Non-international armed conflicts in Colombia
Colombia has experienced one of the longest non-international armed conflicts (NIACs) in modern times. Notably, the Government of Colombia is still involved in parallel NIACs against the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (National Liberation Army) (ELN) and the FARC-EP dissident group (Bloque Oriental (Eastern Bloc)).
Different parallel and overlapping non-international armed conflicts are taking place in Colombia. The government is involved in a number of parallel NIACs against the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (National Liberation Army) (ELN) and 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).
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, and dissidents of FARC-EP 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.
On 27 October 2022, the Colombian parliament has adopted a law that allows President Pedro to engage in negotiations and peace talks with all armed groups active in the country, including criminal organizations, to reach the so-called “total peace.” ‘¿Qué es la "paz total" que propone Petro y qué grupos armados han mostrado interés en acogerse?’, CNN, 27 October 2022; R. McColl, ‘Can Colombia’s President Achieve ‘Total Peace’?’, FP, 8 November 2022.
National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, 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. Indeed, in May 2020 state forces conducted military operations against ELN, and at least 5 fighters were killed. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch Colombia.
In the following months, attempts to conclude a ceasefire and reopen peace negotiations failed. On 7 July, ENL urged the government to agree on a bilateral 90-day humanitarian ceasefire due to COVID-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, President Duque affirmed that several conditions should be met before opening dialogue with ENL. Accordingly, armed confrontations have continued during 2020. For instance, in November 2020 ‘fighting between army and ELN early to mid-Nov displaced over 250 families and confined 1,400 people in Docordó municipality.’
Fighting between Colombian troops and ELN has continued in 2021 and 2022, with regular clashes taking place between the two parties. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch Colombia. For instance, it has been reported that on 11 September 2021 ELN conducted a bomb attack against the Colombian army, which caused the death of five soldiers. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch Colombia. On 4 March 2022, the ELN announced a unilateral ceasefire that took place on 10-15 March, during the week of presidential primary elections took place. However, the following month clashes resumed. For instance, on 30 April it launched an attack against the army in Norte de Santander department in July 2022, newly elected Colombian President Petro announced his intention to conclude a ceasefire agreement and to resume peace talks with ELN. On 11 August, President Pedro sent a delegation to Cuba, where ELN negotiating team has remained in exile since talks broke down in 2019. The governmental negotiating commission announced that they would recognize the legitimacy of the ELN representatives in Cuba. reinstate protocols signed in 2016, which encompassed also protections for negotiators and Norway and Cuba as guarantors of the negotiations. On the other hand, ELN affirmed that it will take all necessary steps to restart the peace talks. On 19 August, President Pedro suspended the extradition warrants that have been issued against ELN negotiators in Cuba. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch Colombia.
After a three year break, peace talks between the ELN and the Colombian government have resumed in November 2022, following the adoption of the new paz total law. On 4 December 2022, President Pedro announced that both parties have agreed that indigenous people displaced by the conflict should be guaranteed safe return to their lands in the province. ‘Colombia peace talks with leftist ELN rebels make progress’, BBC, 4 December 2022.
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.
The former Bloque Oriental (Eastern Bloc) of the FARC-EP
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), at 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. The majority of FARC-EP signed the peace accord and converted into a political party, and, hence, is 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. It has been reported that over 10,000 FARC members handed in weapons in a process verified by a United Nations mission. ‘Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) / Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia: Background’, Armed Conflict Database; J. Pappier and K. Johnson, ‘Does the FARC still exist? Challenges in Assessing Colombia’s ‘Post Conflict’ under International Humanitarian Law’, EJIL: Talk!, 22 October 2020. Nevertheless, some of FARC’s former members are joining existing groups, such as the National Liberation Army and a number of criminal organizations, while others have refused to recognize the peace agreement and have continued fighting. ‘FARC’, InSight Crime, 3 March 2017. Accordingly, the crucial question is whether hostilities between these groups and Colombian armed forces should be considered a continuation of the previous NIAC between the FARC-EP and the government, or whether this should be considered as a new NIAC. This is relevant because only in the latter case the minimum requirements of violence must be met while in the former case it is only necessary that hostilities have not completely ceased.
A holdout from the FARC-EP called the Bloque Oriental (Eastern Bloc) of the FARC-EP 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. In 2017, the destabilizing influence of the dissident group intensified, especially in the east and the southeast of the country, and the group did not stop conducting its military operation throughout 2018 and 2019. Adriaan Alsema, ‘The three FARC: the party, the dissidents and the rearmed guerrillas’, Colombia Reports, 11 October 2019.
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 E. Nohle, ‘Drawing the line between armed groups under IHL’, 22 July 2016. Since this group did not accept the peace agreement and never stopped fighting, it is possible to conclude that the NIAC between this group and the government is a continuation of the NIAC between the FARC-EP and Colombia. This conclusion is shared by the ICRC, see ICRC, Colombia: Five armed conflicts – What’s happening?, 30 January 2019.
Apart from the Eastern Bloc of the FARC-EP, it has been reported that 25 so-called FARC dissident groups are engaging in hostilities against the Colombian army. It has been reported that they have a total of ‘2,500 – 2,600 fighters in arms, with another 1,800 – 2,000 “part-time” members who live in urban areas and provide support.’ J. Pappier and K. Johnson, ‘Does the FARC still exist? Challenges in Assessing Colombia’s ‘Post Conflict’ under International Humanitarian Law’, EJIL: Talk!, 22 October 2020. Furthermore, while some ‘groups, like the so-called 28th and 18th “fronts,” probably have fewer than 100 members; others appear to have more than 300.’ Pappier and K. Johnson, ‘Does the FARC still exist? Challenges in Assessing Colombia’s ‘Post Conflict’ under International Humanitarian Law’, EJIL: Talk!, 22 October 2020; International Crisis Group, Colombia’s Armed Groups Battle for the Spoils of Peace, Latin America Report N°63, 19 October 2017.
One of these groups 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. A. 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. A. 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 A. Fattal, ‘Ex-FARC’s Leader Call to Arms Is Bad News for Colombians’, 30 August 2019.
In 2021, fighting between the government and the FARC dissident groups has remained intense, as clashes between the rebel group and the government takes place regularly. For instance, between 26 and 27 September 2021 fighting between the government and the FARC led to the death of 5 civilians and 10 members of the FARC. Similarly, in October 2021 at least two fighters were killed by state forces in the Cauca department. Between late October and beginning of November, FARC members and state forces engaged in armed confrontations in Cauca department. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch Colombia.
In January 2022, violence across the country increased and numerous attacks took place against security forces and it has remained intense since then. On 8 April, FARC members ambushed a military vehicle in Antioquia department, while on 29 April the army killed 6 members of the FARC in Puerto Rondon town. On 15 July, members of the armed forces killed Iván Mordisco, leader of FARC’s former 1st Front. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch Colombia.
Past conflict: Violence between ELN and AGC
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. 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. Fighting has continued in 2021. For instance, on 13 September 2021 heavy fighting took place between the two armed groups, and 250 to 300 families were confined to their homes as a result. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch Colombia.
Since then, no fighting has been reported between the two groups and therefore it is possible to conclude that the NIAC in over. As specified by the ICRC ‘a lasting cessation of armed confrontations without real risk of resumption will undoubtedly constitute the end of a non-international armed conflict as it would equate to a peaceful settlement of the conflict, even without the conclusion or unilateral pronouncement of a formal act such as a ceasefire, armistice or peace agreement.’ ICRC, Commentary to Article 3 GC (2016), §488.
Past conflict: 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, Colombia - Expanding displacement and protection crisis, Briefing Note, 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. 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. Since 2019, the group has been largely inactive and no armed confrontations between EPL and the government have been registered. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch Colombia.
Following the demobilization of the FARC, the confrontations between the ELN and the EPL intensified in the Catatumbo region, close to the border with Venezuela. The two groups engaged in armed violence to gain control over the region, one of the most important for cocaine production, and have been party to a NIAC in 2018 and 2019. 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, an 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.
Reportedly the EPL actively tried 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 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 was indicated that the ELN has gained 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 was 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.
Nevertheless, since 2020 no clashes have been reported between EPL and ENL. Indeed, based on the information at our disposal, the only armed confrontations between the two groups took place in March 2020 in Norte de Santander province. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch Colombia. As specified by the ICRC, ‘a lasting cessation of armed confrontations without real risk of resumption will undoubtedly constitute the end of a non-international armed conflict as it would equate to a peaceful settlement of the conflict, even without the conclusion or unilateral pronouncement of a formal act such as a ceasefire, armistice or peace agreement.’ ICRC Commentary to Article 3 GC (2016), §488. In light of the foregoing, it is therefore possible to conclude that EPL is not involved in two NIACs against respectively the Colombian troops and ELN anymore.
Past conflict: 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). ICRC, ‘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 the seizure of more than 12 metric tons of cocaine. 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.
Since 2018 the frequency of armed confrontation between government forces and AGC have declined. According to our sources, no armed confrontations have taken place between AGC and governmental forces. As aforementioned, ‘a lasting cessation of armed confrontations without real risk of resumption will undoubtedly constitute the end of a non-international armed conflict as it would equate to a peaceful settlement of the conflict, even without the conclusion or unilateral pronouncement of a formal act such as a ceasefire, armistice or peace agreement.’ ICRC Commentary to Article 3 GC (2016), §488. In light of the foregoing, it is therefore possible to conclude that AGC is not involved in a NIAC against the Colombian troops anymore.
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
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.
- 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)