La Violencia (1946 – 1966) in Colombia

La Violencia in Colombia
La Violencia in Colombia

Known simply as “The Violence” (La Violencia), the period of widespread political violence and civil war that wracked Colombia from the mid-1940s to the mid-1960s (conventionally dated from 1946 to 1966, but also from 1948 to 1958, and 1948 to early 1970s) was rooted in conservative efforts to quell liberal challenges to continuing conservative political dominance, and liberal resistance to the Conservative campaign of persecution and terror. Upwards of 200,000 people were killed from 1948 to 1958, the bloodiest years of The Violence, and perhaps 300,000 people from 1946 to 1966.

The longer-term origins of La Violencia can be traced to Colombia’s long history of internecine political conflict, especially its “War of the Thousand Days” (1899–1902) between Liberals and Conservatives, the longest and bloodiest of Latin America’s 19th-century civil wars, in which some 100,000 people were killed, of a population of around 4 million.

In the shorter term, La Violencia originated in rising Liberalpopulist challenges to oligarchic liberal-conservative rule spearheaded by liberal dissident Jorge Eliécer Gaitán from the 1930s, and especially from 1946. In that year’s presidential election, the Liberal Party split between the left-leaning populist reformer Gaitán and official candidate Alberto Lleras Camargo, permitting a plurality victory by conservative Mariano Ospina Pérez.

In the context of rising popular support for a more open political system, democratic reforms, and more equitable sharing of the nation’s resources, the regime of Ospina Pérez stepped up the persecution of liberals and other moderate elements. Violence exploded after April 9, 1948, when Gaitán, widely considered the leading contender for the 1950 presidential elections, was assassinated in Bogotá.

The city exploded in violence against property, with days of pillaging, burning, and political protesting across the length and breadth of the city, in what has come to be known as The Bogotazo (loosely, “the Bogotá Smash”). Liberal insurrections soon spread across much of the country, including provincial capitals and rural areas.

Conservative elements responded by launching counterinsurgency actions, which by mid-1948 had crushed most overt resistance. Most Liberals withdrew from the government and refused to participate in the 1950 elections, which brought to power the ultraconservative Laureano Gómez (1950–53). Tensions ran high, as many Liberals continued organizing and mobilizing.

With the support of most large landowners, the army and police, the church, conservative peasants, and the United States, the Gómez regime unleashed a reign of terror in city and countryside. The spiraling violence reached into almost every city, town, village, community, and family, with political partisanship at fever pitch and often accompanied by gruesome tortures and murders.

Especially hard hit were Andean coffee-growing regions dominated by smallholding peasants—especially Boyacá, Antioquia, the Satanders, Valle del Cauca, and Cauca. Hit squads and assassins (pájaros, or “birds”) were paid handsomely for eliminating targeted enemies, protected by the authorities and dense networks of supporters. In response, guerrilla resistance armies emerged in many areas, often led by lower-class partisans.

In 1953 the Gómez regime was ousted in a coup led by General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla, who launched a pacification campaign based on amnesty and public works projects. By 1955 the pacification effort had largely failed, and the violence and atrocities continued.

In 1958 a national plebiscite brought to power the National Front, a Liberal-Conservative powersharing arrangement that stemmed much of the violence, which continued to simmer in many areas, often in the form of rural banditry. By 1966, with the regime of Liberal Carlos Lleras Restrepo (1966–70), most violence had dissipated.

Still, with the emergence of several left-wing guerrilla groups and right-wing paramilitary organizations, and in the context of the ballooning marijuana and cocaine trade and skyrocketing U.S. military aid in the “war on drugs,” Colombia remained one of Latin America’s most violent countries into the 21st century.