Colombia – the people behind armed conflict – Part I: A History of violence and conflict

Hi there! If your read my entry last Friday, ‘Colombia – deep wounds and enormous smiles‘ you’ll know what this will be about. For those who haven’t; here starts my paper on the internally displaced in Colombia and how their situation got to be one of our greatest humanitarian crises.

Colombia is one of Latin America’s most misunderstood nations. Little has been written on its history and although the height of Colombia’s illicit cocaine trade and notorious drug cartels is fading into a distant memory, it continues to represent the country to the rest of the world. While it is rich in natural and human resources, internal struggles have since its independence in 1810 fostered a nation of exceptional violence. Today, Colombia is caught in an armed conflict between multiple actors that has lasted for over five decades since the emergence of guerrilla groups in the 1960s, created to challenge the Colombian political order and interminable social inequality. It is the longest running conflict in the western hemisphere and a complicated phenomenon that, among others, contains elements of terrorism, civil war, guerrilla violence, counterinsurgency, vigilantism and profound violation of human rights.[1] In September this year, after four years of peace talks and over fifty years of conflict, the Colombian State and the FARC guerrilla made history when they announced that peace agreements had finally been reached. But on the 2 of October the Colombian people voted against peace in a national plebiscite to reject or accept the deal that could’ve been the beginning of a united Colombia. Thus, peace is still on hold and the conflict lives on. Regardless the outcome of recent events, there should be no questioning Colombians’ wish for reconciliation, but after decades of bloodshed, violence and violations, war and peace are sensitive subjects where forgiving is hard and forgetting is near impossible. To turn the page and start anew in unity is an enormous task for a country like Colombia who has a turbulent history, to say the least, which has left deep scars that can never fully heal. Let us proceed and look at how it all began…

Most profound in Colombian landscape is the Andean mountain range that stretches from the Caribbean coast in the north to the Ecuadorian border in the south, but unlike other Andean countries, Colombia does not consist of one single cordillera, but three separate mountain ranges that instantly divided the country into three major territories, namely the East, the West and the Caribbean coast. Little by little, the geographical outlay became an important reason for unique racial and cultural differences between the three areas.[2] To put the challenges of travel around Colombia into perspective; before the turn of the twentieth century the journey from Cartagena across the Atlantic to Paris took less time than to travel to Bogotá 2,600 meters high up in the Andean mountains.[3] Even at present time, to drive the 420 kilometres from Medellín to Bogotá will take roughly eight hours, whilst a flight is thirty minutes long.

Undisputedly, the Colombian terrain contributed hugely to the isolation of regional centres around the country and the creation of an effective central government was hindered as the settlements scattered around the vast landscape had no or little infrastructure and lacked the communication that could support the Colombian unity. The geographic conditions had a profound impact on Colombia and facilitated the deep sectionalism that severely complicated the first attempts at political organisation. Together with the historical settlement pattern it generated conditions apt for internal conflict.[4] The animosity between those in favor of a centralist government and those preferring regionalism, would eventually lead to the creation of the two party system in Colombia in 1849. The established power struggle between Liberals and Conservatives would become a fundamental reason for the political environment that triggered the creation of guerrillas and counterinsurgency groups, which have been essential to the conflict and forced displacement.

After many years of upheaval and unrest during the second half of the nineteenth century, Colombia suffered a devastating civil war between 1899 and 1902 that claimed the lives of 100,000 people. When fire finally seized after the ‘Thousand Days War’, Colombia went into a phase of ‘social peace’. In 1930, Enrique Olaya Herrera became Colombia’s first Liberal president in nearly fifty years. It initiated a time of rapid social change and political controversy in Colombia. An outburst of social unrest spread throughout the country, but was taken care of swiftly. Social and labour issues finally became a central part of Colombian politics in 1936 under the presidency of the Liberals’ Alfonso López Pumarejo. Industrialisation had increased urban unrest and a growing rural population was raising the agrarian discontent. López subsidised the first Colombian agrarian reform law in 1936 in an attempt to overcome the dissatisfaction. Additionally, the constitutional reform of the same year increased the economic power of the state, implemented universal male suffrage and removed a previous article requiring public education to be conducted according to the Roman Catholic Church. Thus, the influence from the radical right aggravated the political circunstances, questioning the democracy and the underlying principles of a democratic government. Consequently, the animosity and hatred between the two parties, which had been inherited through generations, were maintained based on religious and political discontent.[5]

The beginning of Mariano Ospina Pérez’ presidency in 1946, reinstalled the conservative power in Colombia and a new wave of social unrest began. However, unlike in 1930 the violent uproar that returned was impossible to shutdown. Using violence, the new Conservative government wasted no time in reversing moderate reforms implemented under Liberal rule. History repeated, it was again time to settle scores, but this time the outbreak of violence was mainly caused by the Conservatives eager to claim back what had been lost during the 16 years under Liberal rule.[6] The low-intensity violence that emerged in 1946, exploded ferociously in 1948 when Jorge E. Gaitán the populist leader and the Liberal Party’s presidential candidate, was assassinated in Bogotá on the 9th of April. The Liberal lower class riots that consumed the Capital triggered by Gaitán’s death became know as the ‘Bogotazo’. It soon spread throughout the country and Colombia was again engulfed in a civil war simply known as La Violencia. It lasted over 10 years.[7] Although La Violencia was made up of several disputes it is widely regarded that the single most important reason for its outbreak was the inherited partisan rivalry between Liberals and Conservatives.[8] In 1957, the two parties were eventually able to put their differences aside to end Gustavo Rojas Pinilla dictatorship that began after a coup d’état in 1953. The ‘National Front’ was created between the Liberals and Conservatives to begin a new era of political reconciliation and domestic peace that would enhance the social and economic development. Many aims of the National Front were accomplished, however Colombia’s turbulent past generated by the partisan rivalry had caused too much damage. The political dominance of Liberal and Conservative oligarchs had raised a new phenomenon of leftist guerrilla insurgency.[9]

The problem of marginalisation in Colombian politics was not eliminated by the National Front, but rather moved the exclusion of political representatives from Conservatives versus Liberals to all other potential participants who did not support the traditional parties. This inevitably provoked the rise of independent groups against the old order.[10] The oligarchy’s hegemony that had been dominant since the mid nineteenth century had created a deep resentment in the excluded lower classes and the anti-system ideology that arose in Colombia during La Violencia amongst the poor workers and peasants of the underclass kept growing. They realised that it did not matter what party they decided to support, as their access to the political system was denied either way.[11] Thus, it was the Colombian ruling elites that generated an environment apt for the creation of the numerous guerrilla groups in Colombia. The counterinsurgency operations aimed at ending guerrilla activity have escalated into the armed conflict that persists in Colombia today. It has come to involve multiple actors in Colombia as well as assistance from abroad, in particular the United States…

Tune in next Friday when the main participants of the Colombian conflict will be explained as we move towards understanding how the conflict has affected the millions of internally displaced.


[1] Jennifer Holmes, Sheila Amin Gutiérrez de Piñeres and Kevin M. Curtin, Guns, Drugs, and Development in Colombia (Austin: University of Texas, 2008).

[2] Thomas E. Skidmore and Peter H. Smith, Modern Latin America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992)

[3] Garry Leech, The FARC, the Longest Insurgency (London: Zed Book Ltd, 2011).

[4] David Bushnell, The Making of Modern Colombia, A Nation in Spite Itself (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993).

[5] David Bushnell, The Making of Modern Colombia, A Nation in Spite Itself (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993.

[6] David Bushnell, The Making of Modern Colombia, A Nation in Spite Itself (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993.

[7] Garry Leech, The FARC, the Longest Insurgency (London: Zed Book Ltd, 2011).

[8] David Bushnell, The Making of Modern Colombia, A Nation in Spite Itself (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993.

[9] David Bushnell, The Making of Modern Colombia, A Nation in Spite Itself (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993.

[10] Thomas E. Skidmore and Peter H. Smith, Modern Latin America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).

[11] Julie Mazzei, Death Squads or Self-Defense Forces? How Paramilitary Groups Emerge and Challenge Democracy in Latin America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009).

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