Violence erupts in the countryside between followers of a Conservative Party oligarchy seeking to reclaim ancestral lands and followers of the reformist Liberal Party, seeking to defend its land reforms of the previous two decades.
Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, a populist leader of the Liberal Party, is assassinated in Bogotá. This unleashes a violent riot known as “El Bogotazo” in which 1,500 people die and 20,000 are injured. The partisan civil war between the Conservatives and Liberals intensifies as a consequence of the assassination of Gaitán.
La Violencia lasts for 10 years as Liberal and Conservative armies and guerrillas fight each other. Over 300,000 people are killed and many more are forcibly displaced.
Liberal peasants organize self-defense groups against the conservative “pajaros,” who massacre them to steal land. One of the leaders is Pedro Antonio Marín, who changes his name to Manuel Marulanda Velez, and is more commonly known as “Tirofijo” (Sure Shot).
With the backing of the two parties, General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla, head of the armed forces, leads a coup to oust President Laureano Gómez. Rojas Pinilla rules as a dictator, brutally suppressing all opposition.
Liberal guerrillas, known as “common liberals” (as opposed to party-led liberals) ally with Communist guerrillas who had emerged in the 1920s as self-defense groups. This alliance leads to the creation of the “Independent Republics.”
The Liberal and Conservative Parties agree to share power as a way to pacify the nation. This arrangement is called the National Front and lasts for 16 years. The two parties alternate in power; all other political actors are excluded. The Liberal-Conservative violence is contained but there is renewed struggle by the excluded groups.
The government bombs the town of Marquetalia, Tolima and the surrounding areas to eliminate an independent republic. The offensive receives the assistance of the U.S military which seizes the opportunity to try out napalm.
Camilo Torres, known as the “revolutionary priest,” creates the People’s United Front which denounces the exclusionary practices of the National Front after he fails to mediate between the government and the guerrilla group of “Tirofijo.” Camilo concludes that the current system can only be reformed through violence.
The Communists and “common liberals” mobilize to become the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
A second guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), emerges following Cuban-style foco theory.
The Popular Liberation Army (EPL), a third guerrilla group inspired by Maoism, forms and spreads towards the Atlantic Coast.
President Carlos Lleras Restrepo, a Liberal, orders the destruction of the archives of La Violencia in an attempt to erase the painful past.
A second generation of revolutionaries emerges: an urban guerrilla group called the April 19 Movement (M-19); an indigenous guerrilla force named after the Indian prophet Quintín Lame, Worker’s Self-Defense (ADO), and the Worker’s Revolutionary Party (PRT).
Colombia becomes a major producer and exporter of marijuana. Drug traffic becomes an essential part of the national economy and of the livelihood of excluded groups.
End of the National Front. Alfonso López Michelsen, a Liberal, wins the first free election with the highest turnout in Colombian history. Social upheaval continues.
The government issues the Public Safety Statute, an anti-terrorist piece of legislation, based on the “dirty war” tactics of the Argentine army. The Statute affords ample freedom to security forces and unleashes a wave of generalized repression. Disappearances, torture, and political assassination become common.
President Belisario Betancur Cuartas, a Conservative, initiates a peace process with the guerrilla and a general amnesty plan for all armed groups.
The Patriotic Union (UP), the political arm of the FARC, is founded to seek political power. The UP wins 14 political posts in 1986 and, within a month, three of its legislators are assassinated. (Within a decade, 3,000 UP activists are killed, decimating the movement.) EPL supporters create the Popular Front and run for municipal elections.
In November, the M-19 seizes the Palace of Justice in downtown Bogotá to denounce the government for breaking the terms of a cease-fire. M-19 fighters, 11 Supreme Court justices, and 90 civilians are killed.
The peace process with the guerrillas is over. The guerrillas retreat to the mountains to weather the assault unleashed against them by the Army, drug traffickers and right-wing paramilitary groups.
Drug traffickers become a powerful economic force as landowners. Subject to extortion and kidnappings by the guerrilla, they form their own self-defense groups with the acquiescence of the military. The military, in turn, use their legal right to arm civilians and form paramilitary groups as a counterinsurgency strategy. The self-defense groups and the paramilitaries carry out massacres against union members and civilians accused of supporting the guerrillas.
President Virgilio Barco Vargas, a Liberal, declares a war on drugs, advocating severe repression and extradition to the United States. Over 10,000 people are detained.
Several leading drug traffickers are arrested or killed and their property seized. Pablo Escobar, head of the Medellín Cartel, the most powerful in the country, responds by unleashing a wave of terrorist attacks.
Liberal presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán is gunned down by assassins at the service of the Medellín Cartel.
The M-19 agrees to a cease-fire and forms the political party Democratic Alliance M-19. Its leader, Carlos Pizarro, runs for president but is murdered during the campaign.
Liberal César Gaviria rises to the presidency and initiates the process of constitutional reform. He changes the policy towards drug traffickers, lifts the state of siege and rejects extradition as a means of countering the drug traffic. The Medellín Cartel’s front organization, known as the “extraditables,” declares a truce. Escobar gives himself up in June 1992.
Pablo Escobar escapes from the comfortable “prison” he had demanded from the government. He launches another terrorist campaign as the debates over extradiction continue, pressed by the United States.
A new group, “Los Pepes,” (Victims of Pablo Escobar), emerges. Connected to the Cali Cartel, Los Pepes carry out acts of terrorism against Escobar’s organization and collaborate with the security forces. The authorities rely greatly on Los Pepes in the search for Escobar who is finally killed in Medellín in December by an elite armed unit.
Under the presidency of Ernesto Samper Pizano, the country is “decertified” by Washington for the alleged involvement of drug money in the electoral campaign.
The paramilitary groups form a federation led by Carlos Castaño and funded by his drug trafficking activities. It is called the Self-Defense Units of Colombia (AUC).
Violence and displacement of civilian populations in the countryside increases sharply. Over 25,000 homicides take place in Colombia during 1995.
The paramilitaries and drug traffickers move into the FARC-controlled coca cultivation areas in the south.
The ELN collects taxes from multinational oil companies in oil-field areas, also located in the south.
The paramilitaries are believed responsible for 60% of political killings, the guerrillas for 25%, and the military for 10%. In August of 1998, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees establishes an office in Bogotá.
Conservative Andrés Pastrana wins the presidential elections. Prior to his inauguration, Pastrana arranges a meeting with FARC leader Manuel Marulanda to explore the possibility of peace talks. Pastrana agrees to a withdrawal of army troops from five towns in the guerrilla-controlled territory of San Vicente del Caguán.
Pastrana’s administration proposes an ambitious path to establish a negotiated peace, without a cease fire. Peace talks with the FARC begin on January 7.
The ELN unsuccessfully requests a withdrawal agreement similar to the one conceded to the FARC.
The AUC issue a collective death-threat by declaring Colombian human rights advocates as military targets. Later in the year, in a television interview, paramilitary leader Carlos Castaño proposes that the paramilitaries be included in the peace talks.
The Clinton Administration proposes a $1.3 billion dollar military aid package for the Andean Region. The package is approved by Congress. Plan Colombia receives $860 million, mostly for military and police activities. The plan is launched in August with the training of Colombian battalions by U.S. Special Forces.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Erna von der Walde teaches Spanish literature at New York University. Carmen Burbano is a staff assistant at NACLA.
Jaime Arocha et. al, Colombia: violencia y democracia. Informe presentado al Ministerio de Gobierno (Bogotá: Universidad Nacional de Colombia, 1987).
Álvaro Camacho, Álvaro Guzmán, María Clemencia Ramírez, Fernando Gaitán, Nuevas visiones sobre la violencia en Colombia (Bogotá: FESCOL, IEPRI, 1997).
Center for International Policy, “The Peace Process in Colombia: Timeline of Recent Events” www.ciponline.org/colombia/timeline.htm.
Colombia Human Rights Network. “An Overview of Recent Colombian History.” www.igc.org/colhrnet/timeline.htm.
Javier Giraldo, The Genocidal Democracy (Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press, 1996).
German Guzman Campos, Orlando Fals Borda y Eduardo Umaña Luna, La violencia en Colombia. Estudio de un proceso social (Bogotá: Ediciones Tercer Mundo, 1962).
Jorge Orlando Melo, ed., Colombia Hoy (Bogotá: Tercer Mundo Editores, 1995).
Gonzalo Sánchez, Guerra y política en la sociedad colombiana (Bogotá: El Áncora Editores, 1991).
Gonzalo Sánchez, 2000. “El compromiso social y político de los intelectuales.” Paper presented at the XXII Congress of the Latin American Studies Association, Miami, March 2000: http://www.colombia-thema.org/mars00/p-sanchez.html.
Gonzalo Sánchez y Ricardo Peñaranda, Pasado y presente de la violencia en Colombia (Bogotá: Fondo Editorial CEREC, 1991).
Fernando Viviescas y Fabio Giraldo, eds., Colombia: el despertar de la modernidad (Bogotá: Foro Nacional por Colombia, 1991).