10 Conflicts to Worry About in 2022

Colombia

Continued risk of rising violence targeting civilians

On 24 November 2021, Colombia commemorated the fifth anniversary of the 2016 Peace Agreement between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which officially ended a decades-long conflict. During a visit to Colombia, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres highlighted advances since the agreement’s signature, such as progress in the reintegration of former FARC combatants into society (UN News, 23 November 2021). However, the government’s failure to fully implement the deal’s mechanisms continues to put civilians at increased risk of being affected by violence (Norwegian Refugee Council, 23 November 2021). These mechanisms include the protection of ex-combatants, as well as a comprehensive rural reform plan coupled with development projects. During 2021, ACLED records a 70% increase in organized political violence in Colombia compared to the year prior, with over 1,090 events recorded, over half of which were attacks on civilians. This is the highest rate of violence recorded in the country since the start of ACLED coverage in 2018. 

Of the 13,000 demobilized combatants as a result of the Peace Agreement, 95% have complied with the process, and the remaining FARC dissident groups are predominantly composed of post-agreement recruits (INDEPAZ, 13 September 2021). However, Secretary-General Guterres warned of obstacles to the agreement’s long-term sustainability amid ongoing violence in the country (UN News, 24 November 2021), with an estimated 30 dissident FARC factions still active (INDEPAZ, 13 September 2021). The increasing activity of other groups in several departments, such as the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the Gulf Clan, adds further complexity to the conflict landscape in Colombia. These trends contribute to the dramatic increase in violence in the country in 2021. In addition to this increase, violence also became deadlier in 2021. ACLED records more than 1,000 fatalities stemming from organized political violence events last year, compared to fewer than 800 in 2020 – with civilians continuing to overwhelmingly bear the burden of this violence. More than 800 of the over 1,000 fatalities reported last year were civilians killed in targeted attacks, the majority of whom continued to be social leaders or members of vulnerable groups, mirroring trends seen the year prior. Armed groups often clash in rural areas near farmer villages or Indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities, exposing already vulnerable groups to even more violence. Social leaders active in promoting local development projects are often targeted by armed groups due to their role in curbing criminal and violent activity, many of whom were women (GIWPS, 28 January 2022). While 2020 was a particularly deadly year for social leaders (for more, see ACLED’s joint report with the London School of Economics Latin America and Caribbean Centre, the University of the Andes, and UCL Americas: Understanding the Killing of Social Leaders in Colombia During COVID-19),  the similar number of killings in 2021 indicates little to no improvement in protection measures for these groups. These targeted attacks were centered largely in the departments of Cauca Norte de Santander, Valle del Cauca, and Antioquía. 

Cauca remains one of the departments most affected by violence in Colombia, home to over 160 fatalities in 2021 stemming from organized political violence, with two-thirds of those fatalities being civilians. This makes Cauca the most dangerous place in Colombia for civilians (for more, see ACLED’s infographic: Attacks on Civilians in Colombia). While Cauca has been a hotspot of armed conflict for decades, the area now serves as a coca production hub and access point to the Pacific coast, from where drugs are distributed to the United States, further exacerbating violence in the department. ACLED records over 50 armed clashes in Cauca in 2021, more than double the number of clashes recorded in 2020. Civilians and members of vulnerable groups are often caught in the crossfire, as the department has a strong presence of Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities (Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca). These groups are also often targeted, as they denounce the presence of armed groups on their lands due to their proximity to drug trafficking routes. 

Along with Cauca, Norte de Santander was also home to particularly high levels of political violence in 2021. The department shares a border with Venezuela and is one of the central coca-producing regions, home to several drug trafficking routes (Colombia Reports, 14 October 2021). In 2021, the number of civilians killed in Norte de Santander almost doubled compared to 2020, with more than 100 fatalities. The department also saw a record number of organized political violence events in 2021, over 160 – second highest in all of Colombia, second only to Cauca. This increase in violence has been driven by the presence of several armed actors in the department, including the Gulf Clan, the 33rd FARC Dissident Front, the ELN, and drug trafficking gangs that operate on the border with Venezuela. 

These groups have actively targeted government figures and state forces in Norte de Santander. On 25 June, suspected members of a FARC Dissident Front fired at a helicopter transporting President Iván Duque as it landed in Cúcuta municipality. Armed engagements between state forces and non-state armed groups have increased markedly in the department. In 2021, ACLED records 81 battle and remote violence events involving state forces, compared to 21 in 2020, which includes a number of bomb attacks. 

Meanwhile, Colombia was also home to mass anti-government demonstrations last year, driving a significant increase in overall demonstration levels in 2021. In late April, nationwide demonstrations began in response to proposed tax reforms before expanding to encompass wider discontent with government policies on health, education, and other social issues. Many demonstrations were led by young people, students, and Indigenous groups, who call for greater protection of social leaders and the full implementation of the 2016 Peace Agreement. Mass demonstrations lasted until July, although every month after that, smaller groups continued to gather in the main cities of the country with the same demands. At the peak of the unrest in May, more than 900 demonstration events were reported across the country, 80% of which were peaceful with no reports of violence nor destructive activity by protesters. Nevertheless, the government’s response to the demonstrators was deadly. Security personnel — most notably, the Mobile Anti-Disturbance Squadron Police Force (ESMAD) riot squad — employed lethal force to suppress anti-government riots and peaceful protests, resulting in Colombia being one of the deadliest places in the world for demonstrators (for more, see ACLED’s infographic: Deadly Demonstrations). Over 100 demonstrators reportedly suffered eye injuries after being hit by police projectiles during the rallies (Amnesty International, 26 November 2021). Multiple bystanders were also killed by state forces amid the turmoil (Human Rights Watch, 9 June 2021). Although the Duque government only recognized 24 deaths directly connected to the demonstrations, ACLED records more than 80 fatalities during the unrest.

What to watch for in 2022:

Presidential elections are scheduled to take place in Colombia on 29 May 2022, with a runoff scheduled for 19 June if no candidate obtains more than 50% of the vote. While the current right-wing government of President Duque has a historically high disapproval rating (Bloomberg, 1 October 2021), it is unclear who might emerge from a range of candidates to challenge the incumbent president (AS/COA, 13 October 2021). Any new leader will have to grapple with chronic issues that remain unaddressed in the country, such as implementing comprehensive rural reform. The need to guarantee the presence of state institutions in rural areas where armed groups are most active will be particularly important amid increasing violence.

The government’s ongoing inability to fully implement the changes outlined in the 2016 Peace Agreement may also foment further civil unrest in 2022. Without reforms to the ESMAD riot squad, repression of opposition movements and protests led by civil society organizations will likely continue apace.

In addition to these challenges, violence in departments bordering Venezuela, such as Norte de Santander, will likely also continue unabated. 2022 began with an outburst of violence on 2 January, with deadly clashes between the ELN and dissident forces of the FARC on the border between Apure state in Venezuela and Arauca department in Colombia. Tensions between the Venezuelan and Colombian governments, and their unwillingness to have open talks to address the border clashes, will only aggravate the threat of violence in both countries.

  • Demonstrations: This term is used to refer collectively to all events coded with event type protests, as well as all events coded with sub-event type violent demonstration under the riots event type.
  • Disorder: This term is used to refer collectively to both political violence and demonstrations.
  • Event: The fundamental unit of observation in ACLED is the event. Events involve designated actors – e.g. a named rebel group, a militia or state forces. They occur at a specific named location (identified by name and geographic coordinates) and on a specific day. ACLED currently codes for six types of events and 25 types of sub-events, both violent and non-violent.
  • Political violence: This term is used to refer collectively to ACLED’s violence against civilians, battles, and explosions/remote violence event types, as well as the mob violence sub-event type of the riots event type. It excludes the protests event type. Political violence is defined as the use of force by a group with a political purpose or motivation.
  • Organized political violence: This term is used to refer collectively to ACLED’s violence against civilians, battles, and explosions/remote violence event types. It excludes the protests and riots event types. Political violence is defined as the use of force by a group with a political purpose or motivation. Mob violence is not included here as it is spontaneous (not organized) in nature.
  • Violence targeting civilians: This term is used to refer collectively to ACLED’s violence against civilians event type and the excessive force against protesters sub-event type of the protests event type, as well as specific explosions/remote violence events and riots events where civilians are directly targeted.

For more methodological information – including definitions for all event and sub-event types – please see the ACLED Codebook.

Bhavani Castro
Bhavani Castro is the South America Research Manager at ACLED. She holds a M.A. in International Security from the Institut d´Études Politiques de Paris – Sciences Po Paris, and a B.A. in International Relations from University of São Paulo. Her research interests include ethno-nationalist conflicts, communal violence, and non-state armed groups and gender. She is fluent in Portuguese, English, and French and is based in São Paulo, Brazil.

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