Downloads: 2 available

Available in English

Peace mobilisation in Colombia: 1978-2002

The authors chart the historical phases of peace initiatives and social mobilisation: from its emergence in defence of human rights; to support for the first peace processes; to the mass mobilisations of the late 1990s; and to the present crisis.

In 1997, ten million people voted for peace as part of the ‘Citizen’s Mandate for Peace’, just one of the huge variety of initiatives that have taken place in Colombia. The authors chart the historical phases of peace initiatives and social mobilisation: from its emergence in defence of human rights; to support for the first peace processes; to the mass mobilisations of the late 1990s; and finally to the crisis of the national level movement following the collapse of President Pastrana’s peace talks with the FARC. The article illustrates the limitations, contradictions and potential of the peace movement and concludes that despite needing to mature socially and politically, its wealth of past experience could be the foundations for a lasting peace and reconciliation process

Peace mobilisation in Colombia: 1978-2002

The current context of social crisis and the deepening of the protracted armed internal conflict raises questions about the capacity of Colombian society to generate the changes that might bring about peace. A review of the peace initiatives undertaken by different sectors of Colombian society is of fundamental importance in clarifying what these can contribute to the search for a solution to the conflict.

Civil society has used multiple methods to express its rejection of violence and to contribute to peacebuilding. In figure 1 we can see the constant increase in collective actions for peace since 1987/88. It can be argued that the principal motivation for social mobilisation in Colombia in the 1990s was the rejection of violence and support for the search for peace. Peace mobilisations have involved the participation of at least 30 million people (counted cumulatively) since 1990. However, this immense participation does not mean that the mobilisation as a whole has been organic and well-articulated, with a clearly progressive and consistent dynamic.

History of peace mobilisations

Public mobilisation for peace has been dependent on the political circumstances and opportunities that have presented themselves, regarding both the growth and degradation of the violence, as well as the peace processes with armed actors. Examples include the large number of massacres and political assassinations (particularly of the Patriotic Union) carried out by the paramilitaries since 1986/87 resulting in a growing reaction and mobilisation against violence; the weariness of violence which preceded the Citizens Mandate for Peace; and the phenomenon of kidnapping, particularly ‘opportunistic kidnappings’, which triggered the mobilisations of 1999. What follows is a brief review of the principal moments in the development of what has been called the social movement for peace.

1978–1985: Background to peace mobilisation

The government of Julio César Turbay pursued a policy of repression, based on the National Security Statute, which involved serious human rights violations. In this context the first peace initiatives that appeared were linked to the defence of human rights. And although during the administration of Belisario Betancur there was not yet what could properly be called a social mobilisation in favour of peace, this period did see the establishment of the first channel for civil society participation through the broad and pluralist Peace Commission convened by the President. The various peace movements at this time, still relatively limited and dispersed across the country, were motivated mainly by social grievances (including the fundamental rights of workers and in particular the right to life), and demands for a negotiated solution to the armed conflict (including the respect for democratic freedoms, a broad amnesty and negotiations with the insurgencies).

1986–1992: Activation of peace mobilisation

Two events in the political sphere defined this period and have special importance for peace mobilisation: the processes of negotiation and demobilisation of the 19 April Movement (M-19), the Workers’ Revolutionary Party, the Popular Liberation Army and Quintín Lame, and the constitutional reform of 1991, which opened up and breathed life into democratic participation in Colombia.

During the government of President Virgilio Barco (1986–90) processes demands for a negotiated solution with the guerrillas grew, including the efforts of the first Comision de Notables (Commission of Distinguished Citizens), the Usaquén Summit (29 July 1988) of all the political sectors motivated by the M-19’s kidnapping of Álvaro Gómez and the creation of the Coexistence Commission at the summit in order to promote negotiations with the armed groups. These events drove the launch of the government ‘Peace Initiative’, which allowed negotiations with the M-19 to begin.

Social mobilisation for peace took off in earnest between 1990 and 1994. Apart from the various efforts by sectors of civil society in support of negotiations, amongst which the work of the Comision de Notables and the mediation of the Church in some of the processes stand out, the majority of peace initiatives were protests against violence or in favour of life and peace, as can be seen in the actions of women’s groups at the beginning of this period. While many initiatives took place in Bogotá, given its importance as the political and geographic centre, there was support for regional dialogue by different sectors of society and a series of collective actions around the country. During 1991, these included initiatives such as the ’Social Pact for development and peace in Urabá’, the campaign against terrorism and in favour of a negotiated solution to the armed conflict that took place in all the departments on the Atlantic coast, the ‘Medellín in Peace’ campaign, and the March for Life in Cali in September. Although mobilisation was most obvious in regions ravaged by the violence, such as Urabá and Magdalena Medio, the magnitude of peace initiatives increased generally, spreading to new departments.

In the same year the ‘Viva la Ciudadanía’ (Long Live Citizenship) campaign was launched at the national level, uniting more than thirty organisations, and a Peace Week was held (as it has been annually since September 1988), focusing that year on civic ethics. Demobilised guerrillas organised other similar activities during this period, but with the aim of demanding the fulfilment of the agreements reached with the government. In a way, the issue of peace, brought to the fore by the accords with the M-19, breathed new life into the demands of the human rights movement, without however establishing a complete convergence between the peace and human rights organisations.

1993–1999: The organisational phase and large mobilisations for peace

The political events that defined peace mobilisation in this period were the declaration of the ‘integral war’ by the Gaviria administration and the crisis stemming from Judicial Process 8000 regarding the donation of drug trafficking money to President Ernesto Samper’s election campaign. This situation created a dynamic of mass demonstrations, which sought joint action across civil society in order to strengthen and create the conditions conducive to the search for a negotiated peace with the armed actors.

This third period was one of immense growth in peace mobilisation and organisation in Colombia. The multiplicity and diversity of activities, participating sectors and regions was huge. Firstly, the Comité de Búsqueda de la Paz (Committee for the Search for Peace) was created and brought together a series of social organisations and NGOs; secondly, as a result of the convergence of important regional dynamics, REDEPAZ (the Network of Initiatives for Peace and Against War) was formed in November 1993. In 1995 the Episcopal Commission created the National Conciliation Commission to help bring the parties to the conflict together by providing ‘good offices’.

By 1996 there was tremendous dynamism in the forums working for peace at a regional level, as seen in the working groups for peace and in the large number of forums and marches in favour of a negotiated solution to the armed conflict. In March REDEPAZ presented the proposal for a Peace Statute, in order to promote the regulation of Article 22 of the new political Constitution (that states that peace is both a right and a duty). In July the Day of Active Neutrality in Medellín was held, which brought together the majority of NGOs in Antioquia and supported similar proposals to those being developed in indigenous and displaced communities. In October the ‘Children’s Mandate for Peace’ was held. In November, on the International Day Against Violence Against Women, the Ruta Pacífica de las Mujeres por la Paz (the Peaceful Route of Women for Peace) was born as an act of solidarity with the women of Urabá affected by the armed conflict. In addition, forums in favour of peace amongst different sectors emerged, such as Businessmen for Peace, Media for Peace and the University Network for Peace. Toward the end of this period there was a great increase in the number of activities. The local and regional peace councils and committees were consolidated, and Open Peace Councils were held in various municipalities. During 1997 the Citizens Mandate for Peace process (‘Mandato’) took place, culminating with ten million votes for peace in the October elections. In 1998 the Permanent Civil Society Assembly for Peace (‘Asamblea’) was convened in which regions, social sectors, and peace and human rights organisations from across the country converge. In 1999, the famous ‘No Más’ (No More) mass demonstrations were held against kidnapping, although in some areas they were also related to other demands. More than 2.5 million people took part in 40 marches between April and September, and more than 8 million people mobilised on 24 October 1999, participating in marches and events in more than 180 municipalities the length and breadth of the country.

2000–2003: National level crisis and strengthening grassroots initiatives

The dynamics of the process with the guerrillas had a significant impact on the dynamics of the peace organisations at a national level, given that these organisations focused their attention on what was happening in the negotiations between the government and the FARC. With the end of the peace process, they entered into a period of crisis and flux. However, there was a continued dynamism at local and regional levels regarding the issues of peace, development, self-determination and civil resistance, as demonstrated by the peace communities in Urabá, the position of neutrality adopted by the indigenous communities, the constituent assembly processes at municipal and departmental level, the experiences of civil resistance, the fifteen peace and development programmes, and some experiences of return by displaced persons. Similarly other spaces continued to consolidate, such as the Ruta Pacífica de las Mujeres, the Red de Jusitica Comunitaria y tratamiento de conflictos (the community justice and conflict resolution network), and the conscientious objectors. All of these experiences were maintained in the regions with the objective of creating the social actors who would work to create the necessary conditions for peace in the country.

The geography of the peace movement Looking at the territorial dynamic of the collective actions for peace, it is possible to distinguish between diverse experiences of mobilisation in local, regional, national and global contexts, which show differentiated but complementary dynamics and rationales (see peace map and chart of civic initiatives). Nevertheless, it is necessary to bear in mind that some of the experiences at the local and regional level have a genuinely national impact, which gives them a special character and greater significance. We understand local initiatives to mean those developed by groups and social sectors active in hamlets, villages, and barrios, up to and including those that have a municipal dimension. Examples of this are those experiences of autonomy, civil resistance, and peace mobilisation from the grassroots, such as the Association of Workers and Peasants of Carare (ATCC), the Peace Communities, the municipal constituent assemblies and 100 peace municipalities and the civil resistance initiatives. Regional initiatives are those experiences that seek to develop and articulate processes that cover various municipalities and have a regional impact, either on an economic, political or social level. Examples include the peace and development programmes and the autonomy and resistance initiatives pursued by indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities, such as the Nasa project (Nasa meaning “living being”) and the indigenous resistance communities in Cauca, and the experiences of the Integral Peasants Association of Atrato, the Peace Communities, the Self-determination Communities and Life and Dignity in Chocó.

The national level initiatives have the specific characteristic of linking centralised power with national coverage – they attempt to link mobilisation for peace with decision-making activities in Bogotá that affect all of the country. These national dynamics are represented by the forums for mobilisation and articulation, such as Comité de Búsqueda de la Paz, REDEPAZ, Mandato, Asamblea, Planeta Paz, No Más, Colombia Va, Paz Colombia and Ruta Pacifica de las Mujeres.

These national initiatives come into contact with more international and global dynamics, creating new dimensions for peace mobilisation in Colombia and complicating the territorial idea mentioned above. The World Social Forum, the International Criminal Court and the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) negotiations that elevate the solidarity between peoples and sectoral struggles to international levels cause the national situation to be viewed in a global context and not in the isolated manner of previous decades. Achievements, tensions and dilemmas in the peace movement.

The internal dynamic of the movement and its organisations

Peace mobilisation has clearly generated and built on the existence and consolidation of an extensive range of organisations and working proposals for peace. An organisational infrastructure for peace exists today – with limitations and contradictions but at the same time with immense potential for the future. Lessons have been learned endowing organisations and social sectors with the infrastructure necessary to unite and articulate the diversity of peace initiatives. This convergence of perspectives has manifested itself in the efforts put into the construction of an agenda for peace and democracy.

However, it is important not to forget that there are tensions and differences amongst these perspectives, not only because of different concepts of peace (peace as the military defeat of the enemy, peace as demobilisation, peace implying greater democracy, and peace as social justice), but also because some topics generate serious debate and controversy: the legitimacy of the armed struggle, the parameters of negotiations, and the issue of security. In the process of the configuration of the peace movement in Colombia there have been differences and contradictions, clearly illustrated by the differences between peace organisations and human rights organisations. Different traditions of thought on the nature of the country have found, in the issue of peace, a new historical arena in which to be debated. In addition to these challenges, there are tensions arising from inter-organisational dynamics that can lead to the marginalisation of some social and geographical sectors within the movement. A tension has existed between the ‘capital’ and the regions due to the concentration of activity and power in Bogotá. This geographic dynamic is also expressed in the manner in which certain sectors have in many instances been placed at the margins of the organisational processes for peace, as is the case, at least until recently, with women’s and indigenous groups.

External processes and relations with society

Some core problems exist regarding external processes and relations with other actors and wider society: Poor definition and lack of clarity in its discourse with wider society on fundamental issues on the identity of the peace movement; the conceptualisation of peace has been maximalist and ranged over many topics and insufficient care has been devoted to defining the ethical propositions that should guide it. Similarly, issues such as the use of violence as a means to achieve social change have not been clearly and openly debated, leaving the path open for the polarised discourses of some sectors. From here stems the challenge of how to channel social discontent and weariness with the war into a broader, non-violent and proactive vision capable of mobilising large sectors of the population. The media’s treatment of peace and the invisibility of the movement. The media has been subjected to almost continuous criticism by the many leaders of the movement concerning the sparse recognition and coverage of civil society peace activities, and even more so concerning the close relations between the mass media and the dominant sectors of the economic and political system, linked in some cases to the dynamics of the violence. At the same time journalists and the media criticise the methods and limited influence of the peace movement, and what they label their tired and superficial ideas given the present reality.

Relations to the political sphere and the state. Peace organisations have often demonstrated ambivalence towards formal politics, including a distant relationship from political parties, and a critical and confrontational stance with regard to state institutions, inherited from the social struggles of the previous decades. In order to make its proposals more effective, the peace movement finds itself facing the dilemma of rejecting the traditional practices of the political system but at the same time needing to enter the political sphere as the arena for the realisation of the changes it seeks. How it does this and how it manages the tensions that this implies will be something that determines the potential impact of the peace movement in the near future.

International relations. International variables will continue to be crucial in the immediate and medium-term future, as we have seen in the context of the ‘war against terrorism’. How alliances and support at this level are managed will be critical for the construction of a political context favourable to negotiations and in revitalising the civil society peace initiatives and enhancing their capacity to exert real influence. The parallel diplomacy between non-governmental and inter-governmental sectors in Colombia, Europe and the US, conducted until now through international aid agencies, has in the last few years created a panorama of relationships that are more political than economic. Peace organisations need to strengthen their instruments of influence in the diplomatic field in order to make a genuine impact among the international actors involved in the peace dynamics in the country.

Perspectives and challenges

It is unlikely that a new peace process with the insurgency will commence during the Uribe administration, given the entrenchment of the parties’ positions and the escalation of the conflict. At the same time, negotiations initiated with the paramilitaries not only exclude society, but also, due to the manner in which they are proceeding, run the risk of creating a grave situation of impunity that clearly does not favour progress towards an integral solution to the conflict. We can therefore foresee the continuation of the conflict, and given the effects of this type of conflict on society as a whole, an increased weariness with the violence among the population. In other words, as the strategy of ‘democratic security’ begins to show its limitations, a new demand for a negotiated solution will undoubtedly grow, as can be seen in the electoral results of the 25–26 October 2003, presenting a new political opportunity for mass mobilisation for peace.

The peace movements – in all their manifestations – are evolving. Formal, lasting and effective unity is impossible without a broad process of social and political development. In this maturing process the peace movement faces the challenge of not subordinating its dynamic to the tendencies and logic of the armed powers and the dominant powers. In other words, it faces the challenge of constructing a political rationale and organisational dynamic, supported by large sectors of society, distinguished from the current polarisation and violence.

In this context it is encouraging to see the innumerable initiatives and actions that have taken place in the last decade in terms of peace education and mobilisation, acting as processes of civic empowerment and the rejuvenation of politics. These efforts, although sometimes not considered a social force capable of influence under the present circumstances, are in fact the foundations for any future negotiation attempts and genuinely sustainable peacebuilding and reconciliation processes.

Figure 1. Peace initiatives in Colombia 1979–2002. Total number of initiatives each year 



Issue editor

Mauricio García-Durán


Mauricio García-Durán is a Jesuit priest and currently Executive Director of Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), Colombia. He has spent the last 25 years researching peace processes and social mobilisation for peace in Colombia. In addition, he has worked with displaced populations for the Center for Research and Popular Education (CINEP), where he was Executive Director between 2007 and 2012. He was issue editor of Accord 14: Alternatives to War – Colombia’s peace processes (2004).

Read more from Mauricio: