Honors Thesis Spotlight: Right-Wing Political Violence in Modern Colombia (1970-1990): The State Legitimacy

In Colombia, during the early 1960s, leftist guerrilla groups were created following the spread of socialism during the Cold War. Later in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the first regional and local paramilitary groups were created to counter the spread of leftist insurgent groups. Nationalist and anti-communist sentiments fueled paramilitary ideology in Colombia as a reaction to the spread of left-wing guerrillas inspired by Marxist- Leninist ideology. As part of the political efforts to control the left- wing guerrillas, the state allowed paramilitary groups to operate and even rely on the armed forces for counterinsurgency strategies. Nevertheless, by the end of the 1980s left and right-wing violence had increased, and politicians were constant targets of assassination. The growing violence led to a Supreme Court decision in 1989 to declare that a 1965 law that authorized the military to arm civilians, unconstitutional. Yet this did not stop paramilitary violence sponsored by the armed forces. This thesis covers the period from the late 1970s to 1990s when regional paramilitaries were well established and became firmly rooted in Colombia.

Right-wing political violence in Colombia needs to be studied as it continues to threaten the legitimacy and transparency of the state. Over the years, as the state carried out counterinsurgency strategies, apathy has been created, and turned into mistrust towards the institutions of the state. Years after the peace agreement was signed between the government and paramilitary groups, the threat of right-wing violence has remained in the country, especially in the apparatuses that control the state. The long-lasting consequences of political violence have been seen in the victims themselves, which still have not been repaired from the state and continually feel that paramilitary and military members enjoy impunity from prosecution.

Like many other developing countries, Colombia has endured a protracted civil war, causing thousands of lives, time, and economic resources. The latter being directed to the civil war and counterinsurgency technologies that otherwise could have been used in other fields to increase socio-economic equality. Academic research has been dedicated to studying left-wing violence and the role of a repressive state in civil wars yet ignoring its active participation in the conflict. Studies of political violence continually target non-governmental groups as the participants and governments that oppose them. For example, one study focuses on the purpose of political violence and terrorism in the production of chaos. However, academic research lacks at exploring the use of Colombian right-wing violence to keep control of the population. Research shows states that silence about the state’s participation in armed conflicts is recurrent in academic research. He also states that researches legitimize domestic and foreign policies while shifting attention from the violent practices of the state.

On the other hand, paramilitary violence in Colombia has received scholarly attention but the ideological motivations and the close links between the state and paramilitaries have been mostly ignored in the literature. Therefore, the first objective of this thesis is to contribute to the existing literature by identifying how the close relationship between the state and right-wing paramilitary forces shaped the armed conflict and transformed society. In addition, this thesis aims to explore how paramilitary groups gained a tremendous amount of political power to the extent that many former paramilitaries have escaped charges for criminal conduct during the civil war.

This thesis investigates counterinsurgency technologies used by the Colombian state and its paramilitary allies. Second, this thesis interrogates the reasons why members of the paramilitaries have continually benefitted from immunity from prosecution. Lastly, this thesis investigates the reasons why Latin American states support right-wing paramilitary violence to carry out counterinsurgency strategies. The study of right-wing political violence in Colombia is important because it shaped Colombia’s civil war, which is known as one of the most prolonged ongoing conflicts in Latin America and the world. The contributions of this study are important as it sheds light on solutions to armed conflicts that endured despite attempts to find peaceful solutions. The close relationships between the state and paramilitary groups allow for the prolonged civil conflicts and immunity from prosecution. A better understanding can help lawmakers and law enforcers to find solutions for prevention of immunity and wrong practices during armed conflicts and paramilitary groups.

Maria Paula Velasco is a senior at Florida State University double majoring in Political Science and International Affairs, along with a certificate in U.S. Intelligence. This post is based on Maria’s honors thesis. You can learn more about this project here.

The feature image is from Pexels.

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