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Non-international armed conflicts in Colombia

Conflict type: Non-international armed conflict

Colombia has experienced one of the longest and interrelated non-international armed conflicts (NIACs) in modern times. Notably, the Government of Colombia is still involved in four parallel NIACs against the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (National Liberation Army) (ELN); the FARC-EP dissident group (Bloque Oriental (Eastern Bloc)); the Ejército Popular de Liberación (People's Liberation Army) (EPL); and the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia – also called the Gulf Clan (AGC). Furthermore, there are also NIACs between armed non-state actors.

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

  • The government is involved in NIACs against the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (National Liberation Army) (ELN); the former Bloque Oriental (Eastern Bloc) of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia– Ejército del Pueblo (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia - People’s Army) (FARC-EP); the Ejército Popular de Liberación (People's Liberation Army) (EPL); and the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia – also called the Gulf Clan (AGC).
  • There are also ongoing NIACs taking place between armed non-state actors operating in Colombia. In particular, the ELN is fighting against the EPL and the AGC.

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 mid-1960s. Even though the conflict with the main actor- the FARC-EP is now over; violence has not ceased in the country. Particularly, the Government of Colombia is involved in parallel NIACs with the ELN, EPL, dissidents of FARC-EP, and AGC which is the strongest criminal organization (bandas criminales, BACRIMs) in Colombia. Due to the inability of the government to effectively establish its control over territories vacated by FARC-EP, different armed groups have continued to gain power and notoriety during the first half of 2019. ‘Colombia- Analysis’, Armed Conflict Database. Jan-Jun 2019; see also, International Committee of the Red Cross, ‘Colombia: Five armed conflicts – What’s happening?’, 30 January 2019. And, as a result of the ongoing conflicts, about 39,000 new displacements were recorded only in the first half of 2019. IDMC, ‘Colombia: Country Information', 2019.

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. The negotiation between the government of Colombia and ELN could not lead to success partly because of the relatively decentralized structure of the ELN. Adriaan Alsema, ‘Why peace talks with Colombia’s ELN rebels are so difficult’, Colombia Reports, 9 December 2019.

Since 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 Barranquilla, 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.

Following the car bomb attack on the 17th of January 2019 on the General Santander National Police Academy in Bogota, which claimed the lives of at least 21 individuals and injured 68, and for which the ELN took responsibility, the Duque government broke off peace talks with the ELN. Joshua Goodman, “Colombia Asks Cuba to Arrest ELN Negotiators for Car Bombing,” Associated Press, January 19, 2019. The clash between the government and ELN is still ongoing and, for instance, the ELN attacks a military base in Fortul municipality, Arauca Department, wounding five soldiers.Colombia. Timelines’. Armed Conflict Database. In July 2019 the government forces killed a local leader of the ELN, by the name Yovanni Bello Olivero, alias ‘Guacharaco’, in Tarazá municipality, Antioquia Department. Colombia. Timelines’. Armed Conflict Database. And, in armed clashes in August 2019, some government soldiers and members of the ELN were killed. Colombia. Timelines’. Armed Conflict Database. 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.

In January 2020, community groups have called the government to re-open talks with ELN, and the group offered olive branches as symbol of peace. Nevertheless, governmental authorities refused to resume negotiations unless ELN released hostages and stopped attacks. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, January 2020. The ELN imposed an ‘armed strike’ between 14 and 17 February in the territories under its control, notably in Cauca (south west), Norte de Santander (north east) and Arauca (east) provinces. Shops and vehicles moving without permission were designated as military targets and Colombian armed forces recorded 119 planned attacks during the strike. On 16 February, armed confrontations between governmental forces and ELN fighters took place in Convención, Norte de Santander. Following the armed strike, the government affirmed that negotiations were not possible anymore. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, February 2020.

In March 2020, due to the new coronavirus outbreak, ELN announced a unilateral ceasefire until the end of April and asked the government to resume peace talks in Cuba. However, Miguel Ceballos, Colombian High Commissioner for Peace, affirmed that the ceasefire was not sufficient and that further measures were necessary to reopen negotiations. In particular, according to Caballos, ELN should not only extend the ceasefire indefinitely, but should also release prisoners. On the other hand, ELN replied that it did not intend to extend the ceasefire because the government did not reciprocate. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, April 2020.

On 15 June 2020, ELN released two people held in Arauca department and other 6 individuals were released on 15 June. Accordingly, the group asked the government to resume peace talks, but the latter refused due to the fact that ELN was still holding ten hostages. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, June 2020.

On account of the frequency of armed attacks and armed confrontations between the government forces and ELN, and the number of people forced to flee ongoing hostilities, the required degree of intensity continues to be met.

Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC)

The Government of Colombia is also involved in intense armed confrontations with some criminal organizations (bandas criminaels, 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. Though the AGC’s is mainly involved in criminal rackets including drug trafficking, illegal mining, and extortion, from the outset, it is important to note that the motives of the armed group are irrelevant in the determination of whether a situation constitutes an armed conflict or not. See ICTY, Prosecutor v. Limaj, Judgment (Trial Chamber) (IT-03-66-T), 30 November 2005, §170: ‘The determination of the existence of an armed conflict is based solely on two criteria: the intensity of the conflict and organization of the parties, the purpose of the armed forces to engage in acts of violence or also achieve some further objective is, therefore, irrelevant.’

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.  Furthermore, from 2016 onwards 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's 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. For instance, 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. 

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. Moreover, it has specifically created elite corps 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.

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), between 2016 and 2018, as a result of the armed conflicts involving the ELN, EPL, AGC, FARC-EP dissidents close to 4 million people faced movement limitations and access restrictions on electricity and water, basic goods and livelihoods, as well as fundamental rights to education. OCHA, ‘Colombia: Humanitarian Needs Overview: Colombia (Nov 2018)', January 2019, p.15.

Though the frequency of armed confrontation between government forces and AGC seems to decline, the situation remains intense. The number of causalities reported, weapons used, and people forced to flee ongoing hostilities appear significant, and that implies the required degree of intensity continues to be met. 

People's Liberation Army (EPL)

The Colombian government declared the EPL and the ELN as a ‘Class A Organized Armed groups’, a designation that allows the government security forces to carry out aerial bombardments commonly not allowed against alleged criminals. EPL/‘Los Pelusos’’, Colombia Reports, 26 March 2017. Throughout 2018, the EPL and other armed groups have been fighting with the government and also among themselves to gain control of the territories vacated by the FARC-EP, especially in the departments of Nariño, Cauca, Valle del Cauca, Chocó, Antioquia, and Norte de Santander. ACAPS Briefing Note: Colombia - Expanding displacement and protection crisis (01 March 2018), March 2019. In 2019, the government intensified its measures against the EPL forces. For instance, on 19 March 2019, the military forces carry out an operation against elements of the EPL in the municipality of Sardinata, Norte de Santander Department, and killed four members of the EPL fighters.Colombia. Timelines’. Armed Conflict Database. In a joint army and police operation that took place on 6 June 2019 in Banco Arena, Cúcuta, Norte de Santander Department, it is reported that one of the leaders of the EPL in the area was killed. Colombia. Timelines’. Armed Conflict Database.  Reports depict that since 2017 more than 40,000 people have been displaced from Catatumbo. The fighting between the ELN and the EPL caused most of the displacement in 2017 and 2018 while the conflict between these groups and the Colombian armed forces appears to be the main cause in 2019. Human Rights Watch, ‘The War in Catatumbo: Abuses by Armed Groups against Civilians including Venezuelan Exiles in Northeastern Colombia’, August 2019. The enduring military confrontations between EPL and government forces and the grave humanitarian consequences thereof demonstrate that the level of intensity of violence required under IHL continues to be met.

The former Bloque Oriental (Eastern Bloc) of the FARC-EP

Following the development since the 2016 peace agreement, the FARC-EP can be described in three different categories. Adriaan Alsema, ‘The three FARC: the party, the dissidents and the rearmed guerrillas’, Colombia Reports, 11 October 2019. The first one is the most significant group of FARC-EP which signed the peace accord and converted into a political party, and, hence, no more a party to NIAC. The main segment of FARC-EP was formally demobilised on 27 June 2017, and it formed a political party called the Common Alternative Revolutionary Force (Fuerza Armada Revolucionaria del Común, FARC), maintaining its original acronym. Colombia, ‘Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) / Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia: Background'. Armed Conflict Database.
The second one represents a holdout from the FARC-EP called the Bloque Oriental (Eastern Bloc) of the FARC-EP, which rejected the peace agreement with the government.  The elements of the FARC-EP dissident group, most of which represent sub-set of their original FARC units, continue to carry out violent attacks against the government forces. International Crisis Group, ‘Colombia’s Armed Groups Battle for the Spoils of Peace’, Latin America Report No.63, 19 October 2017, p.3. However, a question could be asked whether the conflict between the Eastern Bloc of the FARC-EP and the Colombian government should be considered as a new NIAC. Such an assessment depends on whether this group has continued as the successor of the parent organ, or deemed itself as a new independent entity. For a brief discussion on how to classify a conflict when a splinter group emerged from the parent group, see Ellen Nohle, ‘Drawing the line between armed groups under IHL’, 22 July 2016. In 2017, the destabilizing influence of the dissident group intensified, especially in the east and the southeast of the country. Adriaan Alsema, ‘The three FARC: the party, the dissidents and the rearmed guerrillas’, Colombia Reports, 11 October 2019. The group did not stop conducting its military operation throughout 2018 and 2019.

The final third one is the newly declared and rearmed guerrilla group under the former commander of FACR-EP. In August 2019, a former FARC-EP commander Iván Márquez, after stressing that the Colombian government had betrayed the peace accord, and condemning the killing in the past two years of more than 500 left-wing community leaders and 150 previous fighters, announced the decision of a ‘new chapter’ in the armed struggle against the government. Roundup: Colombia’s fragile peace’, The New Humanitarian, 25 October 2019. It is reported that the President of Colombia condemned the announcement, stating that it was a threat from a criminal group attempting to cover its illegal activities, including drug trafficking, under ideological justifications. UNSC, United Nations Verification Mission in Colombia, Report of the Secretary-General, s/2019/780, 1 October 2019, para.3. Also, former top leaders of the FACR-EP seem to downplay the significance of the declaration, though Iván Márquez’s move is seen by some as the most significant break with the accord. Anthony Faiola, ‘As Colombia peace accord unravels, ex-FARC leaders take up arms, announce return to conflict’, The Washington Post, 29 August 2019. Thus, the FARC-EP is not entirely defunct, as there are some smaller and less-organized groups that are now operating in Colombia, adding to the complexity of the violence. Adriaan Alsema, ‘Military claims killing 12 FARC dissidents in south Colombia bombing raid’, Colombia Reports, 31 August 2019.

The newly formed group led by Iván Márquez announced that it would seek to unite FARC dissident groups and forge an alliance with the ELN. See UNSC, United Nations Verification Mission in Colombia, Report of the Secretary-General, s/2019/780, 1 October 2019, para.3; and Alexander Fattal, ‘Ex-FARC’s Leader Call to Arms Is Bad News for Colombians’, 30 August 2019. For now, according to available information, this newly declared group with its small size and limited level of organization, and in absence of establishing sufficient link with parties to NIAC with the government, does not fulfil the requirements under IHL to be a party to a new NIAC.

Violence between 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 a party to NIACS, at least, against the 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. In areas such as Arauca, Bajo Cauca Antioqueño and southern Chocó, the ELN has been engaging in sustained armed confrontations notably against these two groups. International Crisis Group, ‘Colombia’s Armed Groups Battle for the Spoils of Peace’, Latin America Report No.63, 19 October 2017, pp.6-11. Since March 2018, the 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 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.

Also, reportedly, the EPL has actively been trying to recruit dissident FARC-EP members, while expanding its territory from Catatumbo to the nearby Cesar province that used to be strictly controlled by the FARC-EP. EPL/‘Los Pelusos’, Colombia Reports, 26 March 2017. This territorial expansion had led to repeated clashed with the ELN in 2018 and 2019. Dairo Antonio Úsuga, alias ‘Otoniel’, InSight Crime, 14 March 2018. In some areas, it is indicated that the ELN is gaining more grounds.  ELN Gains Upper Hand Over EPL in Norte de Santander, Colombia’, InSight Crime, 12 December 2019.

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’ 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. Thus, the sustained military clashes between the ELN and EPL and the humanitarian consequences imply that the conflict between these two groups meets the required level of intensity under IHL. International Committee of the Red Cross, ‘Colombia: Five armed conflicts – What’s happening?’, 30 January 2019.

Likewise, 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.  Since 2018, violence caused by an armed conflict between ELN guerrillas and AGC paramilitaries appears to have worsened. Adriaan Alsema, ‘More than 36% of Colombia’s Choco victimized by armed conflict so far this year: UN’, 23 October 2019. In northern Chocó, the Gaitanistas (AGC) has been able to push back the ELN by taking control of nearly the whole of Riosucio municipality. International Crisis Group, ‘Calming the Restless Pacific: Violence and Crime on Colombia’s Coast’, Latin America Report No.78, 8 August 2019, p.7. The fight between ELN and AGC further intensified in 2019 for control of territories and resources in the municipality of Bojayá, Chocó department- northwest Colombia. ACAPS Briefing Note: Colombia- Displacement in Chocó, 5 November 2019. By late 2018, in Riosucio, along the border with Panamá, all the Afro-Colombian communities had fled violence between the ELN and the Gaitanistas. International Crisis Group, ‘Calming the Restless Pacific: Violence and Crime on Colombia’s Coast’, Latin America Report No.78, 8 August 2019, p.14. Clashes in Bajo Baudó between the ELN and AGC displaced close to 2000 tribespeople. International Crisis Group, ‘Latin America and the Caribbean’, November 2019.

In January 2020, violence between the ELN and AGC continued and it has been reported that caused the displacement of a number of civilians. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, January 2020. The following month the government announced that 61,000 were people under severe threat in the municipalities of Riosucio and Carmen del Darién due to fighting between the two non-state actors. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch, February 2020.

The ongoing armed conflict between these two groups also arguably meets the required threshold of intensity under IHL.

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 the 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 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. Furthermore, it has been able to absorb dissident FARC rebels into its ranks. ELN’, InSight Crime, 16 October 2018; Mimi Yagou, ‘Despite Peace Talks, Colombia’s ELN Guerrillas Continue Expansion’, InSight Crime, 31 July 2017; ‘National Liberation Army (ELN)’, Colombia Reports, 27 October 2018.

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 NIAC: violence frequently continues after the conclusion of such agreements. Furthermore, a NIAC may also end without a peace or ceasefire agreement, for example when one of the parties to the conflict disappears. A NIAC 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 regularly. 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.

The ELN is primarily active along the Colombia-Venezuela border. Alexander L Fattal, ‘Violence and killings haven’t stopped in Colombia despite landmark peace deal’, The Conversation, 6 February 2019. Following the conclusion of the peace agreement between the FARC and the Colombian Government, the ELN has been expanding its control over territories- from 101 to 136 municipalities. Adriaan Alsema, ‘FARC dissidents and ELN guerrillas fared well under Duque: think tank’, Colombia Reports, 1 September 2019. Currently, it is estimated that this group has close to 3,000 armed members, mainly in the countryside. Colombia’s illegal armed groups (maps)’, Colombia Reports, 20 July 2019. It collects taxes in areas it controlled, continues to recruit and train its members on how to use explosives, mines, sniper, and how to conduct special operations and guerrilla combat. 'Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN)/ National Liberation Army, Background'. Armed Conflict Database. From the facts stated above, it is evident that the ELN has a sufficient degree organization.

Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC)

The AGC -also 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 Colombian authorities have formally considered the AGC a ‘Class A Organized Armed Group’. Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC) / Gulf Clan’, Colombia Reports, 22 October 2019. The group assumed this name in 2008 after the partial demobilization of the AUC between 2003 and 2006. Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC)/ Gulf Clan’ Colombia Reports, 22 October 2019. 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 combines a vertical military hierarchy centred in the country’s northwest with a web of subcontracted local gangs. International Crisis Group, ‘Colombia’s Armed Groups Battle for the Spoils of Peace’, Latin America Report No.63, 19 October 2017. Reports indicate that the group has an estimated 3,000 fighters. Colombia’s illegal armed groups (maps)’, Colombia Reports, 20 July 2019. The government, however, contradicted such a figure and said in early 2019 that the group was no bigger than 1,500 members. Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC)/Gulf Clan’, Colombia Reports, 22 October 2019.

It is reported that the sustained military operations conducted by the Government of Colombia against the AGC have had serious 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 some parts of the Colombian territory and it is expanding its activity to 276 municipalities. Jarrod Demir, ‘The rise of the AGC, Colombia’s criminal powerhouse’, Colombia Reports, 19 March 2018; Adriaan Alsema, ‘FARC dissidents and ELN guerrillas fared well under Duque: think tank’, Colombia Reports, 1 September 2019. Though previously the AGC had some negotiations with the government, the new President Ivan Duque now ended all negotiations with the group. Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC)/Gulf Clan’, Colombia Reports, 22 October 2019. All these factors could evidence the organizational capacity of the AGC.

Popular Liberation Army (EPL)

The 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. 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 EPL is long categorized as ‘Class A Organized Armed Group’, which means that the government recognized the organizational capacity of the group and the threat it carries. EPL/‘Los Pelusos’’, Colombia Reports, 26 March 2017. EPL fighters are currently dispersed in different areas of Catatumbo, as well as in Cúcuta and Puerto Santander, farther south. Human Rights Watch, ‘The War in Catatumbo: Abuses by Armed Groups against Civilians including Venezuelan Exiles in Northeastern Colombia’, August 2019. It maintained its strength in the Catatumbo region in northeast Colombia, and additionally, it expanded its operations to the Venezuelan border state of Tachira. Colombia- Analysis’, Armed Conflict Database. Jan-Jun 2019. Form its sustained military capabilities and areas of operation, it could be deduced that the group meets the organizational requirement.

FARC-EP dissident group- the Bloque Oriental (Eastern Bloc)

The FARC-EP was formed in 1964 to overthrow the government and install a Marxist regime. The group had been a party to a NIAC 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. From November 2012 onwards, 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 ELN and a number of criminal organizations. ‘FARC’, InSight Crime, 3 March 2017.

The Eastern Bloc, which rejected the agreement, continues to fight against the government forces. Colombia’s illegal armed groups (maps)’, Colombia Reports, 20 July 2019. In different reports, the total number of its members is estimated between 1,400 and 3,000 fighters. Human Rights Watch, World Report 2019, p.152; Alexander L Fattal, ‘Violence and killings haven’t stopped in Colombia despite landmark peace deal’, The Conversation, 6 February 2019. The elements of the former Bloque Oriental (Eastern Bloc) of the FARC-EP, which include the ‘First’, ‘Seventh’ and ‘40th’ fronts of FARC-EP, represent the strongest dissident group.Colombia: Five armed conflicts -What’s happening?’ 30 January 2019. The Eastern Bloc has retained the FARC-EP’s militant name (the parent group), Mapping Militant Organizations. “Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.” Stanford University. Last modified July 2019. and has been conducting hostile acts against the government forces, thus continues to be a party to the NIAC. Colombia: Five armed conflicts -What’s happening?’ 30 January 2019. The Eastern Bloc continued to recruit members from their former guerrilla buddies and a new generation of fighters. Adriaan Alsema, ‘The three FARC: the party, the dissidents and the rearmed guerrillas’, Colombia Reports, 11 October 2019. It also maintained its territorial control in the Eastern and southeastern parts of Colombia. International Crisis Group, ‘Colombia’s Armed Groups Battle for the Spoils of Peace’, Latin America Report No.63, 19 October 2017, p.1. The organization structure of this group has already been in place and it continues to get stronger.

For the question relating to classification of the conflict that involves the other small factions that claim the legacy of the FARC-EP, everything depends on whether these groups independently meet the degree of organization and the intensity of the violence required under IHL, or on whether they have sufficient link with the ‘Eastern Bloc of the FARC-EP’ which continues to be a party to NIAC. Colombia: Five armed conflicts -What’s happening?’ 30 January 2019. There are currently no publicly available sources which indicate that the different smaller factions either independently met the two requirements under IHL to be considered as a party to NIAC, or established or established sufficient link (some hierarchical relationships or via certain types of cooperation) with the former Eastern Bloc of the FARC-EP. Accordingly, at this point, only the former elements of Eastern Bloc of the FARC-EP are considered to be involved in the existing NIAC with the Colombian government. Colombia: Five armed conflicts -What’s happening?’ 30 January 2019.

Foreign intervention

Colombia shares a 2,200 km porous border with Venezuela and both countries have been accusing each other of incursions and meddling. Steve Hide, ‘Can renegade guerrillas reignite a war?’, The Bogota Post, 16 September 2019. For years, different armed groups which operated along the frontier are said to take refugee, and even some groups including the ELN set up training camps in the rural areas of Venezuela.  Steve Hide, ‘Can renegade guerrillas reignite a war?’, The Bogota Post, 16 September 2019; Francisco Toro, ‘Venezuela’s implosion is becoming Colombia’s security nightmare’, The Washington Post, 5 July 2019. The Colombian military believes the armed groups, specifically the ELN, receive training including the use of sophisticated weaponry from Venezuelan armed forces. See Matthew Bristow, ‘Venezuelan Troops Trained Rebels to Fire Rockets- Colombia Says’, Bloomberg, 6 May 2019. Some even described the ENL as a ‘Colombo-Venezuelan rebel army’. Jeremy McDermott, ‘Op-Ed: The ELN as a Colombo-Venezuelan Rebel Army’, InSight Crime, 22 March 2019.

Recently, Colombia has charged that Nicolás Maduro, the President of Venezuela, who announced military exercises on their shared border, ‘is hosting and arming Colombian guerrillas who have threatened to reignite a terrorist campaign’. Karen DeYoung, ‘Fears of military conflict between Venezuela and Colombia as tensions over Maduro government escalates’, The Washington Post, 16 September 2019. On 23 September 2019, the Organ of the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance (also called the Rio Treaty) (TIAR) adopted Resolution RC.30/RES.1/19, which pointed to the presence in Venezuelan territory of terrorist and other armed groups, including the ELN, with the acquiescence of the Maduro regime.  Federica Paddeu, ‘The Rio Treaty: Paving the Way for Military Intervention in Venezuela?', 29 October 2019. A few days later, in his address to the UN General Assembly, the Colombian President Iván Duque, stressed that his government has irrefutable evidence that corroborates the support granted by the Venezuelan government to criminal and narco-terrorist groups who aimed to attack Colombia. At UN, Colombia’s Duque stands behind peace process, vows to stamp out narco-terrorists’, UN News, 25 September 2019. In a letter addressed to the UN Security Council, Venezuela vehemently rejected the accusations from Colombia, calling it ‘simulated aggression’ which is only meant to be used as a pretext for possible military intervention against Venezuela. See Letter dated 3 October 2019 from the Permanent Representative of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela to the United Nations addressed to the President of the Security Council, S/2019/792, 4 October 2019.

In general, the border area is said to become a lawless zone with different armed groups crossing back and forth to conduct different operations and preying on citizens of both nations. Jose R Cardenas, ‘Maduro Is Playing a Dangerous Game on the Colombian Border’, Foreign Policy (FP), 7 October 2019. And, there are numerous reports which affirm that Venezuela has long provided support to different armed groups fighting the Colombian government. [See International Crisis Group, ‘Gold and Grief in Venezuela’s Violent South’, Latin America Report No.73, 28 February 2019, pp.3-9. For the purpose of conflict classification under IHL, however, the mere alleged logistical support and training for the armed groups in itself is not sufficient to turn Venezuela into a party to an armed conflict with Colombia.

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 NIACs 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

  • National Liberation Army (ELN) 
  • Gaitanista Self-defense Forces of Colombia (AGC – called the Gulf Clan by the government and formerly known as the Urabeños) 
  • The Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación – EPL) 
  • The former Bloque Oriental (Eastern Bloc) of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia– Ejército del Pueblo (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia - People’s Army) (FARC-EP)
Last updated: Tuesday 24th November 2020