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Colombian Civil War and the Issue of Political Economy


Colombian internal conflict is one of the most protracted civil wars in the world. After a few decades, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) had established its position as the most stable guerrilla group in Latin America with considerable resources to run its operations. To this end, the issue of political economy arises in a war system as actors compete for natural resources to fund their operations.

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Rebel groups always prompted the escalating war crisis as they embarked on rent-seeking tendencies to cause more instability for their resource gains against the state. The guiding research question is how political economy can explain the protracted Colombian Civil War, specifically between the state and FARC. In this literature review, therefore, the focus is based on how the political economy can explain the protracted Colombian Civil War.

Literature Review

For several decades, political scientists and economists have focused on intrastate wars and as a result, much evidence is now available on the issue. In the period of the Cold War, intrastate wars were regarded as proxy conflicts supported by superpowers to advance or defend their key interests in various parts of the world (Richani, 2001). Richani (2001), a scholar who has widely studied conflicts, applied systems analysis to various intrastate wars in order to elucidate the political economy of some of the most protracted wars and their possible solutions. The systems analysis is widely applied in interstate conflicts globally. The definition of the political economy of a protracted civil war is based on two major elements:

  1. a wide range of political and economic resources acquired by players in the war,
  2. the importance of these acquired resources as shown by actions of players in influencing military activities, territories, incomes, and support.

In addition, the accumulated resources also influence how a state distributes its national wealth. Richani (2001) argues that the witnessed intensification of conflict in Colombia was associated with the crisis of the war system triggered by the fight for the exploitation of natural resources among the warring factions, the state, rebels, and paramilitaries.

It is observed that the conflict in Colombia could have been triggered by the skewed protection provided by the state, which only favored dominant members (Richani, 2001). Consequently, many peasants and popular groups allowed armed groups to emerge as providers of security. Richani (2001) claims that the origin of FARC can be traced to the 1930s and 1940s – the periods in which peasants fought to protect themselves from large landowners.

FARC was officially formed in 1964, and it has always focused on protecting farmers (Campesinos). In this sense, therefore, FARC was created because of the failure of the state to protect minorities, and it subsequently embarked on a rent-seeking mission for resources. The group, however, experienced major obstacles because wars were expensive. Previously, FARC and other rebels depended on local and foreign sources for funds.

Once the Cold War ended, foreign financiers were no longer dependable and, therefore, guerrillas wanted new sources of funds, specifically self-financing. Consequently, FARC has generally depended on its own resources generated from rents extracted for the protection of locals. FARC levied taxes based on incomes and commodities. The guerrilla’s taxes mainly came from local business executives, drug traffickers, cattle ranchers, owners of large parcels of land, and multinational firms among others. In addition, FARC engaged in kidnapping for ransoms. By collecting taxes, FARC offered protection, stable business environments, and policing. Rent-seeking practices led to a war system in Colombia.

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In Colombia, the war system emerged because of the state’s failure to arbitrate and solve social issues, specifically land ownership (LeGrand, 2003). Opposing actors also succeeded in coming to terms with the escalating war and, thus, they ensured that the war continued to create a favorable political economy, which made the conflict extremely rewarding to their interests with regard to economic, cultural, political, and/or ideological. In this sense, a favorable political economy can only be realized when resources acquired by actors overshadow costs associated with wars. FARC had realized that it could not gain access to such assets through peaceful engagement.

Based on this observation, the concept of ‘greed or grievance’ was introduced in attempts to explain civil wars (Ballentine & Nitzschke, 2005). Greed, according to Collier and Hoeffler (2000), is associated with economic motivations and opportunities to loot (loot seeking), and it is linked to more cases of conflicts than other factors, such as culture. Hence, resource wealth is responsible for triggering violence (Collier & Hoeffler, 2000).

On one hand, it is noted that grievances are merely excuses used by rebels to conceal and justify their greed. Empirically, Collier, and Hoeffler (2000) observe that most rebellions seem to be associated with the capture of resources, for instance, drugs in Colombia to finance rebels. On the contrary, Peceny and Durnan (2006) claim that ‘greed-driven’ rebellions of Collier and Hoeffler (2000) cannot thoroughly account for the character of the Colombian interstate war.

The greed-driven rebellion fails to explain the origin of the war, the enduring ideological vision of FARC, or its social base in specific sectors of rural areas of Colombia (Peceny & Durnan, 2006). In addition, it cannot explicitly demonstrate the unlikely relationship between the character of coca and FARC. Therefore, Peceny and Durnan (2006) argue that FARC grew stronger because of ‘lootable’ wealth, specifically coca.

The US anti-drug policies led to the dismantling of drug operations in the state-controlled territories, but not rebel-held regions where coca cultivation thrived. Ultimately, it led to increased narcotrafficking to generate more revenues and, therefore, resources that FARC used to modernize its armed forces and make it more professional through creating military schools and accessing overseas training. As such, it gained a tactical advantage over the state.

Still, from a political economy perspective, the FARC military strategy has been strategic in terms of presence and expansion. For instance, it expanded since the 1980s to departments and municipalities with huge economic resources, large farms, mining, oil, cattle ranches, and coffee (Richani, 2001; Ross, 2006). Further, FARC also occupied its traditional bases for a cocoa plantation. Notably, after this expansion strategy, FARC occupied all departments and gained access to vital areas, including middle to higher growth-oriented locations, municipalities, the Caribbean coast, and other areas with higher economic worth. Strikingly, FARC only concentrated on such regions for both economic and political reasons.

Politically, FARC wanted a large base of supporters from popular middle-sized cities, to assume modernization, and to appeal to others beyond rural setups while disputing state dominance. Rent extraction remained important for FARC to gain its political goals. Increased rent extraction allowed FARC to acquire more resources with regard to arms, personnel, command, control, and communication (Richani, 2001).

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Rebels, state, and paramilitary groups are all involved in extraction and rent-seeking behaviors and, thus, compete for resources. In the 1980s, various paramilitary groups emerged at the local levels to cater to the needs of the local influential elites, who were heavily taxed by rebels and feared rebels’ growing power (Gutiérrez, 2008; Romero, 2000). While paramilitaries competed with all these actors, they related to the state in terms of dependency and autonomy for logistical support provided by armed forces. However, paramilitaries were more aggressive in their strategies relative to the state because of a lack of pressure, such as sanctions, to control their activities.

In many respects, the state government was weak, poorly equipped, lawless, and relied on poor social networks. As such, a protracted civil war could escalate as rebels and paramilitaries became more aggressive in their quests. Largely, the weakness of the state is attributed to intrastate conflict and its escalation. That is the failure of the state associated with a prolonged crisis of hegemony that created a vacuum, which rebels and paramilitary readily exploited to establish their authority mainly through coercion.


In war history, economic dynamics are extremely important to actors. Thus, an analysis of intrastate wars from a political economy viewpoint potentially enhances comprehension of major dynamics involved in civil wars. In addition, they are vital for actors and other stakeholders who are interested in conflict resolution and post-conflict peace processes. Therefore, the political economy of the Colombian Civil War should be considered as an important component of any initiatives aimed at ending the conflict. The validity of a political economy viewpoint is based on competition for protection rent among a weak state, paramilitaries, and rebels and improving extraction strategies to sustain the war as each actor aims for a more prominent national outlook and role.


Ballentine, K., & Nitzschke, H. (2005). The political economy of civil war and conflict transformation. Berlin: Berghof Research Center for Constructive Conflict Management.

Collier, P., & Hoeffler, A. (2000). Greed and Grievance in Civil Wars. Washington, D.C: The World Bank.

Gutiérrez, S. F. (2008). Telling the difference: guerrillas and paramilitaries in the Colombian War. Politics & Society, 36(1), 3‐34.

LeGrand, C. (2003). The Colombian crisis in historical perspective. Canadian Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies, 28(55‐56), 165‐209.

Peceny, M., & Durnan, M. (2006). The FARC’s best friend: U.S. antidrug policies and the deepening of Colombia’s civil war in the 1990s. Latin American Politics and Society, 48(2), 95-116.

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Richani, N. (2001). The political economy of Colombia’s protracted civil war and the crisis of the war system. Journal of Conflict Studies, 21(2), 1.

Romero, M. (2000). Changing identities and contested settings: regional elites and the paramilitaries in Colombia. International Journal of Politics,Culture and Society, 14(1), 51-69.

Ross, M. L. (2006). A closer look at oil, diamonds, and civil war. Annual Review of Political Science, 9(1), 265-300.

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