Small Wars Journal

The Intractable Conflict: Why Colombia’s War Against the FARC Eludes Resolution

Sun, 11/16/2014 - 4:26pm

The Intractable Conflict: Why Colombia’s War Against the FARC Eludes Resolution

Philip K. Abbott


Through qualitative analysis, it is the author’s view that the country of Colombia has evolved into what can be coined as an intractable conflict with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army (FARC-EP). This conflict has remained unresolved for such a long period of time and at such a high level of intensity and destructiveness, that each side views the seemingly rigid position of the other side as a threat to its very existence. Intractable wars are often perceived as a controversial concept, particularly among academicians.  Even so, this particular dispute is not impossible to resolve nor should it be misconstrued as a statement to undermine everything President Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC leadership are attempting to do in bringing peace to this war-torn-nation. It is simply an opportunity to acknowledge root and proximate causes of this conflict and to further analyze both positive and negative intervening factors.  As is true with any breakdown in social behavior, there are many contributing elements that make analysis and resolution extremely challenging despite the heroic efforts by government officials, military leaders, and the overwhelming application of military power. 

The story line of this conflict straddles between expectations and political power, and there is an underlying fear of never reaching a win-win resolution.  This is perceived as compromising on endearing values or as demonstrating a sign of weakness.  Apparently, anyone showing the courage to change for the good of Colombia (or anyone appearing to placate the status quo challenger) faced real risks. Unfortunately, history shows that all efforts to suppress the FARC’s illegal approach to dissent from the state have been unsuccessful.

Not surprisingly, with few exceptions, insurgencies do not successfully end by military action but by social, economic and political change.[i]  It seems that governments defeat themselves more often than they are defeated by a dominant insurgency like FARC. This is true because governments tend to address the root causes half-heartedly, fail to extend credible control of rural areas, overly depend on military means to solve social problems, and become too dependent on fickle sponsors burdened with sustaining domestic support.[ii]  This is further compounded by the seemingly belligerent and ambiguous U.S. foreign policy. Therefore, unless there is a fundamental change in how Colombian society views and manages this conflict, we can be assured these differences will stalemate or elude a resolution for decades to come.

This essay will portray the necessity in moving beyond military solutions, unsubstantiated propaganda, and negative imaging, which for so many years has dominated the Colombian narrative. Moreover, it is the author’s intention to summon the reader to the social-psychological dimension that permeates all aspects of this intractable conflict. History, perceptions and identity are not only inherently present in the escalation of Colombia’s conflict with the FARC; they are also intrinsic in managing this conflict and contributing to a sustainable peace. In order to gain a more equitable perception of reality, it is important to acknowledge history, learn empathy, and to recognize fear and its according legitimacy.  These efforts will  help formulate policies and strategies that are coherent and accurately address these realities. [iii]

Acknowledging Colombia’s Violent History

So what are the underlying causes of this destructive and intractable conflict?  Clearly they have been ignored and grossly blurred over Colombia’s past fifty years. Conflict analysis requires not only learning history, but actually acknowledging the progression of events, conflicts, and the related eruption of violence.  In viewing this narrative, understanding how history and critical junctures shaped Colombia’s path of economic and political institutions enables us to have a more complete theory of the origins of differences between poverty and prosperity.[iv] Besides gaining insight of the root causes of this prolonged struggle, it also offers the necessary perspectives for effective conflict management. 

The inheritance of the Iberian Crowns’ caste system, a way to exercise political and economic control over colonial Latin American, has a profound place in Colombian history.[v]  Arguably, benevolent autocracy and legitimized cruelty also had enduring effects on Colombian society. During the 16th century, Spain carried the stamp of absolutism where military prowess, religious purity and subordination to the Spanish Crown were above commerce, identity, and material gain.[vi] After independence from Spain, land became available, ostensibly for both the Colombian working class and elite.[vii]  The sudden opening of this valuable frontier led to further divergence, shaped by the existing institutional differences, especially those concerning who had access to the land.[viii]  This created an egalitarian and economically dynamic country, where land was allocated to the politically powerful and those with wealth and contacts, making such people even more powerful.[ix] Consequently, the revolutionary movement failed to open the political system to a broader cross section of Colombian society, and prevented more inclusive economic institutions. The growing fear of unmet expectations provoked social unrest, but neither armed hostilities nor the resulting peace agreements laid the necessary foundation or basis to resolve these long-standing grievances for political and agrarian reform.[x]  Now a decade into the 21st Century, Colombia remains replete with symptoms of the same deep-rooted tensions between the governing elite and the land-less poor.

As played out before in history, when socially and ideologically different worlds collide, those who adhere to a particular social order often demonstrate very little empathy for opposing views, and are therefore unwilling to compromise on their opinions or world views. The Colombian ruling elite’s lack of addressing political injustice, and the growing socio-economic disparity and humiliation further fomented social unrest. The Colombian government tried to suppress the resistance by belligerent means.  Despite its futility, once the Colombian government legitimatized their monopoly of violence as a “justifiable” measure to counter the opposition, it sent a clear signal to the FARC regarding their “natural right” to do what it must to stay alive.[xi]

Colombian history also shows how internal conflicts are not always independent of their domestic context. Although the social, economic, and political conditions may have been set internally since the independence movement, its trajectory has been greatly affected by a multitude of external factors of varying scope and impact. A major external factor influencing Colombia’s domestic context was a set of other global conflicts that became superimposed or impinged upon the growing unrest over social injustice. Indeed, the Cold War had immense effect on Colombia’s seemingly manageable internal dispute. During this period, the Soviet Union, the United States, and their proxies routinely sustained regional alliances.

As marginalized segments of Colombian society unsuccessfully sought changes within the traditionally unfair political, social and economic structures; the threatened, poor, working class fled to remote areas of Colombia to seek refuge and create meaningful living arrangements. Many also began to organize under the Colombian Communist Party (PCC), which was perceived as a feasible and democratic way to leverage social and economic reform.[xii] Notwithstanding the growing consternation and seemingly legitimate claims for unfulfilled human needs, this once tractable conflict quickly escalated.  Tangible issues became increasingly more embedded within a larger set of values, beliefs, identities, and cultures.[xiii] Overtime, the actual genesis of this conflict became more diluted and progressively less relevant.  Three distinct phases of U.S. foreign policy began shaping Colombia’s internal security environment, often at the expense of conflict resolution.

During the second half of the 20th century, U.S. foreign policy aimed at defeating communism.  This ideology had an important role in foreign policy formulation, “for within ideologies lie many of the values that inform the definitions of national interest”.[xiv] However, ideologies can also contain highly generalized and abstracted interpretation of history.  They often narrowly focus on the world as it is becoming and should become, rather than a realistic appreciation of the world as it actually is.[xv]  “To invert the medical metaphor, ideology is like a powerful medicine of which a drop will cure but a teaspoon will kill.”[xvi]

Unlike President Eisenhower, Kennedy’s initial response to the perceived danger of communism spreading in Latin America was drawn from the premise; “those who make reform impossible will make revolution inevitable.”[xvii] Kennedy believed that in order to safeguard security interests, the United States must address the poverty and oppression that seemed a fertile breeding ground for communism.[xviii] Notwithstanding the well-intended Alliance for Progress initiative – a sort of Marshall Plan for Latin America – aimed at reducing revolutionary pressure by stimulating economic development and political reform, it quickly ran out of political steam. In fact, by November 1963, the Alliance for Progress was essentially moribund.

A growing obsession with global communism further exacerbated domestic tensions.  It made any substantial political changes to Colombian society increasingly harder to achieve and much more expensive than supplying military weapons and counterinsurgency training.[xix]  Similarly, the idea of creating self-sufficient communes or “communist enclaves” in the middle of the Andes Mountains was viewed as a threat to both Bogota and Washington. Meanwhile, Kennedy was ever sensitive to charges of appearing “soft” on communism and the bitter contention regarding his military leadership’s role within a cold war context.  He decided to fulfill his campaign promises by regaining the upper hand in this political debate.[xx]

As the United States began to export militaristic anti-Communist policies throughout Latin America, the most important U.S. [anti-communist] ally became Latin American armed forces.[xxi] Under this strategic security arrangement, U.S. naval and air power would handle any communist invaders from outside the hemisphere, while “Latin American armies would turn their U.S. supplied weapons inward against the internal enemies of freedom: revolutionary organizers in factories, poor neighborhoods, and universities.”[xxii]  To this extent, while U.S. counterinsurgency strategy began to build momentum under Plan Laso,[xxiii] the conflict in Colombia took on a more destructive and violent narrative. The creation of these “communist enclaves” provided the CIA and the Pentagon with their first foray into Colombia. In May 1964, after several years of planning by the CIA and U.S. Southern Command, Operation Maquetalia launched an estimated 5,000 Colombian army elite force, backed by U.S. helicopters and fighter planes dropping napalm to destroy the “Independent Republic of Marquetalia”.  Although initially praised as a successful mission, the joint U.S.-Colombian military operation to destroy Marulanda’s communists failed to achieve its strategic objective, which actually helped catalyze the founding of the FARC.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the long-lived anti-communism policy was soon replaced by a war-against-drugs policy as the most important domestic issue in U.S. politics, especially with regards to Colombia.  By 1999, Colombia had surpassed Peru and Bolivia as the world’s largest producer of coca and source country for over three-fourths of the world’s cocaine supply.[xxiv]  The General Accounting Office (GAO) further reported that an estimated two-thirds of FARC units were engaged in drug activity.[xxv] GAO’s quantifying charges of FARC involvement in drugs were perhaps less significant for the Colombian social elite than the FARC’s involvement with extortion and especially kidnappings, which directly impacted their lives.  Nonetheless, this made the FARC an easy target for Colombian society and a national scapegoat for all the ills that beset Colombia.

In preparing for the 1998 presidential elections, FARC leader, Manuel Marulanda, met with Conservative Party candidate Andres Pastrana, making it known that if Pastrana were elected, the FARC would negotiate for peace in good faith. On the basis of that understanding, the Colombian people, who were desperate for an end to the conflict, voted Pastrana into office as the “peace candidate”.  Pastrana was eager to fulfill his campaign promises, so he presented Plan Colombia to the U.S. Congress and requested assistance for judicial reform and socio-economic development.  However, U.S. lawmakers were more concerned that Pastrana’s emphasis on peace negotiations would distract Colombia’s attention from a U.S. antidrug agenda. Characteristically, senior U.S. government officials exerted pressure on Pastrana to emphasize counternarcotics as a national priority.[xxvi]  From what was substantially envisaged a “Marshall Plan[xxvii] for peace and social development, Plan Colombia soon became the cornerstone to a U.S. regional counterdrug policy.  To that end, U.S. Congress passed a resolution that would decertify Colombia, essentially cutting off all U.S. foreign assistance to Colombia, if Pastrana’s peace initiatives - especially the proposed plan to grant the FARC a demilitarized zone – interfered with coca aerial eradication efforts in southeastern Colombia.  The extreme variation in analyzing Colombia’s security problem indicated a lack of clear strategic vision as to how U.S. policy should integrate with the fundamental goals of Colombia’s internal security challenges and the ongoing peace process with the FARC. Moreover, this ambiguity reflects on the content of a strategic plan that went from a vision to complement the ongoing peace process with the FARC, to a U.S. inspired and controlled counternarcotics policy.

For their part, FARC leaders argued that the state had acted in bad faith by pretending to negotiate while continuing to work with paramilitary forces that massacred peasants in areas under FARC influence.  The FARC further justified their distrust by pointing to the results of a previous round of peace negotiations with President Belisario Betancur in the mid-1980s.  As a result of those talks, the Colombian government agreed to allow the FARC and the Colombian Communist Party to form the Patriotica Union (UP), a legal political party that was joined by other leftist leaders and movements. However, over the next decade paramilitaries, hired assassins, and state security agents killed an estimated three to four thousand UP members, including two presidential candidates. The near extermination of the UP not only strengthened the FARC’s hardline military position, but also further diluted the true nature of the conflict and its complexity, from a popular insurgency seeking political and economic pluralism to a contemptuous narco-insurgency.

The third U.S. foreign policy decision directly affecting conflict resolution in Colombia was a result of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. Overnight, the FARC was suddenly branded a "terrorist" organization, as the Global War on Terrorism replaced a U.S.-backed counter-insurgency strategy.  Under President Uribe’s heighted security policy, Plan Patriota’s counterterrorism strategy appeared to replicate Plan Colombia’s counter narcotics strategy in that the majority of resources were still being used for military operations against the FARC and very little dedicated for social and economic development.[xxviii]

As seen during Plan Colombia, the War on Terrorism further dehumanized the FARC, making it easier to enable the Uribe government to act more forcefully without constraint. Both the Colombian government and FARC came to perceive one another as dire enemies.  Although a very common practice, once the enemy was considered to be less than human, it became psychologically “acceptable” to resort to increasingly more destructive means, which resulted in gross violations of human rights from both sides of the conflict.

The Impact of Empathy in Conflict Resolution

“I’m not a Chavista, but I understand where he is coming from with respect to the poor.”[xxix]  The callous indifference of the Colombian ruling elite and FARC slowly depleted humanity and civility out of those who participated in this seemingly endless struggle. In analyzing Colombia’s violent history, it is increasingly more apparent that this intractable conflict will continue to be an indisputable fact of life well into the 21st century, unless there is a paradigm shift where both sides of the argument exercise their capacity for empathy.[xxx] Empathy has a reputation as a fuzzy, feel-good emotion that is often associated in some vague way with everyday kindness or civility.  Therefore, its value is easily dismissed when defending national interests or seeking diplomatic and political solutions to ideological differences.[xxxi] Interestingly, two wise South African leaders, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, are veritable examples of how they challenged South African citizens to will a society in which justice and fairness became common practice. In this particular case, empathy played an integral role in achieving a peaceful resolution. Moreover, during the 2008 U.S. presidential primaries, voters were asked what they felt was most important in a presidential candidate. The majority regarded “empathy” as legitimate and highly relevant in determining the best president to lead the most powerful nation in the world.[xxxii]

However, such an empathic society is only possible when individuals are conditioned to imagine themselves in other people’s situations. Just as perceptions are formed early in life and passed down through generations, “empathy also shapes individuals, and in many ways, has the power to transform entire societies.”[xxxiii]  For a Colombian citizen to see through the eyes of a FARC member, or vice versa, this presupposes the fundamental corrigibility of human nature, whereby individuals can learn, grow and improve their behaviors. Unfortunately, the FARC and their affiliates live in a survivalist society imperiled by economic hardship and insecurities.  In this kind of environment, self-expression is low and empathy rarely reaches beyond family bonds or kinship relations.[xxxiv] Indeed, the envy of many societies, Switzerland for example has developed a cultural ability to expose human beings to empathy at a very early age. Through generations this process sharpens its citizens’ receptivity, tolerance, and their capacity to be nice to each other [“sind lieb miteinand”] in local Swiss dialect.  Consequently, empathy becomes an essential component of this direct democracy built on consensus.[xxxv]

Moreover, with empathy as part of a national identity, individuals develop the ability to humanize each other and bring greater understanding to differing ideological views and perceptions. How Colombia’s prolonged conflict is managed will depend on a clear understanding and acknowledgement of their historical context.  More importantly, their conflict may be a direct reflection on its willingness to reach beyond one’s own narrow interpretation of reality.[xxxvi]  As commonly seen in Colombia, perceptions are not always perfect images of reality.  They tend to exploit deception and false information to gain a strategic advantage over the “enemy”, which has led to a “good-versus-evil” dialectic.[xxxvii]  Unfortunately, over time this has created a very destructive atmosphere, which is increasingly more difficult to reverse.

As shown in South Africa under Nelson Mandela, only when the Colombian society imagines the experience of people living outside of their ascribed social status, will they freely enter into a dialogue that would enable reconciliation of differences. Mendala;s South Africa was an example of how empathy is important in solving socio-political problems.  But empathy is not a panacea for solving Colombia’s intractable conflict. Human beings generally withhold empathy from others because cultural and ideological narratives present them as irrevocably different, making it easier to portray the enemy as contemptible and therefore deserving of their misfortune.[xxxviii] What is meaningful, however, is that empathy serves as a powerful psychological guide for compassion and social responsiveness. Without it, the FARC and Colombian government are likely to remain cold toward each other and therefore unable to even know how to understand or make sense of the destructive predicament they face.  Not only is Mandela’s unique ability for forgiveness a valuable leadership lesson, his real genius lies in making the citizens of South Africa amenable to recognizing fear and seeing others as worthy or legitimate to be listened to and to negotiate with.[xxxix]

Recognizing Fear and According Legitimacy

It all began so innocently…all I wanted in life was to get married, get a job as a seamstress, and take care of my children.”[xl] The Colombian conflict has taken on increased symbolic significance over the past fifty years. The original argument – to create more pluralistic political and economic institutions for a broader cross section of society – has become less relevant as new causes and fears were generated. Both the Colombian government and FARC developed a mutual fear of each other as well as a profound desire to inflict as much physical and psychological harm on each other as possible.[xli] This sense of threat and hostility has pervaded the lives of those directly and indirectly involved in this conflict, and seems to override their ability to recognize and legitimize any common concerns they may actually share.[xlii]

Arguably, fear can be viewed as both a cause and a consequence of Colombia’s violent history, making conflict analysis and resolution more difficult. This intractable conflict involves interests and general values that both Colombia’s ruling elite and FARC regard as worthy to fight over. The FARC faced a legitimate fear based on unfulfilled social, economic, and political needs and the consequences of losing one’s identity and security. On the other hand, the Colombian government faced perceived security concerns regarding the spread of communism, the social scourge of drug trafficking, and most recently terrorism.

It is understandable for Colombia’s ruling elite to view the FARC as nothing more than bandits, communists, and drug trafficking terrorists who are willing to destroy the country and restructure political and economic institutions in their favor. Brutal tactics and reliance on the cocaine business, as one source of illicit financing, further alienated the majority of the population outside of certain rural regions. The FARC members were also responsible for countless atrocities against civilians including massacres, car bombings, mass kidnappings, and coerced recruitment of children.  Their improvised explosive devices (IEDs)[xliii] killed and mutilated thousands of Colombian citizens and forced millions of innocent people to be internally displaced from their homes.

The FARC’s involvement with drugs, extortion and especially kidnapping, only complicated the issue making them an even easier target for negative imaging and dehumanization.  Once the FARC and their affiliates were considered less than human, it became psychologically acceptable to employ less than human practices – a perfect recipe for human rights violations.  This is an extremely dangerous practice.

It is equally convenient for the FARC and their affiliates to question the legitimacy of the Colombian government and ruling elite as untrusting hegemons, full of selfish and corrupt practices to control political and economic power in their favor. It is the FARC’s view that Colombian democracy has flaws, particularly when two-thirds of Colombians living in rural areas still suffer from “absolute poverty,” as defined as the inability to properly feed and clothe themselves. Living in constant danger, one can ask, “How can violence be the solution when violence was the primary reason for poverty and inequality?”[xliv]

Like hundreds of thousands of deprived Colombians, Pedro Antonio Marin, alias Manuel Marulanda Velez, was also swept up by the maelstrom that followed Jorge Gaitans death,[xlv] which catapulted the country into a decade-long civil war, known as La Violencia, or The Violence.[xlvi]  Full of fear, poor peasants desperately fled to the remote mountains and organized into liberal and communist self-defense groups to protect themselves and their families against the rampages of the conservative government’s paramilitary and police forces. Although most communists, guerrillas or bandits, as they were labeled, put down their weapons during the 1958 national-front government’s amnesty, several demobilized leaders and hundreds of their followers were savagely murdered.[xlvii]  The communists were cautious because the Colombian government demonstrated an unwillingness to grapple with serious solutions concerning agrarian reform and the associated challenges of rural living. 

Colombia’s ruling elite harbored a profound distaste for centralized power, a tradition that dated back to the days of the Spanish Crown.[xlviii] There was simply no appetite for political and economic inclusivity or a desire to create a consensus around solutions to ideological differences and social tension. The political agreement that finally ended La Violencia guaranteed a sixteen-year period in which liberals and conservatives would share power, leaving no electoral outlet for social reform.  There seemed to be no effort to understand, legitimize or demonstrate empathy for any of the political concerns or social challenges facing the poor. It also appeared that Colombia defied solutions to social problems, a defining characteristic since independence, where each “spasm of bloodshed always seemed to be a continuation of the previous one.”[xlix]


The sign outside the entrance to the cemetery reads; “Aqui somos todos iguales.” In English, “Here we are all equals.”  But equality in the cemetery cannot ignore the violent experiences and deep-rooted perceptions that have polarized Colombia into two unequal worlds. Decades of revenge and attacks on areas of personal sensitivity have created an atmosphere of distrust, anger, and vulnerability. The adversarial relationship between the ruling elite and FARC is marked by such a long history of fear and mistrust that only when a paradigm shift in thinking happens, can the true causes of this dispute be openly acknowledged and the rigidity of thinking pacified. Regrettably, violence in Colombia is rooted in complex social-political factors: poverty, ideological differences, social inequality, the government’s shortcomings, the scourge of narcotics and numerous other problems.  These have led to the fact that in nearly two centuries since independence, Colombia has experienced only forty-seven years of peace.[l]

Revenge solves nothing according to former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe Velez who said, “We cannot lash out angrily at this violence and expect it to go away.”[li]  Nor should violence in Colombia be interpreted in moral terms as a confrontation between good and evil. The biggest obstacle to conflict resolution as pointed out by former FARC leader Marulanda “is the isolation of this fight…between you in the city, and us, here in the mountains. Your voices and our voices don’t listen to each other; we rarely speak to each other. It’s not the mountain across our paths that form the obstacle. Among yourselves, it’s the very little you know about us, among us, it’s the very little we know of your history.[lii]

Colombian society is as much divided today as it was fifty years ago because of these social-psychological barriers. There is still pro-FARC Colombians from rural areas who remain distrustful of a government they view as failing to deliver on past promises. “Historically, the government has never helped us, and with coca we helped ourselves economically. Now the government wants to help, but we are afraid it will ruin the economy we now depend on to survive.”[liii]  There are also a majority of right-wing urban dwellers avidly defending the government who they associate with security, sound democratic practices, and economic prosperity. Over the past two decades, Colombia has emerged as a much safer and economically prosperous country. Unfortunately, absent some form of compromise and a clear understanding of the “enemy’s narrative,” the wishes of all Colombians cannot be simultaneously met or legitimized.[liv]

How can Colombia bring better clarity to the seemingly blurred perspective regarding this conflict?  Perhaps a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as realized in South Africa could add value to the process of acknowledging history, learning empathy, and recognizing fear and its according legitimacy.  In theory, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission would help facilitate open communications between the FARC and Colombian society as once suggested by Marulanda. This would also help disabuse prejudices and misconceptions.  It would help dissolve the rigidity of thinking.  It would help acknowledge history.  It would help create an environment to share with each other the “enemy’s world.”  It would help promote individual healing.  It would help humanize the “enemy.”  It would help legitimize the once negative portrait of the “enemy.” It would help unblock empathy. It would help encourage reconciliation of differences. In summary, it would help provide the necessary foundation for a peaceful resolution to this fifty-year conflict.

Changing Colombia’s calcified understanding of life and people will not be an easy task.  Anything worthwhile rarely is “easy.” The danger with perceptions is that while they are drawn from reality, over time they actually create reality, as highlighted in Colombia’s historical context.[lv]  Many of Colombia’s ruling elite, as well as the FARC, operate far more from assumptions than from a genuine understanding of reality.  Both groups have their own history and narrative about the conflict, as passed down from previous generations; however, few know very little about the narrative and history of the other. They are unable to reach beyond their own perspectives primarily due to the scarcity of interaction between them.

Maybe this is where the South African philosophy of humanism, as expressed under Mandela’s leadership, could serve as a basic blueprint for conflict resolution.  This could be the paradigm shift where civility replaces violence as the solution to Colombia’s social problems. Surprisingly, this philosophy may have played out during the August 22, 2014 dialogue on humanistic conditions between General Javier Flórez, the former second-in-command of Colombia’s armed forces, and FARC negotiators in Havana. It was one of the most dramatic moments in almost two years of ongoing peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC because it enabled, as stated by senior FARC negotiator, Ivan Márquez, “the opportunity to talk warrior-to-warrior.”[lvi] Regrettably, President Santos was emphatic during his recent meeting with United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, when he proclaimed that the Colombian government will have nothing to do with Castrochavismo,[lvii] essentially telling the world that the Colombian government will not negotiate with the FARC any alternative options to current political and economic institutions.[lviii]  All hope rests on signing a peace agreement in Havana, Cuba, but does this simply mean that Colombia’s violence and ongoing social struggle will be bequeathed to the next generation?

End Notes

[i] Robert Taber, War of the Flea: The Classic Study of Guerrilla Warfare, (Washington, DC: Potomac Books, Inc., 2002)  p. 170.

[ii] Ben Connable and Martin C. Libicki, How Insurgencies End, (Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation 2010), p. 152.

[iii] Maire A. Dugan, “Power Inequalities,” The Beyond Intractability Project, Edited by Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess (Colorado: The Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, February 2004),

[iv] Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty, (Great Britain: Profile Books, 2012) p. 101

[v] John Charles Chasten, Born in Blood & Fire: A Concise History of Latin America, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company 2006 ) p. 83.

[vi] Robert Harvey, Bolivar The Liberator of Latin America: The War Against the Spanish Empire, (United Kingdom: Skyhorse Publishing 2011), p. 37.

[vii] Albert Berry, “Has Colombia Finally Found an Agrarian Reform That Works?”,

[viii] Acemoglu and Robinson, p. 37.

[ix] Ibid, p. 37.

[x] Karen Ballentine and Jack Sherman, editors, The Political Economy of Armed Conflict: Beyond Greed and Grievance, (A project of the International Peace Academy, 2003).

[xi] Thomas Hobbs,  Leviathan, (Australia: The University of Adelaide, February 27, 2014 by eBooks @ Adelaide), Chapter 21.

[xii] Garry Leech, The FARC: The Longest Insurgence, (Halifax: Fernwood Publishing 2011), p. 7.

[xiii] Michelle Maiese, “Causes of Disputes and Conflicts,” The Beyond Intractability Project, (Colorado: The Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, October 2003),

[xiv] Henry Kissenger, Years of Upheaval , (Boston, MA: Little, Brown & C0. 1982), pp. 465-467.

[xv] Terry L. Deibel, Foreign Affairs Strategy: Logic for American Statecraft, (Great Britain: Cambridge University Press 2007), p.118.

[xvi] Ibid,  p. 118.

[xvii] John Charles Chasteen,  p. 280.

[xviii] Steven R. Robe, p. 7

[xix] Ibid, p.281.

[xx] Steven R. Robe, P. 703.

[xxi] John Charles Chasteen, p.281.

[xxii] Ibid, p.281.

[xxiii] In 1962, Plan Laso was the first U.S. initiative designed to pre-empt the spread of communism in Colombia. One of its primary objectives was to "eliminate the so-called "independent republics" created by leftist insurgents and some bandit elements in the upper Magdalena Valley.

[xxiv] Cynthia J. Arnson, Introduction, The Peace Process in Colombia and U.S. Policy, (Latin American Program: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars Number 246, May 2000), p. 11.

[xxv] Ibid, pp. 6-18.

[xxvi] Ibid, p. 11.

[xxvii] The Marshall Plan, named after Secretary of State George C. Marshall, was launched by President Harry Truman (1945-1952) to reconstruct sixteen Western European countries after World War II. The total amount of support was estimated at thirteen billion dollars.

[xxviii] Garry Leech, Beyond Bogota, p. 173.

[xxix] Interview with demobilized FARC members, Bucaramanga, Colombia, 2013.

[xxx] Claudia Seymour, “Social Psychological Dimensions of Conflict,” The Beyond Intractability Project, Edited by Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess, (Colorado: The Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, September 2003),

[xxxi] Roman Krznaric, “Can Empathy Help Resolve Violent Conflict?”, Outrospection: November 5, 2013.

[xxxii] Jeremy Rifkin, The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis, (New York: Penguin Group, 2009), p. 446

[xxxiii] Anna Titulear, “The Power of Empathy in Conflict Resolution”, Peace and Conflict Monitor, May 16, 2012.

[xxxiv] Jeremy Rifkin,  p. 449.

[xxxv] Philip K. Abbott, “Achieving a Peace Settlement between Abkhazia and Georgia: Lessons from Swiss Federalism”, Small Wars Journal, May 6, 2011. 

[xxxvi] Anna Titulaer, The Power of Empathy in Conflict Resolution

[xxxvii] Claudia Seymour, Social Psychological Dimensions of Conflict.

[xxxviii] Martha Nussbaum, Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions, (Great Britain: Cambridge University Press 2001), p. 327.

[xxxix] John Kane, The Politics of Moral Capital, (England: Cambridge University Press 2001), pp.329-300.

[xl] Interview with demobilized FARC members in Cali, Colombia, 2012.

[xli] Peter Coleman, “Intractable Conflict,” The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice, edited by Morton Deutsch and Peter Coleman, (San Francisco: Josey-Bass, 2000), p. 428.

[xlii] Maiese, Michelle, “Causes of Disputes and Conflicts,” The Beyond Intractability Project, Edited by Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess, (Colorado: The Conflict Research Consortium, University of Colorado, October 2003),

[xliii] On an annual average from 2009 to 2013, there have been over 2,000 Colombian army soldiers wounded and over 500 killed in action. The majority of these casualties are inflicted by FARC emplaced improvised explosive devices.

[xliv] Alvaro Uribe Velez, No Lost Cause, (London: Penguin Books, 2012), p. 57

[xlv] Jorge Eliecer Gaitan , the populist Liberal leader whose radical politics resonated with Colombia’s excluded poor. His assassination on April 9, 1948 ignited an uprising in Bogota that changed the course of Colombian history. The uprising spread throughout the country, further igniting a decade-long civil war between Liberals and Conservatives known simply as La Violencia, in which more than 200,000 Colombians were killed.

[xlvi] Dennis M. Rempe, “Guerrillas, Bandits, and Independent Republics: US Counter-insurgency Efforts in Colombia 1959-1965,” in Small Wars (Winter 1995).

[xlvii] In 1958, the National-Front government assumed power under the power-sharing agreement that called for the Liberal Party and Conservative Party to alternate the presidency every four years and split all government posts. This political arrangement lasted until 1974.

[xlviii] Alvaro Uribe Velez, p. 52.

[xlix] Ibid, p. 51.

[l] Alvaro Uribe Velez, p. 33.

[li] Ibid, p. 33.

[lii] Arturo Alape, Manuel Marulanda, Tirofijo Colombia: 40 años de lucha guerrillera, (San Isidro, Mexico: Txalaparta 1998), p. 54.

[liii] Interview with demobilized FARC member in Bucaramanga, Colombia in 2013.

[liv] Beyond Bogota: Diary of a Drug War Journalist in Colombia, (Boston, MA 2009), p. 217

[lv] Claudia Seymour, Social Psychological Dimensions of Conflict.

[lvi] The Americas, “The moment of truth: Colombia’s peace process,” The Economist,  (August 30, 2014).

[lvii] Castrochavismo is in reference to the economic option taken by Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez whereby a centralized government plays a much stronger role in guiding the choice of each individual decision.

[lviii]  Politico, “No tenemos nada que ver con el castrochavismo,” El Tiempo, , (22 de septiembre de 2014).


Categories: El Centro

About the Author(s)

Colonel Philip K. Abbott, U.S. Army, is currently the Combating Terrorism Portfolio Manager at the United States Southern Command in Miami, Florida. He received a B.A. from Norwich University, an M.A. from Kansas University, and an M.S. from the National Defense University. He served in various Command & Staff positions in Europe, the Pacific, and worked extensively throughout the Western Hemisphere as a Latin American Foreign Area Officer.


Colonel Abbott makes a very strong argument for a "new way forward", which is seemingly based on extensive experience and reality. Unfortunately, there are those on the other side of the argument that still draw a clear line between good guys and bad guys, when in reality, the Colombian context is far more ambiguous.


Wed, 11/19/2014 - 12:08pm

The comments by my colleague Dr. Geoffrey Demarest are thoughtful opinions, which will hopefully generate broader and healthier debate regarding this ongoing social conflict. I particularly enjoyed how Geoffrey framed his argument, allowing additional context for future readers to express their own interpretations.

" ... foreign investment was possible only if non-capitalist countries could be "civilized", "Christianized", and "uplifted" — that is, if their traditional institutions could be forcefully destroyed, and the people coercively brought under the domain of the "invisible hand" of market capitalism ... " (Hobson's view of Imperialism.)

If we were to consider the above-described assault (which began yesterday but is still ongoing today) on traditional values, traditional laws and traditional institutions; this, so as adequately accommodate foreign investment in the service of capitalism and capitalist states and societies. (Along contemporary lines, think of our current foreign policy credo of "development via diplomacy and defense."),

Then might we find this as a/the OVERALL REASON for discontent among the Colombian and, in fact, innumerable other population groups; this, beginning in colonial times but actually continuing right up to the present day?

Throughout this period, the individuals and groups taking a stand for traditional -- and/or other non-western ways of life -- being collectively, consistently and routinely labeled as outlaws, criminals, terrorists, etc?

Thus, to properly understand these matters, might we need to focus on:

a. Not only on human nature, per se. But, also on

b. Human nature in a/the contemporary setting?

Thus, to understand (1) the "intractable" nature of "modern" societal discord in (2) its intractable "modern v. more traditional" context?

Robert C. Jones

Mon, 11/17/2014 - 3:49pm

I do not believe that I know either Colonel Phil Abbott, or Geoffrey Demarest. I have never been to Colombia.

But based on my own experiences such as they are, and my own study of the divergent facts and fundamental nature of populace-based conflicts, I cast my vote with this human nature based perspective offered by Colonel Abbott.

Too many focus on the character of the insurgent groups that emerge to leverage the energy of conditions of insurgency resident within some population rather than focusing on that resident energy itself.

Too many focus on the fact that insurgents are nearly always the illegal actor and that the government is nearly always the legal actor.

Too many focus on who we perceive to be "right" vs. who we perceive to be "wrong."

But at the roots of these conflicts there are always fundamental dynamics of human nature between those who govern and those who are governed. In these fundamentals we find the strategic framework for understanding the nature of a problem and for framing an effective solution. On the surface of these conflicts are the facts, history, culture and everything else that colors the uniqueness of every individual instance. This must be understood in order to design and implement solutions that are likely to actually achieve an intended strategic effect. We tend to either have neither, or only the latter. The key is to have both.

Colonel Abbott takes a good stab here at describing key aspects of the human nature part of why there is enduring conflict in Colombia. There is a very similar dynamic in virtually every place ever colonized by Spain. Other brands of colonialism, such as British or French, left equally problematic and unique burdens on the people and places impacted by the same.

In the infinite uniqueness of human culture find the nuance for good tactics; but in the fundamental similarities of human nature find the framework for good strategy.

Good Job.


Geoffrey Demarest

Mon, 11/17/2014 - 2:32pm

The opinions, observations and advice in this comment are the author’s alone. They are not the policy, opinions, observations, advice or practice of the United States Army or any other part of the United States Government and do not represent or reflect US Government policy, observation opinion, advice, or practice.

I know Philip Abbott personally. He is one of a handful of Americans who I consider better qualified than myself to opine about Colombia, Colombians, and the war there. He is more than well enough experienced to address the subject, and his is the voice of a thoughtful, educated scholar. I caution the reader to digest my assertions with that disclaimer in mind. People can disagree. I am compelled, however, to comment because I do not accept the narrative that Phil proposes for us as the war’s causal history, nor do I accept the proscriptions he bases on that narrative. In sum, I believe that:

The leaders of the FARC do not deserve the gift of moral equivalency;

A precise reading of relevant Colombian history finds the FARC born of criminality and terror (as victimizer far more than as victim);

Social injustice exists in Colombian history, but it is not an especially more powerful or predominant current than in other Latin American countries;

Colombian society, including its political class, has made remarkable, liberalizing changes during the long decades of internal struggle;

Colombian society generates significant upwardly mobility;

Many land reforms have been implemented in Colombia throughout its history, with perhaps some of the worst being those that created huge communally owned portions;

The Colombian government has been quite successful militarily against guerrilla entities inside Colombia over the years, including against the FARC;

The war in Colombia can only be seen as internal if one overlooks all the lines of communication that run throughout northern South America and the Caribbean;

The Colombian war is not in rural areas, but rather in some rural areas, these being correlated with smuggling routes;

Overall failure to completely destroy the FARC militarily is to be associated less with internal sympathies or socio-cultural causes and more to traditional military advantages and shortcomings.

Given the above and an assortment of other, related disagreements, my prescription for Colombia would be much different than what Phil offers. I believe that the great majority of Colombian citizens anticipated that the peace negotiations were going to be a form of plea bargain, and that their government was offering the FARC leaders a politically gentle surrender process. Instead, the FARC is succeeding in presenting itself as having an equally valid, alternative view of society. I don't see it. I think that they are more properly categorized as crime bosses and terrorists, guilty of repeated atrocities on an immane scale. Isn't that still how our government officially categorizes them? Am I mistaken?