Refuting the Democratization Peace Theory?

Refuting the Democratization Peace Theory? - Jonathan Taylor


Peru and Colombia both faced severe internal conflicts between 1990 and 2002, in which guerilla groups challenged state sovereignty by contesting its monopoly of legitimate violence. Peru was able to defeat its insurgency during this time period through military and police actions, but Colombia was unable to resolve its conflict through either negotiations or military force. During this period, Colombia attempted to replace political violence with participatory democracy, while Peru’s democracy self-destructed and the country reverted to authoritarianism. These outcomes are surprising in light of prevailing political science literature, which argues that democratization is the key means to resolve internal political violence. This article tests the hypothesis that literature supporting the democratization peace theory was counter-productive in these two cases. It does so by examining whether democratic depth was inversely related to the resolution of internal conflict. The article concludes that democracy was not causally related to the resolution of internal conflict, but that this variance in outcomes can be explained by two variables outside the democratization peace paradigm: the nature of the guerilla groups and the socio-economic structure of the rural provinces in which the insurgencies were based.

Examining Internal Conflicts through the Lens of Democratization

The rapid shift by former communist states toward liberal democratic systems that followed the dismantling of the Berlin Wall led many to hope that all the world would soon resemble the United States and Western Europe.[1] During the 1990s, democracy and democratization became seen as central goals for the developing world, especially for countries transitioning out of authoritarianism or faced with endemic internal conflict. In those heady days, scholars who accepted the theory of the democratic peace[2] theory applied its assumptions—that democracy prevents political violence between nation-states—to internal conflicts. The theory advocates that internal political violence is caused by weak states with political systems that cannot peacefully accommodate internal power struggles, and thus actors resort to the use of armed force.[3] These assumptions about democratization were combined with theories from conflict management literature, which emphasized that any durable conflict resolution requires solutions to the underlying political problems.[4] Such conflict resolution scholarship advocated, particularly during the 1990s, that democratic norms and liberal institutions were a necessary part of any sustainable and durable political system. While not universal in the conventional conflict management literature,[5] the combination of these two trends predominated and created a paradigm that can be called the democratization peace theory.

This theory is strongly challenged by the experiences of two South American countries beset by internal conflicts during the 1990s. Peru and Colombia both faced sizeable internal insurgencies by communist guerilla groups as the Cold War ended, and, contrary to expectations, both conflicts intensified in the early 1990s. Colombia attempted to replace internal political violence with deeper democratic processes, following the recommendations of democratization theorists.[6] Peru, on the other hand, suffered a breakdown of democratic governance when the freely elected President Alberto Fujimori used military force to shut down the legislature, eliminated the independent judiciary and centralized power around the executive branch and intelligence services. By the end of the decade Peru was able to crush its internal belligerents through military force and re-establish government sovereignty over the whole of its territory, while in Colombia the political violence intensified, despite efforts at both negotiations and military offensives, and the conflict continued into the twenty-first century. Close analysis, however, demonstrates that the level of democracy was not a significant explanatory variable in these two conflicts, thus indicating that the democratization peace theory—while not sufficient for prediction in these cases—is not as counter-productive as it might appear upon first glance.

Testing the Democratization Peace Theory

Peru and Colombia form an ideal pair of test cases to determine not only whether the democratization peace theory can be incorrect in describing the manner in which internal conflicts are abrogated, but also whether this theory can be counter-productive as a prescriptive measure. The background of these nations is quite similar, as are most potentially explanatory variables for internal conflicts. Both are mestizo nations whose societies are the product of a mixture of Spanish colonial conquest and indigenous cultures, and whose violent history is replete with economic oppression and racist policies enacted by a ruling white elite. Second, while there were racial overtones in the rhetoric of guerilla forces and anti-indigenous sentiment inherent in the national governments, these were not ethnic conflicts by any conventional definition of the term.[7] While both states were liberal democracies in 1990, neither had strong, inclusive democratic institutions. Geographically, these countries have some of the world’s highest mountains and densest rainforests, as well as the exceptionally high-altitude settlements of the altiplano. As of 1990, both faced an internal armed insurrection by groups claiming adherence to Marxist ideology with the avowed goal of the destruction of the state, and these guerilla forces controlled or perpetually contested the sovereignty of the government in certain areas.[8]

Most important, both conflicts were almost completely independent of external sources for support, as funding for guerilla groups came from the production and trafficking of narcotics, in particular cocaine.[9] Cocaine trafficking is most commonly associated with Colombia’s conflict, as almost all of Colombia’s armed actors, from Marxist revolutionaries to reactionary paramilitaries, were involved in drug trafficking. Peru’s armed conflict, however, was also inextricably linked to the drug trade, and in 1990 Peru was the world’s largest producer of cocaine and cocaine paste.[10] Both of Peru’s revolutionary forces were intimately involved in all aspects of the growing, processing and exportation of cocaine from Peru, and derived a large amount of their funding from these activities. A commonly held view regarding Colombia’s continuing internal civil war is that the material benefits actors derive from their involvement in the drug trade—regardless of pretension to ideology—are what motivate the intractable nature of the struggle.[11] This theory might seem to have significant explanatory power in explaining protracted armed conflict in Colombia on its own, but in the context of the comparison between Peru and Colombia the economic opportunity variable is essentially held as a constant.

Hypothesis and Argument

This paper examines the following hypothesis: is there a causal relationship between the dependent variable of democratic depth and the independent variable of conflict resolution in the cases of Peru and Colombia from 1990 to 2002? As previously stated, the discovery of a causal relationship would not only contradict the democratization peace theory but indeed show it to be counter-productive. The causal mechanism of this hypothesis contains two parts corresponding to both potential means of resolving internal conflict: military victory or a negotiated, power-sharing resolution. With regard to military victory, democratic norms and processes could prevent aggressive action against rebel groups, prohibiting brutal military actions that violate human rights norms, including both the use of violence and judicial procedures that might be able to end the internal struggle. A second reason why democracy could inhibit the resolution of a civil war is its ability to complicate negotiations through fragmentation on the part of the government, which can tempt parties outside the governing coalition to undercut the negotiation process.

The dependent and independent variables studied in this work are clearly differentiated within each country. The independent variable that this paper measures is the resolution of internal conflict. Specifically, resolving the internal conflict is defined as establishing uncontested sovereignty by the state over the whole of its territory, without political violence by non-state actors that threatens the organized life of the community. By this definition, Peru’s internal conflict was resolved in the period studied (probably by the end of 1997), while Colombia did not resolve its internal conflict by 2002 (and nor has it by April 2007). The dependent variable is the democratic nature of the national government for each country. While this paper will not dwell in depth on theories of democratic governance, in the two cases there were clear and undeniable trends toward democratic deepening in Colombia and democratic breakdown in Peru.

In testing this hypothesis against the factual background of events in Peru and Colombia from 1990 to 2002, this paper will argue that the test hypothesis is not sufficient to explaining the relationship between the dependent and independent variables—that is, the level of democratization (the dependent variable) does not significantly explain resolution of conflict (the independent variable). Thus, while in this case study there is not a counter-productive relationship between democratization and peace, nor is the democratization paradigm capable of explaining whether or not these conflicts were resolved. To explain this variance we must operate outside the democratization peace paradigm and examine two non-tested variables to explain the variance in outcomes: the structure, cohesiveness and ideology of the anti-government guerilla groups, and the socio-economic structure of the rural and provincial areas, as this structure determined the character and motivations of regional self-defense forces.

The first and most important explanatory variable, which is not included within the democratization peace paradigm, is the nature of the guerrilla groups. The ideological and unitary nature of the guerilla forces in Peru made military victory possible, while the fragmentation of Colombia’s rebel groups strongly encouraged prolonged conflict. Peru’s Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso)[12] was an extremely rigid hierarchal organization based on a monolithic Maoist ideology that created a cult of personality around its leader, Abimael Guzman. The ideological fervor of the Shining Path’s leadership made it impossible for the government to reach a negotiated settlement, which left a military victory as the only viable resolution to the internal conflict. The Shining Path’s ideology also led it to make strategic mistakes that undermined its support amongst the populace and allowed the military to eventually press its advantage, while the deification of its leader left the organization vulnerable to marginalization once Guzman was captured. In contrast, Colombia’s guerilla groups had neither rigid hierarchical structures nor idolization of a revolutionary leader. Far from being monolithic in any sense, there were two Colombian guerilla groups with serious fighting capacity and each faced a significant degree of internal fragmentation. Such fragmentation made both negotiations and military victory more difficult, as there was always a different group of armed actors ready to fill the void whenever another was co-opted or defeated.

The second explanatory variable this paper proposes is the socio-economic structure of the rural areas of the countryside of the two nations. Colombia has always had a rural elite, based on the fact that coffee plantations, cattle ranches and haciendas in the Colombian countryside are highly profitable. The advent of cocaine cultivation was merely an addition to the already profitable industries that already existed. Peru, on the other hand, has never had a rural elite. Land in Peru’s highlands and jungle, where the rebellion was centered, is not naturally profitable for agrarian purposes. This lack of a rural elite allowed the peasant class to create self-defense forces in Peru that helped re-establish government sovereignty without them becoming strong independent actors, thus making them part of the solution rather than part of the problem. In Colombia the rise of self-defense forces began as a means to combat violence perpetuated by the anti-government revolution groups, but they soon grew into paramilitary forces as agents of the landowning elites, who had the means to make them significant fighting forces. After the democratic deepening began, they were used as a means to outsource the counter-insurgency campaign.[13] Fragmentation and fighting between the paramilitaries and the guerillas has made a negotiated solution far more difficult, and indeed the government has had to create a separate peace process to neutralize these ostensibly pro-government groups. The major difference between the cases is that with no rural elites and no profit-making enterprises from the land in Peru, there were neither the demand nor the resources to form private armies.

Democratic Breakdown and the Fall of the Shining Path in Peru

Origins and Beliefs of the Shining Path

The ideology of the Shining Path had its origins in a period of military rule in Peru during the 1970s, but the organization did not conduct its first operations until the restoration of democracy in 1980. That the Shining Path gained prominence just as Peru was poised to return to a fully democratic system suggests that this revolutionary movement was from the beginning not one that could easily be pacified or co-opted by democratic governance.[14] While guerilla movements arose in every Latin American country following the success of the Cuban revolution, the Shining Path represented a dramatically different type of revolutionary group from the romantic struggle epitomized by Che Guevara.[15] With its emphasis on ideological purity, its cult of personality, its rigid hierarchical structure and its tolerance, even zeal, for mass murder in the pursuit of its revolutionary aims, the Shining Path bore more semblance to the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia or to such modern Islamic fundamentalist groups as Al Q’aida than it did to other Latin American revolutionary groups.[16] Whereas previous guerilla movements fought in the name of greater representation, the Shining Path targeted the democratic process itself.

The Shining Path was founded as a Maoist offshoot of the Peruvian Communist Party, in a move led by Party Secretary Abimael Guzman, who was established as the group’s founder and undisputed leader (both ideological and organizational).[17] Guzman’s followers declared him to be the “fourth sword” of Communism, following Marx, Lenin and Mao, as the focal point for a new worldwide revolution.[18] Guzman was a professor of philosophy and education at the University of San Cristobal de Huamanga in Ayacucho, where he held an almost hypnotic power over many of the students and faculty.[19] From their ranks, he organized a disciplined cadre of revolutionaries, ready for ideological and eventually military operations in the countryside. At the same time as the ideological message was taking hold, the revolutionary core at Huamanga was preparing for military operations that they called the “Popular War.”[20] The first phase of the Shining Path’s insurgency coincided with Peru’s economic collapse during the 1980s,[21] while policies pursued by President Alan Garcia (from the traditional APRA party) plunged the country into hyperinflation and severe recession.

The abject failure of the state to provide for economic security made the claims of the Shining Path more appealing to the impoverished rural masses, particularly in the Quecha-speaking highlands.[22] To many in these areas, the state was a distant abstraction, and the political parties were agents of the white, Lima-based elites who had been exploiting indigenous people since the Spanish conquest. At the same time, the state’s internal intelligence apparatus was all but non-existent, making military counterinsurgency efforts ineffective or counter-productive.[23] In the late 1980s, once the Shining Path began to take control of territory in the highlands, the Garcia administration responded by strengthening its intelligence apparatus. However, the continuing economic crisis, the dismal performance of Garcia as president and the deteriorating security situation exacted a heavy toll on the democratic institutions of the country and created a situation ripe for democratic breakdown.

From Strategic Equilibrium to Complete Collapse

In early 1990 the Shining Path made a strategic decision to take the revolutionary struggle to the capital, with systematic bombing campaigns in Lima that targeted economic and political elites. In public statements Guzman declared that the Shining Path was moving to consolidate its strategic equilibrium and to create a situation in which it could pursue a final offensive that would lead to the destruction of the Peruvian state. In line with the millenarian ideology of the Shining Path, this decision was an inevitable byproduct of its success in gaining control over sections of the highlands and establishing itself as a serious military force in many parts of the country.[24] While the shift towards consolidating strategic equilibrium frightened the populace,[25] it ultimately led to the rapid and complete downfall of the Shining Path movement. The offensive weakened the Shining Path’s presence in the rural communities where it had received significant support during the 1980s. During the resulting military crackdown on Shining Path-held areas, the cadres of Senderistas no longer had enough of a presence to protect these communities against the military forces. This development shifted the center of gravity of the political support away from the Shining Path and gave the government’s strategy of using peasant self-defense groups—the Rondas Campesinos—the chance to succeed.[26]

In early 1992, rising Shining Path violence, particularly in the capital, precipitated a serious political crisis that led to the breakdown of Peru’s democracy. One result of the economic deterioration of Peru in the late 1980s was the weakening of the traditional political parties, Accion Popular and APRA, and their replacement by political parties that were merely temporary vehicles for individual candidates.[27] The vacuum in the political center allowed for the spectacular rise of Alberto Fujimori, an agronomy professor of Japanese origin who ran as an anti-establishment candidate and translated the national mood against the traditional political class into a stunning victory in the election of 1990.[28] A large proportion of the populace had come to the conclusion that democracy was an impediment to the fight against the Shining Path, believing this vicious foe could not be defeated by an institutionally weak democratic system.[29] The military, in its close alliance with the Fujimori government, was frustrated by the political establishment’s conduct of the counterinsurgency operations, especially the judiciary, which it claimed was intimidated and easily bribed.[30] Fujimori and the military decided to grasp complete political control of the country by closing down the legislature through the use of force on 5 April 1992 in a move that has become known as the self-coup, or autogolpe.[31]

Between 5 April and 12 September 1992, the country was rocked by the most intense period of violence in the modern era, and to many it seemed like the gamble undertaken by Fujimori was backfiring. Outside assessments, including one by the RAND Corporation, concluded that there was a serious possibility that the Shining Path was going to win the guerilla war and take over the government.[32] This situation, however, was dramatically reversed when government agents apprehended the leader of the Shining Path, Abimael Guzman, in a safe house in Lima on the morning of 12 September 1992.[33] It is difficult to overstate the importance of this event on the resolution of Peru’s internal conflict, as the operation netted not only Guzman and other top Shining Path members, but also invaluable information contained on party members’ identities and whereabouts. The operational capacity of the Shining Path was immediately degraded, while the trove of intelligence helped to increase dramatically the effectiveness of the government’s counterinsurgency operations.[34] After several months of incarceration,[35] Guzman sent letters from prison stating that he wanted negotiations with the government, and in a television appearance renounced violence. These actions were crucial in completely demoralizing the remaining bands of Senderistas, and helped lead to an almost complete disassembly of the organization by 1995.[36] Despite avid claims by Fujimori that the autogolpe led to the capture of Guzman, in fact it was accomplished for reasons completely independent of the democratic breakdown, as it resulted from an intelligence-gathering operation begun under Garcia.[37] Indeed, Fujimori was out of town at the time of the capture and did not know about the operation until after Guzman was already in custody.

This issue of the judiciary was the one anti-democratic measure taken by Fujimori that contributed to the government’s victory in this struggle. After the autogolpe, Fujimori created large-scale military tribunals and special civilian courts with so-called faceless judges, whose identity and appearance remained anonymous, in trying suspected Shining Path and MRTA members.[38] Such a draconian solution to a real problem regarding the weakness and vulnerability of the judiciary led to the imprisonment of hundreds of innocent people and the systematic violation of the rights of all those accused of engaging in or supporting political violence.[39] Judicial impotence had created significant barriers to the previous resolution of the conflict through military and police force and aroused the ire of the security forces; thus, the weakness of democratic institutions helped lead to the democratic breakdown.

Protracted Conflict and Democratic Deepening in Colombia

Internal Conflict and Limited Democracy

The internal political violence that gripped Colombia from 1990 to 2002 had older roots than that of Peru,[40] and many analysts argue that it is in fact the continuation of a process of political violence that has gripped Colombia for over a century.[41] Two traditional elite-instigated parties, the Liberals and Conservatives, have fought violently for political control in Colombia, inspiring intense party affiliation within the Colombian populace. The period from 1946 to 1957 saw such intense political violence between these two parties that it is known simply as La Violencia (the Violence). This conflict ended with the creation of the National Front, a political power-sharing agreement between elites, which solidified the limited democratic nature of the Colombian political system.[42] While this agreement was crucial in stopping political violence, by locking the elites into power it also blocked other forces from gaining access to the political system. Such a system, combined with the prevalence of extant locally-based armed militia groups, created conditions ripe for the rise of new armed political actors. Thus, unlike Peru’s guerillas, who rose to prominence during a period of political openness,[43] Colombia’s guerillas were fighting for access to (or control of) a closed, though formally democratic, political system.

Guerillas, Paramilitaries and Drugs: The Fragmentation of Armed Actors

In the period of the National Front, a great array of anti-government armed political actors gained prominence in Colombia, of which only the Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) remained significant forces after 1990.[44] The violence perpetuated by these insurgent groups led to the creation of anti-guerrilla paramilitary forces of various stripes, which came together under the loose umbrella organization United Colombian Self-Defense Forces (AUC) in 1997.[45] From the beginning, these armed actors were intertwined with the interests of the rural landowning class and the provincial elites.[46] In 1965 the Colombian government began arming citizens after a presidential decree that legalized the creation of private armies for self-defense.[47] While this law was revoked in 1989 as part of negotiation efforts, it became impossible to put the genie back in the bottle, and private militias became the rule in Colombia.[48]

The government saw paramilitary actors as a means of helping the military in counterinsurgency operations,[49] and, despite the revocation of their legal status, after 1990 these paramilitary actors gained a more prominent role fighting the guerillas. As part of this effort, the government established a new self-defense program, known by its acronym CONVIVIR (“to live together”), which was envisioned as a lightly armed civilian force that could help reassert government authority while avoiding the creation of more violent, drug-funded paramilitary organizations.[50] This effort was designed to be more like the Rondas Campesinas in Peru, but it failed, as the CONVIVIR groups became close to the paramilitary apparatus and were disbanded in 1997. This process coincided with a change in the mission of the paramilitaries, as they became forces focused on maintaining the economic status quo and fighting against democratization efforts,[51] increasing involvement with the drug trade and becoming the primary source of human rights abuses.[52]

Democratic Deepening as Conflict Resolution: The Constitutional Assembly

The presidential election of 1990 was an extremely contentious one, as three major candidates were assassinated in the run-up to the election. The struggle for peace and security in Colombia became the top campaign issue, and, in a separate ballot initiative, Colombians voted overwhelmingly to reform the constitution so as to address the political crisis and the violence that was overtaking the country.[53] Cesar Gaviria was elected and followed through with the mandate given to him by this plebiscite to convene a constitutional assembly (Constituyente) to write a new, more democratic constitution, one that shook up the traditional two-party system that had been the focus of political life for a century.[54] It is clear that constitutional reform was designed to replace political violence with a new participatory democracy, to be in the words of Gaviria a “tool of peace”.[55] It was, however, approved and implemented in 1991, just before Colombia’s internal conflict entered its most violent phase.

While this process was supposed to undercut support for guerilla groups by addressing claims of exclusion and disenfranchisement, the new system had the perverse effect of increasing the level of violence by outsourcing it to paramilitary organizations. While the constitution established more direct control over the military by the central government, there was an increase in the number of human rights abuses and incidences of violence, as reduced pressure on the FARC and ELN through official sources led to indirect repression by the paramilitaries.[56] While this was a direct consequence of democratic reforms, it in fact refutes the argument that Colombia’s democratic deepening prevented the use of brutal tactics that would be necessary for the government to achieve military victory. Anti-guerilla violence became harsher but did not lead to the destruction of the anti-government forces. Instead, such violence helped to entrench the paramilitaries as independent actors free of government control.[57]

The democratic deepening also coincided with the government’s successful efforts to destroy the major drug cartels between 1991 and1994.[58] While this struggle eliminated these armed groups, it also opened up space for the political actors to gain more control of the drug trade, and the fragmented nature of the armed political actors (both guerilla and paramilitary) meant that organized drug production and trafficking in Colombia continued.[59] With the prevalence of multiple armed factions, any military operation that succeeded against a certain faction created space for a different armed faction to fill the vacuum.[60] The state proved that it was not strong enough to prevent armed actors from taking control of territory, and the ruthless violence and drug trafficking by the paramilitaries showed that such self-defense forces could not be relied upon to reassert government sovereignty.

Return to Negotiation: The Pastrana Period

The Conservative candidate Andres Pastrana attempted to solve Colombia’s internal conflicts through direct negotiations with the FARC and ELN. He created la zona de despeje, the demilitarized zone, which was designed to give the FARC breathing space for negotiations and to dampen violence, and gained significant United States funding and support for measures designed to combat the narcotics trade.[61] Pastrana had a strong popular mandate to make peace, but after two years of dialogue, the negotiations broke down, as factions within the FARC continued to carry on with business as usual.[62] Negotiations were finally cut off completely when the FARC hijacked a plane and kidnapped the President of the Senate’s Peace Commission on 20 February 2002. The failure of negotiations with the FARC during the Pastrana period has received extensive analysis within the conflict management literature.[63] The failure has been blamed on many factors, such as: the overwhelming economic benefits of the cocaine trade; the lack of a mutually hurting stalemate; insufficient international support; the fragmentation of the rebel groups; an undermining of negotiation efforts by political opposition parties; the lack of government actions against paramilitary forces; and the normalization of violence within Colombia.[64] Of these variables, there are only three factors that must be addressed to elucidate the comparisons to Peru and the argument of this article regarding democratization peace theory.[65]

The first of these factors is the fragmentation of the armed political actors. This explanatory factor supports this article’s argument that the nature of the guerilla forces is the most important variable explaining conflict resolution in Peru and Colombia, as this fragmentation helped to frustrate any negotiated or military resolution to Colombia’s conflict. This fragmentation of the armed groups was twofold, as there were more armed actors with serious military capacity in Colombia than in Peru, and as each segment of the same group contained many separate and feuding factions. The second factor is the role of the paramilitaries in prolonging the conflict, harming rather than supporting efforts to reassert governmental sovereignty. The paramilitary groups in Colombia presented a significant obstacle to a negotiated resolution, as the rebel groups claimed that they were hesitant to disarm and demobilize while their blood enemies, the paramilitaries, were still armed and active.[66]

Finally, the role of opposition parties is important in determining whether the democratic deepening caused by the new constitution hindered Colombia’s efforts to end its internal conflict. In analyzing the facts of the breakdown, it seems unlikely that the democratic deepening had a significant impact on the level and degree of political opposition to Pastrana’s peace process. In fact, there was strong political support across the spectrum for making concessions to the FARC, and it was only after the process failed to stop systematic violence by the FARC that Pastrana lost political support.[67] Furthermore, the strongest political opposition did not come from outside the traditional political parties but from within, and while the democratic changes may have increased incentives for dissent within the system, there is no compelling evidence that this is the case.[68]


The hypothesis this paper tests—that democracy can be an impediment to resolving internal conflicts—runs contrary to the commonly held assumptions of many political scientists, particularly those scholars who study democratization theory and apply it to conflict management. Despite the circumstantial evidence suggesting that the internal conflicts in Colombia and Peru directly contradict this democratization peace theory, there are two key structural factors beyond democratization variables that strongly favored the resolution of Peru’s conflict through governmental military victory and the prolongation of conflict in Colombia. First, the nature of the armed political actors varied substantially. In Colombia, the fragmented, non-hierarchical nature of the anti-government guerillas made both military and negotiated resolutions difficult, while the rigid hierarchical and ideological structure of the Shining Path made the organization vulnerable to defeat. Second, the economic structure in Peru allowed for the peasant self-defense forces to reassert government sovereignty once the Shining Path had lost the support of the rural population. Self-defense forces in Colombia, even those supposedly lightly armed and close to the civilian population under the CONVIVIR program, were easily co-opted by landowning elites and acted independently of state interests, making negotiated or military resolution vastly more complicated.

Despite the fact that this article argues that democratization peace theory is not counter-productive in this case, there are some uncomfortable lessons in the comparison of Peru and Colombia for scholars of conflict management. While the variables of democratic breakdown versus democratic deepening are not crucial in explaining the variance in outcomes in these two countries, they do not necessarily support the idea that respecting human rights and democratic processes is the only durable means for conflict resolution. First of all, the reform of the court system in Peru did increase the effectiveness of counter-insurgency efforts, at the price of serious violations of due process. Second, the constitutional assembly in Colombia did have some effect on prolonging the conflict by giving the paramilitaries the opportunity to fill a void caused by the military’s retreat, and this fostered intractable conflict between paramilitaries and the guerillas. A final note on these lessons, however, is that these casual mechanisms are not inherent to democratic norms, but are rather the result of weak democratic institutions, particularly the armed forces and the judiciary. Indeed, it is arguable that the only possible permanent solution for both of these weaknesses is to strengthen and institutionalize democratic processes, rather than diluting or eliminating them.


  1. This concept became embodied most famously in the phrase “the end of history,” after the title of Francis Fukayama’s book of the same name.
  2. Democratic peace theories are based on Immanuel Kant’s concept of perpetual peace. For modern explorations of this concept, see Michael Doyle, “Kant, Liberal Legacies, and Foreign Affairs, Part 1,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 12, no. 3 (1983).
  3. See Peter Harris and Ben Reilly, eds., Democracy and Deeply Rooted Conflicts (IDEA, 1990); Andrew Reynolds, ed., The Architecture of Democracy: Constitutional Design, Conflict Management, and Democracy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002). This theory also owes much to Charles Tilly’s work, in particular From Mobilization to Revolution (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1978).
  4. See I. William Zartman, Cowardly Lions (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2005). The introduction lays out the author’s belief that effective prevention of civil wars relies on effective building of national institutions along democratic lines.
  5. In particular, the democratization process has more recently also been seen as creating opportunities for internal conflict. See Michael S. Lund, “From Lessons to Action,” in Fen Osler Hampson and David M. Malone, eds., From Reaction to Conflict Prevention: Opportunities for the UN System (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2002), 158-83. Lund refers to the exacerbating of conflicts by imposing liberal western models before countries are ready for them “liberalization conflicts.” While democratization and liberalization are not necessarily the same phenomena, in the context of post-Cold War conflict management for all intents and purposes they are describing the same process.
  6. See, for instance, Harvey F. Kline, “The Attempt to Replace Violence with Democracy,” in Howard J. Wiarda and Harvey F. Kline, eds., Latin American Politics and Development (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2000), 173-99.
  7. While the belligerents in Peru and Colombia drew their largest support largely from non-white populations, in the minds of all participants the conflict was about ideology, class struggle and power distribution, not ethnic hatred.
  8. Throughout this piece I will use the classical Weberian definition of sovereignty, “maintaining the monopoly on legitimate violence throughout a territory,” as it relates to internal armed conflicts.
  9. “[A] principal reason that the FARC in particular has resisted the involvement of outside actors appears related to the fact that, quite simply, it has not needed it.” Cynthia J. Arnson and Teresa Whitfield, “Third Parties and Intractable Conflicts: The Case of Colombia,” in Chester Crocker, Fen Osler Hampson and Pamela Aall, eds., Grasping the Nettle: Analyzing Cases of Intractable Conflict (Washington, DC: United States Institute for Peace Press, 2005). The Shining Path had similar attitudes towards external support. See David Scott Palmer, “The Shining Path in Peru,” in Edwin Corr and Stephen Sloan, eds., Low-Intensity Conflict: Old Threats in the New World (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1993), 161.
  10. Gabriela Tarazona-Sevillano, Sendero Luminoso and the Threat of Narcoterrorism (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 1990). In 1988, coca cultivation in Peru’s Upper Huallaga Valley alone was 211,000 hectares, while in 1990 only 40,000 hectares were cultivated in all of Colombia, according to the Government of Colombia and the US Department of State through the use of UNCDP Landsat and Spot satellite imagery.
  11. This argument owes much to the theories of Paul Collier, who developed the economic model of conflict, and those who have built upon this model. The economic theories of conflict de-emphasize grievances and disgruntlement as explanatory variables, and instead emphasize the correlation between economic opportunities in a conflict situation and alternative opportunities open to those who make up the core of the armed political actors. See Paul Collier, “Economic Causes of Civil Conflict and Their Implications for Policy,” World Bank Thinking Paper, 2000. See also Mats Berdal and David Malone, eds., Greed and Grievance: Economic Agendas in Civil Wars (Boulder, CO: International Peace Academy, 2000).
  12. Formally, the Shining Path calls itself the Communist Party of Peru by Way of the Shining Path of Mariategui (El Partido Comunista del Peru por el Sendero Luminoso de Jose Carlos Mariategui) after the founder of the Peruvian Communist Party. The section on Peru’s guerilla movements will focus almost exclusively on the Shining Path, also referred to simply as Sendero, as they were the only armed political actor to represent a serious threat to the state’s sovereignty. The secondary guerilla group, the Marxist Revolutionary Army, or Tupac Amaru (MRTA), was weak militarily and politically, with its only significant violent act the occupation of the Japanese embassy in 1996-1997. According to the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report of 2003, the MRTA were responsible for only 1.5 percent of the violence in Peru during this period, compared to 60 percent by the Shining Path.
  13. William Aviles, “Paramilitarism and Colombia’s Low-Intensity Democracy,” Journal of Latin American Studies 38 (2006): 379-408. Aviles refers to this as this phenomenon as the “privatisation of repression.”
  14. David Scott Palmer, “The Shining Path in Peru: Insurgency and the Drug Problem,” in Edwin G. Corr and Stephen Sloan, eds., Low-Intensity Conflict: Old Threats in a New World (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1993), 151. Palmer points out that the Shining Path has continued its warfare in spite of three successive national democratic elections in which the largest legal Marxist party in Latin America participated heavily.
  15. Carlos Ivan Degregori, “After the Fall of Abimael Guzman: The Limits of Sendero Luminoso,” in Maxwell Cameron and Philip Mauceri, eds., The Peruvian Labyrinth: Polity, Society and Economy (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997), 179. He argues that the Shining Path represents “a radical point of rupture with the model of the Latin American armed struggle.”
  16. Degregori calls this Sendero’s “Death Cult.” Guzman famously calls for Peru to pay “the quota” for the revolution, meaning that the country would have to “cross the river of blood” to get to the other side of revolutionary triumph, which could cost one million lives, and that genocide was a convenient means of reaching this equilibrium.
  17. Tarazona-Sevillano, 2.
  18. Degregori, 1997, 188.
  19. Degregori, 1997, 180. The city of Ayacucho is the provincial capital of Peru’s poorest department (province), and development indexes rank it amongst the lowest of any region in the Western Hemisphere.
  20. Gustavo Gorriti, The Shining Path: A History of the Millenarian War in Peru (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1999).
  21. This economic collapse was caused by the Latin American debt crisis and the resulting “lost decade” which hit Peru particularly hard. See Cynthia McClintock, “The Decimation of Peru’s Sendero Luminoso“, in Cynthia Arnson, ed., Comparative Peace Processes in Latin America (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1999), 225-27.
  22. Some authors suggest that Presidents Belaunde and Garcia did not react strongly to the threat of the Shining Path because they were unconcerned about the plight of the highlands, and only took strong action when the Shining Path began a bombing campaign targeting the urban elites. This analysis, however, ignores the fact that both governments did in fact attempt a large number of counterinsurgency measures throughout the 1980s. Although these measures were overwhelmingly incompetent, it seems more likely that the central government underestimated and misunderstood the Shining Path threat rather than they were indifferent to it.
  23. McClintock, 231.
  24.  The Shining Path in this phase did not seem to be motivated by economic or territorial interests but only in the pursuit of its vision of worldwide revolution. See Degregori, “Reflections,” in Comparative Peace Processes in Latin America, (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1999), 251-56.
  25. McClintock, 225.
  26. Both Presidents Belaunde and Garcia had attempted to establish peasant self-defense forces but both of these efforts did not provide the RCs with sufficient weaponry or political support to have an impact on the level of Senderista violence. Instead those charged with self-defense patrols were either co-opted or killed, thus further deepening resentment by the rural population against the government.
  27. Steven Levitsky, “Fujimori and Post-Party Politics in Peru,” Journal of Democracy 10, no. 3 (1999): 78-92.
  28. Maxwell Cameron, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Alberto Fujimori,” in Cameron and Mauceri, eds. “Polls showed that the characteristic that most endeared Fujimori to the electorate was his avoidance of any public affiliation with traditional political parties or politicians.” Fujimori’s popularity continued for the first two years of his presidency, which were marked by a drastic austerity program that successfully curbed inflation. Despite the economic and societal pain caused by this austerity program, known as the Fuji-shock, after several years of hyperinflation the Peruvian people supported these measures as a means to bring about macroeconomic stability.
  29. The autogolpe was received with wild enthusiasm by a large majority of the Peruvian public, to whom the political class had been completely discredited in large part because of their failure to quell the insurgency. Cameron, 52-54.
  30. The military also feared prosecutions for human rights violations committed in the fight against the insurgents.
  31. The autogolpe is generally considered to be a democratic breakdown, though it can also be viewed as a lessening of the democratic character of the Peruvian regime from a delegative democracy to a semi-democratic or so-called competitive authoritarian regime. Levitsky, 1999. See also Levitsky and Lucan Way, “The Rise of Competitive Authoritarianism,” Journal of Democracy 13, vol. 2 (2002).
  32. Degregori, 1997, 188.
  33. Instead of fighting to the death, Guzman is reported to have simply said “[i]t was my turn to lose” when he was apprehended. Degregori, 1997, 180.
  34. Some scholars mistakenly believed that the Shining Path leadership had created a strong enough cadre of secondary leaders that it would be able to continue operations unabated in the event of Guzman’s capture. Tarazona-Sevillano, 23.
  35. Fujimori’s decision to display Guzman in a cage in the center of Lima shortly after his capture has been viewed as both beneficial and harmful in the struggle against the Shining Path. Proponents say that, regardless of potential violations of human rights or humanitarian law, the display of Guzman appearing as a caged animal helped to destroy the noble image on which his cult of personality relied. Others point out that this attempt to humiliate Guzman allowed him to order the long-prepared-for offensive and outraged international public opinion.
  36. A band of Sendero holdouts, known as “Sendero Rojo,” led by a leader named Comrade Feliciano, continued fighting through the 1990s, but they were unable to mount a serious threat to the state. Since 2000, Sendero factions have only been active in the coca-producing regions, with occasional spates of violence in other areas. Occasional fears of a broader Sendero revival, in particular following the 2003 bombing near the US embassy, appear to be unfounded. See Jeremy Weinstein, “A New Threat of Terror in the Western Hemisphere,” SAIS Review 23, no. 1 (2003).
  37. Reputedly this psychological “breaking” of Guzman did not involve torture or any other “undemocratic” techniques, but rather prolonged discussions and negotiations with Guzman by Fujimori’s disgraced and currently imprisoned spy chief, Vladimiro Montesinos. For a fascinating recounting of the interaction between Montesinos and Guzman, see Jane Holligan and Salley Bowen, The Imperfect Spy: The Many Lives of Vladamiro Montesinos (Lima: Peisa, 2003).
  38. Previous attempts had been made to create adequate legal means to try suspected militants, but these were overwhelmed by poor planning as well as by systematic intimidation and violence against the judiciary by the Shining Path. Tarazona-Sevillano, 79-98.
  39. Human Rights Watch, “Presumption of Guilt: Human Rights Violations and the Faceless Court in Peru,” August 1996, available at, accessed 29 January 2007.
  40. This article specifically chose not to treat the history of internal violence as a variable in explaining the differences between Peru and Colombia’s internal conflicts. It appears to the author that such a variable confuses cause and effect, as it essentially advocates that the cause of prolonged conflict is prolonged conflict. However, the extended nature and historical roots of the conflicts are represented in the analysis of the nature of the insurgencies that is at the heart of the argument of the paper.
  41. This has led one Colombian scholar to state that Colombians are “born with party identification cards attached to the umbilical cord,” even amongst the peasant class. Eduardo Santa, Sociologia politica de Colombia (Bogota: Ediciones Tercer Mundo, 1964), 37.
  42. Kline, 182.
  43. Palmer, 200-26. Palmer calls Peru “one of the most open political systems in the hemisphere” between 1980 and 1992.
  44. They are both known by their Spanish abbreviations. Formally the FARC is called the Fuerzas Armadas de Colombia—Ejercito del Pueblo and the ELN the Union Camilista Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional. The FARC has its roots in communist factions that were fighting on behalf of the Liberal Party during La Violencia, which persisted after other militias ceased fighting. By 1966 these groups came together officially to form the FARC.
  45. The ELN was formed during the period of the National Front, and was founded by Catholic leaders inspired by liberation theology and the Cuban revolution.
  46. Known formally as the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia.
  47. Mauricio Romero, “Paramilitary Groups in Contemporary Colombia,” in Diane Davis and Anthony Pereira, eds., Irregular Armed Forces and their Role in Politics and State Formation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003),178. Notably this also included the drug dealers turned landowners, who joined the provincial elites after accruing enough capital and power.
  48. Human Rights Watch, Colombia’s Killer Networks: The Military-Paramilitary Partnership and the United States (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1996).
  49. Kline, 191.
  50. Romero argues that the paramilitaries’ raison d’être passed through three stages: (1) from origins through the mid-1980s, retaliation funded by drug traffickers and economic elites for kidnapping and extortion by the guerillas; (2) from the late 1980s through the early 1990s, an anti-subversive project that relied on the complacence and collaboration of sectors of the armed forces; (3) by the mid-1990s, a movement to restore the rural status quo and resist any reforms that would change structures of power and wealth. Romero, 182.
  51. Ibid.
  52. Ibid.
  53. Aviles, 379.
  54. Marc Chernick, “Negotiating Peace Amid Multiple Forms of Violence,” in Arnson, ed., 179.
  55. The constitution deepened democracy in four ways: it introduced every conceivable mechanism of direct democracy; it provided for the democratization of political parties, unions, universities and other power holders; it adopted a generous bill of rights; and it introduced greater electoral fairness rules, such as direct popular election of governors and free access to television for candidates and parties. Manuel Jose Cepeda, “Democracy, State and Society in the 1991 Constitution: The Role of the Constitutional Court,” in Eduardo Posada-Carbo, ed., Colombia: The Politics of Reforming the State (London: Institute of Latin American Studies, University of London, 2003), 73.
  56. Chernick, 180.
  57. Aviles, 381.
  58. Gary Hoskins and Gabriel Murillo, “Colombia’s Perpetual Quest for Peace,” Journal of Democracy 12, no. 2 (2001).
  59. In particular the government focused on the Medellin cartel of Pablo Escobar and the Cali cartels. Jennifer Holmes, Sheila Amin Gutierrez de Pineres and Kevin Curtin, “Drugs, Violence and Development in Colombia: A Department-Level Analysis,” Latin American Politics and Society 48, no. 3 (2006): 157-84.
  60. Indeed, coca production reached its peak in 2000. In 1991 there were less than 40,000 hectares of coca production, which steadily increased to 160,000 hectares in 2000 and which then began to fall in part because of the huge influx of resources for eradication efforts from Plan Colombia, sponsored by the US government. Holmes et al., 161.
  61. Arnson and Whitfield, 247.
  62. “Plan Colombia,” the massive American aid package aimed at halting the flow of drugs from Colombia to the United States, went into effect in 2000, but was unable to bring about a resolution—negotiated or military—to the conflict. While a detailed study of Plan Colombia is not necessary for the argument of this work, it is important to emphasize a few things about this program. First of all, despite the original intentions of the program as a balanced effort of military aid, eradication programs, economic development and institutional strengthening, after the breakdown of the peace process with the FARC it came to represent more and more the search for a military solution to the conflict. Thus, the emphasis swung from a focus on a negotiated solution to a military one, and neither—even with considerable outside support—has been successful in resolving Colombia’s conflict.
  63. Arnson and Whitfield, 256.
  64. Ibid.
  65. Ibid.; Chernick, 179.
  66. The other variables can be dispensed with as follows: the benefits of cocaine trafficking, as explained earlier, is paralleled by the involvement of the Peruvian guerillas in the drug trade; the lack of a mutually hurting stalemate is certainly questionable from an empirical standpoint, is notoriously difficult to measure, and further has no analog in the Peruvian case; any international involvement was more than seen in the Peruvian case, and thus if it was insufficient (which seems highly unlikely as a causal factor), it is not relevant for comparative purposes; and the normalization of violence is not considered a dependent variable in this case study comparison because it confuses cause and effect.
  67. While there may well have been some degree of cynicism in this claim to avoid having to make compromises during negotiations, it is not an implausible argument given the history of the conflict and the nature of the hatred between the two organizations. Arnson and Whitfield, 240-46.
  68. This continuation of violence by the FARC is largely explained by the factors indicated above, especially the continued armed presence of the paramilitaries as well as inter- and intra-group competition for resources and legitimacy caused by fragmentation.
  69. Arnson and Whitfield, 232-36.
JONATHAN TAYLOR is a joint degree J.D./M.A. candidate at Columbia Law School and SAIS, where he studies conflict management. He graduated from Harvard College in 2003 with a bachelor’s degree in government and a certificate in Latin American studies. He has worked at Poder Ciudadano in Argentina and Instituto de Defensa Legal in Peru, as well as in both governmental and non-governmental organizations in the United States.