FRONTLINE/World [home]

Search FRONTLINE/World

FRONTLINE/World Rough Cut

Rough Cut: Colombia: This Little Old Town
Background Facts and Related Links
Learn more about Colombia's civil war and efforts by the current president to stop the illicit drugs trade.

Country Background

Geographically, Colombia is the only country in South America with coastlines on both the North Pacific and the Caribbean Sea. It borders Panama, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru and Brazil.

The country was formed after the Republic of Gran Colombia (Ecuador, Panama and Venezuela) dissolved in 1829. Colombians were politically divided between the centralist Conservative Party and the federalist Liberal Party. Infighting between the two groups culminated in the War of a Thousand Days in 1899.

The country's population is more than 40 million; the median age is 26. The majority of Colombians are mestizo (58 percent); the remaining population is white (20 percent), black (4 percent) and mixed ancestry (18 percent). Ninety percent are Roman Catholic.

Politics and Conflict

After nearly a half-century of peace, violence again escalated. In 1948, Bogota's left-wing mayor was assassinated, setting off La Violencia, the bloodiest civil war in Colombia's history. Nearly 300,000 people were killed.

Both parties subsequently supported a military coup to prevent rebels in the countryside from attaining power. The coup was toppled in 1957 when the Liberals and Conservatives agreed to join forces under the National Front. This alliance lasted for 16 years until the election of a Liberal president, Alfonso Lopez Michelsen, in 1974. A modified version of the two-party system continued into the early 1990s.

The political monopoly influenced the formation of left-wing guerilla groups, including the National Liberation Army (ELN), the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the April 19 Movement (M19). Although these groups did not take over the government, they did weaken its capacity to govern properly. In addition, paramilitary death squads threatened any opposition to the powerful drug cartels.

Such was the strength of the ruling drug cartels during the 1980s and 1990s that Pablo Escobar, notorious head of the Medellin cartel, was elected to Congress. Both the Medellin and Cali cartels used their drug profits to intimidate and buy influence with Colombian politicians, including former President Ernesto Samper. Samper's reign was often referred to as "narco-politics" for the corruption that held sway during his time in office.

A new constitution in 1991 and the surrender of Pablo Escobar, strengthened government control, but did little to weaken the Colombian drug trade.

Colombia is one of the largest recipients of United States foreign aid, receiving about $740 million a year through Washington's controversial "Plan Colombia" counter-narcotics operation. (Around 90 percent of the cocaine in the U.S. comes from Colombia and critics believe the $5 billion in federal funds spent since 2000 trying to eradicate Colombia's coca crop has done little to reduce the amount of cocaine and heroin still finding its way onto American streets.)

The current Colombian president, moderate-right Alvaro Uribe, has promised reinforced security throughout the country and the destruction of drug crops. Colombia's homicide and kidnapping rates have fallen by 40 percent and 79 percent, respectively, under Uribe's rule. The president has also offered to negotiate with far-right warlords and allow paramilitaries to disarm without being tried for human rights abuses. However, right-wing paramilitaries continue to gain power in urban areas on the southern outskirts of Bogota. Uribe is up for reelection in 2006.


Despite decades of armed conflict and declines in oil production, Colombia's economy has shown signs of recovery since 2003. Uribe's economic plan to cut public-sector spending and pay down the deficit has brought new confidence to the business sector, although unemployment remains high at close to 14 percent.

Exports include petroleum, natural gas, coal and emeralds. An number of environmental problems face the country, including deforestation, soil and water-quality damage from overuse of pesticides, and air pollution from vehicle emissions.

Sources: CIA Factbook; The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer; U.S. Department of Justice Drug Enforcement Administration; Rand Corportation; BBC.

Related Links

Colombia Times
Operated by World News Network and published in English, this comprehensive news portal gathers business, financial and sports coverage from Colombia and across Latin America.

Profiles: Colombia's Armed Groups
This BBC report profiles three of Colombia's armed groups, including the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC), one of the world's wealthiest and most powerful guerrilla armies. The report outlines the political doctrine that helped define the leading groups in the 1960s and also suggests that the years of kidnapping, extortion and general lawlessness of the drug trade have long since eclipsed any political legitimacy the groups may have had.

Colombia's Ghost Towns
La Union Peneya is the subject of this BBC report. The settlement is typical of the Colombian towns and villages that have been attacked by guerrilla forces and left as ghost towns. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees numbers Colombia's refugee status as third worldwide, behind only that of Sudan and Congo.

Crisis Profile: Why Have Nearly 3 Million Colombians Fled Home?
This 2005 Reuters report, written in question-answer format, looks at the issues behind Colombia's displacement crisis. The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants estimates that some 2.73 million Colombians have been uprooted. Some of them have sought refugee status in neighboring countries such as Ecuador; others have resigned themselves to living in border shantytowns or the slums of Colombia's larger cities.

U.N. Refugee Agency
The Web site of the U.N. Refugee Agency includes the latest news on Colombia's displaced population and information about programs offering humanitarian and economic aid. The site is also available in Spanish.

FRONTLINE: "Drug Wars"
PBS's FRONTLINE examines both sides of the battlefield in America's 30 year long war on drugs. The documentary exposes a highly sophisticated global drug-trafficking operation worth an estimated $400 billion a year. A special report looks in depth at the era of Colombia's powerful drug cartels and at today's right-wing paramilitary groups who are thought to control the coca fields, processing labs and major smuggling routes that define a new era in drug trafficking.

Colombia's Civil War
This Online NewsHour report provides maps, timelines and profiles of key players in the narcotics trade -- from drug traffickers to law enforcement officers. Sidebars explain how coca is cultivated and processed, and timelines show the increasing role of the United States in combating illicit drug trafficking.

The Other Look of Colombia
This basic Web site offers an encouraging antidote to the barrage of negative media Colombia attracts. A section titled "Latest positive news about Colombia" features Colombian sports stars, scientists and artists who gained recognition in 2005 for their work.

BBC World Service: Colombia, La Violencia
In this reflective portrait of how literature deals with conflict, author Gabriel Garcia Marquez and novelist and filmmaker Fernando Vallejo discuss their work.