International conflict analysis

Report and recommendations regarding the Colombian peace process


In October 2016, the Colombian population rejected by referendum the peace process proposed by the government with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) guerrilla group. The origins of the conflict have been a matter of debate as some analysts consider the FARC ‘a direct outgrowth of la Violencia’ (Wickham-Crowley 2014, 219), some others such as historian Catherine LeGrand (2003) consider this period as one of the multiple root causes, while policy-makers use the 1964 official creation of the FARC and Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN) groups (ICG 2017, i) as the triggering event. The peculiarity of Colombian guerrillas is that initially, they register this armed conflict in the long term, without imposing themselves as victors, but without being destroyed by government forces either, and in a second time, they use the balance of military force to negotiate their legalization as political parties with the existing governments against the abandonment of their weapons as part of a political reform process.

Guerrillas generally perceive themselves as revolutionaries and armed struggle as the means towards a political and social revolution. Whatever their members’ social origins, past political experiences, or ideological references, these movements are distinct from other armed attempts to seize power, such as paramilitary militias. Indeed, they seek the support of popular masses as a guarantee of the success of the initial insurrection and, once they have come to power, aim to implement a fundamental change in societies’ social, political and economic structures, such as agrarian reforms or regional developments (Bejarano 2003, 226). This political justification for using violence allows to assimilate Latin American guerrillas, and particularly the Colombian guerrilla, to revolutionary political actors.

Consequently, theoretical references on the role of collective mobilizations in revolutions, such as sociologist Charles Tilly (1978), appear more useful than the frameworks to analyse revolutionary breaks. Indeed, choosing the former approach reintroduces a temporal reflection on the political process as a whole, and refers to two moments, namely the period of armed confrontation and the revolutionary results proper, after the effective replacement of the old regime by new power structures.

These reflections first provide a semantic distinction on the term ‘revolution’ because, while there were revolutionary situations, Colombia had no revolutionary results. Second, the definition proposed by Tilly (1978) corresponds to the vision guerrillas have of their own action, using the notion of ‘multiple sovereignty’. His The framework analyses the guerrillas’ emergence in relation to the political and institutional contexts, the evolution of relations with the state and society, the relationship with other political and social actors, and the internal logics of achieving goals through weapons. It allows to understand why in some countries guerrillas have not managed to prevail despite a political and military force attested by their long presence, and why in Colombia they sought to translate their military strength into a civilian political dynamic and even into political parties.

The comparative analysis of Latin American guerrillas, as presented by Colombian ambassador to the Netherlands and sociologist Eduardo Pizarro in 1996, was constructed around three chronological questions referring to these movements’ evolution, namely the reasons for their emergence, their consolidation or expansion, and their success or failures to overthrow the existing power (Martins 2003, 99). Each of these three steps has specific logics; the first is generally invoked regarding the political use of violence, the second intermediate moment only serves as a weak interpretation of revolutions’ victory and the last one is classically inspired by the studies on revolutions mentioned above.

Although the 2016 peace agreement did lead to demilitarization, some scholars argue that the demise of the FARC will not result in the end of organised violence (Gray 2008, 83). This issue indicates that the Colombian crisis might still be going on though experiencing another period of ‘détente’. This paper will first provide a brief historical section in which the diffusion and recurrence of waves of guerrillas in Latin America will be explained. Thereafter, the theoretical framework of conflict negotiation and peacebuilding will be used to explain how the failure of the Colombian insurrection led to an internal armed conflict, and its evolution towards a protracted conflict. Finally, this paper will present some policy recommendations to the UN Mission, the international community, the Colombian government and the FARC.


  1. Context: Diffusion and recurrence of waves of guerrillas in Latin America

Paradoxically, and probably because of the mythical dimension of the Latin American guerrillas, the variety of academic comparisons in political science or sociology is not commensurate with their strong media coverage and testimonial publications. The main works of contemporary political science generally relate the general contexts by inserting them in a general discussion on revolutions or on the Latin American left’s evolution (Carr & Ellner 1993). Some works give a narrative rather than an analytical description (Gott 2008), or even a quasi-encyclopaedic cataloguing (Gross 1995). Rare are the works which question the reasons for their emergence, their success or failure in achieving the final revolutionary victory, or their evolution in a war context (Wickham-Crowley 1992). This last approach is more sociological and anthropological and focuses on the experiences and understandings of their functioning as organizations, their mode of action and visions of the world, and their relations with societies and communities.

The first wave, in the 1960s, developed around Che Guevara’s ‘foco’ doctrine. The dominant idea was that, to overcome a semi-feudalist situation, the revolutionary parties had to support the bourgeoisies in their construction of national capitalism, and the socialist struggle would then arise from the structural contradictions of capitalist development. This is based on the primordial role of a vanguard which, through its armed action in rural areas, becomes the catalyst for a gradually spreading insurgency (Wickham-Crowley 2014, 221) which, in addition to the peasant masses, forges the revolutionary ideology. Guerrilla warfare is thus the political and military centre of a socio-economically motivated revolution that can be achieved without a pre-existing political party or social movement and without a preconceived ideological framework.

Regionally, the Cuban example acted mainly as a reference for emerging guerrilla groups who followed the ‘foquist’ model in rural areas in order to create favourable conditions for the revolution. These experiences generally lasted a short time before failing, which led to many casualties and the consequent disappearance of organizations. Some explanations of the guerrillas’ failures are that most were isolated from other left-wing movements, they expected the vanguard’s swift victory even with a limited number of combatants, and finally they had few connections with the rural world which they considered a homogeneous support group (Martins 2003, 100). Moreover, in many countries, the failure of the guerrillas is accompanied by military coups d’états, justified by the crushing or prevention of the emergence of insurrectionary foci.

As a result, despite the multiplication of organizations, this first wave of guerrillas concerns few combatants, except in the Argentinian and Uruguayan cases. In addition to the hyper-visibility of Che Guevara, Cuba’s strong symbolism is due to the swift victory and the desire to extend the revolution to the whole of Latin America at a time when the relations between the two superpowers were less tense. The failure of all the experiments and the counterexample of the democratic socialist ‘Chilean model’ (Best et al. 2008, 392) contributed to question the then-dominant vision of the Latin American left that the only way to achieve power was the armed struggle.

A second wave of guerrilla warfare began in the late 1970s. Again, the international context of Washington’s foreign policy towards Latin America and the relations between the two superpowers is no stranger to this. In 1981, the Reagan administration began a less conciliatory policy towards certain Central American and Caribbean military regimes, where communism was considered ‘pervasive in America’s backyard’ (Best et al. 2008, 394). Finally, the resumption of the Cold War, starting from the Iranian crisis and the invasion of Afghanistan, fuelled regional tensions allowing Cuba to play promoter of the revolution.

The 1979 success of the Sandinistas and the establishment of a less orthodox socialist regime than in Cuba showed an alternative. Less widespread geographically, this second wave was nevertheless characterized by a ‘long-term, patient preparation’ (Wickham-Crowley 2014, 229) mainly in Central America (Nicaragua 1960-79, Guatemala 1970-96, El Salvador 1970-92), and in different dynamics, Peru (1979-98) and Colombia. Each of these new movements rejected the impasses of the Castro example. For example, in Colombia, similar fragmented guerrilla groups operated and even punctually strengthened themselves, which now complicates the peace process as a negotiation with one group is accompanied by military action against another. Finally, this context of increasingly widespread violence and without real prospects for the seizure of power led to a humanitarian crisis, with approximately 10% of the population being forcibly internally displaced (Zea et al. 2013, 788).

To conclude this brief but necessary historical background of the Colombian conflict, Latin American guerrillas are characterized by two ‘waves’ (Wickham-Crowley 2014) or ‘strategies’ (Martins 2003, 98). The first, in 1956-1970, was led by Che Guevara’s foco doctrine based on the mobilization of rural populations, particularly important in such agrarian societies. The success of the 1959 Cuban insurrection in leading to regime change was followed by similar movements in Central and Latin America although the only other success was Nicaragua in 1979.


2. From the failure of the insurrection to the prolongation of the conflict

The circumstances which enabled the success of the Castroist and Sandinist movements have not recurred in any other countries. Indeed, the two cases of success in Cuba and Nicaragua, and the twenty-six cases of failures (Wickham-Crowley 1992, 312 and 323), allowed the elaboration of comparative explanations, based on primordial factors linked both to the behaviours of internal actors and the status of regimes and international contexts. These were only found in Cuba in the late 1950s and in Nicaragua in the late 1970s, whereas Colombia ‘continues to represent the strongest revolutionary challenge posed to the political institutions of a country throughout Latin America’​​ (William-Crowley 1989, 521). Indeed, on the one hand and in view of the guerrillas’ political and military strength, the insurrection was likely to triumph but on the other hand, the armed actions of the FARC continued over five decades, without the government being able to reduce it significantly despite intense US assistance.

However, between the few successes and the many final failures, some countries and particularly Colombia, have experienced intermediate situations where guerrillas manage to protract the struggle but fail to reverse solid regimes, which Wickham-Crowley describes as ‘also-rans’ (1992). His reflection is centred on the stage of the evolution of guerrillas towards a negotiated end rather than on the stage of the insurrection or its victory, because it is precisely in the political and social dynamics created by this continuation that it is possible to understand the reasons for the evolution towards a negotiated solution.

In order to understand the reasons for the results of insurrections, Wickham-Crowley (1992) analysed a number of criteria in representative guerrillas of the first wave (Cuba, Colombia, Guatemala and Venezuela) and the second (Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Colombia and Peru), while differentiating their importance according to each moment of development of the guerrillas. He then attributed the survival of movements to the nature and intensity of peasant support on the one hand, and to the guerrillas’ military strength on the other, which he considered to be two determining conditions for survival. Finally, success lies in the ability to take advantage, through moderate demands and political flexibility, of the tendency of certain regimes to generate pluriclassist oppositions. Indeed, Colombian politics are characterized by a powerful opposition currently led by former-president Uribe, who campaigned in favour of the plebiscite (ICG 2016, 9-10). This lack of governmental unity is particularly relevant with regards to the forthcoming elections, as the negotiation strategy will be at the centre of presidential campaigns from both sides, and the UN mission should act accordingly.

From this observation, Wickham-Crowley differentiates between the two victorious cases, the numerous cases of guerrillas defeated, and the intermediate situations of failure of the insurrection but extension of the armed conflict (Wickham-Crowley 1992, 312). Understanding the situation of the Colombian FARC in relation to other movements, and grasping the reasons for their consolidation, and their extension over time is not easy because they are strong military guerrillas with peasant support but have not succeeded in overthrowing the regime.

A first step towards an analysis of the insurrection’s debacle is to consider Colombia as opposed to the two cases of success. In the comparative analysis of Latin American guerrillas, the explanatory components proposed to understand the Colombian insurrection’s success are absent, while all other factors are present. El Salvador, the other typical example of failed insurrection with the case of the Frente Farabundo Martí de Liberación Nacional (FMLN), has been particularly studied. Thus, three studies are characteristic of this comparative turn, although with different theoretical approaches and conclusions: Dix (1983) favours an explanation through the regime’s nature, Wickham-Crowley (1992) supplements it by structural elements and Foran (2005) proposes to add data related to the international political and economic context to these two types of explanation.

According to the latter, even in a situation of dependent economic development, the political culture of opposition is in some way more developed, and therefore more fragmented, with several interpretations of the situation in competition (Foran 2005). On the one hand this prevents the formation of a broad opposition coalition, but on the other hand the economic situation is deplorable. Finally, the international situation (i.e. the US position), although rather favourable to the overthrow of the dictatorial regimes under President Carter’s human rights diplomacy, shifted after the 1979 Sandinist victory and the election of President Reagan in 1980 to a more interventionist support for right-wing armed groups (Best et al. 2008, 394-395).

By following the analytical frameworks proposed, Colombian guerrilla groups also contribute to providing a negative example. The military weakness of the FARC and its inability to constitute a single organ of leadership lead to great difficulty in articulating with the rest of the opposition. The fact that it is a minority, chronic and unresolved armed insurrection (Chernick 1989) constitutes the first explanation for its failure to reach power, even before questioning the nature and the recent evolution of the regime or the international situation.

This section explained how and why the Colombian insurrection failure to achieve power led to a more or less widespread internal armed conflict over many years and to significant territory gain, although it did not reach the expected revolutionary break, seizure of power and a new regime. This status led Chernick to argue that negotiations in Colombia should be ‘confined to political reforms concerning more equitable access to state power and resources, and linked to a broader framework of democratic opening’ (1989, 55). It is therefore a revolutionary struggle morphing into an internal armed conflict, or in other words an insurrection without revolution.


3. When insurgencies lead to prolonged internal conflicts

Analysing the reasons why the FARC emerged and then failed in taking over power is a necessary step to understand the peace processes in Colombia. However, the peculiarity of Colombia lies rather in the evolution of this failure towards a protracted conflict, while none of the guerrillas of the first wave survived the military reaction. For example, although Peru and Nicaragua also experienced prolonged conflicts, both were interrupted in the 1990s, one by military repression and the other by the political defeat of the regime against which they fought (Best et al. 2008, 395).

This prolongation in time therefore questions the consolidation of the FARC. It is no longer a matter of debating the ability of a group to find weapons, organize support networks, incorporate new members, and benefit from peasant support during the few months between the insurrection and the final victory. It is necessary to continue this questioning over a period of several years, even though a revolutionary struggle is based on a swift victory, because the very base of society is damaged which means that any measures of transitional justice are hardly ‘politically viable’ (Bejarano 2003, 228).

As mentioned above, Wickham-Crowley’s comparative works originally reflect on prolonged insurrections as negative readings of triumphant revolutions. However, in his in-depth comparison of the three Central American cases, the prolonged struggle in El Salvador is compared to situations of revolutionary victory (Nicaragua) or failure (Guatemala) and not to other protracted situations. McClintock on the other hand compares Salvadoran and Peruvian cases (1998) and stresses the importance of analysing the reasons and effects of the prolongation, although on this specific aspect she elucidates the Colombian case.

To understand the success of some guerrillas in extending their armed action, most of these studies focus on the continuation over time of the factors explaining the emergence of a guerrilla warfare, especially peasant and urban support in marginalized neighbourhoods. However, a longer temporal perspective requires precisions on two particular aspects, namely the internal evolution of the guerrillas and the nature of interaction between the guerrillas and the political on the one hand and rural communities on the other. The first can be illustrated by FARC’s weaponry which evolved dramatically since the beginning of the conflict, when external actors participated in arms trade or even funded the armed groups. Thus, since the 1990s, as the international community disengaged from the conflict, FARC turned to drug trade and kidnappings for economic autonomy and to unofficial weapons, such as landmines, which remain major challenges to the peace process (ICG 2017, 24).

Generally, few works question the multiple and changing relationships maintained by the armed organizations with the populations, and investigate the motives of the populations to support them, to tolerate them as a lesser evil, or on the contrary to collaborate with the forces of order (Arjona 2014, 1375). These questions require a twofold approach to on the one hand apprehend the guerrillas and their environment, on the other hand grasp how they thought and reported their action. This standpoint, inspired by sociology and anthropology, brings together life histories and reconstruction of local contexts to understand notably the link between FARC and indigenous communities. In the current situation, this perspective is particularly relevant as the popular plebiscite of the peace agreement was followed by the ‘Congress overwhelmingly ratify[ing] it’ (UN Security Council 2016, 3).

In Colombia, the literature on the origins of the conflict abounds, notably on the context of the peasant struggles, the history of the organizations, the biography of their main actors, the political process and the different phases of the organizations as well as their demands (Gross 1995; Gott 2008). On the other hand, there are few studies on the strategies of political and military expansion, the internal configuration of the FARC and the processes of aggregation or disintegration. This situation is explained by the orientations taken by Colombian sociologists on violence, or ‘violentologists’ (Gray 2008, 77). In the case of El Salvador, this approach is virtually absent, which is surprising considering the importance of peasant support in this conflict. The few existing studies focus on the nature and evolution of these links, at the beginning of the conflict (Kincaid 1998), or at the end (Binford 1997), more rarely over the entire period (Wood 2008).

This perspective also allows to understand the effects of the prolongation of the conflict on the FARC. This political actor acts in the name of a project of radical transformation of society, and justifies political violence by an insurrectionary action leading to a revolutionary situation whose ultimate aim is seizure of power. Thus, the use of violence is a temporary choice, and ends either because of satisfied demand or because the circumstances leading to it have been modified, and no longer justify it. This vision of instrumental violence is very present in the sociology of resource mobilization, although violence is not a resource like others by constituting a transgression of the existing political and social order (Humphreys 2005).

The non-institutionalized nature of Colombian society partly exposes this argument. As Arjona (2014) has shown with her concept of ‘wartime social order’, violence and the will to build an order in political societies are not antithetical. Nevertheless, it is necessary to question the way in which violence changes the political actor’s identity, both in its internal organization and its relationship to political authority. Even if it has a specific political purpose, an armed organization is by nature different from a political party, a trade union, or an association. Indeed, the use of violence accompanied by an illegal and compartmentalized action reinforces hierarchies and internal obedience and operates a growing distance between the organization and its environment. This is shown by the fact that the FARC have increasingly targeted civilians over time for territorial control (Vargas 2012, 205) and committed various human rights abuses, notably the recruitment of minors in their ranks, which is one of the most urgent issues to be addressed by the peace agreement’s implementation.

Prolonged violence leads to a strong institutionalization of the armed organization, to a perpetuation of its practices, even to a professionalization of its members, which all contribute to removing it from the initial political objective. Although clearly distinct from terrorism (Martins 2003, 09), the practice of terror is increasingly frequent as the conflict lasts. This technique can be used not only against the enemy (executions out of the fight, massacres of civilians suspected of helping the other side, kidnappings, etc.), but also in areas of presence (forced recruitment, framing of the civilian population for military purposes, predation of scarce resources, among others) or even within the organization (internal purges, liquidations). In extreme cases, the armed organization may have no other purpose than its own reproduction in war, and can degenerate into a ‘wartime transformation of social networks’ (Wood 2008).

This paper assumes that the FARC political organization does not cease to be so because they embrace violent action. This is a result of considering the political processes as the evolution of political actors who initially opted for political violence and then agree to discuss this choice during negotiations in a pacified and reformed institutional scene. Revolutionary political and social movements, more or less structured and developed, decide to resort to political violence at a given moment, turning into guerrillas. This protracted armed struggle then contributes to modifying their internal functioning, their relations with their environment, as well as their individual identities in terms of ‘bodily capital’ and ‘militarized masculinities’ (Theidon 2009, 22), which calls for a gendered approach to negotiations. Yet this development does not happen to the detriment of their political goal, since the armed struggle leads to a military impasse, and these groups can negotiate their integration back into political life, participate in elections and reform institutions.

The use of political violence is significant because it is a determining moment in the evolution of the political actors. As the Colombian sociology of Violencia has been proposing it is necessary to recognize the ‘multiplicity of violences’ (LeGrand 2003, 170) and their different logics. Analysing the social, economic or political reasons for which social actors resort to arms must be accompanied by the study of the effects of this practice, during and after the conflict, on the actors. But it is hypothesized that for the FARC, the use of violence has not completely distorted their identity, which is reaffirmed by their participation in institutionalized political life.

The evolution towards a protracted conflict can be understood by two factors, which allow to focus on the later stage of negotiation. First, the reasons which led to prolonged revolution are paramount. Most studies such as McClintock (1998) or the work of Pizarro as cited in Martins (2003), focus on the continuation over time of the elements already stated to explain the emergence of guerrilla warfare. However, the internal evolution of the FARC together with the modalities of interaction between them and the rural communities, and more generally the political, are key factors to explain the persistence of a conflict. Secondly, the effects of this continuity on the FARCare crucial. Indeed, armed organisations become more institutionalised, carry on with former practices, and have more professionalised members, which take them away from the initial political objective.


To conclude, the Colombian revolutionary movements initially conceived their own armed insurrection as a swift and infallible means of achieving power. The FARC did not return victoriously to Bogotá, but they succeeded in organizing themselves in a lasting way and in challenging state authority by a protracted internal armed conflict that polarized the political situation in Colombia. It is therefore necessary to study the configuration of the armed conflict, then the negotiation of peace, and its effective application of concerted measures. Analysis of negotiated resolutions of internal conflicts and of peace-building helps to reveal the possibilities to overcome armed violence and to understand the effects of the frameworks established for its resolution on the fate of pacified political societies.

However, the particularity of Colombia in relation to other negotiated resolution of internal conflicts necessitates another extension of the analysis. The renovation of political institutions is a central issue of the conflict, and as a result the resolution of the conflict goes through institutional reforms rather than through Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) measures. In order to assess the peace process success, both the effectiveness of demilitarization and the deepening of democratization over time must be taken into account. Latin American peace processes can be seen as exemplary transitions from low-intensity armed conflicts to low-intensity democracies (Stahler-Sholk 1994). This deepens the forms taken by this institutional evolution in the direction of democratization, in line with the democratic transitions of the Latin American countries. Thus, both the transition from peace to war and from limited forms of democracy to wider practices ought to be better comprehended in their specificities.

Policy recommendations

To the UN mission

a) Expand the duration of the mission for at least half of the 2018 presidential mandate, that is to say until the end of 2020. Therefore, the Mission would be in a position to support the future Colombian government in negotiating and implementing the agreement.

b) Conduct a census of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in order to set up a strategy of safe returns, while in the meantime assess their eligibility for protection in coordination with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

c) Continue the monitoring of the ceasefire and cessation of hostilities by separating the forces, providing logistic, verifying the lay-down of arms and coordinating with the civil society and other UN agencies, especially UNHCHR.

d) Ensure that the UN’s gender-sensitive approach is implemented on the ground, notably by liaising with local women’s groups and NGOs to receive feedbacks and reports about the reintegration of both female and male former-combatants.

To the international community

a) Support any measure of transitional justice which includes the views of local actors, women and minority groups as well as IDPs.

b) Give financial support to community projects, particularly in rural areas, to promote the reintegration of FARC former-combatants.

c) Send experts and specialists for the deactivation of landmines and deficient bombs in the perspective to create and train an autonomous local special unit for demining the territory.

To the Government of Colombia

a) Strengthen its position as a united actor, so that the opposition does not act as ‘inside spoilers’ (Stedman 1997, 8-9) in regard to the 2018 presidential elections.

b) Adopt a national security strategy away from the counterinsurgency perspective that prevailed for decades and instead prioritise a role for the military that respects civilians’ human rights, legality and institutions, in order to restore the legitimacy of the state’s army.

c) Enhance the separation between the state’s army and the private militias working with drug traffickers, so-called self-defence groups, paramilitaries etc. by tightening the staff training and enforcing a moral code of conduct highlighting the expectations in terms of ethics.

d) Make accessible to the population the key content of the peace agreement and its implementation using notably the media, conferences, leaflets and billboards.

e) Conduct surveys about the impact of the educative and informative actions recommended in III.d), to ensure the population is included in the normalisation process, then take the responses into consideration as an example for the negotiations with the ELN.

To the FARC

a) Strengthen the unity of the movement through proactive communication in order to include every member, regardless of their age or gender, in the disarmament process and avoid their integration into criminal groups, particularly those linked to the drug trade.

b) Facilitate the work of the UN mission in providing a specific treatment to minors by raising the awareness of FARC members about the need and the advantages of presenting themselves as underage.

c) Work with the Colombian government in the fight against drug trafficking by providing information and possibly participate in missions to dismantle the criminal organisations, in a framework of exchange of knowledge and training.


Reference list

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Stahler-Sholk, Richard. ‘El Salvador’s negotiated transition: from low-intensity conflict to low-intensity democracy’. Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs 36 (1994): 1-60.

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Vargas, Juan. ‘The persistent Colombian conflict: subnational analysis of the duration of violence, Defence and Peace Economics 23 (2012): 203-223.

Wickham-Crowley, Timothy. Guerrillas and revolution in Latin America. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Wickham-Crowley, Timothy. ‘Two “Waves” of Guerrilla-Movement Organizing in Latin America, 1956–1990’. Comparative Studies in Society and History 56 (2014): 215–242.

Wood, Elizabeth. ‘The Social Processes of Civil War: The Wartime Transformation of Social Networks’. ​Annual Review of Political Science 11 (2008): 539-561.

Zea Maria Cecilia et al. ‘Armed Conflict, Homonegativity and Forced Internal Displacement: Implications for HIV among Colombian Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Individuals’. Culture, Health & Sexuality 15 (2013): 788-803.


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