LA SIERRA

Colombia's Rebels

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Colombia's Rebels

A gray camouflaged tank rolls down street lined with small businesses.
A Colombian army tank patrols the streets
Photo: Colombia Journal Online/
Garry Leech

A small group of men outfitted in camouflage military uniforms wearing berets, some red and some black, stand in tall grass in a jungle clearing holding AK-47 rifles.
AUC paramilitaries on patrol
Photo: Colombia Journal Online/
Garry Leech

LA SIERRA examines the co-existence of violence, youth and community in a small mountain neighborhood outside Medellín, Colombia, caught in the crossfire of the country's decades-old civil war.

Colombia has been at war for more than 40 years in a triangular conflict, in which leftist rebels do battle with government troops and right-wing paramilitary groups. There are two groups of left-wing rebels: the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN). Right-wing paramilitary armies are united under the umbrella group United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). In LA SIERRA, the young gunmen fighting to control the barrio are members of the AUC-affiliated right-wing paramilitary group Bloque Metro.

All of these groups engage in bloody massacres, killing thousands of people each year, sometimes to win control of a region, other times to avenge previous violence. And with a lack of government presence outside the cities, these groups have been free to expand their operations to include trading in cocaine, opium, oil, gold and emeralds.

The U.S. State Department includes FARC, ELN and AUC on its list of foreign terrorist organizations. Plan Colombia, the United States’ multi-billion dollar initiative to equip the Colombian military to eradicate coca (the plant used to make cocaine), targets regions controlled by FARC and ELN.

In May 2002, American-backed candidate Alvaro Uribe Velez won a landslide victory in Colombia’s presidential election by promising a government crackdown on the rebels.

Explore the origin and current situation of each of Colombia’s three major armed groups and a history of the fight to control La Sierra.

The flag of Colombian paramilitary group AUC has a large yellow horizontal stripe followed by more narrow blue and red stripes; a drawing of Colombia with a figure of a man and several green stripes sits in the middle left, with the name of the group, “Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia.”

United Self-Defense Forces/Group of Colombia (AUC)
Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia

The AUC, commonly referred to as "the paramilitaries," is an umbrella organization formed in 1997 to coordinate the activities of local paramilitary groups and develop a cohesive paramilitary effort to combat Marxist guerrillas.

The 20,000-strong paramilitary forces are notorious for two things: massacres of civilians they consider sympathetic to the guerrillas and their close links with the cocaine trade. Historically, paramilitaries have also enjoyed the collaboration, support and toleration of units of the Colombian security forces, a fact that has led many to refer to the paramilitaries as a “sixth division” of the army.

The AUC is based in northern Colombia, where the drug traffickers and landowners who support the group hold sway. During the 1990s, AUC extended its reach and now operates throughout central and western Colombia.

In 2003, paramilitary commanders initiated demobilization negotiations with the Uribe administration, in the hope of obtaining a deal that would allow them to avoid extradition and potentially lengthy prison terms in the U.S. for drug trafficking.

On November 25, 2003, television viewers in Colombia watched as over 860 paramilitaries belonging to Medellín’s Bloque Cacique Nutibara, which took control of La Sierra from Bloque Metro, laid down their arms in a staged ceremony in front of Colombian and foreign dignitaries. The ceremony marked the first of a series of large-scale demobilizations of AUC-linked paramilitary groups around the country. On March 10, 2006, less than two days before Colombia’s legislative elections, the AUC completed the demobilization process, with approximately 28,000 right-wing fighters accepting the government's offer of reduced jail terms for such crimes as massacre, torture and cocaine smuggling in exchange for laying down arms.

However, paramilitary infiltration of Colombian politics continues to be an issue. Many Colombians fear that the paramilitaries will continue to use intimidation and bribery to influence the political landscape. Also, the Organization of American States, which supervised the demobilization process, denounced several paramilitary groups for beginning to rearm in northeastern Colombia.

The flag of Colombian guerrilla group FARC has a large yellow horizontal stripe followed by more narrow blue and red stripes; a drawing of Colombia with two crossed rifles and the name ≥FARC-EP≤ sits in the middle of the flag.

Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)

In 1966, communist militants and peasant self-defense groups formed FARC, Colombia’s oldest guerrilla group, as the military wing of the Colombian Communist Party.

FARC is Colombia’s largest and best-equipped rebel group, with as many as 46,000 members. It is also one of the world’s richest and most powerful guerrilla armies, operating in almost half the country, mostly in the jungles of the southeast and the plains at the base of the Andes Mountains.

FARC claims to represent the rural poor against Colombia’s wealthy classes and opposes American influence in Colombia, the privatization of natural resources, multinational corporations and paramilitary violence. These issues motivate the group's efforts to seize power in Colombia through an armed revolution.

In 1999, during peace negotiations between the Colombian government and FARC, then President Andres Pastrana ceded control of an area twice the size of New Jersey to FARC. After three years of fruitless negotiations and a series of high-profile terrorist acts, Pastrana ended the peace talks in February 2002 and ordered Colombian forces to start retaking the FARC-controlled zone.

The guerrillas are funded principally through extortion, kidnapping and the cocaine trade. FARC is responsible for most of the ransom kidnappings in Colombia; the group targets wealthy landowners, foreign tourists and prominent international and domestic officials.

Many of their militant fronts have also overrun and massacred small communities in order to silence and intimidate those who do not support their activities, enlist new and underage recruits by force, distribute propaganda and pillage local banks. Unlike the right-wing paramilitaries, FARC has refused to negotiate with the Uribe government.

By waging bloody attacks on civilians in the days leading up the March 2006 legislative election, FARC brought activity in at least ten of the country's provinces to a total or partial halt.

The flag of Colombian guerrilla group ELN is split horizontally, half black and half red, with the letters “ELN” in large white block print in the middle.

National Liberation Army (ELN)

In 1963, students, Catholic radicals and left-wing intellectuals hoping to emulate Fidel Castro’s communist revolution in Cuba founded ELN, Colombia's second-largest leftist insurgency army and FARC rival.

ELN, which operates mainly in northeastern Colombia, has about 4,000 members, although advances by AUC paramilitaries have damaged ELN’s strength, size and support base. The Pastrana administration negotiated with ELN but denied its requests for the type of zone of control the government granted FARC.

ELN is known for kidnapping wealthy Colombians for ransom, bombing campaigns and extortion against multinational and domestic oil companies. ELN attacks on oil pipelines have killed civilians and drawn the attention of the U.S. government, which has suggested training the Colombian armed forces to protect oil facilities. It has also recently entered the drug trade.

ELN and the Colombian government began a round of talks mediated by Mexico in mid-2004. ELN withdrew from the talks after the Mexican government voted to condemn Cuba’s human rights record at the United Nations in April 2005. One year later, the ELN began a second round of talks with the Colombian government hosted by Fidel Castro in Cuba. (The first round took place in Cuba in December 2005.) The sides did not reach agreement but promised to meet again in Cuba to try and hammer out an agenda for a formal peace process.

However, on March 2, 2006, ELN did call a truce for the March 12 legislative elections.

The Fight for La Sierra

According to Amnesty International, starting in the 1980s La Sierra was controlled by FARC and ELN, who regularly fought government forces on neighborhood streets. In the late 1990s, however, right wing paramilitary groups appeared in the neighborhood and declared an urban war with the guerrillas.

La Sierra was the site of almost nightly gunfights between the two groups from 2001–2003. In 2003, the guerrillas were defeated and control of the streets passed over to paramilitary groups Bloque Metro and Cacique Nutibara. These two former allies soon turned on each other in a bloody power struggle. Bloque Metro was eventually defeated by Cacique Nutibara, who controlled the area until the government initiative to demobilize paramilitary groups led them to hand in their weapons and return to civilian life in 2003.

Learn more about the Colombian civil war >>

Read about the filmmakers’ experience in the center of the conflict >>

Find out about the film >>

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