The Colombian Conflict: Making the Invisible Visible

Since May of 1964, the South American nation of Colombia has been embroiled in civil conflict. During this time, the violence between the Colombian government and guerilla rebel groups has left roughly 220,000 dead, 25,000 disappeared, and 7.3 million displaced; these numbers grow every day.

After the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, commonly known as FARC, and the National Liberation Army (ELN) took up arms against the government in the early 1960s, they were instantly countered by not only the Colombian government but also right-wing paramilitary groups endorsed by public officials.

Though the reasons for the conflict remain varied across these multiple actors, the motives of the internal participants can be simplified as left-wing guerrillas historically seeking to achieve social justice through communism, the Colombian government fighting for order and stability, and right-wing paramilitaries seemingly acting as a reactionary force against the guerrillas. 

In addition to these conflict dynamics, the growth of the drug trafficking industry in Colombia has allowed these militant groups to sustain their acts of violence, which includes killing, kidnapping, sexual assaults, and extortion.

Through popular culture, media, and other forms of information, the Colombian Conflict has taken on two perceptions of reality: a dramatized perception of Colombia as a country engulfed in drug trafficking and drug wars, and a more realistic understanding of it as an ongoing period of political and social violence within a nation that continues to evolve.

Perceptions and Stereotypes of Colombia Based on the Media

As part of a class on international migration, a group of colleagues and I were tasked with asking various students and professors about the internal displacement of Colombian citizens. Starting with a rather basic question regarding the topic, we asked individuals: “What do you know about Colombia?”

Though most students and professors admitted to knowing little to nothing about Colombia (to be fair, our sample size was fairly limited), some interviewees mentioned that, though they knew little of the country itself, they were aware of the rampant drug trade that occurs within, mainly thanks to a show entitled Narcos.

Once ranked as Netflix’s most popular show, Narcos  is told through the eyes of Drug Enforcement Administration agent Steve Murphy, who is eager to put an end to the immense flow of cocaine from Colombia into the U.S. during the late 1970s by Pablo Escobar, one of the most infamous drug lords of all time.

Though Narcos  is far from fiction, it is important to note that the stories of Pablo Escobar and Steve Murphy are highly dramatized in order to attract viewers and keep audiences engaged. Because the reality of Colombian cartels and the drug trade throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s was immensely violent, the program’s directors are able to cleverly capitalize on said violence and further use it as a source of drama.

In the first episode, viewers are informed of the monstrous effects of cocaine in Colombia and  America due to the drug operations of Pablo Escobar and his various partners. It is noted and visually portrayed that cocaine was smuggled into the United States by any means necessary, while the DEA’s efforts to stop the drug trafficking hardly put a dent in the entire operation.

Throughout Narcos, viewers are introduced to rampant violence on the streets of Bogotá and Medellín with various firefights and kidnappings depicted as almost casual. Although Narcos takes place during the late ‘70s into the early ‘90s, the rampant cocaine and violence depicted within the show are ingrained into the minds of most people when they think of Colombia, creating a skewed and inaccurate perception of the nation today.

Even when viewing a wide array of media sources, most articles regarding Colombia pertain to the drug trade, violence, and murder, further shaping perceptions of Colombia as a country constantly in internal conflict.

This stereotype is common in the first world community. According to an article published on The Culture Trip, one of the top misconceptions/stereotypes about Colombia is that the country is similar to how it is portrayed in Narcos, and that many people envision the country filled with “war on the streets, bombs in the cities, and mustachioed men in Hawaiian shirts robbing them [people] at gunpoint.”

Other misconceptions discussed in the article are stereotypes revolving around copious amounts and the frequent use of drugs by Colombians (specifically cocaine), the belief that Colombia is a third world country, and an all-encompassing fear that the country is exceedingly dangerous. Though many of these stereotypes are exaggerated, mostly in part to popular culture and media, some of these claims are valid to a degree.

The Reality of Drug Violence

Touching back on what Narcos  gets right, throughout the 1970s Colombia contained some of the most violent and sophisticated drug trafficking organizations in the world. Starting in small labs and miniature businesses, Colombian drug smuggling eventually blossomed into a multinational drug empire that is almost impossible to imagine. Through the leadership of men like Pablo Escobar and Rodríguez Gacha, the Medellín Cartel murdered at least 110,000 people during their reign.

Though this number is immense, we have to keep in mind that this was arguably the height of the Colombian Conflict itself. Although the violence perpetrated continues to haunt Colombian citizens today, the reality of drug violence in the modern nation of Colombia remains relatively subdued in comparison to its immensity during the 1970s into the late 1980s.

For the most part, the drug violence and illegal drug trade are conducted by mid-level paramilitaries and criminal structures that were either never demobilized by the Colombian National Government or reactivated after attempts at demobilizing these kinds of groups concluded.

Today, groups like Las Aguilas Negras, Los Rastrojos, Los Urabeños, and even more recently, ex-FARC mafia, continue to be involved in the drug trade, commit widespread human rights abuses, and engage in forced displacement.

Despite being aware of Colombia’s modern perpetrators of the nation’s drug violence, how does one evaluate its impact? Though the number of deaths from drug violence alone is difficult to measure, we still have a fair amount of information about the effects of drug violence in addition to the death toll in general.

In terms of premature death by things such as interpersonal violence and conflict, the most recent number informs us that around 220,000 deaths have occurred since the beginning of the conflict, with over 80% of these deaths being civilian casualties. Of course, this number is very large and should not be understated due to the lives and families affected, but, when compared to the number of civilians displaced by the conflict, it seems almost trivial.

The Invisible Crisis

Though characterized by its violence and rampant drug trade, Colombia’s history of drug violence and trafficking is only a relatively small portion of the overall conflict that has impacted the country for over 50 years. The conflict has in some cases been coined Colombia’s “Invisible Crisis,” a term that isn’t particularly reflective of drug trafficking and violence.

Rather, the phrase refers to the displacement and forced migration of approximately 7.3 million people within Colombia as a result of the nation’s internal conflict.

It is considered “invisible” because there is generally very little awareness of the issue, both domestically and internationally. In many cases, this mass displacement mainly consists of lower-class individuals, with upper-class Colombians being largely ignorant of the immense migration happening within their cities.

Though the situation doesn’t particularly relate to the illegal drug trade, conflict between criminal groups still plays a strong role in mass displacement, recently being capable of displacing 300 families—1,000 people—in just 4 days (throughout the dates of January 17th and January 20th)

Problems regarding the Invisible Crisis also emerge on a macro level. As noted by the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, internally displaced people (otherwise known as IDPs) are not classified as refugees by the UN, which, in turn, means that the presence of international NGOs and humanitarian aid is severely lacking. Adding to the issue, the presence of a “cycle of displacement” makes it difficult for organizations to track an accurate number of IDPs at a given time.

This then brings up the question of “When will the conflict end?”

Current Status of the Conflict

After multiple failed attempts at a lasting peace deal in recent years, a peace accord was ratified marking an “end” to the conflict in late November of 2016. Despite this peace agreement and the symbolic shaking of hands between current Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and the head of FARC Timoleon Jimenez, violence, drug trafficking, forced migration, displacement, and many other effects correlated with the decade-long conflict continue to persist.

Though peace is agreed upon by leaders, being able to cement the agreement into national legislation and ensuring that its provisions are spread throughout the country remains complicated.

As noted by the United States Institute of Peace, preventing further violence hinges on the ability to deal with factors such as “effective collective reintegration and reincorporating former combatants into society” and “addressing the socioeconomic disparities and political exclusion” that caused the conflict in the first place—a daunting task. In addition, widespread peace would require negotiation with other groups involved in the conflict like the left-wing ELN as well as any remaining right-wing paramilitaries.

Why Should We Care?

As citizens of the world, we need to realize that massive numbers in regard to things like death by violence and forced mass migrations aren’t something that’s exclusive to countries like Iraq and Syria, which generally dominate the news. As global citizens, we need to see that there are different countries around the world that are afflicted by violence in similar ways as Iraq and Syria but remain almost invisible, like Colombia.

In 2016, Genocide Watch released a report on countries at risk of genocide using a ten-stage model of the genocidal process with lower stages being classified as things such as “discrimination” and “dehumanization” and higher stages being classified as terms like “persecution,” “extermination,” and “denial.”

As of 2016, 14 countries have been ranked with nine classified as involved in the extermination of people within its country (implying full-fledged genocides). These countries include, but aren’t limited to, Yemen, Turkey, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon, and Burma/Myanmar; most of which people rarely hear about in the news.

With this in mind, it’s important to note that Colombia is ranked at a seven, meaning it is in “preparation” for the risk of genocide, politicide, or mass atrocities.

Though it makes sense that drug cartels and groups like FARC would be the dominant “killers” in a potential genocide, it’s perhaps surprising that the main victims of said genocide would be government officials—not a certain religious sect or ethnicity that often characterizes the victims of genocide.

Looking back, perhaps the victimization of government officials makes sense. Throughout the days of the height of the Medellín Cartel into the modern conflict between essentially FARC, the ELN, and the Colombian government, government officials were often targeted as a result of their attempts to intervene in the mass drug trade in addition to trying to quell the internal violence that runs throughout the country.

We should care because in many of these cases (not just Colombia), the internal governments of these various nations often lack proper resources necessary to prevent such genocides. Although the United States and the European Union have imposed economic sanctions, arms embargoes, and sent aid to these countries, in order to truly stimulate mass movements and incite additional forms of aid, people need to first be aware of the numerous and potential atrocities happening around the world. Knowledge is the first step toward change and action.

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My name is Joshua Huynh and I’m currently a sophomore International Relations major with a specialization in the Latin American region and a minor in Economics at the University of Delaware. Other than my interest in international affairs, I love gaming, drumming, and watching television series and movies.

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The Colombian Conflict: Making the Invisible Visible

Since May of 1964, the South American nation of Colombia has been embroiled in civil conflict. During this time, the violence between the Colombian government and guerilla rebel groups has left roughly 220,000 dead, 25,000 disappeared, and 7.3 million displaced; these numbers grow every day.

After the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, commonly known as FARC, and the National Liberation Army (ELN) took up arms against the government in the early 1960s, they were instantly countered by not only the Colombian government but also right-wing paramilitary groups endorsed by public officials.

Though the reasons for the conflict remain varied across these multiple actors, the motives of the internal participants can be simplified as left-wing guerrillas historically seeking to achieve social justice through communism, the Colombian government fighting for order and stability, and right-wing paramilitaries seemingly acting as a reactionary force against the guerrillas. 

In addition to these conflict dynamics, the growth of the drug trafficking industry in Colombia has allowed these militant groups to sustain their acts of violence, which includes killing, kidnapping, sexual assaults, and extortion.

Through popular culture, media, and other forms of information, the Colombian Conflict has taken on two perceptions of reality: a dramatized perception of Colombia as a country engulfed in drug trafficking and drug wars, and a more realistic understanding of it as an ongoing period of political and social violence within a nation that continues to evolve.

Perceptions and Stereotypes of Colombia Based on the Media

As part of a class on international migration, a group of colleagues and I were tasked with asking various students and professors about the internal displacement of Colombian citizens. Starting with a rather basic question regarding the topic, we asked individuals: “What do you know about Colombia?”

Though most students and professors admitted to knowing little to nothing about Colombia (to be fair, our sample size was fairly limited), some interviewees mentioned that, though they knew little of the country itself, they were aware of the rampant drug trade that occurs within, mainly thanks to a show entitled Narcos.

Once ranked as Netflix’s most popular show, Narcos  is told through the eyes of Drug Enforcement Administration agent Steve Murphy, who is eager to put an end to the immense flow of cocaine from Colombia into the U.S. during the late 1970s by Pablo Escobar, one of the most infamous drug lords of all time.

Though Narcos  is far from fiction, it is important to note that the stories of Pablo Escobar and Steve Murphy are highly dramatized in order to attract viewers and keep audiences engaged. Because the reality of Colombian cartels and the drug trade throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s was immensely violent, the program’s directors are able to cleverly capitalize on said violence and further use it as a source of drama.

In the first episode, viewers are informed of the monstrous effects of cocaine in Colombia and  America due to the drug operations of Pablo Escobar and his various partners. It is noted and visually portrayed that cocaine was smuggled into the United States by any means necessary, while the DEA’s efforts to stop the drug trafficking hardly put a dent in the entire operation.

Throughout Narcos, viewers are introduced to rampant violence on the streets of Bogotá and Medellín with various firefights and kidnappings depicted as almost casual. Although Narcos takes place during the late ‘70s into the early ‘90s, the rampant cocaine and violence depicted within the show are ingrained into the minds of most people when they think of Colombia, creating a skewed and inaccurate perception of the nation today.

Even when viewing a wide array of media sources, most articles regarding Colombia pertain to the drug trade, violence, and murder, further shaping perceptions of Colombia as a country constantly in internal conflict.

This stereotype is common in the first world community. According to an article published on The Culture Trip, one of the top misconceptions/stereotypes about Colombia is that the country is similar to how it is portrayed in Narcos, and that many people envision the country filled with “war on the streets, bombs in the cities, and mustachioed men in Hawaiian shirts robbing them [people] at gunpoint.”

Other misconceptions discussed in the article are stereotypes revolving around copious amounts and the frequent use of drugs by Colombians (specifically cocaine), the belief that Colombia is a third world country, and an all-encompassing fear that the country is exceedingly dangerous. Though many of these stereotypes are exaggerated, mostly in part to popular culture and media, some of these claims are valid to a degree.

The Reality of Drug Violence

Touching back on what Narcos  gets right, throughout the 1970s Colombia contained some of the most violent and sophisticated drug trafficking organizations in the world. Starting in small labs and miniature businesses, Colombian drug smuggling eventually blossomed into a multinational drug empire that is almost impossible to imagine. Through the leadership of men like Pablo Escobar and Rodríguez Gacha, the Medellín Cartel murdered at least 110,000 people during their reign.

Though this number is immense, we have to keep in mind that this was arguably the height of the Colombian Conflict itself. Although the violence perpetrated continues to haunt Colombian citizens today, the reality of drug violence in the modern nation of Colombia remains relatively subdued in comparison to its immensity during the 1970s into the late 1980s.

For the most part, the drug violence and illegal drug trade are conducted by mid-level paramilitaries and criminal structures that were either never demobilized by the Colombian National Government or reactivated after attempts at demobilizing these kinds of groups concluded.

Today, groups like Las Aguilas Negras, Los Rastrojos, Los Urabeños, and even more recently, ex-FARC mafia, continue to be involved in the drug trade, commit widespread human rights abuses, and engage in forced displacement.

Despite being aware of Colombia’s modern perpetrators of the nation’s drug violence, how does one evaluate its impact? Though the number of deaths from drug violence alone is difficult to measure, we still have a fair amount of information about the effects of drug violence in addition to the death toll in general.

In terms of premature death by things such as interpersonal violence and conflict, the most recent number informs us that around 220,000 deaths have occurred since the beginning of the conflict, with over 80% of these deaths being civilian casualties. Of course, this number is very large and should not be understated due to the lives and families affected, but, when compared to the number of civilians displaced by the conflict, it seems almost trivial.

The Invisible Crisis

Though characterized by its violence and rampant drug trade, Colombia’s history of drug violence and trafficking is only a relatively small portion of the overall conflict that has impacted the country for over 50 years. The conflict has in some cases been coined Colombia’s “Invisible Crisis,” a term that isn’t particularly reflective of drug trafficking and violence.

Rather, the phrase refers to the displacement and forced migration of approximately 7.3 million people within Colombia as a result of the nation’s internal conflict.

It is considered “invisible” because there is generally very little awareness of the issue, both domestically and internationally. In many cases, this mass displacement mainly consists of lower-class individuals, with upper-class Colombians being largely ignorant of the immense migration happening within their cities.

Though the situation doesn’t particularly relate to the illegal drug trade, conflict between criminal groups still plays a strong role in mass displacement, recently being capable of displacing 300 families—1,000 people—in just 4 days (throughout the dates of January 17th and January 20th)

Problems regarding the Invisible Crisis also emerge on a macro level. As noted by the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, internally displaced people (otherwise known as IDPs) are not classified as refugees by the UN, which, in turn, means that the presence of international NGOs and humanitarian aid is severely lacking. Adding to the issue, the presence of a “cycle of displacement” makes it difficult for organizations to track an accurate number of IDPs at a given time.

This then brings up the question of “When will the conflict end?”

Current Status of the Conflict

After multiple failed attempts at a lasting peace deal in recent years, a peace accord was ratified marking an “end” to the conflict in late November of 2016. Despite this peace agreement and the symbolic shaking of hands between current Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and the head of FARC Timoleon Jimenez, violence, drug trafficking, forced migration, displacement, and many other effects correlated with the decade-long conflict continue to persist.

Though peace is agreed upon by leaders, being able to cement the agreement into national legislation and ensuring that its provisions are spread throughout the country remains complicated.

As noted by the United States Institute of Peace, preventing further violence hinges on the ability to deal with factors such as “effective collective reintegration and reincorporating former combatants into society” and “addressing the socioeconomic disparities and political exclusion” that caused the conflict in the first place—a daunting task. In addition, widespread peace would require negotiation with other groups involved in the conflict like the left-wing ELN as well as any remaining right-wing paramilitaries.

Why Should We Care?

As citizens of the world, we need to realize that massive numbers in regard to things like death by violence and forced mass migrations aren’t something that’s exclusive to countries like Iraq and Syria, which generally dominate the news. As global citizens, we need to see that there are different countries around the world that are afflicted by violence in similar ways as Iraq and Syria but remain almost invisible, like Colombia.

In 2016, Genocide Watch released a report on countries at risk of genocide using a ten-stage model of the genocidal process with lower stages being classified as things such as “discrimination” and “dehumanization” and higher stages being classified as terms like “persecution,” “extermination,” and “denial.”

As of 2016, 14 countries have been ranked with nine classified as involved in the extermination of people within its country (implying full-fledged genocides). These countries include, but aren’t limited to, Yemen, Turkey, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon, and Burma/Myanmar; most of which people rarely hear about in the news.

With this in mind, it’s important to note that Colombia is ranked at a seven, meaning it is in “preparation” for the risk of genocide, politicide, or mass atrocities.

Though it makes sense that drug cartels and groups like FARC would be the dominant “killers” in a potential genocide, it’s perhaps surprising that the main victims of said genocide would be government officials—not a certain religious sect or ethnicity that often characterizes the victims of genocide.

Looking back, perhaps the victimization of government officials makes sense. Throughout the days of the height of the Medellín Cartel into the modern conflict between essentially FARC, the ELN, and the Colombian government, government officials were often targeted as a result of their attempts to intervene in the mass drug trade in addition to trying to quell the internal violence that runs throughout the country.

We should care because in many of these cases (not just Colombia), the internal governments of these various nations often lack proper resources necessary to prevent such genocides. Although the United States and the European Union have imposed economic sanctions, arms embargoes, and sent aid to these countries, in order to truly stimulate mass movements and incite additional forms of aid, people need to first be aware of the numerous and potential atrocities happening around the world. Knowledge is the first step toward change and action.

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