The Difference Between Colombia’s Many Rebel Groups

“I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical. [. . .] It is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government.” —Thomas Jefferson

In A Nutshell

For over 50 years, the Colombian state has been locked in a deadly civil war with dozens of different leftist and paramilitary groups. Most prominent among these are the FARC: a terror organization that has repeatedly come close to overthrowing the government. But there are many more acronyms out there—from the AUC to the ELN and M19—all with different goals, agendas, and methods.

The Whole Bushel

To most of us living outside Colombia, the ongoing civil war (the world’s longest) looks quite simple. On one side is the Colombian state, on the other the narco-trafficking terrorists, FARC. But delve a little deeper, and you’ll uncover a whole host of antagonists, each claiming to represent the Colombian people.

Most notorious among these are the ELN. Originally born from the teachings of the Second Vatican Council in 1962, they grew to become one of Colombia’s biggest kidnapping organizations. In a single raid, they once netted 186 hostages—an “achievement” never equaled. Today, they’re the country’s second-largest rebel group (after FARC) and still control entire towns. On the other hand, some experts think they’re slipping into obscurity and that joining the controversial peace talks is the only thing that’s kept them relevant.

Yet not all of Colombia’s leftist groups have burned out. In the 1980s, M19 was one of the largest urban terror groups on Earth. It was responsible for the siege that left Bogota’s Palace of Justice in ruins and for the audacious stealing of Simon Bolivar’s sword (a hugely important historical relic). They even triggered the creation of another group—MAS—that existed solely to protect Escobar and other drug dealers from them. Yet they were still popular enough to win 120,000 votes when they demobilized in 1990 and entered politics. In 2011, voters in Colombia’s capital even voted in an unrepentant former member as mayor.

The last major left-wing rebel group is EPL. Once a major power in the conflict, committed to establishing a Communist state modeled after Enver Hoxha’s Albania, they mostly disbanded in 1991. According to estimates, less than 200 members remain active today; nearly all of whom have thrown in the ideology and embraced drug trafficking.

Article Continued Below

Yet, it’s not only the left that has terrorized Colombia over the decades. Until it disbanded in 2006, the paramilitary group AUC was probably the most scarily effective organization of the entire conflict. Made up of a loose collection of right-wing death squads, it terrorized villages previously terrorized by FARC, killing and raping hundreds of thousands. International companies such as Chiquita paid it to murder their workers, and the former president of Colombia, Alvaro Uribe, is alleged to have had ties to its commanders. Official estimates claim that the AUC killed even more people during its time than FARC (although they kidnapped significantly fewer).

When AUC demobilized, plenty of its former commanders founded their own groups that still operate today. The Aguilas Negras continue to terrorize journalists and charity workers; while the warlords of Bloque Meta still control the Eastern plains. The brutal Libertadores de Vichada run the Venezuelan border, while the Urabenos rule the Caribbean coast. Even if government peace talks with the FARC and ELN succeed, no one quite knows how the state will ever shut down these neo-paramilitary groups.

Far from being simple carbon copies of one another, Colombia’s warring groups are as unique as they come. The only thing they have in common is murder and kidnapping. In a civil war this protracted, it’s perhaps no surprise that there’s no such thing as good guys.

Show Me The Proof

Colombia Reports: ELN, FARC, AUC
Stanford: Mapping Militant Organizations: M19, EPL
Listverse: 10 Dark Tales From The World’s Longest Civil War

Looking for our newsletter? Subscribe here!