Americas


Colombia has endured the longest-running internal conflict in the Western Hemisphere.  For over forty years, a triangulated war between guerrillas, paramilitaries and government forces has resulted in a devastating loss of life. In the last 20 years an estimated 70,000 civilians have been killed. [1] More than 3 million have fled the violence, making Colombia home to the second largest internally displaced population in the world. [2]  

Aside from the human toll, the internal conflict has undermined the rule of law in Colombia. Although Bogotá, the capital, retains a relatively robust political and legal infrastructure, large tracts of rural land have become virtual fiefdoms of paramilitaries, guerrillas, and narco-traffickers. Since the 1980s, insurgency and counterinsurgency operations have been increasingly financed by the deadly drug trade, and the lines between drug cartels and guerrilla and paramilitary groups are now blurred.  As a result, corruption is rampant and the citizens of Colombia continue to be targets of extreme violence.

The Rise of the Paramilitaries

Political violence in Colombia has its roots in a long history of poverty and inequality. Conflicts between the leftist and right-wing parties led to two bloody civil wars—The War of a Thousand Days (1899-1903) and The Violence (1946 to 1957)—that killed hundreds of thousands. [3] A power sharing agreement ended the civil war in 1957, but did not resolve the root causes of the violence: state neglect, inequity in land distribution, and poverty. [4] As a result, leftist guerrillas inspired by the Cuban Revolution launched an insurgency in the 1960s. [5]

In response, Colombian landowners and members of the armed forces created paramilitary militias to wage a counter-insurgent “dirty war” in the 1980s. [6] This rise of paramilitary groups coincided with the shift of cocaine production from Bolivia to Colombia. [7] Financed by drug-trafficking, the paramilitaries formed a national network in 1997—the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC) [United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia]. By 2000, the AUC had swelled to more than 30,000 combatants and had recruited notorious members of the drug cartel Los Pepes into senior positions.  [8] Aiming to exert control over land and monopolize drug trafficking and production, the AUC waged a campaign of brutal violence against anyone who stood in its path: its combatants forcibly displaced, tortured, and killed thousands of campesinos, Afro-Colombians, indigenous persons, trade unionists, human rights advocates, religious leaders, and other civilians. [9]

While all sides of the conflict have perpetrated human rights violations, the AUC and other paramilitaries are responsible for the vast majority of the 70,000 civilian killings and millions of forced displacements since the 1980s. [10] Shortly before September 11, 2001, the U.S. government designated the AUC a terrorist organization, [11]  as well as a foreign narcotics kingpin organization. [12]

Amnesty for Abuses: Neither Peace, nor Justice

After Alvaro Uribe Velez was elected President in 2002, and the U.S. indicted the first round of AUC commanders for drug-related crimes, [13] the AUC entered into negotiations with the Colombian government. These negotiations produced a demobilization plan for AUC belligerents. [14] Later, in 2005, Colombia enacted the Justice and Peace Law (JPL), establishing a legal framework for reintegrating AUC combatants into civilian life. The new law offered leniency to paramilitary members of any rank who agreed to disarm, forfeit assets, and testify on human rights abuses. [15] Paramilitaries who complied with these terms were eligible for reduced sentences, regardless of the severity of their crimes. [16] According to the Colombian government, approximately 31,000 paramilitary fighters had demobilized by 2006. [17] Of these, 3,712 applied for benefits under the Justice and Peace Law. [18]

Nonetheless, international and domestic human rights observers argue that the JPL provided a de facto amnesty to human rights abusers and failed to guarantee the rights of victims to truth and redress. In May 2006, the Colombian Constitutional Court struck down portions of the JPL to address these concerns. [19] Under the revised law, victims are allowed to have a limited role in the proceedings and perpetrators are required to give full confessions in order to enjoy the law’s benefits. Even with these formal revisions, the JPL has not held perpetrators accountable in a meaningful way and has yet to fully integrate survivors into the process. It has also failed to dissolve the paramilitaries and deter further atrocities.

» Read more about the Justice and Peace Law

The Second Life of the Paramilitaries

Paramilitary violence continues, despite claims that all paramilitaries have demobilized. In 2008, Amnesty International attributed 461 killings to the paramilitaries. [20]  Evidence also indicates that the paramilitaries continue to influence the judicial and legislative branches of the Colombian government. In 2006, investigators discovered a secret pact signed in 2001 by paramilitary commanders and thirty-one politicians, prompting an inquest of one third of Colombia’s congressional representatives for alleged ties to illegal armed groups. [21] In the wake of this so-called parapolítica scandal, seventy-one members of Congress have been subpoenaed and fifty detained.  In order to ensure the security of the Supreme Court justices investigating the scandal, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued precautionary measures which call on the Colombian government to provide for their safety. [22]  

Paramilitary influence extends to the military as well, which has been responsible for numerous human rights violations. In 2008, the extrajudicial killing of dozens of young men outside Bogotá forced the military to admit that security forces had colluded with paramilitaries and criminal gangs. [23] The scandal—which eventually compelled the resignation of the head of the armed forces—was part of a wider pattern.  In what have been termed falsos positivos [false positives], Colombian soldiers killed hundreds of civilians and dressed them in guerrilla clothing in order to inflate body counts and qualify for cash bonuses and holidays. An estimated 1,700 civilians were executed by troops under such suspect circumstances. [24] 

Although UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions Philip Alston stated that the extrajudicial killings were likely not "official government policy," he noted that "the sheer number of cases, their geographic spread, and the diversity of military units implicated, indicate that these killings were carried out in a more or less systematic fashion by significant elements within the military." [25]  In January 2010, in response to the ongoing human rights abuses in Colombia, U.S. Senators Christopher Dodd, Russ Feingold, and Patrick Leahy called on U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to review the U.S. contribution to the counter-narcotics initiative known as Plan Colombia. [26]

Lingering impunity

Impunity has become the norm in Colombia, a result of the subversion of the judicial system, and the collusion of security forces with paramilitaries and drug traffickers. Judges, prosecutors and witnesses are routinely intimidated and assaulted. [27] In April 2010, Colombia's Supreme Judicial Council warned of increasing threats to the country's judiciary, with three judges assassinated in the last two years, and 600 receiving death threats over the last four years. [28]

Fortunately, some elements of the Colombian government and judiciary have worked diligently to uphold human rights obligations: the Constitutional court has ruled that the State’s insufficient witness protection program violates Colombia’s international law obligations to prevent violence against women. The same Court also exposed a link between the forced displacements and gender-based violence, reporting that forced displacements have affected women disproportionately. [29]   However, others in the government have been less enthusiastic in upholding human rights.  In 2008, President Uribe accused international human rights observers of “fanaticism” and alleged their complicity with FARC. [30]  

The Paramilitary Extraditions

In July 2008, Colombia extradited fourteen demobilized paramilitary combatants—including the most important leaders of the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC) [United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia]—to the United States to stand trial in the U.S. District Courts for the District of Columbia, the Southern and Middle Districts of Florida, the Southern District of New York, and the Southern District of Texas on charges of narco-trafficking, money laundering, and provision of material support to a terrorist organization. [31]  The first to be extradited was Carlos Mario Jiménez Naranjo, a/k/a “Macaco,” former leader of the AUC Bloque Central Bolívar (BCB). [32] Macaco is the defendant in a civil case initiated by CJA in June 2010: Cabrera v. Jiminez Naranjo a/k/a Macaco.

These extraditions—which interrupted human rights proceedings against the paramilitary leaders—drew criticism from local and international monitors, who argue they trivialize the grave human rights abuses perpetrated by the paramilitary chiefs and undermine Colombia’s transitional justice process. [33]   Although the U.S. has jurisdiction to prosecute the paramilitary chiefs for human rights abuses such as torture, [34] the U.S. Department of Justice has so far declined to do so.  In effect, the U.S. government has closed the case on these serious crimes.  [35]

CJA’s Colombia work aims to hold these perpetrators accountable for their crimes and to support the courageous transitional justice efforts undertaken by our Colombian partners.

» Read more on CJA’s case against the notorious paramilitary leader “Macaco.”


[1] Adam Isacson, "Extending the War on Terrorism to Colombia: A Bad Idea Whose Time Has Come" (Washington, DC: Foreign Policy In Focus, February 6, 2002) available at http://www.fpif.org/articles/extending_the_war_on_terrorism_to_colombia_a_bad_idea_whose_time_has_come
[2] Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, “Colombia: New displacement continues, response still ineffective”,  http://www.internal-displacement.org/countries/colombia; see also Amnesty International, World Report 2009: Colombia, (hereinafter Amnesty World Report 2009) at 111, available at http://report2009.amnesty.org/en/regions/americas/colombia
[3] Clare Ribando Seelke & June S. Beittel, Congressional Research Service, Colombia: Issues for Congress 6 ( Jan. 12, 2009), available at http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/row/RL32250.pdf
[4] Id.
[5] Id.
[6] Id.
[7] Id.
[8] Diego Murillo-Bejarano a/k/a "Don Berna", member of Los Pepes, became Inspector General of the AUC. See Press Release, U.S. Dep't of Justice,  "Leader of Colombian Terrorist Organization AUC Pleads Guilty to Narcotics Trafficking Charges" (Jun. 17, 2008) available at http://www.usdoj.gov/usao/nys/pressreleases/June08/murillobejaranopleapr.pdf.
[9] See Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, U.S.  Dep’t of State, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, Colombia (2002), http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/hrrpt/2001/wha/8326.htm.
[10] Press release, U.S. Dep’t of Justice, "Colombian Terrorists Arrested in Cocaine-for-Weapons Deal" (Nov. 6, 2002), available at http://www.justice.gov/dea/pubs/pressrel/pr110602.html (estimating the AUC is “responsible for 70% of the human rights violations in Colombia”).
[11] Fact Sheet, U.S. Dep't of State, Foreign Terrorist Organizations (Apr. 8, 2008), available at http://www.state.gov/s/ct/rls/fs/08/103392.htm.
[12] Press Release, Statement on Drug Traffickers: Presidential Designation of Foreign Narcotics Kingpins (Jun. 2, 2003), available at http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2003/06/20030602-6.html.
[13] Attorney General John Ashcroft, AUC Indictment Press Conference (Sept. 24, 2002), http://www.justice.gov/archive/ag/speeches/2002/092402aucindictmentpressconference.htm.
[14] Acuerdo de Santa Fe de Ralito para Contribuir a la Paz de Colombia [Santa Fe de Ralito Agreement to
Contribute to Peace in Colombia] (Colom.) (Jul. 15, 2003), http://www.altocomisionadoparalapaz.gov.co/web/acuerdos/jul_15_03.htm.
[15] See Truth Behind Bars: Colombian Paramilitary Leaders in U.S. Custody, International Human Rights Law Clinic, University of California, Berkeley School of Law, Feb. 2010, 4-5, available at http://www.law.berkeley.edu/files/IHRLC/Truthbehindbars.pdf
[16] Acuerdo de Santa Fe de Ralito, supra note 14, at art. 29; see also Truth Behind Bars, supra note 15, at 5.
[17] See Proceso de Paz con las Autodefensas [Peace Process with the Self-Defense [Forces]], http://www. altocomisionadoparalapaz.gov.co/web/g_autodefensa/dialogos.htm.
[18] Postulados a la Ley 975/05 [Applicants to the Law 975] (2005), http://www.fiscalia.gov.co/justiciapaz/Documentos/Postulados975.pdf.
[19] Corte Constitucional [C.C.], Gustavo Gallón Giraldo y Otros v. Colombia, Sentencia No. C-370/2006, May 18, 2006 [Colom.], available at http://www.ideaspaz.org/documento/sentencia_final_corte_justicia_y_paz.pdf.
[20] Amnesty World Report 2009, at 112.
[21] Texto original del “Acuerdo de Ralito” [Original Text of “Ralito Accord”],
El País (Colom.), Jan. 19, 2007, available at http://www.derechos.org/nizkor/corru/doc/ralito1.html; see also Truth Behind Bars, supra note 15, at 5.
[22] Amnesty World Report 2009, at 113.
[23] Id., at 112.
[24] U.S. Dep't of State, Memorandum of Justification Concerning Human Rights Conditions with Respect to Assistance for the Colombian Armed Forces, 20, available at http://justf.org/files/primarydocs/090908cert.pdf
[25] Press statement, Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions: "Mission to Colombia, 8-18 June 2009", available at http://www.extrajudicialexecutions.org/application/medi/Colombia_Press_Statement_English11.pdf
[26] Sens. Russell Feingold, Christopher Dodd, & Patrick Leahy, Letter to Sec. of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Jan. 21, 2010, available at http://justf.org/files/primarydocs/100121sena.pdf.
[27] Semana.com, "Judicatura: 600 jueces amenazados en cuatro años", Apr. 23, 2010, available at http://www.semana.com/noticias-justicia/judicatura-600-jueces-amenazados-cuatro-anos/137947.aspx
[28] Id.
[29] Amnesty World Report 2009, at 114.
[30] Id.
[31] See "Colombia Sends 13 Paramilitary Leaders to U.S.", The Washington Post, May 13, 2008, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/05/13/AR2008051300800.html.
[32] US v. Naranjo, Case #: 1:05-CR-00235-RMC (D.D.C. 2008)(Washington, D.C.)); US v. Naranjo, Case #: 8:02-cr-00482-JDW-EAJ-1 (M.D. Fla. 2008 (Tampa))
[33] See, e.g., Amnesty International, Press Release, "Colombia: Extradition of paramilitary leaders must not lead to closure of investigations into human rights violations", May 13, 2008, available at http://www.amnesty.org/en/for-media/press-releases/colombia-extradition-paramilitary-leaders-must-not-lead-closure-investig.
[34] Under the 1994 Extraterritorial Torture Statute, 18 U.S.C. 2340A, available at http://www4.law.cornell.edu/uscode/18/usc_sec_18_00002340---A000-.html.
[35] See Truth Behind Bars, supra note 15, at 6.