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Colombia: Introduction
Country Study > Introduction


In the late 1980s, Colombia remained a nation of paradoxes. The bearer of one of the strongest democratic traditions in Latin America, it was also subject to recurrent bouts of political violence and terrorism. A highly urbanized and industrialized country, its social structure continued to be influenced by an elite that traced its lineage to an earlier, more agrarian period. Despite a dynamic economy, the country suffered from a skewed distribution of income and delivery of essential services.

In contrast to the usual pattern found in Latin America, Colombia has had a long history of civilian rule and control over the armed forces. Since gaining independence from Spain in the early nineteenth century, Colombia has experienced only three intervals of military government. In 1830 General Rafael Urdaneta led a military dictatorship for eight months. In 1854 General José María Melo staged a successful coup against an elected government controlled by the Liberal Party (Partido Liberal -- PC) but was himself replaced within a year by an alliance of Liberals and members of the Conservative Party (Partido Conservador -- PL). In 1953 General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla overthrew a Conservative government that had proved incapable of addressing widespread rural violence. Although the coup initially had extensive popular support, civilians soon became disenchanted with the regime and sought a restoration of democracy. In 1957 elements of the armed forces forced Rojas Pinilla into exile and turned the reins of government over to civilians. In the thirty years since the return of democratic rule, five Colombian presidents have dismissed key military leaders whose public statements appeared to challenge government policies. The armed forces accepted each of these dismissals.

However, civilian control over the military has not spared Colombia from a long history of violent political conflict. Instead of civilian-military conflict, Colombia has experienced conflict between dominant political parties, the Liberals and Conservatives. Both parties emerged around 1850 during the presidency of General José Hilario López; for the remainder of the century, Liberals and Conservatives clashed frequently over the government of the respective departments, the division of authority between the president and the legislature, and the position in society of the Roman Catholic Church. The López administration drafted a Liberal constitution that granted substantial autonomy to the provinces, reduced the power of the executive, and established a strict separation of church and state. The PL initially consisted of a heterogeneous coalition of golgotas (merchants supporting free trade), draconianos (artisans and manufacturers supporting protectionism), and smaller landowners. Conservatives, in turn, drew their support from large landowners and the Catholic clergy. Peasants tended to support the parties of their patróns, a pattern that continued well into the twentieth century and helped to explain the intensity of rural political conflict.

Liberals emerged victorious from a civil war in the early 1860s and held power until 1884. Under the leadership of Tomás Cipriano de Mosquera, the Liberals expropriated church lands. Because the beneficiaries of this action were merchants and landowners rather than peasants, the policy served mainly to intensify land concentration in a few hands. Meeting in Rionegro in 1863, the government enacted a constitution that reserved for the states all powers not expressly granted to the federal government. In spite of these reforms, a radical faction overthrew Mosquera in 1867 and instituted still stronger curbs in central government authority. Over the next twenty years, Liberal and Conservative factions engaged in an estimated forty violent local conflicts.

The election in 1884 of the Conservative Rafael Núñez as president resulted in a dramatic reversal of government policies. Reacting to the excesses of the radical Liberal faction, legislators supported Núñez in adopting the Constitution of 1886, still in force in 1989. The Constitution established a strong president who appointed department governors and who had broad powers to shape central government policies. Although the Constitution of 1886 finally settled the contentious issue of the scope of presidential power, its promulgation also set the stage for one of the most violent periods in Colombian history. Liberals split into Peace and War factions, with the latter supporting armed rebellion against the government. After staging unsuccessful revolts in 1893 and 1895, the War faction rebelled a third time in what came to be known as the War of a Thousand Days. Conservatives eventually prevailed in 1902, but at a cost of an estimated 100,000 deaths.

The war's devastation discredited extremists in both parties. Conservative and Liberal moderates recognized that the rebuilding of the country's economy required the cooperation of both parties. Although Conservatives retained national power until 1930, a succession of presidents appointed bipartisan cabinets. Cooperation helped generate extensive economic growth and industrialization, which produced new urban groups that supported social reform. Liberal reformists led by Alfonso López Pumarejo swept to power in 1930 and instituted the "Revolution on the March," a series of measures that included agrarian reform, support for labor unions, and the enactment of public assistance. López Pumarejo's ambitious social agenda threatened Conservative landowners; in addition, the loss of the presidency stripped the Conservatives of control of extensive local patronage. As a result, relations between the two parties became increasingly polarized during the 1930s and early 1940s.

Violence soon overwhelmed the political system. In April 1948, populist Liberal politician Jorge Eliécer Gaitán -- a leader of many of Colombia's urban poor and a likely presidential candidate in 1950 -- was assassinated in Bogotá. Gaitán's murder sparked a riot, known as the Bogotazo, that destroyed much of the capital and left 2,000 dead. Although the government soon contained the situation in the capital, it could not handle the violence that spread through much of the countryside. Rural violence became the norm as some 20,000 armed combatants claiming to be operating in the name of the Liberals and Conservatives settled old political scores; over the next eighteen years, la violencia (1948-66) claimed the lives of over 200,000 Colombians. Although Mariano Ospina Pérez, who was elected president in 1946, came from the moderate wing of the PC, his administration became increasingly repressive and relied extensively on the military. His successor, Laureano Gómez Castro, was a Conservative extremist who curtailed civil liberties and used the rural police as his party's agents; these actions merely served to polarize the nation, to escalate the level of violence, and to spawn the Rojas Pinilla dictatorship. It took five years for democracy to be restored.

As was the case following the War of a Thousand Days, Liberal and Conservative leaders recognized that the survival of the political system required political cooperation rather than polarization. This recognition led to an innovative power-sharing arrangement known as the National Front. From 1958 to 1974, the two parties agreed to rotate the presidency every four years, to establish parity in all elective and appointive government positions, and to require a two-thirds vote in Congress for all legislation. The National Front proved invaluable in allowing the return of civilian rule and an end to party-related violence. Analysts also contended, however, that the noncompetitive nature of National Front elections weakened party identification among the population, especially urban Colombians, and generated notably higher levels of voter absenteeism.

Reconciliation between the two parties did not produce social peace, however. In the 1960s, three major left-wing guerrilla organizations -- the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia -- FARC), the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional -- ELN), and the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación -- EPL) -- and several smaller groups established bases in the Colombian countryside. In the 1970s, a fourth major organization -- the 19th of April Movement (Movimiento 19 de Abril -- M-19) -- began urban operations. Guerrillas sought to undermine public order through kidnappings, murders, robberies, assaults on military and police facilities, and destruction of key economic installations.

Successive administrations employed a variety of tactics to deal with the guerrilla threat. Although military counterinsurgency operations placed the guerrillas on the defensive during the late 1960s and early 1970s, they regained much of their strength in the late 1970s. In response, President Julio César Turbay Ayala employed his state of siege powers in 1978 to decree the National Security Statute. The statute gave expanded arrest powers to the armed forces, granted military tribunals jurisdiction over numerous crimes, and subjected the media to censorship. Although critics charged that the statute legalized numerous human rights violations, it did not succeed in reducing the scope or intensity of guerrilla operations. Turbay's successor, Belisario Betancur Cuartas, proposed a political rather than military solution to the guerrilla problem. Under the terms of the 1984 National Dialogue, the FARC, EPL, and M-19 signed cease-fires that were designed to allow their reincorporation into national life. As part of the peace process, the FARC established a political front, the Patriotic Union (Unión Patriótica -- UP), which participated in national elections. But the guerrillas, who were allowed to keep their weapons, soon violated the cease-fires. The National Dialogue collapsed in November 1985 when M-19 commandos stormed the Palace of Justice, the Supreme Court building, in Bogotá. In the ensuing battle between the military and guerrillas, over 100 died, including 11 Supreme Court justices.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Colombian democracy also came under attack from major narcotics trafficking syndicates based in Medellín and Cali. Initially, drug traffickers concentrated their efforts on furnishing marijuana to the United States market; increasingly, however, they shifted their attention to the vastly more lucrative cocaine trade. The Medellín and Cali cartels became vast international networks that coordinated the production of coca in Peru and Bolivia, its conversion into cocaine in Colombian laboratories, and transportation to and distribution in the United States. By the early 1980s, Colombian traffickers had firm control over the United States cocaine market. The cocaine trade generated huge profits and created a boom in the real estate and construction industries because of the traffickers' need to launder money. Overall, however, the cartels' presence had a highly corrosive effect on the Colombian economy, exacerbating inflation, skewing income distribution, and undercutting national economic planning. The cartels had an even more disastrous impact on the political system. Traffickers employed hired assassins known as sicarios to intimidate judges and politicians and corrupted other public officials with huge payoffs. Traffickers also had ties with various right-wing "paramilitary" groups that systematically killed leftist politicians and their supporters; during the 1980s, these groups allegedly murdered several hundred UP members.

As was the case with the guerrillas, Colombian administrations varied in their response to the cartels. Turbay sent the military into the Guajira Peninsula in an effort to root out marijuana production and also approved a treaty allowing for the extradition to the United States of Colombian narcotics traffickers accused of crimes in the United States. Although Betancur initially opposed extradition on grounds of national sovereignty, he changed his position after the April 1984 assassination of Justice Minister Rodrigo Lara Bonilla. Declaring a "war without quarter" against the cartels, Betancur authorized the extradition of thirteen narcotics traffickers. In two rulings in 1987, however, the Colombian Supreme Court invalidated the 1979 extradition treaty, thereby depriving the new president, Virgilio Barco Vargas, of the weapon most feared by traffickers. Following the January 1988 assassination of Attorney General Carlos Mauro Hoyos Jiménez, Barco beefed up interdiction efforts by the military.

The paradoxical character of Colombia was apparent not only in its political system but also in its social structure. This structure was a legacy of the Spanish colonial and postindependence periods. Spanish authorities established a highly stratified social system in New Granada, as Colombia was known during the colonial era as well as for much of the nineteenth century. Peninsulares, persons of Spanish descent born in Spain, controlled the key colonial institutions. Immediately below them were the criollos, those of Spanish descent born in New Granada. Mestizos constituted the lower stratum of society. Mulattoes, zambos (black-Indian mix), and blacks remained at the margin of colonial society, and Indians were virtually outside of it. Change and continuity occurred in New Granada's social structure as a result of independence. Criollos replaced peninsulares at the pinnacle of the social pyramid, and mixed-race citizens gained a modicum of social mobility. Such mobility, however, was granted to individuals only and not to entire groups and required adherence to traditional Spanish values and culture.

The stable political environment that Liberals and Conservatives fashioned in the wake of the War of a Thousand Days allowed for sustained economic growth, which subsequently generated dramatic social changes. The emergence of the industrial centers of Bogotá, Cali, Medellín, and Barranquilla spurred massive migration from the countryside. By the early 1980s, approximately 70 percent of all Colombians lived in urban areas, one of the highest rates in Latin America. Urbanization also weakened kinship ties and the extended family structure.

Yet despite these changes, a relatively small upper class continued to dominate the nation's economic and political institutions. The upper class, which constituted about 5 percent of the population in the mid-1980s, consisted of both traditional large landowners with distinguished family lineages and major entrepreneurs. With the notable exception of Antioquia Department, the elite was largely white. Regarding itself as the keeper of the nation's cultural heritage, the elite was the only class to exhibit a strong sense of collective consciousness. Although about 20 percent of Colombians were middle class, the sector's heterogeneous nature inhibited a shared identity; instead, many members of the middle class sought to emulate the culture and life-style of the elite. Even lower levels of common identity were found among the 50 percent of the population considered to be members of the lower class or the remaining 25 percent engaged in peripheral, subsistence occupations.

Paradoxes were also evident in Colombia's economy. Colombia was one of the first Latin American countries to recognize that protectionist trade policies generated inefficiencies in domestic manufacturing and penalized the more dynamic, export-oriented industries. As a result, entrepreneurs and government officials joined forces in the mid-1960s to support a strategy of export promotion and gradual economic liberalization. The export program emphasized nontraditional goods such as textiles, coal, oil, and noncoffee agricultural products and was designed to complement Colombia's strong coffee export business. This export promotion campaign led to sustained growth in the nation's gross domestic product throughout the 1970s, although the global recession of the early 1980s revealed that Colombia remained too dependent on the international coffee market. Colombia actively sought foreign investment, especially in potentially lucrative export industries. The government relied heavily on private capital to sustain economic growth, and it generally limited its role to designing an appropriate fiscal and monetary policy, providing vital infrastructure, and ensuring a political climate conducive to economic growth. The government did take an active role in the management of coal and oil production, however. Although the nation's total external debt more than doubled during the 1980s, analysts considered that it remained manageable.

Yet economic growth did not produce a more equitable distribution of income. Analysts estimated that the top 20 percent of the population held roughly 70 percent of total national income. A national agricultural census in the early 1970s revealed that 10 percent of Colombia's farmers and ranchers held 80 percent of all farmland. These inequities were also evident in the delivery of essential services. In contrast to the rest of the population, the rural and urban poor experienced notably higher mortality and morbidity rates. Only about 60 percent of Colombians were served by a sanitary water supply and only about half by a sewerage system. Finally, the upper and middle classes continued to provide a disproportionate share of secondary and university students.

Colombian democracy thus faced varied challenges in the late 1980s. The most immediate challenge confronting government leaders was the serious threat to public order from forces on both the left and the right. Over the longer term, however, the government's ability to address the needs of Colombia's lower classes may prove to be the more important key to political stability. February 15, 1989

(In the months following completion of research and writing of this book, significant developments occurred on both the guerrilla and the narcotics trafficking fronts. The Barco administration and the M-19 signed a series of agreements to allow the latter's incorporation into the political system. Other guerrilla organizations, with the notable exception of the ELN, expressed interest in the peace process. This progress was counterbalanced, however, by a dramatic escalation of terrorism by "paramilitary" groups and drug traffickers.

In a major address in September 1988, Barco had offered guerrillas a three-phase peace plan. The initial pacification phase was designed to create a climate of understanding between the government and interested guerrilla groups and consisted of several major elements. First, guerrilla organizations were required both to state their willingness to reach a peace accord and to suspend all terrorist activities. Second, government and guerrilla representatives were to meet to establish procedures for the guerrillas' return to normal life. Third, the guerrillas' representatives were to be allowed to propose constitutional reforms to Congress. Finally, the president was to present a bill to Congress pardoning guerrillas for their crimes; this bill was to take effect only after the completion of the entire peace plan. During the second, transitional, phase, the government was to temporarily relocate the guerrillas to a neutral site and provide them with medical services, food, and lodging. The armed forces were to suspend all patrol activities at that site and offer maximum protection to the guerrillas. The final phase was to involve the complete incorporation of the guerrillas into the democratic process. The government pledged to protect the lives of the demobilized guerrillas, to provide them with economic assistance for a reasonable period, and to allow their full participation in elections.

The Barco peace plan was greeted with widespread scepticism. Nonetheless, by January 1989 the Barco administration and the M-19 had agreed to negotiate terms of peace. The specifics of the transition phase were reached in March when the government granted the M-19 a neutral zone in Santo Domingo, Cauca Department, and barred military and police operations in the area. The government and the M-19 signed a final peace accord in September 1989. The guerrilla movement announced its intention to demobilize, although this had not occurred by November 1989, and to reestablish itself as a political party.

Apparently impressed with the positive nature of the negotiations between the government and the M-19, several other guerrilla organizations -- including the FARC and the EPL -- sought a dialogue with the Barco administration. After several false starts, government representatives traveled to eastern Colombia in October 1989 to begin discussion with the Simón Bolívar Guerrilla Coordinating Board (Coordinadora Guerrillera Simón Bolívar), ostensibly the umbrella group for all leftist guerrilla organizations operating in the country.

It was clear, however, that the board lacked the authority to negotiate on behalf of the ELN. In an effort to force the government to nationalize the petroleum industry and terminate all exploration contracts with multinational firms, the ELN had carried out over 100 attacks between January 1988 and June 1989 on the nation's largest oil pipeline. Analysts estimated that government losses from pipeline attacks in 1988 exceeded US$400 million. In June 1989, ELN commandos destroyed the pipeline terminal in Coveñas, Sucre Department, resulting in a temporary suspension of oil exports from that facility. Finally, in October 1989 the ELN assassinated the Catholic bishop of Arauca.

The most shocking acts of terrorism, however, were committed by "paramilitary" squads and narcotics traffickers. In 1988 "paramilitary" units staged several massacres of individuals residing in areas considered sympathetic to leftist political interests; in the three most violent incidents, approximately 100 persons were killed in all. Drug traffickers also stepped up their terrorist campaign. During July and August 1989, sicarios assassinated the governor of Antioquia Department, a district superior court judge, the chief of police of Medellín, and the head of the New Liberalism Movement (Movimiento Liberalismo Nuevo), Luis Carlos Galán Sarmiento, who was a leading contender for the PL presidential nomination in 1990.

Galán's murder shocked the nation and spurred the Barco administration to issue a sweeping series of decrees under the state of siege provision of the Constitution. The most significant decrees allowed officials to seize the personal property of narcotics traffickers, to detain suspected traffickers for seven days, and to extradite, through adminstrative procedures, those accused of crimes in the United States. Over the next month, the military arrested over 10,000 persons and confiscated traffickers' airplanes, helicopters, processing laboratories, and residences. In addition, the Colombian government extradited five traffickers to the United States. The most sought-after traffickers -- including Pablo Escobar Gaviria, José Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha, and the members of the Fabio Ochoa Restrepo clan -- eluded capture, however. To support the Colombian effort, the United States provided a US$65 million package of military equipment.

Clearly hurt by the government's offensive, the Medellín Cartel offered to end its trafficking activities and to repatriate its capital in exchange for a pardon -- an offer immediately rejected by President Barco. Meanwhile, the cartel continued to engage in terrorism. Between August and October, traffickers bombed dozens of buildings in Bogotá and Medellín and murdered several persons. Following the October killing of a district superior court judge in Medellín, the Colombian judiciary staged a seventy-two-hour strike to demand increased security. The nation recognized that it faced a long and difficult struggle ahead.

November 1, 1989

(As work on of this manuscript neared completion, Colombians witnessed several acts of narcotics-related terrorism and the death of a prominent leader of the Medellín Cartel; they also and elected a new president. In late 1989, traffickers dramatically escalated their campaign of terror designed to reverse the government's extradition policy. On November 27, a bomb exploded on an Avianca jet within minutes after takeoff from Bogotá, killing all 107 persons aboard. On December 6, sixty-two persons died when a driver on a suicide mission detonated an estimated 500 kilograms of dynamite outside the Bogotá headquarters of the Department of Administrative Security (Departamento de Seguridad Administrativo).

The Medellín Cartel suffered an important setback, however, on December 15, when an elite Colombian police unit tracked down Rodríquez Gacha on one of his estates near Covenas, Sucre Department; in the ensuing gun battle, Rodríquez Gacha, his son, and fifteen bodyguards were killed. In an attempt to sway public opinion, the cartel responded the following month with a communique asserting the government's victory over it and offering to suspend all violent and narcotics activities in exchange for undefined "constitutional and legal guarantees." Consistent with his previous responses to similar cartel statements, Barco immediately rejected the offer.

After a brief hiatus, traffickers resumed their campaign of terror on March 22, 1990, when they assassinated Bernardo Jaramillo Ossa, the presidential candidate of the UP, at the airport in Bogotá. Traffickers followed this operation with the daring assassination on April 26, 1990, of M-19 presidential candidate Carlos Pizarro during a domestic Avianca flight. Although Jaramillo and Pizarro were terrorist targets because of their leftist politics, each had also opposed extradition of narcotics traffickers as a violation of national sovereignty. Thus, many analysts interpreted their murders as evidence that traffickers were engaged in an effort to destabilize Colombian democracy.

With the assassinations of Jaramillo and Pizarro serving as tragic reminders of the dangers of public service, Colombians went to the polls on May 27, and elected PL candidate César Gaviria Trujillo as the nation's new president. Although Gaviria captured only 48 percent of the votes, he easily outdistanced his nearest competitor in a crowded field that included two Social Conservative Party (Partido Social Conservador -- PSC) candidates -- Alvaro Gómez Hurtado and Rodrigo Lloreda Caicedo -- and Pizarro's successor as M- 19 standardbearer, Antonio Navarro Wolf. Gaviria benefited not only from the PSC split but also from having inherited Galán's movement following the latter's assassination in August 1989. A PL insider who had served as finance and interior ministers during the Barco administration, Gaviria had taken a bold move when he agreed to serve as Galán's campaign manager. As the nation followed Galán's funeral on radio and television, Galán's son turned to Gaviria and asked him to seek the presidency. Gaviria's nomination as PL candidate was assured on May 11, when he defeated two others in the party's first-ever primary. Galán had long fought for the institution of the primary as a means of reducing the role of party bosses.

Following his victory, the president-elect pledged institutional renovation and expressed strong support for a future constituent assembly that voters had also approved. Gaviria also committed himself to addressing the problem of poverty and the need for greater decentralization of authority. Analysts also expected that Gaviria would offer a prominent post to the M-19 in the wake of Navarro's having received 13 percent of the vote, an unexpectedly strong showing. Finally, Gaviria promised to continue the battle against narcotics trafficking by supporting both extradition and more resources for judges and penal officials.

June 30, 1990 - Dennis M. Hanratty

Data as of December 1988

Last Updated: December 1988

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Colombia was first published in 1988. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

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