Cock fight, soldiers, guerrillas fighting

Colombia, synonymous with violence

Tortures, kidnapping, murder... Mafia... Cocaine... A never ending war... The oldest guerrilla movement in the world... One million and a half refugees... A population in the cross-fire... A war the young inherit from their fathers... With no end in sight...






Ruins of the town

General Manuel Bonett, Former Chief Colombian Army


"There is no civil war in Colombia. In Colombia there is a society under attack by agents of violence".


"Hermes", FARC Guerrilla Command

"The war in Colombia is because of the people's hunger. The social inequality that we have lived with for so many years".


Helicopter, para-military groups shooting

The war in Colombia is no longer just a war between the army and the guerrillas. The military has now an important ally: the para-military groups, who do the dirty work in the anti-guerrilla fight.


Alejandro Reyes Institute for Political
Studies, Bogotá

"The paramilitaries are doing in Colombia what the Serbian army is doing in Kosovo. The same thing the hutus did to the tutsis in Ruanda and Burundi: deliberately using terror as a weapon of war".


Map of Colombia, banana plantation, workers on the plantation, cemetery on the plantation

Urabá, Colombia's banana growing zone, is located in the
north-west of the country. It is an wealthy region thanks to the considerable foreign income derived from banana exports.
Most of the region's population never participate in this wealth.
Since the beginning of the 20th Century Urabá has seen many violent conflicts stemming from social issues. Multinational banana companies were frequently involved in the repression
of the rural workers whenever they protested. Half the massacres which take place in Colombia occur here.

 Lost in thebanana plantations lie tragic testimonies.












Village, men on boat, map of Uraba,

With social conflict deep, in a hostile, almost impenetrable
territory, Urabá became a fertile field for guerrilla activity.
For many years the FARC - Colombia's Revolutionary Armed Forces - ruled the entire region. Until the area acquired an unusual strategic importance. Urabá's rivers provide the exit routes for the drug-dealers to the United States. Equally these same waterways provide the incoming routes for armaments arriving for the Drug Cartels.

In addition, there is considerable interest in a plan to construct a waterway which would replace the outdated Panama Canal.












Ruins of the town,

Urabá was Colombia's first experiment in an alliance between the army and the para-military with the common purpose of eliminating the guerrilla movement. A cruel strategy was used: they turned the civil population into the principal target, arguing that without them, the guerrilla would not be able to survive.

"To catch your fish you must first dry the water", they say in Spanish. The result...after para-military raids on the area, only ghost towns remained. And the civil population permanently on the run.








Woman singing






The day Christ comes...
many will be running...
they will regret...
they lost their time...
there won't be a solution...
they were forewarned of the condemnation.


María, Peasant

"And when the helicopters came... the helicopters.... going round and round, and we run...and they go round. After a while the airplanes came.... dropping bombs as well. And we kept running. Some say that they want to make us leave, because of the canal. A Canal from a little bit north of here, close to Panama, to the other side, very close by. But there is no need to make us leave in that way..... under such cruel conditions ...... forcing us to leave the mountains where we always lived".


Girls singing and dancing

... in the mountains....
... we were hiding....


Jorge, Peasant

"The paramilitary take a person and cut them into pieces..... and pieces. They chop him up and they throw him in the river. Nobody can save the body, because if someone does it... the same thing happens to him".


Omar, Peasant

on the boat

"I 'm still afraid...and it strikes my heart. I can't hear a thing because I get scared of the bombings that took place. The children are even more scared. They are still afraid".


María, Peasant

"If they want to fight with the guerrilla, let them fight. Weapons against weapons. But as a poor person, we have nothing to do with that. We are not to blame ... to be run down. They are crashing some of the poor country-people".


Jorge, Peasant

"Because you are worthless. You don't belong here, nor there. Then you feel scared. Because if you are in a town and someone doesn't like you, you are marked down as a guerrilla fighter and the paramilitary say: come here ... and kill you".


Omar, Peasant

"We are still afraid that the same thing will happen, that they will bomb the area once again".


guerrilla troops in the forest

As a consequence of this situation the FARC had to give up part of Urabá's territory to the pare-military. On the other hand, in other regions, especially the Centre and South of the country, the power of the guerrilla is growing. Experts estimate the FARC effectively controls some 40 per cent of the entire
country of Colombia.


"Hermes", Member National Secretary of the

"We can say for example that everything combines here. Inside a violent State, due to the right wing sectors, the FARC
finds spaces in every sector, because the people support it. Then you can't say where the FARC starts or ends. In Colombia you can look all over the national geography, and except within some national security sectors you can find the guerrilla anywhere".


FARC camp in the forest

The FARC, unlike most of the revolutionary groups in Latin
America, has a complete peasant origin. Their leaders and the majority of the troops come from the countryside.
Which is why they find no difficulty at all adapting to the tough
conditions of guerrilla life.... Where the norms are long walks in the mountains and survival under minimal conditions.  Most combatants have themselves lived through violent personal problems in their private lives, frequently the principal reason to join the guerrilla forces.










"Richard", Guerrilla Fighter FARC



Banana plantation

"Well, it's a complicated life. It's all very much affected by the
problem of violence. Many of us are displaced. I've also been displaced and I finally ended up in Urabá, where I was working six years in the banana area.
"My job there was being a 'garruchero', which means taking bananas from the plantation to the baling machine. But violence became more and more severe.
And I had to leave... I joined the guerrilla. I haven't seen my family for 18 years. Not one of them. They know nothing about me. They probably think I'm dead".











Additionally, the guerrilla provides safe haven for political activists from the city.


"Pablo", Guerrilla-fighter FARC

The guerrilla camp

"I've lived in the city most of my life. They've come for me to my house many times. Once they axed the door. The army, hooded or uncovered, did that. And I had to join the guerrilla. It's a bit difficult... to adapt.
But you get used to it. Man is an animal of habit".


"Pablo" singing

Now he's the poet and singer for the front.


Watching TV

If possible, combatants dedicate one hour a day to cultural activities. When the war does allow a moment to relax, there's even an occasional football game.



If the guerrilla are not assigned to special duties, they live
in jungle camps. Camps are mobile... nomadic. The guerrilla is in permanent movement. Each member has a specific duty. Activity starts very early, before dawn, when food is prepared. Cooking during the day would be very dangerous because smoke could easily be spotted by enemy air patrols.... and reprisal would be relentless.




Guerrilla fighters training

Safe communication between the different guerrilla camps, throughout Colombia's vast geographically-diverse terrain, is vital for the survival of the insurgents. In order to understand the complexity of the guerrilla organisation, it is necessary to bear in mind the FARC has 60 armed fronts, each of them
made up of several combat platoons. Each front has relative operating autonomy, but all of them respond, absolutely, to the General Secretary of the FARC. Counter-propaganda defines the guerrilla movement as bandits, criminals or simply as terrorists.









"Jairo", Local commander FARC



View of the village

"They have always used all kind of epithets to discredit the revolutionary labour and the political role of our organisation.
We believe however that the main problem is the social abandonment of a large sector of the population. The repression which the State exercises over the Colombian population is making them support the revolutionary and guerrilla fight. And mainly because of that reason the level of
confrontation in this country is increasing".








Red Cross building

As time goes on, international humanitarian aid organisations are becoming more and more concerned about this armed conflict. The International Red Cross is extremely active in Colombia and its leaders do not believe there can be speedy solution to this bloody conflict.


Pierre Gassman, Chief International Red
Cross Colombia

"There are confrontations between the Colombian armed forces and the insurgents, or the paramilitary, every day.
For us, this situation in Colombia is clearly a situation of civil war. I believe what's critical in Colombia is that this conflict has been going on for more than 40 years".



..... the liberals, unionists, socialists ...joining together in the ballot boxes against the conservative oligarchy...


B+W Archive of street violence & Jorge Gaitan

9th April ...1948. Popular liberal leader Jorge Gaitán, popular with the poor, is killed in Bogotá. The liberals accuse the leader of the Conservatives, Laureano Gomez, of his murder. This situation degenerates into violence. A few hours later, the city of Bogotá lies in ruins.  On that day alone, 3000 people died in the fighting between conservatives and liberals.







Here began the bloody civil war, the regular troops of the Conservative government confronting the populists, most of them peasants. The Liberal party guerrilla forces came to count on a 100,000 men. Civil war ends after several years at a cost of a million lives. The leaders of both parties resolve to share the Colombian government.
As a result, the peasant guerrilla was demobilised and disarmed. Some of them returned to war far when the guerrilla leaders were systematically killed after accepting peace conditions.











A small group of liberal and communist guerrilla fighters run to the mountains with their families, mistrusting the new government. They form a small territory of self-government, naming it the Independent Republic of Marquetália.

This republic becomes a "thorn in the flesh" of the new government composed of liberals and conservatives. The conservative leaders demand the annihilation of the insurgents. An army brigade is sent to accomplish this mission under the command of General Matallana.                      



Joaquín Matallana Retired General Colombian

"On the 14th. of june 1964 we took over Marquetália. I'm proud of this operation in military terms. But, what happened? That day we turned the auto defence land movement in a remote territory into a mobile guerrilla, now called the Revolutionary ArmedForces of Colombia".




B+W Archive

A natural-born leader emerged from these rebels, Manuel Marulanda Velez, who gained the nickname 'TiroFijo" - Good Shot - during the previous liberal guerrilla. He was to
become the highest authority in the FARC... and still remains so today.

TiroFijo's life in the guerrilla movement started in 1948. The FARC is the longest running guerrilla movement in the world.







"Jairo", Local commander FARC

"Colombia is a country that has been at war for 34 years. A
country where the State has declared war since then. And from those days till now, we have known only war. Today, the levels of war have increased.
Nowadays the State's shameless cynicism simply enrages the Colombian population".






"Hermes", Member National Secretary of the

"I remember that some time ago the guerrilla was
more clandestine. It was more persecuted. We were fewer. Not today... of course today is different. Today the action levels are bigger, as a consequence of what's happening in the country.

If this doesn't change, everything stays the same..... Today is different. We've won our space...
We're closer to the cities. In Colombia more than 70 per cent of people live in the cities. And logically, the course of the fight has to be in that direction".







Guerrilla fighting, helicopter, gun shots

More and more guerrilla attacks lead to Army defeat, with a detrimental effect on the moral of government troops.


Wounded soldiers

In each combat, the FARC commonly capture enemy soldiers which they consider "prisoners of war".


Leonor Orozco, Mother of Andrés Orozco

"How could I know that he was going to be sent to confront the guerrilla. No. This hurts deep in my soul. He was such an innocent boy. He never even left home before".







View over the Bogota city

It's a situation which wears deeply into the moral fibre of the government army. The prisoners' relatives blame the Generals for sending their sons to war without the necessary military preparation. Hundreds of soldiers still remain in the guerrillas' hands.
In the capital city, Bogotá, the effects of the war are, every day, more evident.  For every day, dozens of new people arrive, seeking refuge from the violence in the interior of the country.







Belén, Refugee

Refugees arriving

"My daddy and my mummy were sleeping when they heard a shot. My mother woke up and went to the yard. Then, they threw a bomb and my mother died".


Bernardo, Refugee

"My first wife died. She is my second wife. This year in march the paramilitary troops came to me and they threatened us. Then they forced us to leave our land. Now I'm in Bogotá. What were we supposed to do after they burned down
my house. Get out and come here".





Help Centre

But only a lucky few are fortunate enough to reach a church-help centre.


Sister Valdet, Centre for immigrants Bogotá

"This people arrived here from the transport
terminal, running from the violence all over the country. They have to run away because of a terrible situation, that is... they either run, or they die".


Slums, run down buildings





Thousands of displaced persons now make up entire neighbourhoods in Bogota's suburbs. In these new urban settlements, social problems multiply... and these increase political tension. The war threatens disintegration of the entire Colombian state. Political leaders oratory has lost credibility amongst the population.






Subtitle Senator Moreno

And I came here to tell you..... this congress is a farce...


Inside the Colombian Parliament Building

Colombians remains as 50 years ago, ruled by the liberal and conservative parties. These still retain a steely grip on political power. Only a few members of the political classes recognise this monopoly is precisely one of the causes of the armed conflict.




Piedad Córdova, Senator

"The guerrilla does have a political purpose. If we agree or
disagree with the methodology or the strategy used, that's another thing. But in a country were the poverty rate and the unemployment rate are so high, with no democratic political participation... where most of the opposition is annihilated, disappeared, destroyed, ... then, saying that the guerrilla has no political sense is a mistake, like not recognising the problem we're living in, and not looking for a way out of it... a solution".





But most politicians do not think that way.


Enrique Gomez, Senator








Para-military soldiers fighting

"Social inequality has existed since man appeared in this world. The equality that the communists tried to achieve but couldn't. And from Cuba and the Soviet Union they set up in Colombia, a strategic country, a guerrilla movement with the support of Fidel Castro. I believe that today's guerrilla is a consequence of the violent situation inherited since the Cold War, and
here, it became endemic. I think, because the Colombian State, and if you wish also the political parties, failed in the first instance in their prime capacity, that is the need to guarantee the order of law".








Alejandro Reyes, Institute for Political
Studies Bogotá

"The paramilitaries succeed in the anti-guerrilla territorial control, where the army fails. The army can defeat any guerrilla unit almost anywhere, but cannot maintain that victory for long. When there are paramilitaries, they consolidate the territorial control conquered by the army. In some way the paramilitary are a reaction to the economic regional elite's against the guerrilla, with major support
of specially the drug dealers and the big landlords, but also businessmen, transporters, traders.... Here's a huge coalition which rejects the guerrilla movement and defends the traditional order.... big business. In most of the regions where the paramilitary are strong, you are told this is so because they are supported by the army".










General Manuel Bonett, Former Chief Colombian Army

"I believe that the public force in Colombia is too for the size of the population and the country. It's an enormous country with a small public force. When there are private interests, where
there's no State, and no public force, organisations of self-defence appear. This is the origin of the paramilitaries".



"I was second commander in Urabá. I noticed that it was critical for the country and the army not to do something about the paramilitaries. I said so to the commander, but he didn't listen. I reported it to the superior levels, in writing, and it all ended with my retirement.. for disloyalty, insubordination, being a liar, etc.."
"In Colombia there has been no coherent strategy where the military serve to accomplish the objectives of the politicians.
The politicians have set their objectives, but they are not followed by the military. So the strategy needed to solve the conflict doesn't exist here.
The military strategy has been all wrong. Specially since the eighties.
Mistaken because the military success is based on the number of guerrilla fighters dead or captured, disregarding the civil population that they have to protect. So from the beginning there is a mistake in the strategy used to solve the conflict. More or less the same mistake that the United States made in Vietnam. The famous bodycount".

















General Manuel Bonett, Former Chief Colombian Army

"I believe we kill in combat more than a thousand
guerrilla fighters each year. We live in combat every day. But each time we kill or capture a guerrilla fighter, more unemployed people appear in the cities.

That is why I believe that the solution is mostly political and
social, supported by the military front. And not, as it always has been in Colombia, the other way round".









Alejandro Reyes, Institute for Political
Studies Bogotá -

City streets. Soldiers on the streets




General Manuel Bonett, Former Chief Colombian Army

"I believe there hasn't been a strategy to destroy the guerrilla. It has been a strategy of containment. But it hasn't been a strategy to destroy the guerrilla. It's practically impossible to
destroy the guerrilla, to annihilate every member of the guerrilla movement".
"I think the main component in the guerrilla at the
present time is the economic component. We know that the guerrilla has a large amount of money hidden or invested, due to drug dealing, kidnapping, extortion from national and multinational companies, and other things. The drug dealing has given them all the power they have".








River, sunset, boats on the river





City, inside the church

Whilst the North and Centre areas of the country are permanently in dispute between different armed groups, the South is completely under FARC's control.  Because of the lack of roads, the rivers -totally controlled by the guerrilla- are the only means of transport.
Paradoxically, this is the area where the war has least impact.
 Peace seems to rule here, with the guerrilla the only authority with real power.







Father Jacinto, Italian Priest

"The guerrilla controls the economy and public order. They even control family affairs. If a family has a problem, they go to the guerrilla asking them to solve it. In all kind of cases, all sorts of problems between friends or neighbours, because of debts or any other reason. They resolve all sorts of problems".



It's a colonist area. Most of the coca-leaf crops are located there. In this area there is no sub-structures that allows cultivating other products with the same profit that can be had from coca-leaf.  Transportation costs make any other option unprofitable. Thus the coca leaf has become for most peasants the only source of income. Buyers are assured: payment is good. With the help of the United States' agencies, the government has entered into a huge fumigation project aimed at the destruction of the coca-leaf harvests.... but the results are questionable.












Father Jacinto, Italian Priest

"The consequences of fumigation are terrible. In spite of the large quantities of hectares which have already been fumigated, the total number of hectares now dedicated to coca production is still on the increase. And also, because they are aware that they are spraying in guerrilla territory, they do it over-quickly, fearing counter-attack. As a consequence, they
also fumigate corn plantations, prairies, lakes, fish, animals" ...









Next to every coca-plantation there is almost certainly a small laboratory dedicated to processing the coca leaves.  The leaf is ground up, mixed with hydrocarbons, acids and alkaline. It is pressed and washed all along the process. The liquid solution is then filtered. This final result is a basic coca paste. Intermediaries buy this paste which is later sold to the drug Cartels, who further refine it to obtain pure cocaine.
One hectare of coca plants yields approximately 1 kilogram of paste, representing a considerable amount of money to the peasant-producer.
The FARC, in their role of absolute authority of the area, do not in any way or form prohibit coca cultivation.
What the guerrilla movement does, is set a tax on whoever who makes money in the coca business.














"Hermes", Member National Secretary of the

"The drug dealing problem in Colombia is a social
phenomenon. There is no doubt, as we are in every region we know the problem. It isn't true that we are a drug cartel. No. We demand from the coca-leaf cultivators a financial contribution, because they move great capitals in this area. They have to pay the contribution because they are in the guerrilla region. If you own money, you have to pay. As there is a war tax in Colombia against the guerrilla, paid by the powerful, we also charge with a war tax, but we do it to defend the poor class in Colombia".












The wealth generated by the coca trade attracts people from other regions of Colombia, small businessmen affected by the country's economic crisis, willing to try their luck in this guerrilla territory.


Freddy, Coca-grower

"I had a small company. I owned a house but I had to sell it to pay my debts.
Than I decided to come here. Thinking about my children, their education, to give them a dignified home. I have all invested here right now. We subsist on the coca.

 There is no problem here, thanks to the FARC's control. It's nothing like what goes on outside, where the authority steal from you. That doesn't happen here.

To sum up, if I need help, the FARC
help me more than I could expect from the government".










Streets of Barrancabermeja

Colombia's civil war can be described as the sum of various differing regional conflicts. What differs are the objectives in each dispute, such as the possession of land, the coca-production or the rivers. In the centre of the country, in the
city of Barrancabermeja, dispute is... oil.
Barrancabermeja, as the centre of the country's petroleum industry, assumes great strategic importance. Many of its inhabitants were violently displaced from other areas and therefore maintain a historic distrust of all that the State represents.







Pierre Gassman, Chief International Red
Cross Colombia

"It's clearly a city in dispute, because it's economically very important. Barrancabermeja is a city of two parts.
There is the original city, economically very strong and across the river, there is a very poor sector. In this poor part of the city, there are different groups of militia related to the guerrilla. There are also auto defence groups, financed by the economic owners".










Night shot

The city has become the bastion of the second Colombian guerrilla organisation: the National Liberation Army, the ELN. Through the years the police and the army has set a goal to remove the guerrilla from the city, but with little success. Currently a new element intervenes: the paramilitary groups.

 When night falls in the city of Barrancabermeja, fear is in the air. Everyone rushes home. Streets are soon deserted. Terror rules.  Next morning, the results are to be seen.









Alicia, Mother of disappeared son and

"It's not what they say... that my children
were guerrilla fighters. That my daughter was a guerrilla leader's lover...
That's a lie. It's a big lie. And I ask them please to give me something to prove they have my children. Because we are in deep pain".



With the evident protection of the army, paramilitary groups carry out violent raids in the populist districts. In just one night seven youngsters are arbitrarily murdered, twenty-five more kidnapped.  Till now their mothers have no news of their fate.



Interview: Carmen, Mother disappeared son "I have faith that they are going to return him. I have faith in
it... In the same way that they took them, they can return them".



In Barrancabermeja, the number of missing persons grows.


Pierre Gassman, Chief International Red
Cross Colombia

"Most of the people don't believe in the
capability of the State to protect them from the acts of the paramilitary and self defence groups. And that is why they become enemies of the State.
But the great difficulty is that there is a total polarisation of the civil population into one or either side, because you can't be totally neutral here. In Colombia it's very difficult for a person to say: I don't want to get involved in the armed conflict".






Streets by night

The inhabitants of the populist districts distrust the authorities. They have no other alternative than accept this vacuum filled by guerrilla fighters who patrol the streets by night.


"Camilo", Militia-leader ELN

"As the National Liberation Army, our objectives with these patrols are to defend the community and our neighbourhood from attacks by the paramilitary groups".



Around the country the ELN counts on 4000 men, but deploys most of their forces in the petroleum area.
Born in the seventies from an alliance between students and progressive sectors in the catholic church, its first leader was the priest Camilo Torres, who was killed in the jungle.
The ELN had a strong influence in the Cuban revolution but when a rural guerrilla was formed, they were decimated both by the Army and fierce internal squabbles. In the
eighties the movement reappeared and grew rapidly. The ELN lacks the power of the FARC, but nevertheless, their activities
in Barrancabermeja and the oil area seriously concern the government.

The banished population trusts more in the guerrilla than the national state forces. The ELN questions the role of the state's petroleum company.















Camilo", Militia-leader ELN

"For Barrancabermeja this company means life itself. It means
petroleum, that's part of this city's economy. And it also means that this company finances paramilitary, who make the raids and massacre the people in our neighbourhoods.
Here is what is in dispute: it's an entire social history, an entire area of social exclusivity, an entire refinery which belongs to the State".



As the guerrilla holds a strong presence in the populist districts, both army and paramilitary consider these populations guerrilla sympathisers ... and act accordingly.


Camilo", Militia-leader ELN




Video made by the guerrilla

"We are aware that there is bloodshed. But we must go on resisting terrorism by the State".

 Immediately after his election, Colombia's president Andrés Pastrana set up a meeting with FARC's historic leader, Manuel Marulanda Velez, deep in the jungle.


Pastrana and Marulanda Velez agreed a negotiating accord in order to put an end to the armed conflict. Both recognise it will be a long and complicated process. The government has little control over either the military or the paramilitary group.










Alejandro Reyes, Institute for Political
Studies Bogotá





Carlos Velasquez, Retired Colonel, Colombian Army

"There are short time reasons why no form of ending that war is going to work out for the military. There are two reasons. On the one hand, they are afraid to be examined by a truth
commission and charged for war crimes. And on the other hand, they are afraid they will be investigated and accused of having delegated the war to the paramilitary groups".

"If things go on in this way, the final result could be a first phase of a savage intensification of violence. And a final
phase of dismemberment of the country.... the Atlantic coast and the north under control of the army and the paramilitary, .... the south in the hands of the guerrilla".










Despite these peace negotiations, the massacre of the civil population at the hands of the paramilitary continues. As a consequence of this violence, there is massive population displacement, with many of these refugees living precariously in camps. It is estimated that in Colombia there are already as many as a million and a half refugees..... and the exodus continues.
There are children who have watched as their parents were murdered.

Many refugees suffer hunger daily and scarcely survive on the handouts from international relief organisations. Nobody knows what to do with the displaced.
The solution proposed by the Colombian government is they should all go back to their lands. The refugees refuse. They are afraid.















Jesús, Refugee

"I don't want to be displaced again. I have given the government no reasons to mistreat me. It has hurt a lot, and I feel sad about what had happened to me. When I think about it ... it's not that I don't want to go back to where I have the
little that's left... no Sir... What doesn't interest me is to be deceived again, one, or two, or three, or who knows how many times".







The armed conflict now encompasses several generations of Colombians. One of the most dramatic considerations of the situation is ... what will become of an entire generation of these children ....who so far have only known war.



Ends: 00:54:06:00


End credits:

Camera: Juan Pablo Mondini
Editor: Juan Mayou
Music: José María D'Angelo
Production: Jan Thielen
Supervision: Jorge Casal
Director: Jan Thielen



An ICARO & JAN THIELEN Production c.1999

© 2019 Journeyman Pictures
Journeyman Pictures Ltd. 4-6 High Street, Thames Ditton, Surrey, KT7 0RY, United Kingdom

This site uses cookies. By continuing to use this site you are agreeing to our use of cookies. For more info see our Cookies Policy