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Colombia's violent conflict threatening global security

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Soldiers of the ELN guerilla group during a training exercise (Screenshot via YouTube)

Armed conflict and gang-related violence still plague Colombia causing a humanitarian crisis in urgent need of a solution, writes Johanna Higgs.

I WAS IN Colombia travelling to the small but well-known town of San Jose del Apartado in the north of the country. I had stopped to ask for directions from a soldier who aside from having a huge gun on his back, was also carrying something that looked like a mini rocket launcher.

“Why are there so many soldiers on the road,” I asked the young soldier on the side of the road.

“This area is militarised,” he answered. “But don’t worry, nothing will happen.”

“Are there armed groups around here?” I asked.                                  

He just laughed nervously and didn’t respond.

Having already spent almost a year in Colombia as part of my anthropological doctoral research to learn more about what led young people into joining one of Colombia’s biggest armed groups at that time, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the scene before me wasn’t much of a surprise. Throughout the country, particularly in militarised areas, the streets were often lined with soldiers who in many cases, looked very, very young.

The Colombian conflict is a complex and long-lasting struggle that has involved various actors, such as the Government, paramilitary groups, drug cartels and leftist guerrillas. The conflict has its roots in social and political grievances over land, inequality, and exclusion that date back to the 1920s and were exacerbated by a period of violence known as La Violencia in the 1940s and 1950s. Since then, the conflict has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, displaced millions of people, and affected the security and development of the country.

San Jose del Apartado was a site of much violence during the height of the conflict. I was there because I wanted to visit la comunidad de la paz, the community of peace, where a group of local campesinos or farmers had formed a small community where all armed actors were banned. In Colombia however, this was no easy task.

As I headed down the bumpy road in San Jose del Apartado, I passed a number of ramshackle bars and cafes where groups of mostly men sat drinking coffee or beer. Loud bainata music, typical Colombian music of the region, blared from speakers and young girls were adorned in cheap clothing that mostly comprised of jeans and electric-coloured tops. Makeshift buildings lined the muddy roads and men in big wellington boots and cowboy hats galloped by on their horses — it had the feeling of being in the Wild West.  

As we reached the edge of the town, the dirt road became bumpier and the jungle denser. I began to notice a number of what looked like very young soldiers standing on the side of the road, most of whom were equipped with very large guns. Their presence was as palpable as was the tension.

I again noticed several soldiers in front of me on the road. The first one, an Afro-Colombian, I couldn’t help but notice how young he was. A little bit further down the road, there was another small group of four soldiers, three of them very young and another who looked older, who was most likely the commander.

I eventually found the community of peace where I spent the day chatting to farmers about why they had formed the community and the many challenges that came along with trying to keep it peaceful. They told me stories of violence, soldiers and the poverty that was at the root of much of the violence in Colombia.

The violence that has ravaged Colombia for the last 60 years has indeed been as staggering as it is horrifying. For decades, millions of Colombians have lived under the constant threat of bombings, kidnappings, massacres, landmines and forced displacement. The conflict has left behind a trail of blood, tears and suffering that is hard to comprehend. The human rights violations committed by all sides of the conflict are as appalling as they are unacceptable.

Several years on, with the Colombian Government having supposedly reached an agreement with the FARC, I reflected upon whether the situation of violence has changed within the country. It would seem that perhaps it hasn’t.

According to Human Rights Watch, Colombia continues to face serious human rights concerns, such as abuses by armed groups, limited access to justice and high levels of poverty, especially among Indigenous and Afro-descendant communities.

Buenaventura, a major port on Colombia’s Pacific coast and also a town where I conducted research, has not seen a decline in the extreme violence that has ravaged the city, as rival gangs fight for control over the local drug trade.

A ceasefire between the Shottas and Espartanos gangs, announced by the High Commissioner for Peace, Danilo Rueda, in September 2022, reduced homicides in the city by the end of 2022 but violence reignited three or four months ago. Residents have reported that they feel trapped by the cycle of violence and fear for their lives on the streets at night.

The International Committee of the Red Cross(ICRC) has reported that the civilian population continues to suffer from the rise in attacks by armed groups, especially in rural areas of the Pacific region and along the Venezuelan and Ecuadorian borders. In 2022, the ICRC recorded 515 victims of anti-personnel landmines, explosive remnants of war, launched explosive devices and controlled detonation devices.

The country also witnessed a rise in attacks on health workers and facilities amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The conflict has left more than 260,000 people dead and millions displaced since the 1960s.

The FARC formally signed a peace agreement with the Colombian Government in 2016, supposedly ending the conflict. However, reports continue to come in that some dissident factions have refused to demobilise and continue to operate in Colombia and neighbouring countries. The new government of President Gustavo Petro and Vice President Francia Marquez have vowed to implement the 2016 peace accord with the FARC and seek a total peace policy with other armed groups, such as the ELN and the AGC.

The U.S. Government recently removed the FARC from its list of foreign terrorist organisations. However, has added two of its splinter groups, the FARC-EP and the Segunda Marquetalia to the list.

However, despite the efforts made in recent years to improve the situation of violence within the country, such as the signing of the peace agreement with the FARC, the human rights situation in Colombia remains unacceptable.

The Colombian conflict is not only a humanitarian crisis, but also a threat to regional stability and global security. The violence fuels drug trafficking, illegal mining, environmental degradation, and human rights violations that affect millions of people in Colombia and beyond. The conflict has also undermined the rule of law, democracy and development in the country.

To end the conflict, it will take political will, dialogue and cooperation from all parties involved, as well as support from the international community. The Government also needs to resume talks with the ELN, the second-largest guerrilla group, and address the root causes of the conflict, such as inequality, land rights and social justice, as well as ensure that children are going to schools, not picking up guns.  

No one should have to live under such conditions of fear and insecurity, endure such atrocities and have to live in fear for their lives. Ending the Colombian conflict is not only a moral duty, but also a strategic necessity for peace and prosperity in the region and the world.

Johanna Higgs is an anthropologist and founder of Project MonMa, which advocates for women’s rights around the world.

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