Terrorism and Violence in Colombia


Project Details


This project focused on the role that armed organizations involved in terrorist activities play in local governance. The project investigated the role of terrorist organizations in governing working class neighborhoods in Medellin, Colombia and the impacts of that governance on political life in those areas.The first was the Comuna 13, a region of the city that had been a stronghold of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN). During the 1990s and early 2000s, the guerilla organizations built extensive local civic networks in this region and utilized the area as a base of operations to launch attacks in the city, bring weapons from the countryside and to secure kidnapping victims while ransom was negotiated. In 2002, this area was subject to a combined operation involving Colombian security forces and, many argue, paramilitary groups. After driving out the guerilla cells, the paramilitaries set up a weak and poorly entrenched network of armed actors to maintain control of criminal activities in the area. The second area studied was the Comuna 1, a working class region across the city from the Comuna 13, where paramilitaries had established comparatively early dominance by brokering a peace among local gangs and had effectively forced guerilla cells out of the central neighborhoods. Here paramilitary-affiliated groups have had a deep and long-standing control over local politics.

Primary Findings:

A close comparison suggested the following differences between the areas:

  1. The weak control that existed in the Comuna 13 led to significant conflict between the small scale gangs that dominate the area. As a result, transiting the area was extremely dangerous. The strong gang control in the Comuna 1 prevented significant amounts of open conflict.
  2. In the Comuna 13, local civil society groups had more room to organize because of a lack of strong armed control in the area. In the Comuna 1, the armed actors were much more successful in gaining control of local civic groups.
  3. Evidence indicates that while intense military actions against terrorist groups have medium term positive effects on overall levels of violence in the city, over the long term high levels of conflict returned.
  4. Integrative strategies such as participatory budgeting, which sought to help demobilized paramilitaries to participate more fully in democratic exchanges, had relatively little effect on the long term behavior of violent actors who use violence and threats of violence to control budgeting processes.

The lead researcher identified two different areas of the city that had been subject to different forms of informal armed dominance. He conducted qualitative interviews, ethnographic observation, and a household survey to understand the impacts of historical armed processes and particular group dominance and ideology on local life and political views. This research focused on the Comuna 13, a region of Medellin that had been a key FARC stronghold in the city until 2002, when state security forces drove the guerillas from the area, and the Comuna 1, an area that played a key role in paramilitary dominance of the city between 2002 and 2009. The Comuna 13, as a result of its particular history, had a fractured system of criminal leadership, whereas the Comuna 1 had a much more hierarchical system of local armed leadership. These different structures had significant effects on local politics.

Primary methdologies used were: (1) Qualitative case studies of distinct regions within Colombia, employing field research as well as data from primary and secondary sources, focusing on in-country variation in terrorist behavior as well as variation in local governance structures and effectiveness; (2) quantitative analyses of changes in terrorist behavior and operations throughout the country as political and social conditions evolved over time. This included the integration of START's Global Terrorism Database with previously unreleased data from the Colombian government, as well as with data on terrorist incidents during the past ten years from regional governments in the country.


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