The system is not held in place by some grand Faustian pact or Machiavellian calculation, but has evolved organically over more than a century. Local elites find it in their interest to act in ways that keep the system from veering far off-kilter without understanding their role in general equilibrium. And this makes the whole system hard to grasp conceptually, let alone reform.
Despite this history, Colombia has seemingly turned over a new leaf in the last decade. After President Andrés Pastrana's drawn-out, ultimately unsuccessful effort to negotiate an end to the civil war with the leftist FARC guerilla army, Álvaro Uribe was elected president on the promise that he would intensify the fighting.
His offensive pushed the FARC and the ELN (the National Liberation Army, another leftist guerilla force) out of numerous municipalities and led to the killing of guerilla leaders Raúl Reyes and Mono Jojoy. (Moreover the FARC's commander-in-chief, Manuel "Tirofijo" Marulanda, died of natural causes in 2008). After Uribe was replaced as president in 2010 by his former defense minister Juan Manuel Santos, the new leader of the FARC, Alfonso Cano, was killed by the army.
These military successes coincided with a plunge in both the homicide rate and the number of kidnappings. In 2005, President Uribe had also persuaded 30,000 members of paramilitaries to demobilize in exchange for reduced sentences and confessions of their crimes -- quite a considerable political feat.
As the security situation improved, so did Colombia's international image. Foreign direct investment rose from $1.5 billion annually to $13 billion in a decade, while investment went from 17 percent of GDP to 27 percent. Prudent as ever, Colombia ran budget surpluses that reduced the national debt from nearly 60 percent of GDP in 2002 to 43 percent today.