The Urban Battlefield: Will Colombia's Armed Conflict Spread to the Cities? (Features: Urban Conflict)

By Marulanda Marin, John | Hemisphere, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

The Urban Battlefield: Will Colombia's Armed Conflict Spread to the Cities? (Features: Urban Conflict)


Marulanda Marin, John, Hemisphere


Since the events of September 11, international observers have taken a new interest in Colombia. The conflict there has begun to be viewed as a logical next step in the Bush administration's self-declared war on terrorism.

The campaign led by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has consequences beyond Colombia's borders. The guerrillas control large expanses of territory, command extensive economic resources from their involvement in drug trafficking, and have built up formidable military capabilities. They have been shown to have ties to international criminal organizations, including the Russian, Ukrainian and Croatian mafias, as well as Pakistani, Irish, Cambodian, Cuban and Venezuelan elements. The fighting in Colombia entered a new, critical stage in February 2002, when then President Andres Pastrana revoked the demilitarized zona de despeje he had granted the FARC earlier in his administration. Many Colombians and foreign observers fear that, as the FARC loses its rural stronghold, it will begin to stage more attacks in Cities. The country's leading paramilitary organization, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), has also stated its intention to take the battle to the streets. Will Colombia's cities become the next theater of operations in the nation's decades-long civil war?

Demographic and Tactical Shifts

Colombia's population is approximately 70% urban and 30% rural. Displaced persons fleeing the fighting in the countryside have swelled the urban population by more than one million people, according to UN estimates. This phenomenon has led to a sharp increase in urban poverty. The government is more limited each day in its ability to meet basic needs for housing, utilities, transportation, health, education and security. Urban slums where young people have no hope for the future have become a fertile recruitment ground for violent movements of all types. According to national police statistics, more than 70% of crimes reported in Colombia in 2000 took place in urban areas. (The figures do not distinguish between common crime and political violence).

Violence has been a constant in Colombia's political history, from the civil wars of the nineteenth century to the period known as La Violencia in the twentieth. The current conflict emerged in the 1960s, in a Colombia where the majority of the population was still rural. Guerrilla organizations such as the FARC, the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the Popular Liberation Army (EPL) had their roots in the countryside. From early on, the tacit understanding was that the countryside was the place for fighting and the city the place for politics. As the process of rural-urban migration intensified, however, the cities became important venues for strikes, protests and popular mobilizations.

The ELN was the first to bring its guerrilla tactics to the cities, in 1973-1974. The group built a network of urban sympathizers, especially on the university campuses of Bogota until the armed forces succeeded in rooting it out. Two years later, the EPL organized what was perhaps the first urban subversive unit in Colombia's recent history, the Pedro Leon Arboleda group. The Bogota-based PLA carried out some low-grade attacks, but by 1980 most of its members had been arrested or faded away. The EPL itself stayed put in its mountain strongholds.

The most radical and urbanized armed group to date appeared in 1978-1979. The Worker's Self-Defense Movement (MAO), later known simply as Worker's Self-Defense (ADO), was formed by students at the Universidad Santiago de Cali, who took their inspiration from the IV Trotskyite International. This group's vision of urban revolution verged on a nihilistic form of anarchy, with the writings of Carlos Marighella and Mikhail Bakunin as its bible. The murder of a former government minister, the establishment of a guerrilla training school in northern Bogota and attacks on policemen brought down the wrath of the military on the ADO. …

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