Modern Colombian History

Civil Wars and Violence
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In 1899 a liberal revolt against a resolutely conservative government turned into the War of a Thousand Days. Lasting until 1 June 1903, shortly after the Battle of Palonegro was won by government forces, the war claimed over 100,000 lives.

During the next couple of decades, disputes ensued over Panama, which gained independence thanks to support from the USA, and Leticia, which Peru claimed to be theirs. Leticia was eventually given back to Colombia.

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Jorge Eliécer Gaitán made it to the 1000 pesos note!Decades later began one of Colombia’s darkest periods, known as ‘La Violencia’, which continued into the times of the drug cartels that took power later in the century.
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On April 9th, 1948, socialist mayor Jorge Eliécer Gaitán was assassinated, leading to riots in Bogotá known as ‘Bogotazo’. Destruction of property, looting, arson and murder characterized the riot, with many of the 180,000 (at least) victims being protestant.

The riot finally subsided when, in 1957, a truce was signed between liberals and conservatives that gave both sides political power in the form of a coalition. Though the conservatives benefited more, peace was maintained for 16 years in this way. Troubles bubbled under the surface, however, in movements that were overlooked during the agreement.

This led to the formation of guerrilla movements, including the M19. Their goal was the establishment of a democratic socialist society. They performed a series of high-profile kidnapping and murders, forcing the government to concede into participating in negotiations. These got underway with the group and a peace accord was signed in 1989. Following this the M19 surrendered their weapons and formed a legitimate political party, Aliánza Democratica, which gained significant amounts of votes.

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Apocalypse Now, Colombian versionAnother major guerrilla organization was Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC). Formed in 1964, the FARC were initially aligned with the communist party. They grew slowly until the 1980s when, against their previous convictions, they began to work within the burgeoning drug trade and introduced taxes on illegal trafficking in order to fund themselves. With their new found capital the guerrillas gained prominence and, with a succession of high profile hostage captures, executions and bombings, have rapidly become one of the most infamous guerrilla groups in the world.

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During the presidential reigns of both Uribe (2002-2010) and Santos (2010 - present) police and military pressure on groups such as the FARC has increased, leading to their departure from Colombia’s major cities and into the less-populated areas of the country. Though this tactic has come under some criticism as it puts vulnerable communities in more danger of violence and displacement, it is generally agreed that Colombia is becoming rapidly safer and a more desirable place to live thanks to this intervention. This notion is aided by impressive statistics, for example the decrease in kidnappings from 2000 (3,700) to 2009 (172).

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The Drug Years
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Pablo EscobarThe most infamous and powerful of Colombia’s drug cartels emerged during the late 1970s. During the 1980s and 1990s they gained a huge amount of power and exerted a massive amount of influence in political, economical and every day life in Colombia. The most dominant of these cartels was undoubtedly the Medellín Cartel, headed by the notorious Pablo Escobar.

Escobar’s tyrannous reign over Colombian life was both devastating and complicated. Escobar worked hard to cultivate a Robin Hood image, giving a great deal of money to vulnerable communities and developing educational and healthcare facilities. At the same time, however, he was ordering the execution of politicians, police and innocent citizens.

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Another prominent cartel was the Cali Cartel, which rivaled Escobar’s dominance during its peak but never exerted the same kind of influence over the country. The effects of the two warring cartels and the government’s often botched attempts to deal with the problem (including the questionable interventions of the US in the War on Drugs) have led to Colombia to remain scarred by the violence and displacement that took place during this time. Though Escobar was killed in 1993 and the groups largely disbanded now, communities and families still live with the after effects and struggle to regain remnants of their previous lives.

Today, however, Colombia is making strides towards a promising future. Buoyed by a sharp rise in tourism and drops in criminal activity, the country beams with optimism for what is to come and, notwithstanding the difficulties faced by acute social inequality and the aftermath of a drug trade that is still troubling the country, it seems this optimism is warranted.

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