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Colombia-The Legacy of La Violencia

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Through the early 1940s, political violence was again on the rise in Colombia and was especially intense in the region of the country's eastern plains (llanos). Although the PL retained control of the government until 1946, the party and, in particular, its rural supporters had become the targets for increasingly violent attacks by Conservative adherents. Much of the violence was motivated by the perceived threat posed to the minority PC and the vested interests of its members by the Liberals' reformist agenda.

In many respects, the July 1944 attempted coup against the government presaged developments that took place nearly a decade later. Known as the Pasto coup, the military revolt was staged by a group of disgruntled officers stationed in the southern Colombian town of Pasto near the Ecuadoran border. President Alfonso López Pumarejo, who had gone to the area to observe army exercises, was briefly held hostage, as were the several cabinet ministers who had accompanied him. After the military leadership in the capital refused to support the rebels, the leader of the failed coup--Pasto garrison commander Colonel Diógenes Gil--was arrested, and the president and his ministers were freed. Although the military continued to respect its constitutional mandate to support the government, the incident suggested that the long-standing constraints against political involvement by the military were being broken down by the deteriorating national situation. Moreover, as one Colombian scholar noted in 1955, at the time of the coup the army was beginning to be perceived by Colombians as the only national force that could "shield the nation from anarchy and blood-letting."

The period in Colombian history known as la violencia (1948-66) marked the return of civil war, which gradually eroded the civilians' ability to govern. Acts of violence perpetrated against Liberals did not end when the PC recaptured the presidency. Instead, the country became increasingly polarized. The National Police, which were active primarily in the vicinity of the national capital, continued to support the PL. In contrast, police in the countryside became active agents for the Conservative cause and were accused of harassment and intimidation of Liberals as well as of support for if not complicity in the violence. Liberal supporters in the countryside were driven from their homes by Conservative vigilantes who raided their towns and burned their dwellings.

The escalating level of rural violence was followed by the April 1948 assassination of populist PC leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán and massive rioting in Bogotá. Some forty years after the event, the Bogotazo, as it came to be known, remained the largest urban riot in the Western Hemisphere. Over 2,000 people were killed (see TLa Violencia , ch. 1). Army troops were called in to defend the capital after members of the National Police sided with the rioters.

At the height of la violencia, some 20,000 armed rebels operated in Colombia. Some of the rebels had organized themselves into guerrilla groups that established their own "independent republics" in the remote jungles of southern Colombia. Although the greatest amount of violence during the civil war took place in rural regions, urban violence also became a concern within a year of Gaitán's murder. At one point in 1949, the fighting extended even to the floor of the legislature, where one Liberal was killed and four others were wounded in a gun battle with Conservative congressmen. In all, la violencia claimed over 200,000 lives.

The PC government's policies during the late 1940s did little to encourage the continued development of professional armed forces. The government's earlier concern for maintaining partisan balance in the institution was abandoned. Open displays of favoritism toward Conservative officers in promotions and appointments became common. By the end of the decade, the government was regularly calling upon the army to harass Liberal opponents and thereby added a new dimension to the military's mission. The issue of loyalty within the ranks demanded increasing attention as the military became increasingly partisan. Liberal officers were ousted or, after 1951, assigned to combat duty in Korea.

The 1949 elections, in which the Liberals refused to participate, were held during a state of siege. The new Conservative administration, led by Laureano Gómez, quickly distinguished itself by sanctioning the use of even greater force and brutality against the resistance in the countryside. As a result, the administration increasingly relied upon the military. At the same time, the nature of the violence in the countryside also began to change as partisan allegiance was supplanted as an issue by loyalty or opposition to Gómez himself. By mid-1952 as much as one-third of national territory was estimated to have been controlled by forces opposed to the government.

Throughout Gómez's tenure in the presidency, the boosts in military spending that he authorized were designed as much to ensure the military institution's continuing loyalty to his government as to support the restoration of public order. During Gómez's administration, the military's share of the budget rose from 16 percent to nearly 25 percent of government expenditures. The president also was careful to maintain military morale. His 1950 offer to send combat troops to Korea was envisioned as a means of building the military's fighting spirit. In April 1951, the first military reorganization in decades was carried out, and the new post of the General Command of the Military Forces (Comandancia General de las Fuerzas Militares) was created, consolidating administrative and command responsibility for the armed forces in one office. Thereafter, only the president and the minister of war had greater authority over the armed forces.

Gómez's efforts to ensure the favor and loyalty of the military were not well received by all members of the armed forces hierarchy. On the contrary, many officers viewed the president's policies as attempts to break the integrity of an institution that was beginning to perceive itself as professional and--in spite of its role in the ongoing violence--politically neutral. The June 13, 1953, coup that brought General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla to the presidency was supported by dissident officers as well as by military leaders who opposed Gómez's personal machinations--which reportedly included an assassination plan against the military leader. The coup marked the military's first intervention against the government in nearly a century.

Although initially reluctant to assume political power, Rojas Pinilla soon warmed to the notion after his coup was greeted with popular acclaim. Voted by Congress to serve out Gómez's term of office, which lasted until mid-1954, Rojas Pinilla declared his administration to be a "government of the armed forces."

In an attempt to end the continuing rural violence, one of Rojas Pinilla's first acts as president was to announce a political amnesty for all who would surrender their weapons and abandon armed struggle. Within months, Rojas Pinilla's offer had been accepted by many weary combatants. For the first time in years, the fighting diminished. The interlude was brief, however; during the next two years, antigovernment activities and attacks on military garrisons continued. Especially heavy fighting broke out in early 1955 in the vicinity of Tolima. The region was declared a zone of military operations, and the civilian population was evacuated as government troops clashed with an estimated 2,000 guerrillas. The nature of the violence again appeared to change when the government declared that it was now battling communist-inspired rebels.

Rojas Pinilla continued to enforce the state of siege throughout his tenure. By early 1954, the Rojas Pinilla government had lost its early momentum toward a return to domestic peace and democratic government. By the end of the year, the renewed fighting in the countryside combined with a growing economic crisis and charges of government corruption to undermine further popular support for the regime. In early 1955, emulating the Argentine ruler Juan Domingo Perón (1946-55), Rojas Pinilla pursued efforts to build an alliance among peasants, urban workers, and the military. The alliance, which he called the National Action Movement (Movimiento de Acción Nacional), was envisioned by Rojas Pinilla as forming the support base for his personal rule. Rojas Pinilla's appointment of the army's chief of staff as the movement's coordinator was opposed by key military leaders, however, and continuing institutional opposition eventually obliged the president to disband his erstwhile political group.

In December 1953, Rojas Pinilla reduced the power vested in the General Command of the Military Forces. Authority over the military budget again rested with the Ministry of War, whereas personnel management decisions were delegated to the General Staff of the Military Forces. The General Command retained responsibility for the military's administrative functions, including the military education system, the administration of military justice, the provision of health-care services, and the maintenance and provision of supplies. The office itself was separated as an organic component of the armed forces and placed under the Ministry of War. In 1956 an autonomous administrative department of military industry was established and assigned a budget separate from that of the armed forces. The new office was responsible for managing the domestic production of arms, munitions, and explosives and for overseeing the operation of the military steel mills.

The military benefited more substantially under Rojas Pinilla than under preceding administrations. Between 1948 and 1956, the size of the armed forces more than doubled, from 14,000 to 32,000 troops. The National Police were brought under the command of the armed forces, and an attempt was made to build a politically neutral force. A compulsory year of military service was again rigorously enforced. The lower ranks of the armed forces, which had been weakened by the guerrilla conflict, also were rebuilt. The maintenance of good military relations with the United States during Rojas Pinilla's tenure facilitated the acquisition of new equipment, much of which consisted of then relatively new World War II matériel. The air force established two new training schools--the Ernesto Samper Military Aviation School at Cali and the Germán Olano School of Technical Classes at Madrid, in Cundinamarca Department. A luxurious officers' club, the Club Militar, was opened, and generous fringe benefits were made available that extended beyond the military's access to goods at the well-stocked commissary. Long-overdue raises were also authorized.

Despite the attention lavished on the military, some of its leaders turned against Rojas Pinilla's increasingly dictatorial rule. Although the institution's top leaders continued to vow their allegiance to the government, they became increasingly concerned that opposition charges of graft and corruption were further tarnishing the military's historically maligned image.

In May 1957, the military removed Rojas Pinilla from office in a bloodless coup. In a face-saving gesture, Rojas Pinilla was allowed to select his successors. A five-man military junta--headed by Rojas Pinilla's former minister of war, General Gabriel París, and including the commanders of the army, navy, National Police, and Secret Police--promised a return to civilian rule. The traditional political parties, which had set aside their political differences some ten months earlier in agreeing to form the National Front to restore civilian government and constitutional guarantees, fully supported the officers' actions (see The Rojas Pinilla Dictatorship , ch. 1).

According to plans announced by the junta shortly after the coup, the transitional government turned over power to an elected civilian president in August 1958. Nevertheless, Rojas Pinilla, who had gone into exile, continued to command significant support within some sectors of the armed forces, causing substantial tensions as the transition proceeded.

Data as of December 1988

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