We're always looking for ways to make better. Have an idea? See something that needs fixing? Let us know!

Colombia: The Spread of Leftist Insurgencies
Country Study > Chapter 1 > Historical Setting > The Contemporary Era, 1978–98 > The Spread of Leftist Insurgencies


Among the negative consequences of the illegal drug industry, the most serious was the impulse it gave to the advance of leftist guerrillas (and their paramilitary counterparts). The most notable sign of a resurgence of the revolutionary left after its low point in the early to mid-1970s was the rise of a new group, the Nineteenth of April Movement (M–19). Typically led by disenchanted middle-class professionals, the M–19 was ideologically more moderate than other guerrilla forces—more social democratic than Marxist—and it specialized in urban operations. One such was its seizure on February 27, 1980, of the Dominican Republic Embassy in Bogotá with a party of ambassadors within; the standoff ended peacefully, after 61 days, with the grant of safe-conduct out of the country for the terrorists and payment of an undisclosed ransom. The M–19 overreached itself on November 6, 1985, when it seized the Palace of Justice, also in Bogotá. The outcome of an army counterattack was the death of all but a few of the hostage takers and many hostages, including half of the Supreme Court of Justice. Weakened and discredited, the M–19 subsequently agreed with the Barco administration to lay down arms and enter legal political competition, which for a time it did with conspicuous success.

A few other guerrilla organizations, including the EPL, also entered into demobilization agreements, but not the ELN and the FARC. After being nearly defeated, the ELN made a striking comeback largely because of its success in extorting the German firm constructing a pipeline to transport the oil from newly developed fields in the llanos. When that work was finished, the ELN kept on extorting funds from oil-industry suppliers and contractors, local government agencies, and private citizens, in the latter case through the act or mere threat of kidnapping for ransom. It took to applying similar tactics against other industries and in other parts of Colombia, although, like the M–19, it avoided deep entanglement with illicit drugs. The FARC did not show similar restraint. By far the largest revolutionary organization, the FARC became larger still as it branched out from the extortion of ranchers and other commonplace ways of raising money to selling protection to coca growers and processors and, ultimately, entering the drug business on its own account. With its bulging war chest, it could import arms and recruit idle youths at far better pay than offered by army or police. The ELN and the FARC continued to operate mainly outside urban areas, but they committed acts of terrorism in the cities from time to time, and the growing epidemic of kidnapping brought the conflict home to middle- and upper-class Colombians, living almost exclusively in the cities, in a manner not before experienced.

The areas under effective guerrilla control were increasing, although they tended to be peripheral and thinly inhabited. Almost no part of Colombia was wholly safe from a sudden attack on the local police station or the abduction for ransom of some wealthy citizen or even of the less wealthy—crimes sometimes perpetrated by common criminals copying guerrilla methodology. The problem thus seemed to be getting worse, even though Colombia’s GDP and most social indicators were generally improving, at least until the mid- to late 1990s. And popular support for the FARC and the ELN, which had once been around 15 percent in some opinion surveys, declined almost to the vanishing point thanks to the steady degradation of guerrilla tactics. The improvement in guerrilla finances was naturally one reason for the paradox. To some extent, moreover, Colombia was paying the price for its success over the years in containing military influence. The armed forces (including the National Police) simply lacked the personnel and equipment needed to root out political and criminal violence—both drug trafficking and leftist insurgency—over a vast expanse of poorly connected regions. Human rights abuses by government forces became all too common, yet the attachment of the country’s rulers to democratic forms ruled out the frankly dictatorial response used against guerrilla movements in the Southern Cone countries of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay. Neither had the government, or the general public, taken the problem seriously enough—until it was already out of hand.

Some of the guerrillas’ victims chose to take matters into their own hands, unleashing a spiral of counterguerrilla violence. This phenomenon first gained attention in the early 1980s, when members of the Medellín Cartel formed the group Death to Kidnappers (MAS), in response to the foolhardy seizure of one of their loved ones by the M–19, and landowners of the central Magdalena valley, tired of extortions, banded together to rid the area of radical troublemakers by fair means or foul. MAS and similar groups in different parts of the country, conventionally dubbed right-wing paramilitaries, made little distinction between guerrilla fighters and real or alleged sympathizers, and one result was decimation of the ranks of the UP, including assassination of its leader who had run for president in 1986 and its presidential candidate in 1990 (slain before the election). The paramilitaries were not right-wing in any ideological sense, for they were a mixed assortment united only by hatred of the guerrillas. Like the latter, they sold protection and extorted and, if not already part of the drug industry, became entangled with it; they generally did not kidnap, but they committed countless massacres of suspected guerrilla supporters. Despite their unsavory reputation, paramilitary forces in some areas developed an unacknowledged alliance with the army and National Police, which, according to critics, relied on them to do their dirty work and were certainly less inclined to crack down on them simply because they shared a common foe.

Data as of 2010

Last Updated: January 2010

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Colombia was first published in 1988. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

Colombia Main Page Country Studies Main Page

Section 40 of 188


Click any image to enlarge.

National Flag

($) Colombian Peso (COP)
Convert to Any Currency


Locator Map