El Conflicto Armado: Who's Fighting Whom
Although security conditions have improved dramatically since conservative hard-liner Alvaro Uribe took office in 2002, Colombia can still be an unpredictable place, with flare-ups between guerilla and paramilitary factions. To understand the conflict, it's important to know the players. On the leftist, guerilla side is the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), the country's largest guerilla army, with about 12,000 members. The ELN (National Liberation Army) consists of about 5,000 people and is in on-and-off-again demobilization talks. The M-19 was another deadly, mostly urban guerilla movement that demobilized in the late 1980s. On the far right are the paramilitaries, originally formed to combat the guerillas but now major players in the drug trade. Las Aguilas Negras are a relatively new group, composed mostly of so-called demobilized paramilitaries.
To make sense of all the acronyms and ideology, not to mention the corruption, consider reading one of the following books, all of which provide excellent background: Killing Peace (2002) by Gary Leech; Walking Ghosts: Murder and Guerrilla Politics in Colombia (2005) by Steven Dudley; and More Terrible Than Death: Violence, Drugs, and America's War in Colombia (2004) by Robin Kirk.
Although the modern Colombian conflict didn't technically start until 1964, when the FARC was founded, Colombia has had a bloody past almost as long as the country's history. The violence, always rooted in politics, pitted the Liberals against the Conservatives, resulting in both the Thousand Days War, from 1899 to 1902, and, later on, La Violencia of the 1940s and 1950s. Combined, these conflicts took the lives of almost half a million Colombians. After the relative peace of the 1960s and 1970s, violence flared up again during the '80s and '90s, mostly owing to the increased involvement of the guerillas and paramilitaries in the drug trade, as well as to Pablo Escobar, who had a hand in frequent bombings, assassinations, and campaigns of terror.
Unlike most Latin American movements, the FARC, paramilitaries, and other nongovernment armed forces have little backing among Colombia's poor, especially as these armed groups become more involved with narco trafficking, effectively disregarding their stated ideology. In fact, fighting for control of the lucrative cocaine trade appears to be the top priority for guerilla and paramilitary groups nowadays.
As a foreigner and a tourist, you are unlikely to face threats from any illegal groups, but it's still wise to avoid rural areas, city slums, and other "red zones" -- so declared by the government depending on recent guerilla and paramilitary violence. Your best bet is to stick to cities and heavily patrolled and visited destinations such as the Eje Cafetero, the department of Boyacá, and most of the Atlantic coast. Unless for some reason you'll be traveling to guerilla- or paramilitary-controlled areas (where you absolutely don't want to talk about the conflict), you're fine to discuss the FARC, paramilitaries, or much-loved President Uribe with taxi drivers, waiters, receptionists, and other Colombians; everyone here seems to have an opinion, and this is a good way to interact with and learn about the locals and their country.
Keep tabs on the ever-changing situation by reading El Tiempo (www.eltiempo.com), Colombia's most important and popular newspaper, and by frequently checking the U.S Department of State website regarding travel warnings (http://travel.state.gov). You may also want to keep tabs on the growing tensions between President Alvaro Uribe and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, as this might result in further violence along the Colombia-Venezuela border. Although all this information may sound a bit ominous and discouraging, the bottom line is, unless you veer off the beaten path, you shouldn't face any problems.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.