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

The period from 1970 to 1990 in Colombia is characterized by internal conflict. Beginning in the 1960s, left-wing guerilla groups emerged, spurred by Marxist-Lennonist ideology. About two decades later, in response to the left-wing insurgents, paramilitary groups were formed and fueled by politically conservative and anti-communist ideology. These right-wing groups were backed by the Colombian government in an effort to extinguish left-wing guerillas and were often relied on as a counterinsurgency measure. These groups employed brutal counterinsurgency tactics like planned civilian dislocations, massacres, kidnappings, and elevated body counts. Civilian deaths were often cited as military victories under the false pretense of involvement in left-wing guerilla activity. The convergence of violence from both sides escalated for years, forcing the Supreme Court to overturn a law that allowed the military to arm citizens in 1989ㅡbut the violence continued. Through their close relationship with the state, many former right-wing paramilitaries enjoyed immunity and avoided prosecution for criminal conduct during the civil war, resulting in a deep distrust of the Colombian government by its citizens. This thesis sheds light on the violence Colombians endured from paramilitary groups by investigating how the relationship between the state and its right-wing paramilitary allies influenced the civil conflict. The author investigates this inquiry by analyzing counterinsurgency technologies, the beneficiaries of immunity from prosecution, and the ways in which Latin American countries rely on paramilitary groups to carry out counterinsurgency.

         To more deeply understand the relationship between the government and the paramilitary groups, the author provides a theoretical framework. The author prefaces their research with discussions of necropolitics, biopower, systemic political violence, para-state, and clientelism system to understand the rampant right-ring political violence in Colombia and why other Latin American countries like Colombia frequently rely on paramilitary groups to carry out counterinsurgency strategies.

         With a theoretical framework in place, the author uses a meta-analysis to summarize the findings from sources studying paramilitary groups from the 1970s through the late 1990s. This is done to analyze the previous documentation of counterinsurgency technology developed by the state and paramilitary groups. The sources included government documents, laws, interviews, academic articles, books, newspaper articles, films, and film documentaries from the 1970s to 2019. The meta-analysis collected and organized data according to different units of analysis. The following units of analysis were investigated: counterinsurgency technologies, right-wing violence testimonies, impunity, foreign influence, and theoretical framework.

         In regards to counterinsurgency technologies used by the state, findings suggest massacres and elevated body counts were carried out in a collaboration from both the state and right-wing paramilitary groups to stop the spread of leftist groups in the country. Although, these tactics ultimately increased violence throughout the country rather than quelled it. Testimonials from the findings support the theory of necropolitics. The findings also suggest that the clientelism system allows for impunity during armed conflict. This system of networking and forming mutually beneficial relationships allowed former paramilitaries and state elites to allow the human rights violations that occurred during the conflict to go unpunished and victims of the violence remain without justice. Lastly, in analyzing why Latin American governments often find themselves relying on paramilitary groups for counterinsurgency, the finding suggests the rise of neoconservative values in response to liberal reforms allows for the creation of radicalized right-wing groups. The dysfunction of many Latin American governments in both political and economic sectors increases the chances for a dependency on paramilitary alliances.

         The findings of this study add to the literature surrounding the implications of right-wing violence in Colombia. Findings from this study can be used to raise and address concerns in other Latin American countries about the harmful mechanisms involving right-wing groups that can undermine the legitimacy of their governments.

Maria P. Velasco is a graduate of Florida State University who studied political science and international affairs. This post is based on Maria’s graduate thesis. To learn more about Maria, click here. To learn more about this project, click here.

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