Introduction The strategically important Republic of Colombia, located in the north west region of continental South America, has been rocked by sustained civil violence for several decades. With substantial natural resources (including significant oil reserves), vast cocoa-producing regions, and Pacific and Caribbean coastlines, the country has been the site for ongoing political struggle to an extent not seen elsewhere in the region. For decades, ruling elites have governed through two political parties (Conservative and Liberal), and successive administrations have worked to open the Colombian economy to foreign capital, and to ensure a healthy investment climate. Through this, elites have both garnered extensive support from the United States, which has provided billions of dollars in economic and military aid to the government, and have entrenched their domestic rule.2 Colombian society remains deeply inequitable, with vast wealth differentials between the landowning oligarchy and the wider population sustained by the continuing consolidation of capitalist social relations. Despite relative consensus across the ruling elite regarding the desired structure of the economy, there exists a set of significant political forces in Colombia who remain deeply opposed to the prevailing socioeconomic order. A wide range of people from within Colombian civil society have adopted a position of confrontation against the state, either through taking up armed struggle or through peaceful political organization. Such opposition manifests itself in a varied and complex way, with a myriad of groups who seek to modify or even overturn existing distributions of power and wealth. In response, the Colombian elite, acting through both the state and allied institutions of social, economic and military control, have led a concerted effort to disrupt, dismantle and destroy all viable opposition. As a central strategy within this effort, these elites have undertaken a coordinated campaign of violence against Colombian civilians, specifically in order to instil fear and dissuade political organization from below. As a discrete element within the wider civil conflict, ongoing since the 1960s, tens of thousands of civilians have been victims of violence from a complex network of rightwing paramilitary groups tied to core elements of the state security forces, and to the ruling class. Through the use of unrestrained violence delivered
against the civilian population, the Colombian state aims to silence those who would otherwise work openly for better working and living conditions, and for a more equitable redistribution of land, wealth and power. As Adam Jones noted:
It is . . . the defense of the political and economic status quo that is most important [for (para)militarism in Colombia]; one does not need to be a presumed auxiliary of a formal rebel organisation, merely to adopt – or belong to a collectivity deemed to hold – a rebellious stance towards existing socioeconomic arrangements.