State of War

Political Violence and Counterinsurgency in Colombia

On November 8, 1992, Colombian President César Gaviria Trujillo adopted a series of emergency decrees restricting civil liberties, granting additional powers to the military, and punishing contact or dialogue with insurgent groups. The decrees marked a reversion to authoritarian patterns of rule supposedly left behind with the passage of the 1991 Constitution. And despite the adoption of emergency measures, the government has failed to achieve its central goal: winning a decisive upper hand in the thirty-year war against Colombia’s 7,000 guerrillas.Colombia is Latin America’s leading recipient of U.S. military aid, ostensibly provided for counter-narcotics measures, but the armed forces’ priorities remain counterinsurgency tactics. The centerpiece of army strategy has been the creation of three Mobile Brigades, elite units of professional soldiers that receive special training and operate in areas of greatest insurgent activity. The units have been implicated in a shocking number of abuses, including extra-judicial executions, disappearances, rapes, torture, the wanton burning of houses, crops, and food, indiscriminate bombings and aerial strafing, beatings, and death threats. For their part, guerrilla forces have engaged in a disturbing pattern of violations of international humanitarian law, including the killing and torture of captured security force officers, selective assassinations of critics, attacks on civilian targets, and the destruction of the environment by repeated bombings of oil pipelines, putting the civilian population in grave danger. The determination of the guerrillas to demonstrate their strength and the government’s equal determination to incapacitate the insurgency, is sure to prolong the stalemate characterizing Latin America’s longest-running war and increase the suffering of those civilians caught in the cross fire.
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