Developments in Colombia

Published: 15 June 2009 Updated: 4 August 2015

Colombia is not a poor country, but there are major differences in income. The country has a long history of violence and armed conflict, with the state and illegal armed groups fighting each other. The two dominant guerrilla groups were formed in the 1960s. The conflict stems from poverty, social and economic injustice and regional differences combined with weak – or in some cases nonexistent – state institutions in the vast territory.

Colombia lies at the crossroads between North and South America , and the area is steeped in different cultures throughout history. Some communities developed advanced agriculture early, for example the Sinú people who built elaborate facilities for irrigation. Colombia was a Spanish colony for almost 200 years, but the country won its independence when freedom hero Simón Bolívar defeated the Spanish in 1819.

Several attempts have been made to broker peace in the bloody civil war that began in the late 1960s. The Colombian military has failed to defeat the left-wing guerillas FARC and ELN, but no guerrilla group has ever been close to seizing power in the country. The war became even more brutal with the emergence of several right-wing militias. Between 2003 and 2006, the government implemented a demobilization process in which 32,000 paramilitaries where disarmed. The results of the demobilization are disputed and the judicial process against those responsible has been slow. New illegal groups, named "bacrims" by the government, have arisen after the paramilitaries have been demobilized. The two guerrilla groups have weakened in recent years and have been forced back by the military. In 2012, peace talks were initiated with the FARC, and according to many observers, the prospects of success are better than in a long time.

All illegal armed groups – as well as government players – have carried out attacks on the civilian population. Anti-personnel mines are still in use in Colombia, and have killed and injured more people than in any other country. The kidnapping of civilians still occurs. The violence has driven many Colombians from their homes and the country now has approximately 3 million internally displaced people. Every year, another estimated 150 000 people escape their homes.

Weak state presence paves way for conflict and poverty

People among the middle class and those living in big cities do not feel or notice the conflict very much. The government has managed to stop the car bombings and other terrorist acts that were previously common in Bogota. The rural poor are still living in great vulnerability though. Women, people with Afro- Colombian origin and indigenous people are particularly vulnerable.

The conflict has its origins in political, social and economic exclusion. Colombia is one of the most unequal countries in the world and two out of five Colombians are poor. There are major gaps between individuals, regions, ethnic groups and between men and women. Although public contributions to the poor have increased, these have only had limited effects on combatting inequalities. The state is well organized at central level. But at local level, the authorities are often absent with difficulties to fulfil people’s basic needs.

In places where the state’s presence is weakest, the production and trade of narcotics is most widespread; a major part of the world’s coca, from which cocaine is produced, is grown in Colombia In spite of economic and military aid from the United States, the efforts to fight narcotics traffic have failed.

The UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) says that the only way to reduce production of coca is for the farmers to voluntarily switch to other crops. At present, there are few other ways for the farmers to make money.

Constitutional state

The legal protection of human rights is well developed in Colombia and the country's highest courts exhibit a high degree of independence. Impunity for many types of crime is widespread though, partly due to the high workload, inefficiency and corruption. The legal aftermath of a number of scandals during the previous Uribe government is still going on. One example is the "falsos positivos*" scandal, where military servicemen suspected (and in a few cases even convicted) of killing civilians, which were later presented to authorities as guerrilleros killed in battle.

Today’s greatest threat to the safety of the population consists of the new illegal groups. However, both guerrilla organizations and the new illegal groups continue to commit serious violations of human rights; human rights defenders, journalists, trade unionists, women and indigenous groups are particularly vulnerable.

Sweden's focus areas in Colombia:

• Peace and security
• Human rights and democratic governance.

Learn more about our work in Colombia


Page owner: Department for Europe and Latin America

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