Few countries in the world have experienced the same level of tumultuous mayhem over the last 60 years as the South American nation of Colombia. A country that became synonymous with violence, drug trafficking and kidnapping as it wrestled with several revolutionary insurgencies and drug cartels pumping their goods north into the American market.
While many other countries in South America experienced their own left vs right conflicts during the 20th Century, nowhere came close to what happened in Colombia where a perfect storm of radical idealism, foreign meddling, savage counterinsurgencies and some of the most powerful criminals the world had ever seen exploded with devastating effect.
Only in the last few years has there appeared a light at the end of the tunnel, but even today, Colombia continues to wobble uncertainly as it attempts to untangle the many decades of violence, political corruption and criminality that made Colombia the murder capital of the world.
It speaks volumes about the level of chaos in Colombia over the last 60 years that we have to begin this story even further back with another period of turmoil that led up to it. During the 1920s and into the 1930s, Colombia was a deeply divided country that also saw staggering inequality.
The term ‘Banana Republic’ was coined in 1904 by American author O. Henry to describe nearby Honduras, which was suffering shocking economic exploitation by large multinational corporations, with the full backing of the United States and other developed nations. The United Fruit Company became the poster child of this exploitation as it greedily bought up fruit at next to nothing before selling it off at hugely inflated prices abroad while keeping its boot firmly on the necks of those at the bottom of the process.
While Henry wasn’t explicitly talking about Colombia at the time, this was also very much the case in the South American country. Farmers often sank into poverty and workers for the United Fruit Company would often be paid in coupons that could only be spent in the companies own shops with, you’ve guessed it, hugely inflated prices.
This eventually led to deep unrest with several areas going on strike to demand better conditions – which included such wacky demands as a 6-day working week, a minimum wage, an end to the coupon system and general workers rights. This strike quickly gathered steam and became the largest in Colombian history which resulted in United Fruit Company having a quiet word with the U.S government which then threatened to send in U.S Marines unless the Colombian government restored order. And by restore order I mean break up the strike and crush any chances of these rights ever being granted.
The Colombian government quickly caved and troops were sent to the small town of Ciénaga near Santa Marta where they opened fire on a group of unarmed protestors, killing between 47 and 2,000 people depending on whether you ask the Colombian army or the local people. This shocking incident, known as the Banana Massacre, may have broken the strike, but it highlighted the terrible inequality throughout the country and the government’s cosy relationship with powerful foreign companies and other countries that saw absolutely no problem with exploiting the Colombian people.
Between 1948 and 1958, during what we can broadly call the 6th, yes that’s right, 6th, Colombian Civil War, but is widely known as La Violencia, an armed conflict fought between supporters of the Colombian Conservative Party and the Colombian Liberal Party claimed an estimated 200,000 lives – roughly 2% of the Colombian population at the time.
As with many parts of the world during the second half of the 20th Century, the question of whether the country should choose the left or the right lay behind the upheaval. The 1920s and 1930s had seen power swing back and forth between the two, but with the Conservative triumph at the 1946 election – mainly because the liberal vote was split between two candidates – the country lurched right again and began to see a crackdown against left-wing demonstrations that saw 14,000 deaths in 1947 alone.
But if that election had quietly instigated the violence between the two sides, the assassination of Liberal Party leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán on 9th April 1948 on the streets of Bogota catapulted the nation into a vicious civil war. The killing immediately led to a 10-hour period that has come to be known as the ‘Bogotazo’ as angry mobs rampaged through the city leaving much of downtown Bogota completely destroyed.
The violence quickly spread to other cities, including Medellín, Ibagué and Barranquilla as leaders from both parties did what they could to calm the mayhem and restore order. Yet even after the rampant destruction had ceased, the country continued to careen wildly and after the Liberal Party pushed for the impeachment of President Mariano Ospina Pérez, he dissolved Congress and effectively formed a dictatorship.
This led to the planning of a coup that would topple Perez, but after careful consideration, it was called off. Except nobody thought to tell Air Force Captain Alfredo Silva, in the city of Villavicencio, who carried out his part of the coup and took control of the city. This led to others in the region rising up and quickly a civil war was underway that would predominantly be fought in the countryside and with a truly heinous level of violence – hence the name of this period.
In 1953, General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla took power and granted an amnesty for all those involved in the civil war, which effectively ended much of the fighting. However, for some, they had no intention of ceasing fighting and there was sporadic violence for several years after. One such hold out was Pedro Antonio Marín Marín, known by his nom de guerre Manuel Marulanda Vélez, born to a peasant family in a coffee-growing region of west-central Colombia whose political ideology surged left during this period. He would eventually become the founder of the Communist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – known simply as FARC.
A Delicate Peace
In 1957 an agreement was reached that would see the Conservative and Liberal parties rule jointly by alternating the presidency every 4 years for 16 years under the combined name the National Front.
While the idea was no doubt noble and with good intentions, its outcomes were decidedly mixed all the way up until it was phased out in 1974. When army units acting on the behalf of the National Front began attacking peasant communities in the early 1960s under the guise of rooting out communists and bandits – with a more than gentle shove from the economic powerhouse to the north – the writing was on the wall for an escalation of violence.
During this period a series of small enclaves began popping up around Colombia that were effectively controlled by communist peasant guerrillas and one of these was the Marquetalia Republic, situated between Bogota and Medellin. In May 1964, 16,000 Colombian troops, with U.S logistical support, attacked the small village and the 1,000 people there – only 48 of whom were said to be armed.
One man in the village was none other than our friend Manuel Marulanda Vélez and he, along with other guerilla fighters, did what they could to hold off the attack before withdrawing into the mountains. On 27th May 1964, the survivors from the attack gathered to implement a much more robust response to governmental actions and to try and wrestle power from the corrupt capitalists while pushing Colombia towards a Marxist ideology.
While the name FARC wouldn’t appear for another two years, it was this meeting that laid the groundwork for the organisation that would haunt Colombia for the next 60 years. Or valiantly battle for the poor and forgotten for the next six decades, depending on how you want to look at things.
The Movement (s) Begin
FARC has unquestionably long been the most well-known guerilla movement in Colombia, but throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s, they were far from the only ones.
The Popular Liberation Army (EPL in Spanish) was formed in 1967 by the Communist Party of Colombia, itself a breakaway from the Colombian Communist Party over disagreements of how stringent Soviet ideology should be followed. This initially began with military operations in the Cordoba Department in the late 1960s but after many of its leaders were killed in the early 1970s, the movement suffered badly and never really hit the heights of other organizations.
One such movement that had considerably more success was the 19th of April Movement (M-19), a largely urban guerilla organisation that appeared after the obviously fraudulent election of 1970. One of their earliest, and least violent actions, was to steal one of Simon Bolivar’s swords which had been on display in a museum, an action that they stated symbolised a civilian uprising against a regime perceived as unjust. We’ll be coming back to the M-19 shortly.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia has become a worldwide name – for both good and bad reasons. The group that was forged in the fiery aftermath of the assault on Marquetalia in 1964, initially focused its efforts on rural engagements with the Colombian military but as we reach the 1980s, things began to change.
With an increased income stream – reportedly of the white powdery variety that is – FARC were able to dramatically increase its activities in the early stages of the 1980s. So much so, that FARC fighters were even sent to Vietnam and the Soviet Union for training while the number of soldiers and quality of equipment rapidly increased. Their attacks became larger and better organised and while the majority still focused on the Colombian military, they widened their scope and carried out attacks on U.S firms with facilities in Medellin, including IBM, Union Carbide and Xerox.
They also carried out numerous kidnappings and ransoms paid became a key part of the organization’s cash flow. In 1977 they kidnapped a U.S citizen Peace Corps volunteer who was eventually released after $250,000 (around $1.1 million today) was paid and this was a pattern that would continue for decades.
The Drug Cartels
As guerilla organisations began to see the dramatic profits that could be made from smuggling cocaine out of Colombia and into the United States, many began to get in on the act. But this brought them into direct contact with other groups who also lay well outside the law, but for very different reasons, the drug cartels.
Now, I know pivoting from freedom fighters directly into the illegal drug trade might seem a bit abrupt, but hopefully, it might paint an image of the absolute bedlam going on inside Colombia during this time. Not only was the Colombian government fighting several insurgencies – some of whom agreed with one another while others fought amongst themselves – it also had to deal with some of the largest drug cartels the world had ever seen.
The story of the Colombian cartels is mammoth and probably deserves a video in itself but it does play a key part in this roller coaster tale of Colombia, especially between the 1970s and 1990s. Pablo Escobar, whose criminal career had begun with petty theft, racketeering and kidnapping, began shipping cocaine around 1975 and I think we all know where it went from there.
At its peak, the Medellin Cartel was bringing in an extraordinary $70 million per day (around $149.5 million today) and Pablo Escobar was widely considered the richest criminal in history. In the early years, perhaps with the Colombian government’s attention elsewhere, business boomed with very little put in place to stop the Medellin Cartel, the Cali Cartel and others from operating.
But with U.S influence slowly escalating, as well as Colombia’s increasing notoriety for seemingly allowing these cartels to operate, things began to pick up steam in the 1980s, which led to Escobar and co effectively declaring war on the Colombia government. Soon bombs were going off in Bogota, policemen, journalists and those involved in the legal process were being executed and a new wave of fear settled over the country.
Just to emphasize the absurd power that the cartels had over the country, on 6th November 1986, members of M-19, reportedly paid by Escobar, stormed the Palace of Justice, taking 300 people hostage, including the 24 justices and 20 other judges. The reasons behind the assault have long been debated and at the time M-19 claimed to want to hold a trial for President Belisario Betancur but the subsequent burning of 6,000 documents, many of which related to extradition procedures against some of the cartel’s top people, during the army’s assault, has long muddied waters.
The army’s response was heavy-handed as you might expect and the resulting assault finally brought the siege to an end, but with 11 of the nation’s justices dead and a further 32 civilians killed, along with 33 members of M-19, it was a bloody end and one which showed once again just how low Colombia had sunk.
As if we needed to add more characters to this dizzying concoction of turmoil, here comes yet more. In the 1980s, with cartel leaders tripping over all the money falling out of their pockets, their families became popular picks for kidnappers, often from one of the various left-wing guerilla movements.
After several high-profile names were taken, the drug cartels, with the backing of U.S. corporations (one said to be Texas Petroleum), Colombian politicians, and wealthy landowners created an organisation known as ‘Muerte a Secuestradores’ (Death to Kidnappers) as a way of fighting back and to protect economic interests. This paramilitary force effectively became an off the books counter-insurgency group that targeted FARC, M-19 and others with savagery and, almost, complete impunity.
This grew dramatically as the 1980s progressed with the group eventually coming into possession of helicopters and even aircraft that could be used to attack groups seen as opposed to the drug trade. And this was by no means the only paramilitary group that either the cartels and the government or later solely the government used to strike at the insurgents. Take your pick from the Alianza Americana Anticomunista, the Black Eagles, Los Rastrojos, or the United Self-Defences of Colombia (AUC), to name but a few.
The role and methods of many of these groups became hugely controversial with many eventually being deemed illegal and dubbed terrorist organisations by the United States. How much the U.S government knew about these groups targeting left-leaning groups we may never fully know, but I think we can probably agree at the very least they were tolerated by the highest authority. It might come as a slight surprise to hear that these paramilitary groups accounted for by far the most deaths during these chaotic years, easily outstripping FARC and other groups and the cartels. In 2013, a government report was published which counted 1,982 massacres between 1980 and 2012, with 1,166 of those carried out by paramilitaries, 343 by rebels, and 295 by government security forces.
And one final point. Remember the United Fruit Company – the devious organisation behind the Banana Massacre in 1928, well, in 1970 it renamed itself Chiquita Brands International, Inc, but as they say, a leopard never changes its spots. In 2007, the company was fined $25 million as part of a settlement with the United States Justice Department relating to its ties to Colombian paramilitary groups.
The company claimed that the $1.7 million it had paid to the AUC was extorted from them for protection purposes, but the U.S government called bullshit especially when the AUC’s use of Chiquita loading facilities to import weapons into the country came to light. This was followed by lawsuits by those affected by the death squads and in 2018, Colombia’s Office of the Attorney General filed charges against 13 Chiquita Brands International executives and administrators for the company’s role in the paramilitary activities.
The Lowest Point
The 1990s was a messy time in Colombia as a series of ceasefires and truces came and went without any real substantial progress being made to secure the situation in Colombia. Several of the insurgent movements did call it a day, including the M-19, but as far as Farc were concerned it was business as usual.
There were further tentative steps with negotiations between FARC and the government but this was usually for prisoner releases rather than a genuine peace process. And while this was going on, the various paramilitary forces continued killing freely.
In the middle of all of this were millions of Colombians caught in the chaos. Public support for left-leaning insurgencies, which to begin with had often been high, gradually waned over the years, but this was probably down to exhaustion and increasingly violent reprisals.
The Mapiripán massacre carried out by the AUC between 15th and 20th July 1997 targeted civilians living in the small town of Mapiripán in the Meta Department. With all of the bodies disposed of in a nearby river, the exact number of those who died is unknown but was thought to be at least 30. However, what was most shocking was how the murders took place, with chainsaws and machetes used to hack apart the bodies as the Colombian army stood by and did absolutely nothing.
In 1997, FARC kidnapped 70 Colombian soldiers in what was the first large-scale kidnapping under its direction, while individual or smaller groups were constantly disappearing. These included some high profile names, such as Senator Ingrid Betancourt who was kidnapped in 2002 and held captive for six years and Former Development Minister Fernando Araujo who escaped from FARC captivity in 2006, also after six years.
The turn of the millennium saw some of the worst fighting between the various groups that resulted not only in plenty of dead on both sides but also thousands of civilians with many more becoming displaced as a result. In 2001, the AUC and other paramilitary units were placed on the US State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations and slowly most were quietly disbanded.
It’s important to say that in the first decade of the new century, there was plenty of effort to instigate a peace process, but it consistently came unstuck, often when either FARC or the government attacked each other’s bases while talks were being held. It was a period of murderous tic for tac but amid all of the turmoil, tiny signs of hope were emerging.
In 2012, formal high-level peace talks between FARC and the Colombian government began in Havana, Cuba, and it shows the level of distrusts and degrees of complication that it took six years of talks to finally reach a breakthrough in 2016 when a ceasefire was first signed, which was quickly followed by a final peace agreement. Instead of violence, it was a joy that erupted around Colombia as it appeared the nation was now within sight of peace for the first time in nearly 60 years.
But even then, things have been far from clear. Shortly after the signing of the agreement, the peace deal, which included social reforms, disarmaments, security guarantees and a truth commission, was put to the Colombian people in a referendum which was then rejected by the narrowest of margins, even though turnout was only 27%.
Regardless, most involved with the peace deal have signed up to it, but certainly not all. A group now known as the Dissident FARC have continued fighting on and it’s been reported that over the last few years their number has actually risen.
It now appears as if the initial jubilation that followed the peace agreement is fading and it’s not clear where the country is heading now that the conflict that killed 220,000 people (177,307 civilians and 40,787 fighters) between 1958 and 2013 is officially over. Colombia still has stunning inequality and while the economy is gaining momentum, several decades of near-war has left the country’s infrastructure and indeed social structure in a far from pristine shape.
Then we have the massive amount of landmines in the country, laid by both FARC and the government, which killed 2,038 people between 1982 and the end of 2012 and continue to maim and kill to this day. It’s thought that 16.9% of the population in Colombia has been a direct victim of the war and at its peak, between 1985 and 2012, five million people became displaced – the second-highest anywhere in the world.
There is quite clearly a mountain to climb for Colombia and its people and it is perhaps unfair to expect everything to change so soon after the peace agreement was signed. After nearly 60 years of internal conflict, plus another ten years if you want to include La Violencia, this nation is finally starting to patch itself back together. It certainly won’t be easy, but as far as Colombia in the second half of the 20th Century went, nothing ever was.