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Colombia: Outlook
Country Study > Chapter 5 > National Security


The Colombian political system continues to pose a major paradox. The country has been able to maintain formal democracy and relatively successful levels of economic, political, and social development notwithstanding the existence of prolonged armed conflict, humanitarian crises, human rights violations, drug trafficking, corruption, and social and economic inequality. Colombia’s political future is largely tied to this contradiction. Indeed, as one of the few countries in Latin America with an uninterrupted democracy for nearly 50 years, Colombia has state institutions that can be considered fairly robust and stable.

The stated goal of President Uribe’s Democratic Security Policy is precisely to put an end to the internal armed conflict while reinforcing democratic governance, yet the Uribe administration’s “war against terrorism” has tended to undermine fundamental constitutional rights and guarantees, while stigmatizing certain sectors of Colombian and international society. These include local and global human rights organizations, ethnic communities, labor unions, journalists, and international institutions such as the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, which have been critical of Uribe’s leadership. Negotiations with the paramilitaries, although a fundamental component of peace, threaten to pardon heinous human rights crimes committed by these groups with inadequate reparations for the victims. Of equal concern are the paramilitaries’ close ties with the drug trade.

The Uribe government’s hardhanded strategy earned it high domestic approval and the support of the George W. Bush administration in the United States, which regarded the Colombian president as a key ally in the region. However, the U.S. Congress and opposition political groups within Colombia, including the Liberal Party and the Alternative Democratic Pole, have become increasingly critical of the Colombian president. The country’s political future will depend largely on the outcome of the parapolitics scandal and the internal armed conflict. Although the Uribe government has argued at home and abroad that the ties between politicians and paramilitaries came to light as a result of the Democratic Security Policy, the fact that several Uribe appointees and numerous members of the government’s political coalition in the Congress, including the president’s cousin, have been accused of or are under investigation for such links does not sit well among the Colombian president’s critics.

The formal participation of former paramilitaries in political activities, which is forbidden by law until they confess their crimes and serve their sentences, will also have profound effects on Colombian politics. One of the most acute problems during the 2006 and 2007 elections was precisely that of paramilitary influence in electoral campaigns. In addition to their legal and illegal participation in the electoral process, paramilitary penetration of public institutions, in particular outside Colombia’s larger cities, poses a considerable threat to the democratic state of law.

It is feasible that informal talks with the ELN guerrillas—begun in October 2005 in Cuba—will eventually culminate in a peace agreement. However, peace negotiations with the FARC are unlikely in the short term. Given the high-profile role of the United States in the Colombian conflict, the evolution of U.S. policy toward negotiations with the paramilitaries, Plan Colombia, and the war against terrorism will also continue to influence the country’s political scenario. The outcome of the 2008 U.S. presidential election might have seemed likely to lead to renewed criticism from Washington of President Uribe’s handling of a number of issues, from human rights to the parapolitics scandal. Surprisingly perhaps, Colombia–United States relations appeared not to be especially strained during the first eight months of the administration of President Barack H. Obama. Neither did the approval by the Colombian Congress of Uribe’s referendum proposal, which could allow him to run in the 2010 presidential election, appear to have any adverse impact on Colombia’s relations with the new U.S. administration. President Uribe’s bid for a third term depended on the outcome of the Constitutional Court’s review of the referendum proposal and other political factors affecting his decision.

Frank Safford and Marco Palacios offer an interesting sociological and historical discussion of Colombia’s spacial fragmentation and the subsequent difficulties that the country has encountered in constructing the nation-state in Colombia: Fragmented Land, Divided Society. An exhaustive analysis of political violence in Colombia can be found in Violencia política en Colombia: De la nación fragmentada a la construcción del estado by Ingrid Bolívar, Fernán E. González, and Teófilo Vásquez. El conflicto, callejón con salida: Informe nacional de desarrollo humano para Colombia, a UNDP multiauthor report edited by Hernando Gómez Buendía, offers a particularly useful study of the development of the armed conflict in Colombia and the distinct avenues available for its peaceful resolution. Ann C. Mason and Luis Javier Orjuela’s volume, La crisis política colombiana: Mas que un conflicto armado y un proceso armado de paz, conducts a thorough examination of the Colombian crisis, including studies of the origins and construction of the state, the evolution of the armed conflict, the development of national and local political dynamics, and the role of global factors. In Una democracia asediada: Balance y perspectivas del conflicto armado en Colombia, Eduardo Pizarro Leongómez discusses the protracted nature of the armed conflict in Colombia and its effects on the development of political and social dynamics in the country. A useful analysis of judicial power in Colombia is provided by El caleidoscopio de las justicias en Colombia: Análisis socio-jurídico, a two-volume study edited by Boaventura de Sousa Santos and Mauricio García Villegas. The contributors analyze the transformations in the judicial system introduced by the 1991 constitution and their primary strengths and weaknesses.

In Síntesis, the National University of Colombia’s Institute for Political Studies and International Relations (IEPRI) publishes excellent annual analyses of Colombia’s principal political, social, and economic phenomena. OASIS, also published yearly, by the Externado University of Colombia, provides analyses of Colombian foreign policy that address a diverse range of issue areas and geographic regions. Martha Ardila, Diego Cardona, and Arlene B. Tickner’s volume, Prioridades y desafíos de la política exterior colombiana, provides a comprehensive analysis of Colombia’s foreign relations during the decade up to 2002. (For further information and complete citations, see Bibliography).

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

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