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Colombia is located in the northern part of South America. It lies between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and shares borders with Panama, Venezuela, Brazil, Peru, and Ecuador. It is the fourth largest country in South America.
Colombia’s population is estimated to be about 46 million (2011, State Department), making it the third most populous country in Latin America, after Brazil and Mexico. The official language is Spanish, and 90% of Colombia’s people are Roman Catholic. The country has a diverse culture as a result of the Indian, Spanish and African origins of its people.
Partisan violence exploded in Colombia in two particularly virulent outbreaks in the twentieth century. Between 1899 and 1903, the War of a Thousand Days claimed an estimated 100,000 lives. From 1946 to 1957, some 300,000 more Colombians died in what has become known as simply “La Violencia” (the Violence). Both outbreaks were the result of a bitter contest between the Conservative and Liberal parties.
Today, Colombia’s internal armed conflict has lasted six decades. This current violence emerged from practices of political, social, and economic exclusion that have given Colombia one of the highest rates of inequality of any society in the world today.
Poverty, injustice, and the lack of opportunities for change led to the emergence of guerrilla groups, while paramilitary forces, and sometimes public security forces, aligned with political and economic elites to protect the status quo. For decades, Colombia has experienced widespread violence, including massacres, kidnapping, and serious human rights abuses.
In the past two decades, progress has been made as armed groups and individuals have demobilized, and the government has increased its efforts to assert control throughout all parts of the country. However, two primary guerilla groups—the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN)—remain active. In August 2012, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos confirmed that the government would hold peace talks with the FARC. ELN leadership also expressed interest in peace talks with the Colombian government.
The peace talks between FARC and the Colombian government, which are taking place in Cuba, are ongoing. Meanwhile, violent clashes between FARC and the Colombian government continue to flare up and are a constant threat to the success of the peace talks.
Access to land for the production and transportation of drugs and other lucrative commodities has accelerated the violence, and has caused more than five million Colombians to be displaced from their homes. The ensuing humanitarian crisis has spilled across Colombia’s borders and placed a burden on neighboring countries.
Years of conflict and failed peace processes have taken a devastating toll on social relations in Colombia. The issues at the heart of the internal conflict remain unresolved — social inequality, land reform, and the rights of the thousands of victims who have suffered violence in recent decades. Drug trafficking and organized criminality have penetrated the fabric of society, financed the various armed groups, and made this conflict particularly resistant to resolution.
The United States Institute of Peace is engaged in efforts to support a non-violent transformation of the conflict in Colombia, and to support initiatives for truth, justice, reparations, and reconciliation.
In this deeply divided society, USIP brings together civil society leaders working to find political solutions to the Colombian conflict; supports the creation of linkages between Catholic and Protestant women peacemakers in Colombia; and conducts conflict analysis and resolution skills training programs with Colombian partners. USIP support has enabled civil society leaders to connect with each other across regions, to know their rights, and to design approaches to having their needs met without violence.
Since 2005, USIP has given more than a dozen grants to Colombia-based organizations to help support innovative projects and processes that strengthen the capacities of Colombians themselves to promote an agenda for peace. These include efforts to secure justice and truth for those victimized by war, as well as efforts to engage different groups of Colombian society in discussions on thorny issues including land reform and reconciliation. For instance, a USIP grant funded a pilot program that provided post-conflict support to victims and ex-combatants in San Francisco de Antioquia, which was an important step in rebuilding that community.
The Institute has also facilitated roundtable discussions, convening noted thought-leaders to grapple with some of the issues most integral to the conflict, such as those of land.
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