Browse » Conflicts » Non-international armed conflicts in Colombia

Non-international armed conflicts in Colombia

Conflict type: Non-international armed conflict

Colombia has experienced one of the longest non-international armed conflicts in modern times. Notably, the Government of Colombia is still involved in parallel non-international armed conflicts against the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) and a number of criminal organizations (bandas criminales, BACRIMs). Furthermore, there are various non-international armed conflicts between armed non-state actors.

Different parallel and overlapping non-international armed conflicts are taking place in Colombia:

  • The government is involved in non-international armed conflicts against the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) and a number of criminal organizations (bandas criminales, BACRIMs), such as the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC – called the Gulf Clan by the government, formerly known as the Urabeños).
  • A number of parallel non-international armed conflicts are taking place between armed non-state actors operating in Colombia. Specifically, the ELN is fighting against the AGC and the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación – EPL).

Two criteria need to be assessed in order to answer the question of whether a situation of armed violence amounts to a non-international armed conflict:

  • First, the level of armed violence must reach a certain degree of intensity that goes beyond internal disturbances and tensions.
  • Second, in every non-international armed conflict, at least one side in the conflict must be a non-state armed group that exhibits a certain level of organization in order to qualify as a party to the non-international armed conflict. Government forces are presumed to satisfy the criteria for organization. For further information, see ‘Non-international armed conflict' in our Classification section.

Intensity of violence

Various indicative factors are used to assess whether a given situation has met the required intensity threshold, such as the number, duration and intensity of individual confrontations; the types of weapons and military equipment used; the number of persons and types of forces participating in the fighting; the number of casualties; the extent of material destruction; the number of civilians fleeing and the involvement of the United Nations Security Council. For further information, see ‘Non-international armed conflict – Intensity of violence’ in our Classification section.

Colombia has been affected by armed violence since the 1960s. In spite of the fact that the conflict with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) is now over, violence has not diminished in the country. Notably, the Government of Colombia is involved in parallel non-international armed conflicts with the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) and a number of criminal organizations (bandas criminales, BACRIMs).

Violence between the government and the National Liberation Army (ELN)

The ELN has been militarily active in Colombia since the 1960s. As the FARC is now officially turning into a political party, the ELN is becoming the most powerful guerrilla army operating in Colombia. M. Yagoub, ‘Despite Peace Talks, Colombia’s ELN Guerrillas Continue Expansion’, InSight Crime, 31 July 2017.

Armed confrontations between the ELN and the government of Colombia have not decreased in spite of ongoing peace talks that started in 2017. M. Yagoub, ‘Despite Peace Talks, Colombia’s ELN Guerrillas Continue Expansion’, InSight Crime, 31 July 2017. Specifically, from January to July 2017, 59 armed attacks conducted by the ELN were identified, including 33 confrontations with the Colombian military forces, which caused approximately 30 casualties among the armed forces and civilians. International Crisis Group, ‘Colombia’s Armed Groups Battle for the Spoils of Peace’, Latin America Report no 63, 19 October 2017, p 6. Since January 2018, several armed confrontations between the ELN and the government have taken place in Colombia. For instance, on 27 January 2018 the ELN claimed responsibility for bombing a police station in Barraquilla, which resulted in the death of 5 police officers and 41 people being injured. A. Albaladejo, ‘ELN Peace Talks Unraveling as Post-Ceasefire Violence Continues’, InSight Crime, 30 January 2018. Furthermore, on 28 February 2018 an ELN roadside explosive device killed 5 soldiers and injured 10 members of the armed forces in the Catatumbo region. T. Clavel, ‘Belligerent ELN Front Kills Five Colombian Soldiers Near Venezuela Border’, InSight Crime, 28 February 2018.

On the other hand, the government has intensified military actions against the ELN and has deployed military and police forces against the armed group. For instance, in March 2018 the Colombian Air Force carried out a military operation against the ELN, leaving 10 people dead and 3 captured among the members of the armed group. A. Albaladejo, ‘ELN Peace Talks Unraveling as Post-Ceasefire Violence Continues’, InSight Crime, 30 January 2018; A. Albaladejo, ‘Colombia Army Puts Pressure on ELN Amid Post-Ceasefire Violence’, InSight Crime, 16 January 2018.

The intensity of the armed violence has had devastating effects on the civilian population. According to Human Rights Watch, ‘the ELN continued in 2017 to commit serious abuses against civilians, including, for example, killings, forced displacement, and child recruitment in the province of Chocó’. Human Rights Watch, ‘Colombia: Events of 2017’, World Report 2018.

Violence between the government and armed criminal organizations

The Government of Colombia is also involved in intense armed confrontations with a number of BACRIMs, in particular the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC – called the Gulf Clan by the government and formerly known as the Urabeños). International Committee of the Red Cross, ‘ICRC Releases Report on Humanitarian Situation in Colombia’, 9 March 2017.

In recent years, the AGC has launched armed strikes in the areas under its control as a strategy to paralyse government activities in different regions of Colombia. E. Àlvarez Vanegas et al, ‘Crimen organizado y saboteadores armados en tiempos de transición: radiografía necesaria’, Fundación Ideas para la Paz, Informe no 27, 17 July 2017. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), ‘between January 2015 and October 2017, more than 4.5 million people were affected by restrictions on mobility and limitations on access to goods and services due to armed violence-related events. Unilateral actions, especially armed strikes by post-demobilization armed groups, such as the AGC (51%), and non-state armed groups, such as FARC EP and ELN (46%), are mainly responsible for these limitations’. OCHA, ‘Humanitarian Needs Overview: Colombia’, November 2018. Furthermore, from 2016 the AGC initiated the Pistol Plan (Plan Pistola), aimed at attacking ‘police and military units in reprisal for a police operation’. 'Boss of Northwest Colombia Drug Gang Nabbed', Agencia EFE, 16 May 2017; 'Autoridades aseguran que Clan del Golfo empezó un plan pistola', Semana, 22 November 2016. In August 2017, armed confrontations took place between military forces and the AGC in the rural area of Cucuta. 'Combates entre el Ejército y Clan del Golfo en frontera', Caracol, 28 August 2017.

The government has deployed thousands of troops in response to armed violence by criminal organizations. For instance, on 8 January 2018 the Colombian Air Force deployed 2,000 armed units in Tumaco in order to tackle organized criminal organizations operating in the region. P. Asmann, ‘Colombia Deploys Troops to Tumaco as ELN Ceasefire Ends’, InSight Crime, 9 January 2018. Government efforts against the AGC have taken the form of both police efforts, targeting the group’s criminal infrastructure, and more large-scale military efforts, targeting its military apparatus. Policía Nacional de Columbia, ‘“Agamenón’, la operación que ya desmanteló la mitad del “Clan del Golfo’’’, 8 May 2017. Moreover, it has specifically created elite corps in order to fight against the AGC. Tactics include the use of intelligence operations, criminal investigations and armed attacks, both on land and by air; at least 10 Sikorsky U-H60A Black Hawk Helicopters have been used to this end. J. Pelcastre, ‘Colombia Corners the Gulf Clan', Diálogo, 24 July 2017; A. Balcazar Moreno, ‘Colombia: Armed Gang Violence Spoils the Peace Process’, A. Bellal (ed), The War Report: Armed Conflicts in 2017, Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, 2018, pp 62–63. On 8 November 2017, a total of 400 members of Colombian armed forces and police were deployed in four simultaneous raids against the AGC in Urabá, which resulted in the capture of members of the criminal groups and in the seizure of more than 12 metric tons of cocaine. See Policía Nacional de Columbia, ‘Golpe contundente de la campaña Agamenón II al clan del golfo’, 8 November 2017.

Violence among armed non-state actors

Following the demobilization of the FARC, the armed actors currently operating in Colombia reorganized. Since the government proved unable to establish control over the areas previously in the hands of the FARC, the ELN and BACRIMs have been engaging in turf wars in order to fill the power void. As a result, the ELN is party to non-international armed conflicts against a number of criminal armed groups, in particular the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación – EPL) and the AGC. Human Rights Council, ‘Annual Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the Situation of Human Rights in Colombia’, UN doc A/HRC/37/3/Add.3, 2 March 2018; Verdad Abierta, ‘The New War in Colombia’s Catatumbo’, InSight Crime, 5 April 2018.

Since March 2018, armed confrontations between the ELN and the EPL have been intensifying in the Catatumbo region, close to the border with Venezuela. The two groups are fighting in order to gain control over the region, one of the most important for cocaine production. Verdad Abierta, ‘The New War in Colombia’s Catatumbo’, InSight Crime, 5 April 2018; R. Rísquez and V. Dittmar, ‘ELN and EPL Conflict Intensifies at Colombia-Venezuela Border’, InSight Crime, 2 August 2018. For instance, on 30 July 2018 armed confrontation between members of the two organizations resulted in the death of 10 people in the town of El Tarra, located in the department of Norte de Santander on the Colombia-Venezuela border. ‘Más detalles de la masacre en El Tarra’, La Opinión, 31 July 2018.

The intensity of armed violence between the ELN and the EPL is further exemplified by the number of displaced civilians in the region. According to OCHA, on 20 March 2018 approximately 1,350 people were gathered in ‘humanitarian shelters’ in order to escape armed confrontations between the ELN and the EPL. OCHA, ‘Colombia – Restricciones al acceso y desplazamientos en el Catatumbo (Norte de Santander)’, Flash Update no 2, 21 March 2018.

Intense fighting is also continuing between the ELN and the AGC. República de Colombia Ministerio de Defensa Nacional, Directiva Permanente no 0015/2016,  22 April 2016; International Crisis Group, Colombia’s Armed Groups Battle for the Spoils of Peace, Latin America Report no 63, 19 October 2017, p 3. Specifically, the two groups are engaging in armed confrontations in order to gain control over the areas once under the authority of the FARC in Chocó province. Human Rights Watch, ‘Colombia: Events of 2017’, World Report 2018; ‘Urabeños’, InSight Crime, 14 March 2018; M. Charles, ‘As Peace Talks Flail, Colombia’s ELN Seeks “Liberation or Death”’, InSight Crime, 29 May 2018.

Organization of the parties

A series of indicative factors are used to assess whether armed groups exhibit the required degree of organization, such as the existence of a command structure and disciplinary rules and mechanisms; the ability to procure, transport, and distribute arms; the ability to plan, coordinate and carry out military operations; the ability to negotiate and conclude agreements, e.g. ceasefire or peace agreements. If the minimum criterion for organization of the armed groups is not fulfilled, there is no armed conflict. For further information, see ‘Non-international armed conflict – Organization’ in our Classification section.

National Liberation Army (ELN)

The National Liberation Army (ELN) is a highly organized armed group that has been operating in Colombia since the 1960s. ‘ELN’, InSight Crime, 16 October 2018. It is led by the Central Command (Comando Central – COCE), which is composed of five commanders. Each commander is responsible for different areas: military affairs, political functions, international affairs, financial functions or communications between the COCE and the so-called ‘War Fronts’, i.e. military units. Below the Central Command is the National Directorate, which has 23 members and mediates between Central Command and the ELN fronts, namely the Western Front, the Eastern Front and the Darío Ramírez Castro. ‘ELN’, InSight Crime, 16 October 2018; ‘National Liberation Army (Colombia)’, Mapping Militant Project, Stanford University, 17 August 2015; International Crisis Group, ‘Colombia’s Armed Groups Battle for the Spoils of Peace’, Latin America Report No 63, 19 October 2017, pp 6–8. Within this hierarchical structure, each ELN front commander exercises autonomous decision-making abilities in each of the respective regions. When making important strategic decisions, the leadership operates by consensus. ‘National Liberation Army (Colombia)’, Mapping Militants Project, Stanford University, 17 August 2015; International Crisis Group, ‘Colombia’s Armed Groups Battle for the Spoils of Peace’, Latin America Report no 63, 19 October 2017, pp 6–8.

Following the conclusion of the peace agreement between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) and the Colombian Government, the ELN has been expanding its control over territories once under the FARC’s control. Furthermore, it has been able to absorb dissident FARC rebels into its ranks. ‘ELN’, InSight Crime, 16 October 2018; M. Yagou, ‘Despite Peace Talks, Colombia’s ELN Guerrillas Continue Expansion’, InSight Crime, 31 July 2017; ‘National Liberation Army (ELN)’, Colombia Reports, 27 October 2018. In areas such as Arauca, Bajo Cauca Antioqueño and southern Chocó, the ELN has been engaging in sustained armed confrontations against criminal organizations, notably the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (called the Gulf Clan by the government, formerly known as the Urabeños) and the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación – EPL). International Crisis Group, ‘Colombia’s Armed Groups Battle for the Spoils of Peace’, Latin America Report  no 63, 19 October 2017, pp 6–11.

The ELN and the Colombian Government held preliminary-stage peace talks in 2014. However, the talks only started in February 2017. In September 2017, the armed group and the government signed a ceasefire agreement, which lasted from October 2017 to the beginning of January 2018. ‘ELN’, InSight Crime, 16 October 2018.

It is worth recalling that the existence of a ceasefire agreement does not in itself put an end to a non-international armed conflict: violence frequently continues after the conclusion of a such agreements. Furthermore, a non-international armed conflict may also end without a peace or ceasefire agreement, for example when one of the parties to the conflict disappears. A non-international armed conflict ends in the case of a 'lasting cessation of armed confrontations without real risk of resumption'.  ICRC, ‘Article 3: Conflicts Not of an International Character’, Commentary on the First Geneva Convention (2016), §491. The 2017 ceasefire agreement did not lead to such a lasting cessation. Indeed, armed clashes have continued on a regular basis. President Iván Duque, who took office in August 2018, has suspended the peace talks with the ELN and declared that negotiations will only resume if the armed group will cease its criminal activities. ‘ELN’, InSight Crime, 16 October 2018.

Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia of Colombia (AGC)

The Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC – called the Gulf Clan by the government and formerly known as the Urabeños) is the largest organized criminal organization in Colombia, where it controls most of the drug trade. ‘Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC) / Gulf Clan’, Colombia Reports, 23 October 2018. The AGC has a Statute of Constitution and Disciplinary Regime, which establishes that the armed group ‘is composed of three basic structures: political, military, and management and coordination’. Estatuto de Constitución y Régimen Disciplinario, Article 16: ‘La Organización Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia está compuesta por tres estructuras básicas: Estamento político, Organización militar y Estructura de conducción y coordinación.’ The group has adopted a mixed network model, divided into local cells. While one-third of them are under the direct command of the leaders of the AGC, the others are local criminal organizations that use the AGC name and in exchange offer services to the group. The leaders are based in Urabá, together with the head of the group, Otoniel. However, recent military operations conducted by the Government of Colombia have had devastating effects on the command node.  A. Ávila, ‘Así opera el Clan del Golfo’, Fundación Paz y Reconciliación, 15 September 2017; ‘Urabeños’, InSight Crime, 14 March 2018. Nevertheless, the AGC is still controlling considerable parts of the Colombian territory, especially in the north of the country. See ‘Urabeños’, InSight Crime, 14 March 2018; P. Asmann, ‘Report Details Potential Surrender Agreement With Urabeños in Colombia’, InSight Crime, 20 October 2017.

Popular Liberation Army (EPL)

The Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación – EPL) was founded in 1967 as the armed wing of the Communist Party. Although the armed group demobilized in March 1991, a number of its members refused to recognize the results of the peace process, thus keeping the armed group alive. ‘EPL’, InSight Crime, 14 March 2018. According to official figures, the group had 132 members in July 2017. However, the number is increasing. Indeed, following the demobilization of the FARC, the EPL has been recruiting dissident rebels into its ranks. ‘EPL’, InSight Crime, 14 March 2018. Currently, EPL’s activities are exclusively related to drug trafficking. It is based in the Catatumbo region, close to the border with Venezuela, where it has been engaging in armed hostilities against the ELN over control of the territory. See Fundación Ideas Para la Paz, ‘Ejército Popular de Liberación (EPL) o Los Pelusos’, Crimen organizado y saboteadores armados en tiempos de transición, June 2017; Verdad Abierta, ‘The New War in Colombia’s Catatumbo’, InSight Crime, 5 April 2018.

The end of the armed conflict between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Government of Colombia

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) were formed in 1964 with the aim of overthrowing the government and installing a Marxist regime. The group had been party to a non-international armed conflict against the government for decades. S. Casey-Maslen, ‘Colombia’, S. Casey-Maslen (ed), The War Report: Armed Conflicts in 2013, Oxford University Press, 2014, p 120.

In November 2012, the FARC engaged in peace negotiations with the Colombian authorities, which resulted in the conclusion of a peace agreement in August 2016. While the FARC are currently demobilizing, some of its former members are joining existing groups, such as the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) and a number of criminal organizations (bandas criminaels, BACRIMs). ‘FARC’, InSight Crime, 3 March 2017.

Colombia is a party to the four 1949 Geneva Conventions. All parties to the conflict are bound by Article 3 common to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, which provides for the minimum standards to be respected and requires humane treatment without adverse distinction of all persons not or no longer taking active part in hostilities. It prohibits murder, mutilation, torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, hostage taking and unfair trials.

Colombia is also a party to the 1977 Additional Protocol II (AP II) to the 1949 Geneva Conventions. According to Article 1, AP II, this treaty is applicable to non-international armed conflicts taking place ‘in the territory of a High Contracting Party between its armed forces and dissident armed forces or other organized armed groups which, under responsible command, exercise such control over a part of its territory as to enable them to carry out sustained and concerted military operations and to implement this Protocol’. As discussed in the classification section, a number of non-state actors have an established command structure and control a considerable amount of the Colombian territory, hence AP II is applicable to the fight that involve these groups.

Moreover, all parties are bound by customary international humanitarian law applicable to non-international armed conflict. Customary international law consists of unwritten rules that come from a general practice accepted as law. Based on an extensive study, the International Committee of the Red Cross maintains a database on customary international humanitarian law.

In addition to international humanitarian law, international human rights law continues to apply during times of armed conflict. Under human rights law, the territorial state has an obligation to prevent and to investigate alleged violations, including by non-state actors. Non-state armed groups are increasingly considered to be bound by international human rights law if they exercise de facto control over some areas, such as the AGC.

State parties

Non-state parties

  • The National Liberation Army (ELN) is a highly organized armed group that has been operating in Colombia since the 1960s. The ELN and the Colombian Government held preliminary-stage peace talks in 2014. However, the talks only started in February 2017. In September 2017, the armed group and the government signed a ceasefire agreement, which lasted from October 2017 to the beginning of January 2018. However, following the end of the agreement hostilities between the government and ELN have resumed. ‘ELN’, InSight Crime, 16 October 2018.
  • The Gaitanista Self-defense Forces of Colombia (AGC – called the Gulf Clan by the government and formerly known as the Urabeños) is the largest organized criminal organization in Colombia, where it controls most of the drug trade. It has been engaging in armed confrontations with the government and the ELN. ‘Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC) / Gulf Clan’, Colombia Reports, 23 October 2018.
  • The Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación – EPL) was founded in 1967 as the armed wing of the Communist Party. Although the armed group demobilized in March 1991, a number of its members refused to recognize the results of the peace process, thus keeping the armed group alive. ‘EPL’, InSight Crime, 14 March 2018. Currently, EPL’s activities are exclusively related to drug trafficking. It is based in the Catatumbo region, close to the border with Venezuela, where it has been engaging in armed hostilities against the ELN in order to control the territory. Fundación Ideas Para la Paz, ‘Ejército Popular de Liberación (EPL) o Los Pelusos’, Crimen organizado y saboteadores armados en tiempos de transición, June 2017; Verdad Abierta, ‘The New War in Colombia’s Catatumbo’, InSight Crime, 5 April 2018.
Last updated: Tuesday 4th December 2018