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Colombia: Internal Security Problems
Country Study > Chapter 5 > National Security > Internal Security Problems


Colombia’s internal conflict underwent a dramatic escalation during the 1990s. Both the FARC and the paramilitaries increased their personnel, armaments, organization, and territorial presence. Confrontations with state security forces increased, and the proportion of the civilian population affected by direct actions or hostilities among the armed groups grew exponentially. The extent of the FARC buildup during the previous decade became obvious following the army’s attack against the FARC headquarters in Casa Verde in 1990. The guerrillas responded with the largest offensive in their history, made possible by a new ability to conduct well-organized, large-scale, military operations. By 1995 the FARC had approximately 7,000 members in 60 fronts, up from 32 fronts in 1986. Likewise, the number of guerrilla actions committed the same year increased fourfold to more than 600, consisting of attacks on police stations and villages with a police presence, ambushes of military units, and sabotage of infrastructure. Between 1996 and 1998, the FARC launched a series of direct assaults against army units and bases in the south of the country, resulting in a total of 220 soldiers dead and 242 captured. In one spectacular operation, the FARC even took control of the military base in Mitú, near the Brazilian border.

The insurgent movement expanded into much of the national territory, particularly in coca-growing regions and areas of strategic importance for national security and the economy. The insurgents spread into border areas with neighboring countries and increased their influence in urban centers. The FARC also took advantage of the three-year peace process with the government of Andrés Pastrana (president, 1998–2002) in the late 1990s, using the demilitarized sanctuary (zona de despeje) to train combatants, harbor kidnapping victims, and improve its finances. As a result, peace negotiations were aborted in 2002. By 2006 the FARC had an estimated 60 to 80 fronts, with a total fighting force of approximately 16,000.

The ELN also continued to play a role, albeit an increasingly minor one, in Colombia’s conflict dynamics. Eschewing the drug trade until about 2005–7 limited the ELN’s military growth and thus its capacity for attacks on security forces. Instead, the ELN dedicated itself to sabotage of the energy and oil infrastructure in Arauca. Starting in 1999, the ELN began to carry out mass kidnapping operations, including hijacking an airplane with its passengers and crew and abducting all the Sunday worshippers in a church. The ELN grew from approximately 2,000 combatants at the start of the 1990s to 4,500 by the end of the decade. Hard hit by the paramilitaries and the security forces, it was estimated to number 3,300 combatants in 2004.

The growth of paramilitary organizations and their geographical expansion paralleled that of the FARC during the 1990s. A radical anticommunist agenda framed their strategy of using violence and terror to subdue or expel local populations sympathetic to the left, and to drive out any FARC presence. The paramilitary groups in Córdoba and Urabá were infamous for their indiscriminate massacres and torture of civilians up until the late 1990s, and they were responsible for the majority of human rights violations committed in Colombia. Multiple independent paramilitary movements united under the umbrella of the AUC in 1997, permitting greater coordination, growth, and advancement of their political agenda. The number of AUC combatants grew from only 1,800 in 1990 to an estimated 13,500 in 2004.

The critical ingredient in the conflict’s expansion and intensification during the 1990s was the explosion in domestic coca production and the involvement of the FARC and the paramilitaries in different facets of drug cultivation and trafficking. Harvesting coca leaves had been a relatively small-scale business in Colombia. As it became harder to obtain coca base from neighboring countries, the new baby cartels—smaller and more independent organizations that replaced the Cali and Medellín cartels, such as the Norte del Valle Cartel, now considered Colombia’s most powerful drug syndicate—dedicated themselves to shifting coca cultivation to Colombia. With only 14 percent of the global coca-leaf market in 1991, by 2004 Colombia was responsible for 80 percent of the world’s cocaine production. The 13,000 hectares of coca in Colombia in the mid-1980s had ballooned to 80,000 hectares by 1998. By 2007 the coca-cultivation hectarage had increased to 99,000.

Drug-related activities became the principal source of income for the illegal armed groups, funding 50–70 percent of both the AUC and the FARC actions. According to the United Nations Development Programme, of the FARC’s average annual income of US$342 million, US$204 million derived from the drug business. Drug-related enterprises were considered responsible for some US$190 million of the AUC’s US$286 million average annual income. The FARC initially took part in production, processing, transportation, and extortion of protection payments, although it had diversified into drug trafficking by the early 2000s. The AUC appeared to control directly 40 percent of the drug-trafficking business. Whereas the paramilitaries engaged in direct drug trafficking, the FARC now preferred drugs-for-arms swaps. Armed groups dominated the country’s major coca-growing regions. Paramilitaries had a presence in 86 of the 162 municipalities where coca was cultivated, and half of the FARC’s 60 to 80 operational fronts participated in either coca or poppy cultivation and trade. Bitter territorial fighting between the AUC and the FARC to control regions dominated by coca cultivation and the drug business were a key feature of the conflict, although occasional incidents of pragmatic, strategic cooperation between them in narcotics operations demonstrated the complex dynamics of the Colombian conflict. The intimate relationship between drug trafficking and the armed conflict led to the formation of Plan Colombia, and eventually to a change in policy regarding the use of U.S. drug-control resources for antisubversive activities (see United States–Colombian Security Cooperation and Plan Colombia, this ch.).

The intensification of the internal conflict following the failed negotiations with the FARC in 2002 dashed the nation’s hopes for peace. After the FARC retreated to remote bases, it resumed military offensives by trying to retake strategic corridors. It also increasingly resorted to terrorist acts, one of the most significant of which was the bombing of the Club Nogal in Bogotá in February 2003. This change of tactics could be interpreted variously as a sign of the guerrilla movement’s strength and urban penetration or of its military weakness.

The character and aspirations of these illegal armed groups continue to generate debate. The United States considers them outright terrorists (vide their inclusion in the U.S. Department of State’s terrorism list); many others see them as common criminals, or purely politically motivated insurgents or counterinsurgents. The FARC, ELN, and AUC display a mix of all these elements. They commit acts of terrorism, with the FARC, in particular, accused of increasingly resorting to terrorist acts. The groups engage in a range of criminal activities, including drug cultivation and trafficking, kidnapping, and extortion; yet they also maintain political agendas and have some base of social support. All the armed groups, both on the left and on the right, have established certain sociopolitical structures and gained autonomous authority in their respective zones of influence, effectively substituting for the state, with rudimentary systems of justice, conflict resolution, and political participation. The FARC continues to espouse a broad socialist political agenda and militant opposition to the Colombian government, even though the likelihood of its gaining national power through armed revolution is virtually nil. The FARC remains committed to territorial control and to local power, with an eye toward maximizing political gains in eventual negotiations. The paramilitaries seek status as legitimate political representatives in regional and national politics. Various paramilitary groups entered negotiations with the government in 2003, seeking legal pardon for their criminal activities and human rights abuses in exchange for their complete demobilization and an entry into the political process. Having gained local support for their anti-insurgent platform and restoration of public order, the paramilitaries have achieved some success at penetrating national political institutions, as attested by the parapolitics scandal of 2006 (continuing in 2009). In mid-2008, at least 33 regional and national elected politicians were jailed awaiting trial, accused of collusion with the paramilitaries, while another 62 members of Congress were official suspects (see Corruption, ch. 4).

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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