Can the Armed Conflict Become Part of Colombia’s History?

Many of Colombia’s young adults know little to nothing about the country’s decades-long armed conflict that lasted until 2016. The conflict is responsible for almost a quarter of million deaths and caused the displacement of more than 5 million people, creating one of the world’s largest populations of internally displaced persons.

“The conflict has been such a big part of our history, but it’s not talked about enough in high school or university,” says María Juliana Duran Fedullo, who is 24 years old. “I wish there was a class that taught us about the conflict.”

Part of the problem, reasons Duran, is that history is told by the winners, and it seems as if the “winner” in this conflict is the government. “You never get told the whole story,” she says. “When I was in high school, I was taught that guerillas are bad guys, and they are at fault for everything.”

One simplistic explanation of the armed conflict is that Colombia’s right-wing government was at war with left-wing guerillas, and that right-wing paramilitary groups and cartels contributed many acts of violence. For decades, the story told was the version taught to Duran: the left-wing guerillas were responsible for the lion’s share of the deaths. What we know now is that the right-wing paramilitary groups, in fact, committed approximately 46% of the homicides. (This estimate comes from the JEP-CEV-HRDAG project, and spans 1985 to 2018, with a credibility interval ranging from 40 to 55%.)

Colombia is an extremely unequal and polarized country, says Paula Amado, age 27. “If you’re a person who leans to the left, you get called a guerilla. If you lean to the right, you get called a paramilitary.”

Amado and Duran have been working on the Colombian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which recently ended, and are now employed by the Human Rights Data Analysis Group (HRDAG) as consultants. The goal of the Commission is to set the record straight and do an official reckoning as a nation. How many people were killed? How many were displaced or disappeared? Where did it happen? Who was responsible? These are questions that the Commission is answering. With these answers comes an opportunity to make the truth part of national history, a subject taught in schools, a topic for civil discussion and movement forward, whether in the form of reparations or policies to safeguard against “non-repetition.”

“Some people are really interested in what the Commission has to say,” says Duran. “Its big contribution is that there’s the truth told somewhere, and now you can teach it to people. After the final report, people became more conscious of how we’re not teaching this. How do Colombians not know about this conflict? We need to learn our history.”

Not surprisingly, right-wing political groups in the country do not want to acknowledge what the Commission says. For 50 years, the government has been blaming the violence on left-wing guerilla groups, the most well-known of which are ex-FARC-EP and ELN, organizations that hail mostly from rural and impoverished regions. But the report shows that casualties at the hands of the guerillas is likely to be 23% (ex-FARC-EP) and 3% (ELN) from 1985 to 2018, according to estimates by the JEP-CEV-HRDAG project.

“Some people are unhappy. The report is putting some people in uncomfortable positions,” says Amado. “Even now a right-wing group wants to write their own report, telling their own ‘truth.’ That happened while the final report was being written, and inside the Commission there were a lot of blockages, a lot of friction.”

As part of their work with the Commission and with HRDAG, Amado and Duran have spent a lot of time working with lists and databases containing information about those killed and displaced by the conflict. “Because of HRDAG,” says Duran, “I’ve learned to talk more about the victims, not just the guerillas and paramilitaries. I’ve become a lot more conscious of them, who they were, what happened to them.”

They’ve also learned that lists and databases only tell part of the story. While those contain “registered victims,” they do not account for non-registered victims. Part of HRDAG’s analysis is to estimate how many victims have not been registered, or accounted for, in any of the enumerations feeding the databases. To do this, they use multiple systems estimation and other methods.

Both feel that HRDAG has had a significant impact in Colombia. “Before working with HRDAG in the Commission, no one ever talked about non-registered victims,” says Amado. “The victims that were not seen before are now seen. I’m proud to be related to HRDAG.”

“I feel very lucky,” says Duran. “My first real world job was the Truth Commission, then I ended up at HRDAG. I’ve learned a lot of technical skills, but I’ve learned a lot more personal skills. I see myself reflected in the people who work there, I want to be like them, to have strong tech skills and to be really rigorous at whatever job I go to next. I want to be that devoted to the job, that kind and thoughtful, and willing to share what I know.”

Amado is hopeful about the future of her country. A new flavor of government has recently been elected, a contrast to the typical right-wing governments.

“The president’s whole campaign centered around diversity, and this government is focusing on problems and people and territories that weren’t in the spotlight before,” says Amado. “It’s great timing for the Commission to publish its final report. I think there’s a lot of political will toward peace agreements.”

This story is part of HRDAG’s long-term work in Colombia, including our most recent collaboration, the JEP-CEV-HRDAG data integration and statistical estimation project. We will have more stories to share and a public data and software release over the summer (2023), so stay tuned!




Our work has been used by truth commissions, international criminal tribunals, and non-governmental human rights organizations. We have worked with partners on projects on five continents.