FARC insurgent army members greet one another in the Plaza de Bolivar after their disarmament. For many, despite not having won the war, this was a triumphant moment as they made it to the capital. ©Stephen Ferry


Are you still a guerrilla?” I asked. We were sitting in an office in the UN compound in Bogotá. Lozada smiled and replied: “We will carry on with the guerrilla way of life and way of interpreting things, but one begins to be aware that there is a new way of doing things.” He still had to travel around with armed security guards, but now he did so with a special protection unit that was—in a surreal twist— provided for him by the Colombian government. “I’ve begun to realize that I can now go and visit my family, for instance, without fearing that something might happen to me at the hands of the state and this is creating a new expectation of how life can be.”

— Jon Lee Anderson, The Eternal War


Spain colonizes regions of the Americas

The Viceroyalty of New Granada includes modern Ecuador, Venezuela, and Colombia.

Spanish-Americans declare the independence of New Granada

New Granada fractures as the Napoleonic wars stretch Spain thin.

Self governance devolves into civil war in Colombia

Federalist, centralist, and royalist factions all fight one another, leaving Spain an opening to reconquer the colony.

Simon Bolivar leads rebels to victory against Spain
Bolivar’s Gran Colombia crumbles to sectarian bickering
The Granadine Confederation transforms into the United States of Colombia

A civil war between federalist conservatives and liberals sparks the transformation.

Further civil war transforms the United States of Colombia into the Republic of Colombia

Conservatives seize power

The Thousand Days’ War – civil war between Liberals and Conservatives, claims over a hundred thousand lives
Labor issues rise and an economic crisis opens the window for Liberal rule
Conservative party rule returns as Gaitan emerges as the new Liberal leader


Gaitan is assassinated, sparking the beginning of La Violencia, a decade of internal conflict

The country once again fractures along Liberal and Conservative lines as massive riots break out in Bogota in the immediate aftermath of the assassination

The chronic violence of his birthplace was an enduring touchstone for the late Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez. In his masterpiece, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Colombia’s two traditional political forces, the Liberals and Conservatives, are engaged in eternal warfare that flares up and dies in a never-ending cycle, like seasonal hurricanes, violently shaping and ultimately overwhelming the lives of his characters.

Describing the epic life of one of his most memorable fictional personalities, García Márquez wrote: “Colonel Aureliano Buendia organized thirty-two armed uprisings and he lost them all. He had seventeen male children by seventeen different women and they were exterminated one after the other on a single night before the oldest one had reached the age of thirty-five. He survived fourteen attempts on his life, seventy-three ambushes, and a firing squad. He lived through a dose of strychnine in his coffee that was enough to kill a horse…

Although he always fought at the head of his men, the only wound that he received was the one he gave himself after signing the Treaty of Neerlandia, which put an end to almost twenty years of civil war. He shot himself in the chest with a pistol and the bullet came out through his back without damaging any vital organ. The only thing left of all that was a street that bore his name in Macondo.”

García Márquez’s fiction was a florid reimagining of Colombia’s history. The novelist was born in 1927, and he died in 2014, at age 87, and for most of that time, Colombia was at war with itself in one way or another. Behind the scenes, García Márquez made several personal attempts to broker peace between the warring factions. Although those efforts ultimately failed, he never stopped trying, and he acknowledged ruefully that he had a reputation as “Colombia’s last optimist.”

— Jon Lee Anderson, The Eternal War

Jon Lee Anderson has known Colombia since he was four years old, when his diplomat father was assigned to Bogotá and his family moved there. He has reported frequently on Colombia for The New Yorker, paying close attention to the ebbs and flows in its quest for peace. Anderson began his journalism career in 1979 in Peru.His books include: Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life, The Fall of Baghdad, and The Lion’s Grave: Dispatches from Afghanistan.

Photo © Gabriela Cristina Anderson
200,000 Colombians die during 10 years of La Violencia

A conservative dictatorship assumes control of the government as leftist groups fail to demobilize in 1953

Conservatives and Liberals form the National Front to end the conflict

Communist factions, well organized in rural areas, continue to fight this new united government.

Colombians often trace the start of their country’s strife to 1948, when the charismatic Liberal politician Jorge Eliecer Gaitan was assassinated, leading to a decade-long civil war between Liberals and their Conservative rivals. The bloodletting, which resulted in at least 200,000 deaths, became known simply as La Violencia. It ended when the two parties agreed to a non aggression pact, leading to Colombia’s longest period of uninterrupted democratic rule, from 1958 until the present. Paradoxically, this period has also been one of Colombia’s bloodiest, with a half-dozen guerrilla insurgencies, as well as narco violence, fracturing its peace. The violence has been both deep and broad: huge swatches of the countryside have been de facto battlegrounds where insurgents and government soldiers have fought it out, and where civilians were cannon fodder for both sides. Since 1958, well over a quarter of a million Colombians have been killed for political reasons, with countless more wounded, tortured, imprisoned, or driven into exile. Over seven million Colombians—about one-seventh of the population—have been displaced from their homes, more than anywhere else in the modern world, except for war torn Syria.

In this period, Colombia became an international byword for murderous violence, producing a dismal new lexicon. It includes terms like la corbata colombiana— the Colombian necktie, introduced during La Violencia, describing a form of political murder that involved slitting people’s throats and pulling their tongues out through the hole in the neck. La motosierra (literally, the chainsaw) was given new meaning in the 1990s by the country’s merciless right-wing paramilitary death squads, commonly referred to as paracos, when they used it to describe the dismembering of live victims. Dale taladrín plays on the word taladro, or electric drill—as in “give him the drill.” The latest addition to this sick litany are the casas de pique—chop houses— where the present-day narco paramilitaries take victims to chop them to pieces.”

— Jon Lee Anderson, The Eternal War

The Colombian government, advised by the US Military, develops “Plan Lazo” to defeat Colombian Communists

The plan involves military and para-military operations to mount armed opposition to rural Communist enclaves.

The Colombian Army attacks the Communist community of Marquetalia

The attack marks the symbolic beginning of the modern Colombian conflict. The FARC, ELN, and EPN, separate communist resistance groups, form in the wake of the attack.

A controversial presidential election sparks the new tensions within the national front

The Liberal favorite is defeated by a Conservative.

M-19, a guerrilla group inspired by the 1970 election, emerges in a string of robberies and kidnappings

By 1978, M-19 evolves in capability, stealing weapons from the Colombian Military.

Newly elected Liberal President Turbay declares a security state

The new President expands military power.

M-19 guerillas storm the Dominican Embassy and take 57 hostages

Turbay negotiates the release of the hostages in exchange for the release of guerrilla prisoners.

Bullet hole from a stray bullet, with view of downtown Medellin, Colombia, 2002 ©Stephen Ferry
Conservative President Belisario Betancur intiates a peace process

He attempts to bring FARC, M-19, and others into the political process.

Pablo Escobar, drug lord, orders Justice Minister Rodrigo Lara assassinated

The killing forces the Betancur government to respond with harsher measures against drug traffickers.

Betancur’s peace process crumbles and M19 seizes the Palace of Justice

The massive hostage-taking is suspected to be at least partially funded by Escobar. The Colombian army attempts an assault on the building, which results in the deaths of 181, including nearly half of the judges of Colombia’s supreme court.

A new Liberal President, Virgilio Barco, manages to to bring M19 and the EPL into the political fold

The party established in Betancur’s tenure, the UP, gains traction in elections before systematic assassinations by right-wing paramilitaries and organized crime claim more and more candidates.

Drug baron Pablo Escobar supplies more than 80% of the cocaine trade in the US becoming one of the 10 richest people in the world

He terrorises any opposition and is believed to be responsible for thousands of deaths.

An estimated four to six thousand members of UP are assassinated

The assassinations include multiple presidential candidates from Colombia’s only non-violent communist party.

FARC and the ELN grow and expand operations

Attempts at talks and negotiation falter under the Gaviria and Samper presidencies. Drug profits provide consistent income to the FARC.

Medellin drug-cartel leader Pablo Escobar is killed in a shoot out with police
President Pastrana initiates a new round of peace talks

The FARC and the new administration agree to create a demilitarized zone.

Peace talks progress with prisoner exchanges and extensions of the DMZ

Tensions remain as kidnappings and hijackings continue.

Pastrana’s peace talks dissolve under pressure from FARC actions

The army quickly moves on the DMZ as full hostilities resume. Hardliner Alvaro Uribe wins the presidency on an anti-FARC platform, utilizing post 9/11 anti-terrorist sensibilities.

Stephen Ferry has documented the Colombian conflict from 1997 to the signing of the Havana Peace Accords and has followed the peace process with great interest and hope. His work has been published in The New York Times, National Geographic, GEO, and Time. His book Violentology: A Manual of the Colombian Conflict is the product of 10 years of documentation of the armed conflict in Colombia.

Photo © Romana Vysatova
Uribe steps up military campaign against FARC, supported by the US
Right wing paramilitaries begin to demobilize
FARC sustains losses in its high command

A Colombian military raid kills second in command Raul Reyes, and leader and founder Manuel Marulanda dies of a heart attack. Colombian forces rescue a handful of high-profile hostages, some who had been in FARC captivity for years.

Juan Manuel Santos, Uribe’s defence minister, wins the presidency

Santos begins to change tone at the start of his tenure, opening the door to new talks.

Exploratory meetings take place between Colombian and FARC representatives

Secret meetings establish Havana as the meeting ground. FARC killing of leader Alfonso Cano is sanctioned by Santos.

In Colombia, when I went to work with President Juan Manuel Santos in 2011, he revealed to me that the government had a secret channel to the FARC. This channel, too, was fundamental in exploring whether talks were possible.

Governments are always anxious to hide such contacts. Every Spanish prime minister after Francisco Franco, up until Mariano Rajoy, engaged in talks with the Basque terrorist movement Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA, Basque Homeland and Liberty), but they all denied it. Adolfo Suarez, the first democratically elected prime minister after Franco, stood up in the Cortes Generales and denied that he had met with the ETA. The leader of the opposition, Felipe Gonzalez, got to his feet and said, “That’s funny—you told me over dinner last night that you had.”

Such exploratory conversations can last a long time, but the time must be right to enter into negotiations. Experience suggests that two factors need to be in place if peace negotiations are to be successful. The first is what academics call a mutually hurting stalemate—that is, not just a stalemate, but one in which both sides perceive that they are paying a price and want the conflict to stop.

The second determining factor is having the right leadership.In Colombia, only a president like Juan Manuel Santos could have made peace with the FARC, because he was prepared to be bold and risk even his reelection in the interest of completing the peace negotiations, despite the views of his close advisers that he should run on a safe platform such as the economy.”

— Jonathan Powell, Building The Tunnel

Peace negotiations officially begin in Havana

FARC officially outlaws extortion via kidnapping in a gesture of goodwill.

Talks progress slowly as guerrilla and military actions threaten to derail

A series of unilateral ceasefires begins to calm tensions, despite kidnappings and de-escalatory periods killing momentum.

Margarita Martinez is a Colombian documentary filmmaker and journalist. She filmed the peace talks in Havana, where the opposing factions were often in danger of stymieing the talks through intransigence and an obstinance in seeing the other’s perspective. Her film The Negotiation was released in 2018.

Photo © Daniel Reina

The experts say that all high-stakes negotiations have both a formal and an informal aspect. What happens at the negotiating table is important, but so is what happens over coffee in the morning in the halls, over lunch at midday, or in the bar at the end of the night. Hardened enemies find small ways to find the humanity in each other and to build trust. Personal chemistry, the experts argue, is what cuts through the tension. Charismatic leadership can enable two opposing sides to break through, as Padraig O’Malley shows in his account of the 1997 gathering in South Africa that led to the start of talks ending the conflict in Northern Ireland (see “The Narcissism of Small Differences”).

For the first two years (2012-14), the Colombian government delegation— headed by de la Calle and High Commissioner for Peace Sergio Jaramillo—almost totally controlled negotiations at the table and, in fact, prevented any chemistry from developing. Jaramillo had assembled an extraordinary group of technocrats he had nurtured starting in 2004 as the head of the Fundacion Ideas para la Paz (FIP, Ideas for Peace Foundation), then at the Defense Ministry and in other positions. Later, he became vice minister of defense and national security adviser. Like many Colombians, he viewed the previous attempt at peace, in 2000, as a show of whiskey-drinking braggadocio that yielded only disaster: the escalation of violence. His efforts to avoid duplicating such unsuccessful tactics may have suppressed the ability of the opposing sides to forge human connections. But Jaramillo went further than discouraging shows of bonhomie, insisting on excruciatingly secretive practices. He perhaps had good reason—the popular former president and senator Alvaro Uribe Velez opposed negotiating with the FARC, and his objective was rendition, not negotiation.

The Havana dynamics—the secrecy, the formality, the stasis—did not really begin to shift until after 32 months of a terse standoff. The negotiators had dispensed with the first three items of the six-point agenda set out at the beginning; each point took about six months. Following that year and a half of talks came the most important and difficult point—justice. After 14 months of negotiation, by mid-2014 the parties in Havana were at an impasse, unable to find a way to balance the sentences of guerrillas, agents of the state who had committed crimes against humanity, and individuals responsible for political crimes. President Santos became restless, fearing that his presidency would end without having had adequate time to implement any solution the negotiators managed to arrive at.”

— Margarita Martinez, Finding Humanity in Havana

A FARC-initiated ceasefire collapses in a string of bloody attacks and retaliations

Santos stays the course despite depleting domestic support for the talks and continues de-escalation.


FARC units begin a trek out of the jungle as the first step towards demobilisation and the transformation into a political rather than revolutionary entity
In the spring of 2016, the 30th Front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia guerrilla army (FARC) began a five-day march out of the jungle, crossing the Western Cordillera mountain range, one of the three massive fingers of the Andes that define Colombian geography, toward a new life. The retreat from the jungle was a first step towards demobilization. By concentrating their forces, they were enabling UN monitors to observe the process, ensuring that their troops would not disperse. The FARC traveled through a landscape of mountains, coca fields, mule trains, and small peasant holdings along the old Camino Real (Royal Road), which the Spanish used during colonial times. ©Stephen Ferry
Jungle camp along the Naya river. FARC troops listen to commanders explaining the peace process and the transformation of the unit from soldiers to citizens under the peace agreement. ©Stephen Ferry

Many had not seen their parents since they had joined up a decade before or longer, and some became emotional when they spoke of their mothers or the siblings they had left behind. When it came to their futures, most declared loyally that they would do whatever “the Party” wished them to do, and also said that they wanted, somehow, to remain together with their comrades in peacetime. By the Party, they meant the Clandestine Colombian Communist Party, for which the FARC operated as an armed wing. But most had no clear idea what the world beyond the battlefield was like, much less what the future held for them. Some said they wished to be farmers, and a few were interested in “IT,” which they spoke of with the enthralled abstraction of youngsters talking about becoming astronauts. Metropolitan Colombia was a galaxy far from theirs, a reality they had only heard about. Others simply expressed a desire to finish elementary or high school. Few had ever lived in a city or even visited one, and most had scant skills other than knowing how to make and break camp, march in the jungle, operate a gun, and fight.”

— Jon Lee Anderson, The Eternal War

A FARC fighter washes her clothes on an overnight stop in the town of Rio Mina, in the Upper Naya region. Rio Mina was the epicenter of a massacre by paramilitaries in 2001, in which up to 110 civilians were killed. ©Stephen Ferry
The guerrillas’ mascot, Pelusa, a South American coati who made the journey by mule. ©Stephen Ferry
September 2016

The Santos government and the FARC reject violence and sign a peace deal ending more than 50 years of civil war

Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos shakes hands with Rodrigo Londoño, alias “Timochenko,” top commander of the FARC insurgent army, at a celebration for the completion of the FARC’s disarmament. ©Stephen Ferry

As Uribe’s defense minister, Juan Manuel Santos presided over these military operations without demurral. But when he succeeded Uribe—who had served his legal limit of two terms in office—and assumed the presidency himself in 2010, Santos resolved to be the man who would bring peace to Colombia. When he sent a trusted emissary to meet secretly with the FARC and sound it out about more substantive negotiations, the FARC expressed its willingness. Even so, in November 2011, when Santos’s military high command informed him that it had discovered the location of Alfonso Cano, Marulanda’s successor as the head of the FARC, Santos took a calculated risk and authorized an attack. He reasoned that if the FARC was already ready to talk, it would carry on with or without Cano. (“I told them: ‘Quemanlo—burn him,’” Santos said to me some time afterward.) Cano was shot and killed as he tried to escape. And sure enough, before long, Cano’s successor, Timochenko, continued the dialogue with Santos.”

— Jon Lee Anderson, The Eternal War

October 2016
In a shock national referendum the peace deal is rejected by a margin of 0.3% of the vote
Residents of the area of Ituango, a hard-hit war-torn region, make their way home after voting in the plebiscite on the peace treaty. ©Stephen Ferry
The “silent march,” a demonstration in Bogotá in support of the peace process, days after the national referendum in which the peace treaty was narrowly defeated. ©Stephen Ferry
October 2016
5 days after the referendum Santos receives the Nobel Peace Prize

He goes on to renegotiate the peace deal with concessions, Santos does not take it back to the people but sends it directly to Congress for ratification.

An offshoot of FARC dissidents continue to fight government forces along with remnants of the EPL and ELN

The resumed fighting has called into question the viability of the peace accord.

In 2017, the first year in which there was no war between the state and the FARC, the country’s immediate “peace dividend,” as President Santos referred to it, was dramatic. Tourism to Colombia surged by a remarkable 27 percent, representing some 1.5 million more foreign visitors than in 2016. It was a noticeable spike in a trend that had begun with Santos’s presidency, in which talk of peace and a successful overseas tourism promotion campaign had brought increasing numbers of American, European, and Latin American travelers to Colombia. Venturing far beyond the handful of habitual tourist redoubts, visitors were horseback riding through coffee country, boating down the Magdalena River, and hiking among indigenous communities in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Although the ELN guerrillas and some narcoparamilitares remained in the field, conflict-related casualties also declined precipitously.

Yet parts of Colombia remained in limbo. Beyond the emerging tourist circuits, in areas where the effects of the war had been the deepest, the power of the state remained virtually nonexistent, and violence continued to haunt the countryside. Paramilitary drug-trafficking gangs were moving in and taking over coca-growing areas that the FARC had formerly controlled. Cocaine production in Colombia was skyrocketing, and, in addition to Mauricio’s Columna Uno, more former guerrillas were now getting involved in the business. A merciless former FARC fighter called Guacho led one breakaway group, operating in the jungle on the border with Ecuador. In a sickening episode in April 2018, Guacho kidnapped, and then executed, a pair of Ecuadorean journalists and their driver who had strayed into his territory.

In other areas from which the FARC had withdrawn, right-wing paracos also began to rear their heads again. Around the same time that Uribe’s campaign against the peace deal got underway, in fact, early warning signs had appeared in the form of stenciled graffiti on walls around San Vicente del Caguán, a town adjacent to the FARC’s Yari stronghold. The signs featured a submachine gun and the initials AUC, and said: “We are back and have come to stay.” The group’s purpose, added the message, was “to purge FARC militiamen and front men”—an allusion to the guerrillas’ civilian sympathizers and noncombatant allies.”

— Jon Lee Anderson, The Eternal War

Decoration of military officers in a promotion ceremony. The NGO Human Rights Watch criticized President Juan Manuel Santos and the Colombian Congress for promoting several officers accused of extra-judicial killings of civilians in the so-called False Positives scandal, including Mauricio José Zabala (center). The term False Positives refers to a macabre practice by the military of abducting and murdering civilian youths, dressing them up as guerilla combatants, and claiming them as battlefield casualties in order to receive monetary awards and promotions. According to official figures, there are more than 3,000 victims of these extrajudicial executions. ©Stephen Ferry
A group of indigenous and Afro-Colombian people angrily confront the Colombian Navy, which has appeared in the Atrato River. They see the naval presence as a threat to discussions between local people and members of the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN) insurgent army, a left-wing guerrilla group, regarding the ongoing peace process between ELN and the state ©Stephen Ferry

One of the farmers’ biggest ongoing problems was ensuring that the land restitution that the Santos government had promised didn’t stall. Years had gone by since their return, but the government still hadn’t granted them titles to their lands. This had left things in the area in a dangerous limbo; the paraco-linked landowners knew that if they could chase the farmers off again, they might yet be able to control all the land in the area. As Fernando explained: “The paracos always take over the land wherever they go, but they’ve found out that on our little piece of land there’s a group of people who are willing to resist, and so they’re killing us.”

Fernando introduced me to a strapping teenage boy, Ramón Bedoya, whose father, Hernán Bedoya, had been one of the two Curvuradó leaders recently killed. After shaking my hand, Ramón looked intently down at the ground as Fernando spoke about his father and what had happened to him. I saw that he was fighting back tears. Fernando went on. “The war hasn’t stopped, not for us. They said there would be peace, but none of the promises made have been complied with, not where we live. The war is still going on here, and it’s over our land.”

— Jon Lee Anderson, The Eternal War

Family members mourn during the funeral service for Wílmar Asprilla Allim, a FARC member assassinated while organizing a political meeting after laying down arms. The right-wing paramilitary group AGC (Gaitanist Self-Defense Forces of Colombia) is believed to have been responsible. ©Stephen Ferry
Ivan Duque, a conservative in opposition to the peace deal, wins the Presidency in Colombian elections

FARC perform poorly but retain the allocated seats negotiated through the peace deal