Colombias bloody history

The conflict in Colombia has lasted for more than 50 years, but has its roots much further back. The country has been riddled with conflicts since the national hero Simón Bolívar triumphantly entered Bogotá in 1819. After the War of Independence followed eight civil wars, 14 local wars and countless minor uprisings, two wars with Ecuador and three coups just during the rest of the 1800s.

1819 Bolívar’s dream 

Bolívar’s dream of a federal Latin America quickly crumbled, and Gran Colombia, consisting of Colombia, Venezuela, Panama and Ecuador was dissolved after Bolívar’s death. The elite in Colombia ensured a regional division of power in the country, while the state apparatus remained weak – a rather unfortunate combination and a hallmark for the further development in Colombia.

The traditionally dominating political parties, the Conservative and the Liberal parties, were formed already in the 1840s, long before there were any national political projects from the elite. This reflected a major axis of conflict – the relationship between the periphery and the centre. The Conservatives had their foundation in the landowning classes, wanted stronger centralism and was closely linked to the Catholic Church. The liberals wanted a greater degree of federalism, and had the greatest support within trade and crafts. For the Conservatives, the State and the Church were guarantors for keeping the social order and status quo, and they were strongly against the Liberal’s wishes of modernisation.

1850 The fight for land

The fight for land has been a common thread through the whole of Colombia’s conflict-ridden history. In 1850, publicly owned land constituted 75 per cent of the land area. Towards the end of the century large areas of land were distributed to private owners, very often through corruption or use of violence. The armed groups, who the major landowners used to take over the land, were in many ways the predecessors to the ‘modern’ paramilitary groups that emerged a century later.

Colombia remained an economic backwater at the end of the 1800s and did not develop a large enough basis of resources to really create a nation in a land that was, by nature, created for federalism. The country had no export commodity which earned enough foreign capital, so that one dominating elite was created. Colombia kept the old, traditional hierarchal values, while most other Latin American countries at the end of the 1800s had strengthened the state apparatus and conducted liberal economic and political reforms.

1886 “The Conservative Republic” 

In 1886, Colombia had a centralistic constitution that was as authoritarian as the 1863 constitution was liberal. After decades of liberal rule, the role of the church was restored and it gained great power, not least over the education system. The president’s power was strengthened and a permanent army was established. The Conservative Republic (1885-1930) was the first attempt at a national political project from the landowning classes. Nevertheless, there were dark clouds on the horizon.

When coffee prices collapsed in the 1890s, and the members of the Liberal party were excluded from important positions, it came to a head. It was the Conservatives who were victorious in the War of a Thousand Days (1899-1902). This civil war led to great destruction, with 100,000 killed and economic ruin. The country was greatly weakened and the government was powerless when Panama seceded, encouraged by the USA. Whereas the War of a Thousand days was the last major conflict of the 1800s, it was only the first of the 1900s.

1910-1950 A nation takes form

Colombia entered into the 20th Century with one of the least developed economies in Latin America. However, during the next three decades of the 1900s, the price of coffee went up, and this created a financial platform for forming a nation from a fragmented republic. The development produced a basis for a national marked, and in the long term for a national industry. The period from 1910 to 1950, was the time of the smaller coffee grower before the production became dominated by the large coffee tycoons from the 1960 and onwards.

Gradually, major international companies entered the arena. Of particular importance was the United Fruit Company from the US who invested in the banana production on the Atlantic coast.

The economic changes had social implications, and the burgeoning of an active labour movement and a renewed fight for land amongst the farmers emerged. The first socialist parties and unions saw the light of day. In 1928, 1,000 banana workers were killed after a military attack.

1930-46 “The Liberal Republic”

The rise of the export industry and modernisation did not happen at the expense of the traditional elite. Society was still resting on authority and the existing social and economic order, and there were no sector within the elite that organised themselves through the state. Elections were dominated by client practice. The local elite ensured the “correct” election result through corruption and buying votes. However the demand for social change grew and the radical wing of the Liberal party began flirting with the labour movement in the 1930s.

During The Liberal Republic (1930-46), limited attempts were made in order to create a more active state in social issues. The main aim was to create stable conditions where capitalist development could take place. The eight-hour day was introduced in 1934, and the right to unionise was part of the constitution in 1936. Nevertheless, the unions remained weak, particularly in the private sector. Not until 1931 did the farmers gain the right to join a union, and in several places they came into direct conflict with the authorities because of increased prices of land. But the farmers’ battle was rarely, if ever, linked with the struggle of the workers in the cities. The farmers were also divided when the land owners often formed alliances of loyalty to smaller farmers locally that transcended the class differences.

1947 Jorge Eliécer Gaitán

At the end of the 1930s, state intervention was reversed and fertile ground for economic liberalism was established. The social reforms had faced resistance among the Conservative and scepticism from the Church and the Army. Again paramilitary groups surfaced, often with the support of local business people, and polarisation increased.

The liberal politician Jorge Eliécer Gaitán represented a more socially responsible capitalism and a participating democracy. He mobilised the masses and trumpeted a national vision that transcended the sectoral interests. This was unheard of among the elite where politics first and foremost was a business strategy.

In 1947, Gaitán became the leader of the Colombian Liberal Party, and in February 1948, he addressed more than 100,000 people in Bogotá who were protesting against paramilitary violence. Two months later, he was assassinated, and with him the political alternative. Democratic latitude for the labour and farmer movements did not exist. The old party loyalty was soon reestablished and the social and political fight was reduced to local party conflict. Colombia had begun its disastrous journey towards La Violencia.

1948 to 1957 “La Violencia”

Violence erupted and atrocities took place. This is the darkest chapter in the history of Colombia. The violence continued in the name of the parties, village against village, and peasant guerilla against the army. A liberal guerilla leader that began fighting with the Communists was Pedro Antonio Marín, who later adopted the name Manuel Marulanda Vélez and became the leader of the guerilla movement FARC.

La Violencia lasted from 1948 to 1957 and cost 200,000 people their lives. Between one and two million people were displaced, 150,000 crossed the border to Venezuela, others sought refuge in the cities and settled in the lowlands Los Llanos. Many smallholders fled the countryside because of the terror by criminal gangs, who served a paramilitary function, and large landowners could add several acres to their properties. 200,000 plots of land changed owners during this period.

The elite secure power

The same elite who had held power prior to La Violencia, secured full control, also after the violent conflict through the agreement (1957) that was reached between the leaders of the Conservative and the Liberal parties. The popular movements that were burgeoning during the rise of Gaitán had been crushed. Instead, peasants had killed each other on behalf of the elite.

The two dominating parties were to change power every four years and all important official posts were shared between them. There was not given room for social protests outside the parties. In addition, the army was considerably strengthened through extensive support from the US. Colombia has during the whole period after the Second World War been among the most important allies of the USA in Latin America and contributed, amongst other things, with a large contingent of soldiers during the Korean War.

The 1960s The guerilla gains momentum

We have reached the 1960s: the period when today’s conflict, which in many ways is a continuation of former conflicts, began.

FARC saw the light of day in 1964, in the wake of the army’s operations against armed peasant militia, led by the Communist party. They had not been granted amnesty after La Violencia. During the early years, FARC operated defensively and offered the farmers protection against the big landowners. For the farmers, communism was a way of survival rather than a political ideology. The state was absent in large areas, and FARC spread from its principal areas in Caquetá, Tolima, Meta and Guaviare to Magdalena Medio, Cauca and other places.

The guerilla movement ELN was founded in January 1965 and gained a good deal of sympathy after the radical priest Camilo Torres joined them later in the same year. While FARC was seen as an orthodox communist movement, ELN attracted liberation theologians and radical socialists. Throughout the 1960s and 70s, more guerilla movements were established, EPL (Maoist), M-19 (with a base among intellectuals from the middle classes) and Quintín Lame (with roots among the indigenous people)

Reaction to powerlessness

What then is the cause of the spiralling violence in Colombia during this period? In the 1960s’ intellectual circles, many started searching for alternatives beyond the two-party system. The state was unable to handle the social changes. There was very little room for democracy, the social polarisation continued in rural areas and the number of poor in the cities increased in line with a rapid urbanisation. Already by 1964, 50 per cent of the population lived in the cities where the informal economic sector became a lifebuoy for the poorest.

As in earlier periods of Colombian history, the political order was not modernised in line with the economic development. Rather than integrating more people into society, more people were excluded, both politically and socially. The exclusivity of the elite reflected the extreme concentration of power and wealth in society. The private sector was very strong, and the state acted mostly as its facilitator. Family dynasties dominated both within business and politics, without the “correct" surname you stood no chance of becoming a general, regardless of how many years you had been a soldier in the jungle.

The 1970s Drugs take over

Urbanisation and increased secularisation reduced the church’s influence. The army acted more independently and intensified the fight against the guerilla and other actors it believed undermined the social order.

The political, social and economic challenges were many, but the situation would be complicated further through the arrival of the drug cartels towards the end of the 1970s. The drug trafficking routes, originating from the coastal areas in Colombia, had long been seen as the most lucrative in the whole of Latin America. While tobacco, liquor, emeralds and marihuana were the most important goods in the 1950s and 60s, cocaine took over as the most important contraband at the end of the 1970s.

The biggest drug cartels in Medellín and Cali were vertically structured organisations that controlled everything from production and transport domestically to the sales abroad. As the cartels’ economic and organisational power increased, their influence became visible in the whole of Colombia. Journalists, judges, politicians, military and others in positions of power were on the cartels’ payrolls. In 1985, drug barons offered to pay off Colombia’s $14 billion foreign debts in exchange for amnesty. But, when the Medellín cartel grew political ambitions and directly threatened the elite’s position in power, their days were numbered. The Carli cartel followed.

The 1980s Paramilitary dominance

Even so, the drug lords created something that was to live on. In 1981, they established the first “modern” paramilitary group MAS (Muerte a Secuestradores – Death to Kidnappers). These were not only used for protection against the guerilla, but also to chase smallholders from their land and eradicate all opposition in the areas they took over. The percentage of land owned by a few increased.

The fact that it was the politically motivated violence that increased dramatically in the 1980s, silences the myth that the violence in Colombia was first and foremost linked with the drug trade itself. In 1989, when mafia related violence was at its highest, 385 drug related killings took place, while 2,479 civilians were killed for political reasons the same year.

In the 1980s, several guerilla groups were greatly debilitated and they signed a ceasefire. Demobilised members of FARC and sympathisers formed the political party Unión Patriótica (UP) in 1985, and hoped to ride the wave of popular protest movements that arose in the 1980s. But the UP was seen as the FARC guerilla’s political arm. During only a few years, 3,000 UP members were killed, including their presidential candidate in the 1990 election, Bernardo Jaramillo Ossa. M-19, who had stormed the Palace of Justice in 1985 in an attack where 11 Supreme Court Justices and 90 civilians were killed, signed a peace agreement in 1989 and laid down their arms.

1990-2000 Flight from the countryside

The cocaine trade reinforced the social problems. The violence and corruption intensified the political tension, created economic imbalance and more internally displaced persons (IPDs) in the country. It also paved the way for alliances that had bloody consequences. The paramilitary groups were not only employed by the mafia. The big landowners and parts of the military apparatus came to ask for their services.

In the 1990s, the Colombian government finally admitted the enormous humanitarian challenges the violence and the armed conflict had created. The flight from the countryside to the large cities increased dramatically. The civilian population found themselves between a rock and a hard place. FARC’s methods such as kidnapping, extortion and deeper involvement in the drug traffic, isolated the movement politically.

At the same time, the paramilitary, protected by strong forces in the Colombian society, could continue their killing sprees and terror. As the conflict between the guerilla and the army spread to more areas, the indigenous and the Afro-Colombians became increasingly often victims of displacement. In 1991, a new constitution was adopted underlining Colombia as a multi-ethnical and multi-cultural state, with rights for minority groups such as the indigenous and the Afro-Colombians. This had little effect in practice, as the groups usually stayed in areas without state presence.

The UN enters the arena

Colombia had long been a relatively isolated country, and the authorities hesitated as long as possible before airing their dirty laundry in public. Not until the latter part of the 1990s did the heavyweight UN agencies, such as UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and UN Office for Human Rights, open their offices in the country. In the agreement between the Colombian government and the UNHCR it is stated that the UNHCR is to support the Colombian government’s ability to handle the situation of IDPs.

In 1994, when the peace process was blossoming in Central America, Francis Deng, Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons, visited Colombia. Before his arrival, he had asked the Colombian government for statistics of displaced persons. The answer he got was that no such statistics existed. But through international aid organisations he was told the figure was estimated to 300,000. By 2004 the number was over three million, and in 2015 over six million, in addition to the several hundred thousand refugees in the neighbouring countries.

Peace talks

In 1998, FARC was assigned an area the size of Switzerland by then President Pastrana in exchange for the start of negotiations. Little came out of this, and the government saw with scepticism that FARC used the area to keep kidnapped prisoners hidden and to build up their armed forces. The talks collapsed in 2002. In the same way FARC has used the experiences of Unión Patriótica from the 1980s to express their scepticism to the government’s security guarantees, the government refers to the period between 1998 and 2002 to prove that FARC is not genuinely concerned with peace.

The big military buildup to combat the drug trafficking came in 2000 when the overall strategy for the US involvement, Plan Colombia, was passed in the US Congress. When Álvaro Uribe won the presidential election in 2002, the government opted for an even stronger military solution against the guerilla. Several leading guerrilla commanders were killed, but there was no final military breakthrough although the safety in parts of the country had improved and the stately presence was strengthened.

2010 Santos’ key to peace

Confrontation is a keyword to describe Uribe’s policies. All hope for dialogue evaporated. Through methods such as paying informants, mass arrests and establishing peasant militias, the civilian population was increasingly drawn into the armed conflict. Paramilitary terror increased, while the FARC guerilla increased the number of kidnappings, use of landmines and the forced recruitment of children. The demobilisation of paramilitary groups in 2005 was positive, but their structures remained and new groups quickly reorganised. An increasing number of people in Colombia realised that the only way out of violence and displacement was dialogue.

Few believed in major political change when Juan Manuel Santos won the presidential election in 2010. But Santos, who had served as Defense Minister under former President Álvaro Uribe and came from the established elite, quickly set a new and reconciling tone. Whereas Uribe was the president of the cattle barons and landowners, Santos stood for modernisation and will to reform where the keywords were peace, equality and education. “I have the key to peace in my pocket,” Santos declared in the autumn of 2010. Since then he has shown his ability to bring out the key and use it.

(Richard Skretteberg is Senior Adviser in the Norwegian Refugee Council.)