A history of divided Colombia

Deep rooted issues but positive change

A history of divided Colombia

International news coverage of Colombia tends to focus around its ongoing issues with violent insurgency, clandestine drug production and kidnappings. This coverage is undoubtedly one of the main reasons that many potential tourists and expats are reluctant to consider Colombia.

Here is a brief history of how this all came about, and what it means for anyone who might want to go to the country now.

Opposing sides: left wing guerrillas and paramilitaries

The current guerilla warfare and division within Colombia can be traced back to the period of Spanish colonisation. This created a situation under which the population was divided into the few wealthy descendents of the Spanish conquistadores and the poor majority. Such social inequality creates a ripe breeding ground for extremist left-wing movements. This ideology is most famously represented by the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarios de Colombia), the longest standing and largest insurgent group on the continent. At their height they controlled up to 35% of Colombian territory and even had a fleet of warplanes to aid their military endeavours. There are also other notable guerrilla groups such as the ELN (National Liberation Army) and the EPL (Popular Liberation Army.)

The prevalence of these groups helped lead to the creation of opposing right wing paramilitary groups, the largest of which was the AUC (United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia). Although a peace deal was agreed with the AUC in 2003, and 32,000 of their fighters gave up arms, the vacuum they left was quickly filled by similar but smaller groups.


Along with battling each other, these two sides have afflicted a huge amount of suffering upon both Colombians and foreigners alike. This has most famously manifested itself in kidnappings; for many years it had the highest kidnapping rate in the entire world. Between 1970 and 2010 at least 39,058 people were kidnapped in Colombia, reaching a peak in 2000 with over 3,500 incidences. However, in recent years, a combination of factors has seen a huge decline in the prevalence of kidnapping within the nation. In 2012 the FARC denounced its use for economic gain, this is hugely significant given that the group accounted for around a third of all kidnapping incidents.

Internal displacement

Another side of the problem that is often overlooked internationally is the 3.6 million Colombians who have been uprooted from their homes as a direct result of the violence. This equates to slightly under 10% of the entire population of the country, and is second globally only to Sudan. This problem will hopefully decline in the future thanks to the agreement signed on May 26th 2013 between the FARC and the Colombian government over land issues. This was accompanied by a joint press release promoting the return of stolen land to the displaced citizens. However whether or not these peace talks will succeed and translate into tangible change for Colombia remains to be seen.

It could also still be a long time until this land is habitable again, thanks to the vast number of landmines that now litter rural Colombia. There has been 10,000 deaths and injuries from these devices since 1990, making it the second most affected country in the world after Afghanistan.

The drugs problem

Although Colombia has recently been overtaken by Peru as the biggest cultivator of the coca leaf, it remains the world’s biggest producer of cocaine. Large scale export of drugs from Colombia began with marijuana in the 1960s and was followed by cocaine towards the latter half of the 1970s.

It was at this point that drug barons like Pablo Escobar rose to notoriety and became some of the richest men in the world. The Medellín Cartel that Pablo Escobar headed was not only responsible for a vast amount of murders themselves, but along with other drugs cartels was important in the creation and promotion of right wing paramilitary groups. At this point many of these groups functioned as an enforcement and protection arm for the cartels. Although they deny it themselves, it is widely held that over the years FARC have also been heavily reliant on drug trafficking to fund their military activities.

Despite continued efforts from the Colombian and US governments to eradicate the production of cocaine in Colombia and topple the associated cartels, production continues at a reasonably steady rate. The cartels still remain very much interlinked with terrorists and right wing paramilitaries within Colombia, as has been demonstrated by the arrest of the drugs kingpin Daniel Barrera in 2012. Barrera is suspected of working with both the FARC and the AUC to produce and export over 400 tons of cocaine a year.

The current situation

Despite the situation having sounded very doom and gloom up until now, Colombia has come on leaps and bounds over the last decade or so. The terrorist and paramilitary groups have been increasingly pushed back into the depths of the jungle allowing for safe travel and existence throughout much of the country.

This has led to an increasingly thriving tourist industry which has grown by around 300% since 2002. Most of these visitors come from the USA and Europe along with an increasing amount of Colombians exploring their own country. As more of the nation becomes securely accessible, more incredible sights are working their way onto the tourist trail. This means there has never been a better time to visit Colombia and discover its fascinating history.

Further reading

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