A new study in Latin American Politics and Society highlights the multifaceted nature of the Colombian conflict, identifying the factors that are driving conflict and illustrating how disregard for the range of these factors lends support to policies that do not enhance prospects for peace.
Vanessa Joan Gray, Ph.D., of the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, identifies six factors driving violent conflict in Colombia: economic forces, state weakness, geography and landscape, U.S. policies, long duration and spin-off violence, and malicious opportunism by noncombatants. While greed motivates much of the violence in Colombia , focusing only on rebels and illegal armies underestimates the role of civilians in promoting violence.
Gray illustrates that to truly understand violence in rural Colombia , one must pay attention to the illegal conduct of legally constituted armed groups, and not just focus on leftist guerillas, criminal mafias, or right-wing paramilitaries. Furthermore, it is a mistake to think that only the illegal drug economy is implicated. For example, many resource sectors, including petroleum, coal, and agribusiness are enmeshed in violence, and the victims are predominantly civilians. Among these victims, moreover, are people who opposed the expansion of resource exploitation in their communities.
Valuable resources are being extracted and cultivated, legally and illicitly, in remote areas where the central government has never been able to defeat its rivals or eradicate banditry. In the hinterlands where most of Colombia ’s resources are found, the government has not established the rule of law, nor has any of the armed groups been able to establish permanent control.
The main causes of organized conflict are state weakness, unique landscape features, and powerful economic forces. High financial stakes and a lawless setting encourage predatory behavior by many different types of groups. Analysts and policymakers that disregard the complex factors fueling violence end up with distorted perceptions of reality that makes policies likely to fail appear sensible.
“Neither the expansion of Colombian security forces, nor the application of martial law, can replace the urgent need for a government that enjoys voluntary compliance and administers justice effectively in all parts of the territory,” Gray concludes.
- Vanessa Joan Gray. The New Research on Civil Wars: Does It Help Us Understand the Colombian Conflict? Latin American Politics and Society, 2008; 50 (3): 63-91 [link]
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