The great disparity of wealth between impoverished peasants and the land-owning elite is at the heart of the conflict that has ravaged Colombia for generations. For the past half century, this social tension has combined with other powerful domestic and international factors — such as the international drug trade, the Cold War, and now the war on terror — to fuel a civil war seemingly without end. Periodic bids for peace by the national government and by various combatants have thus far had little impact, but recent efforts spearheaded by the government of Álvaro Uribe Vélez may hold promise for a war-weary country.
The following interactive guide explains the key actors and dynamics in the Colombian conflict, and details important events in recent years.
1849-1948: 100 Years of Two-Party Rule
Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Colombian politics was dominated by the Liberal and the Conservative parties. Both included fiercely loyal factions composed of peasant and elite members, and ideological and other differences between the parties often erupted into violence. In the early twentieth century, communist labor and agrarian reform movements developed alongside the Liberal Party, and by the 1940s they had produced a leading Liberal presidential candidate, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán.
1948-1958: La Violencia
The assassination of Gaitán in 1948 triggered rioting in Bogotá and uprisings throughout the country. This would mark the beginning of La Violencia, a conflict that would cost an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 Colombian lives over the next decade. In response to peasant uprisings, Liberal and Conservative elites formed a loose alliance favoring repressive measures to preserve their oligarchy. Despite periodic amnesties, the turmoil continued until 1958 when elite members of the two major parties implemented a power sharing agreement. This arrangement, which was called the National Front, mandated that the parties hold the Presidency in alternating four-year terms, and distributed all other public positions evenly between the parties.
1960s-1970s: Rise of the Guerrilla Groups
The years of the National Front, from 1958 to 1974, were a more peaceful, but still trying time for much of the population. Poverty rates increased from 25 to 50 percent throughout the country, reaching 67 percent in rural areas. In the mid-1960s, the struggle of peasants to acquire land, a sense of being excluded from the “limited democracy” partisan power-sharing of the National Front, and the influence of Cuban revolutionaries all added impetus to peasant insurgencies. These became increasingly centralized, armed self-defense movements such as the FARC, the ELN, M-19 and others, which came to control wide areas of the country, taxing the population, and establishing schools, healthcare, and other social services as part of a de facto state.
1970s-1980s: The Coca Boom
Beginning in the 1970s, Colombian drug traffickers, who had previously dealt mainly in marijuana, became increasingly involved in transshipping and processing cocaine from other parts of South America, coming to dominate the trade by the end of the decade. In the early years of the boom, cooperation allowed drug cartels to profit from the trade Initially, rebel groups such as the FARC (who were, at least theoretically, opposed to the drug trade on principle) took advantage of the opportunity to increase their forces and improve their arms by levying taxes on coca grown within the areas they controlled. But this partnership eroded as wealthy narco-traffickers were increasingly targeted for kidnapping by guerillas as an additional source of income. In response, the cartels created paramilitary groups to protect them from their former allies.
1970s-1990s: Rise of the Cartels
In the 1980s, the Colombian drug trade came to be dominated by a small number of large, highly centralized drug cartels, the most prominent of which were based in Cali and Medellin. Drug lords themselves became immensely influential, even in political circles, symbolized by the election of Medellin boss Pablo Escobar to the Colombian Congress. Their influence over the nation’s politics culminated with “narco-democracy” under President Ernesto Samper, whose election was supported largely by drug lords.
1980s-1990s: Rise of the Paramilitaries
In the mid-1980s, peace initiatives between the government and the FARC led the latter to establish a political wing, the Union Patriótica (UP). In response, paramilitaries conducted a “dirty war,” assassinating hundreds of rebel leaders and attacking peasants in what amounted to an anti-agrarian reform campaign in the countryside. Throughout, the national military and its intelligence service provided important support in the war against guerillas and their real or perceived sympathizers. Meanwhile, other bodies within the government — such as the courts — became virtually powerless to reign in their terror tactics that grew with each passing year. Politically motivated killings rose more than ten-fold from the 1970s to 1980s, and came increasingly to target politicians — particularly those who sought extradition of drug traffickers or penalties for paramilitary death squads. In May 1989, the Virgilio Barco government banned paramilitary groups, asserting in a new law that the power to create “self-defense” groups lay solely with the government, but paramilitary activities continued and even broadened into a new kind of killing for purposes of “moral” or “social cleansing,” which would target drug addicts, ex-convicts, prostitutes, homosexuals, and others deemed unfit.
1990s: Transformation of the Colombian Drug Trade
In the wake of the death or arrest of many of the leaders of the large cartels in the early-to-mid 1990s, the Colombian drug trade fragmented into roughly ten core organizations, supported by hundreds of smaller groups and contractors that have generally kept much lower profiles than their predecessors. Meanwhile, as plantings were eradicated in Peru and Bolivia, coca cultivation itself expanded radically within Colombia. The countryside was transformed in the process as thousands of small farmers — hard hit by falling coffee prices — began to change over to the lucrative illicit crop, some migrating to remote areas to do so. Some of the most profitable aspects of the trade, particularly distribution and retail sales in the United States, shifted to organizations headquartered abroad, particularly in Mexico. Meanwhile, narco-trafficking became increasingly intertwined with Colombian armed groups, such as leftist guerillas and rightist paramilitaries. This linked drug trafficking to the international arms trade, further fueling Colombia’s violent conflict.
2000 & Beyond: The Potential for Change?
By the late 1990s, violence and other human rights violations reached new heights, despite efforts by President Andrés Pastrana to ease the conflict and bring its participants into Colombian society. In the 2002, Álvaro Uribe was swept to power under widespread public support for his commitment to ending both the decades-old civil war by taking a hardline stance against armed groups, particularly the leftist guerillas. His campaign has shown some success and also managed, despite some controversy, to bring the paramilitaries under some level of control through grants of immunity in exchange for demobilization.
Colombia’s congress passed the Peace and Justice Law on June 22, 2005, thereby allowing paramilitaries who disarm to seek reduced sentences and protection from extradition to the United States, where many are wanted for their roles in ongoing Colombia-U.S. drug smuggling operations. Though the Bush administration supports this law, Uribe has come under intense fire from powerful institutions like the United Nations and members of the U.S. senate, for passing a law that his opponents argue hinders the larger goal of demobilization.