WMC Reports

WMC Women Under Siege Conflict Report: Columbia (2013)

Colombia Web

Untangling the conflict in Colombia can be particularly challenging, given the wide variety of actors and structures at play. Cleavages between left- and right-wing factions in the society, as well as confrontations with the government, have led to decades of political violence, fighting, and ethnic violence. Colombia’s prominent position in the global drug trade, particularly since the 1980s, has also contributed to widespread violence between drug lords, landowners, communities, and even U.S. troops.

With a society that the BBC has described as highly economically segregated between the rich and the poor, Colombia has traditionally had a fairly definitive political split between the right and the left, though these lines have blurred a bit over the past several years. Through generations of war, government forces, paramilitary groups (and successor groups), and guerrilla groups have been complicit in heinous acts of sexualized violence against women, according to a 2007 report by the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces.  

Protesters in Canada call for the end of violence by FARC in a "Walk for the Peace of Colombia" in 2008. (Robert Thivierge)

In the 1940s, the assassination of a populist political figure triggered the country’s descent into chaos, with nearly 200,000 murdered and 600,000 injured from 1948 to 1958, a decade now known as La Violencia, according to a 1967 article by scholar Norman A. Bailey. Leftist political groups, grounded in Marxist philosophies about equality and the redistribution of wealth, soon banded together, creating peasant guerrilla movements: the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which was born of the original Communist Party of Colombia (PCC), and the lesser known National Liberation Army (ELN).

Several right-wing pro-government paramilitary groups, including the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), were formed to suppress these groups. Paramilitary groups originated from “legally constituted ‘self-defense’ groups which the army created in the 1970s and 1980s to act as auxiliaries during counter-insurgency operations,”  according to a 2004 report by Amnesty International called “Colombia: Scarred Bodies, Hidden Crimes.” The AUC, which was formed by drug traffickers and land owners to combat extortion and rebel kidnappings, carried out massacres and assassinations and targeted left-wing groups that spoke out against them, the BBC reports.

As clashes erupted between the government, paramilitaries, and leftist guerrilla groups, reports of rape, sexual slavery, torture, and mutilation, particularly at the hands of paramilitary groups, started to surface. Over the last few decades, paramilitaries were held responsible for most abductions and murders of civilians, the Amnesty report said.

In subsequent years, in order to increase their income and therefore military capacity, FARC began collecting “taxes” from marijuana (and, later, coca) farmers who operated in FARC-controlled territory, according to an article published by the Transnational Institute, a Netherlands-based global policy organization. A 2008 article in The New York Times describes how FARC still collects roughly “$200 million to $300 million a year by taxing coca farmers and coordinating cocaine smuggling networks.”

This income allowed the FARC to establish what Amnesty International described as “strongholds… where they effectively determined local government policies and exercised significant control over the local population.” In many cases, the latter included control over women and girls, either through forced recruitment, forced abortions, or rape, the report found.

The expansion of Colombia’s drug trade had a profound impact on the course of conflict in the country. Since that time, groups on all side of the conflict were linked to drug-related activities. The U.S. Department of Justice suggested that FARC was responsible for upward of 50 percent of the world’s cocaine supply. Reports also said that the AUC was notorious for its extensive involvement in trafficking and that the ELN had strengthened ties with major drug trafficking operations.

In the 1990s, FARC was able to gain a number of strategic advances with respect to territorial control, which encouraged a steady increase in participation in paramilitary groups. Colombians living in rebel-controlled areas—women, in particular—faced sexualized violence by the government and paramilitary forces, who were intent on punishing those communities for their alleged support of the FARC, according to the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces.

In the mid-2000s, news surfaced of ties between the paramilitaries and some of former President Alvaro Uribe’s most prominent political supporters, according to a 2007 New York Times report. The president said that anyone shown to have “illegal ties to the paramilitaries, which terrorized Colombian cities and the countryside in the nation’s internal war … should be prosecuted in courts of law.”

The Colombian senator who revealed the alliance was later stripped of his seat, according to news reports. Authorities said he had aided the AUC in exchange for the group’s support to win his government seat.

In recent years, the Colombian government’s efforts to demobilize paramilitary groups seemed successful at first, but had the effect of creating “successor” paramilitary groups, known as bacrims (shorthand for bandas criminals). These “demobilized” operatives participate in the drug trade and control various communities around the country. But, worse still, they continue to rape and pillage communities around Colombia, while their victims—who are no longer viewed as victims of war, but merely victims of a social issue—are left without support.

The Colombian government made a deliberate decision to exclude the bacrim both in rhetoric and on paper from any connection with the war. This refusal to acknowledge the bacrim as a faction in the conflict, according to Insight Crime, a research group focusing on organized crime in Latin America and the Caribbean, stems from the fear that to acknowledge them as such would undermine the government’s claims that it had effectively demobilized the country’s paramilitary operations and therefore make them appear weak or ineffective. Conceiving of these groups as organized gangs, rather than paramilitary successor groups, allows them to be rhetorically (and legislatively) divorced from the conflict—claims that have been supported by both Human Rights Watch and other human rights groups.

The UNHCR reports that Colombia has the highest number of internally displaced persons (IDPs): somewhere between 4.9 and 5.5 million people. Most have been displaced forcibly or fled their homes out of fear. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), the leading international body in internal displacement, reports: “Open military confrontation is not the main reason why people flee their places of residence. A much more subtle form of violence is direct threats against the civilian population.” The organization identified direct threats, assassination of loved ones or family members, armed combat of various degrees, and forcible recruitment as reasons for internal displacement.

As the violence progressed, so, too, did the use of tactics such as terrorism and kidnappings. A study released in 2013 by Colombia’s Centro Nacional de Memoria Historica, a part of the government’s Department for Social Prosperity, found that “at least 39,058 people were kidnapped between 1970 and 2010.”

joint report by Oxfam and Casa de la Mujer in 2011 found that “12,809 women (13.54%) were raped by illegally armed actors, and 1,970 (2.08%) were raped by members of the armed forces” in Colombia between 2001 and 2009.

Read the full report here.

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