Author: Cristobal Campos
Posted: Feb 8, 2003
This article is the first of three in a series that will attempt to provide a background on the ongoing events in Colombia. It is by no means exhaustive. There is no way a 40-year civil war can be summed up in a few pages. It is much more complex than that. This will only be an attempt to enable the reader to speak more intelligently on the subject and to explain a few of the players involved in this multi-sided conflict.
Colombia is a nation steeped in violence. Almost since inception, her people have been quicker with the sword than the pen. Unfortunately, this trend continues even today. To fully understand the violent situation in present-day Colombia, one must go back in history to the 1930s.
The Colombia of the 1930s was something more typical of Spain and the Old World, than that of the New World. Laws regarding land ownership particularly were still patterned on the ancestral system with peasants working for land barons. These peasants stood little chance, if any, of one day having a plot of their own to work and cultivate their own profits.
The political situation at this time consisted of two primary groups, the Liberals and the Conservatives. However, as the seeds of Communism began to germinate in enclaves around the world, the Colombian peasants, hungry for any ideology that would help raise them up in status a notch or two, embraced it immediately. As a result, two offshoots of the Liberal Party quickly emerged. The Communist Party was founded in 1930 and three years later arrived the National Unity of the Revolutionary Left, both eagerly awaiting all the prosperity this new Communism would bring.
With these new organizations, the notion of land reform spread like wildfire, quickly encompassing the entire country. As one can imagine, however, these newfangled ideas weren’t so readily accepted by the elite and a power struggle ensued, rather peacefully at first.
But by the 1940s, it was readily apparent to those with great dreams of a quick re-distribution of land titles, that mere talk just wasn’t going to cut it. In 1946, the Conservatives regained power after a long and rather lackluster career of Liberals in power. What little land reform gain that was made was quickly erased by the new laws of the Conservatives, putting land and power solidly back in the hands of the elite. Protests began in earnest. These same protests turned to demonstrations, which turned to violence. And, as violence so often does, it polarized the various unions and political parties until sides were drawn up. Territories were being disputed and the whole political pot was headed for the proverbial boil.
And boil did it ever. In 1948 liberal land reform leader Jorge Eliazer Gaitan was gunned down in Bogotá and horrendous riots began before his body even hit the ground. What began that day was one of the most violent periods in the history of the Western Hemisphere as a civil war erupted between the warring factions. La Violencia lasted officially from 1948 to 1958, although some historians consider the period to last until 1964 and the birth of the guerillas. However it is figured, upwards of 300,000 Colombians died during this bloody political and geographical war.
In the midst of the senseless carnage of La Violencia, there were several noteworthy events. In the early 50s, the Colombian government, in an effort to get a handle on the wild liberals, began issuing arms to the Conservative peasants and other citizens. The Liberals, eager to flex their might against the government quickly founded an army of 10,000 men in the eastern plains of Colombia as a response. A William Wallace-like wave of inspiration spread like wildfire across the country and, within months, small anti-government militias had sprung up, much to the government’s dismay.
Those in power saw the potential ruin of their country as imminent and in 1953 elected General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla to the presidency. It was during this time that the violence had reached proportions large enough to pique the interest of the till-then quiet Uncle Sam. The U.S. was deep in the anti-communist phase of its history and, hot on the heels of McCarthy’s allegations, was eager to back Rojas in Colombia. It was a simple way for the US to display its dogged determination to defeat Communism while at the same time not disrupting the sensitive political environment back home. The US rained money on Rojas and he used every penny in an attempt to bomb the liberal militias back to the proverbial stone-age. Instead, they ran deep into the jungles of the south and east to avoid the planes overhead. There they formed small communities and began to eke out an existence and cultivate their hatred for the establishment. (Not too different from what was beginning in the US.)
The 1960s arrived and with it the counterculture – Colombian style! The small militias began to refer to themselves as guerillas. Castro took over every square inch of his island and the Cuban Revolutionary wave was in full swing. It was swallowed whole in the jungles of Colombia. Marxist-Leninist ideas began being adopted as an ideology by which to guide the Colombian revolutionary groups.
It seemed General Rojas could read the writing on the wall and didn’t like what he saw. In 1964 he launched a particularly hellacious bombing attack on a few guerilla encampments and followed that up with a 16,000-man ground force. It was almost as if Rojas feel victory slipping away despite his best efforts and he fought with one last dying push. The army did take the guerilla camps but after they had all but been abandoned. About 43 of the die-hard guerilla fighters and two of their very young leaders escaped, and headed for the safety of the state of Cauca. This unsuccessful attempt by the government to annihilate the guerillas would be a watershed event in the sad history of the Colombian government’s ineffectiveness in dealing with the guerillas. From that point until today, the government has been fighting an increasingly uphill battle with the guerillas.
The two young charismatic fighters that fled that day were Pedro Antonio Marin and Jacobo Arenas. Marin took the name Manuel Marulanda Velez. Due to his alleged prowess with firearms in battle, he earned the nickname “Tirofijo” or “Sure Shot”. With Tirofijo now a seasoned veteran of several battles and the established leader of the main component of the guerilla forces, he began to think of the future, of organization and, some day, of legitimacy. It was from this thinking that he decided to name his rag-tag bunch of soldiers as the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or FARC. It was the first time the guerillas had any semblance of organization and the beginning of the biggest thorn in the side of the Colombian government that they have ever known. Although much fighting had taken place, war had now been officially declared and Colombia was pushed into a new and bloodier phase of its history.