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Fragmented Land, Divided Society.

The Political Economy of La Violencia in
Central Colombia

Fernando A. Medina Gutiérrez
B.A., MSc, PhD


The present article takes a critical stance, and a structural approach in order to
understand present day Colombia. With that aim, in the first section we give an overview of
the way in which deeply differentiated communities occupy contrasting socio-ecological
niches, and have yet to overcome a serious of barriers in the unaccomplished process of
unifying markets and building a Nation.
But geography is not adequate enough to make sense of a society like contemporary
Colombia, if we do not fully incorporate in the analysis the process of economic
transformation that has profoundly changed the country during the early twentieth century,
and proper consideration was not given to the political violence that has, by force,
impinged in this process. We do so in the second part of the present work, taking as a
vantage point the central Department of Tolima, which by its very localization has played
the role of some sort of cross-road, geographical, demographical, economic and political in
the making of the country.

1. Fragmented Land, Divided Society

The suggestive title of the book written by Safford and Palacios (2002),
clearly points to one of the characteristics that has captured the attention of the
analysts of Colombia: The fact that for most of the country’s history, its population
has been relatively sparse and clustered in rather small and disconnected
This trend reflects itself in the fact that, contrary to what is common in the
rest of Latin America, in Colombia there is not a great metropolis that concentrates
the majority of the population and economic activities. The fact is that regardless

that Bogota, the capital city, represents roughly 20% of the national product and a
little less of the total population, each of the four most populated areas of the
country still have a sizable demographic and economic centre, which in turn is
complemented by a network of other 30 cities that are organized around them.
In any case, the situation prevailing in Colombia is a far cry from the levels
of concentration that characterise Gran Buenos Aires, the metropolitan importance
of Caracas, or the nightmarish proportions of Mexico City. Table 1. below shows
the hierarchy of urban centres by regions.

4.2 Urban hierarchy by region

Urban Caribbean Antioquia Cauca or East
Hierarchy Coast South West
National - - - Bogota
Regional Barranquilla- Medellín- Cali-Yumbo Bogotá-Soacha
Capitals Soledad Itaguí-Bello-
Primary Cartagena, Manizales- - Bucaramanga/Giron /
Regional Santa Marta Villa Maria, Floridablanca
Cities Pereira-Santa
Secondary Montería, Armenia Palmira, Pasto, Cúcuta, Neiva,
Regional Cienaga, Buenaventura, Ibagué, Girardot,
Cities Sincelejo, Buga, Tuluá, Barrancabermeja,
Valledupar Cartago Villavicencio, Tunja,
Source: Adopted from Safford and Palacios (2002:302)

A careful observation of Map 1 below, will give the reader some of the clues
for this puzzle. The most populated regions in the country are both tropical and
mountainous. In a country that lies across the equator, the temperatures in any
given locality depends on the altitude. The near seven million inhabitants of
Bogota, placed at 2,630 meters or 8600 feet above sea level, enjoy a rather cool

temperature with a mean of 13oC. Medellín, with roughly 2.5 million, and an
altitude of 1500 meters above the sea level o.s.l., has a mean of 21oC, whereas
Cali (2 million), 1002 meters, has a warmer temperature of 25oC in average. The
coastal cities of Barranquilla (1.5 million), and UNESCO’s World Heritage
Cartagena (700 thousands), on their part, have very hot average temperatures
between 28 and 30oC.
But in addition to the fact that, at least since the Spanish conquest, present
day Colombians have preferred to settle in the highlands where the temperature is
more amicable and where they live protected from the tropical diseases that infest
the lower and forested lands of Chocó in the west, or the Amazon basin in the
south-east, the Andes have had another major impact in the process of
demographic, economic and social fragmentation under consideration: They have
geographically divided the country in three separate major cordilleras.
Although less impressive in height than some of the Andean peaks of both
Peru and Bolivia, the Colombian Andes attain important magnitudes with some
points in the central and eastern cordilleras reaching more than 5100 meters, and
with a mean altitude of 2700 meters. The western cordillera, on its part, has a
mean altitude of 1800 meters. In any case, these physical barriers have seriously
impaired the development of a national market and put a serious threat to the
country’s ability to compete in the export market.
To this high degree of geographical isolation one has to add the high level of
economic autarchy that characterised most of the different population niches. The
availability of a wide variety of agricultural products that could be obtained at
different altitudes made extensive trade unnecessary.
But if the geographical conditions of the country had a clear impact in the
fragmentation of the economy and society, some other elements reinforced this
trend to almost dissolving proportions. As it is the case in many societies that
underwent the experience of European colonialism, ethnicity has played a
fundamental role in the configuration of the prevailing exclusionary social system.
Even today, the fact remains that apart from economic wealth, another source of

status - with old Spanish roots - is that derived from one’s ancestry or abolengo.
And associated with this, there is a deep rooted racialism:
In Colombia today, most of those who could be identified as upper-class are
predominantly of white European descent. The fact remains that in a society in
which economic, social, cultural and ethnic cleavages overlap “[a] dark complexion
is not in itself an insurmountable barrier, especially in certain parts of the country,
nor is light skin a sure passport. But if one possesses other criteria for elite status,
a white skin is one of the outward manifestations that one belongs”. (Dix, 1967:
As a consequence of the physical and structural conditions we have been
considering; Colombia has evolved into five clearly distinctive zones: The
Caribbean coastal lowlands; the Eastern Cordillera; The Western and Central
Cordilleras; The Pacific Coast and the Eastern Plains and Amazon Basin. (See
Map 2. below)
The Caribbean coastal lands, well populated by important indigenous
communities that were decimated at the time of the conquest, became important
as crossroads between the interior and the import-export ports. Cartagena was the
most important port in the slave trade in the whole of Hispanic America. In the
nineteenth century it was replaced, first by Santa Marta and later on by
Barranquilla as the main ports on the northern coast. An agricultural granary for the
Spanish fleet, it has been the ground for extensive cattle-raising. With an important
presence of descendants of the African slaves, characterised by an outward
looking attitude, and a less deferential relationship between the dominant (White)
and dominated (Mulattoes, Mestizos, Indigenous and Blacks) classes, the people
from the region has developed a strong sense of cultural identity, more linked to
the insular and continental Caribbean than to the formality and stiffness of the
people in the highlands.
The Eastern area, with Bogotá as its political, ecclesiastic and economic
centre, extends itself along a series of inter-mountain valleys on the top of the
eastern cordillera comprising present day departments of Cundinamarca, Boyacá
and Santander, as well as the upper Magdalena River valley. The main economic

activities in the zone were agriculture and manufacturing, a part of which product
was supplied to the coffee production areas. In terms of land tenure patterns, it is
fair to say that as a result of a long historical process, large estates exploited by
means of different forms of share-cropping coexisted with zones of minifundio. In
terms of ethnicity, if in the Caribbean the African influence is strong, “in the eastern
highlands, by contrast, the indigenous survived in greater numbers and few African
slaves were introduced. The east therefore retained a peasant population tinctured,
in physiognomy and culture, with many traces of the pre-Columbian Muiscas”
(Safford and Palacios, 2002: 7). In this part of the country, and even in
contemporary times, a more arrogant Spanish-descended upper class is regarded
with subservience and humility by the lower Mestizo class.
The Cauca River valley has served as the unifying device for the Western
zone that can be better approached as internally divided into two sub-zones: The
southwest, in colonial times centred around the political and ecclesiastic hub of
Popayán, and in more recent times lead by recently industrialized Cali, reaches as
far as the mountainous Pasto and the flat municipality of Buga, in the department
of Valle. The northwest, on its part, comprises the mountainous region that the
Cauca River cuts through in its way to the Magdalena River. This is the region of
the Greater Antioquia, comprising present day departments of Antioquia, Caldas,
Risaralda and Quindío.
While in colonial times both the northwest and the southwest were important
mining centres relying on the imported slave workforce, in recent times they have
developed along differing socio-economic paths. Popayán, that during colonial
times ruled as the seat of political and ecclesiastic authority and home to wealthy
gold-mining entrepreneurs, was also the centre of an agricultural economy based
on extended latifundia and slave manpower, in conflictive coexistence with
numerically important and culturally strong indigenous communities. Medellín, on
its part, being also an important centre for the gold mining economy, was
surrounded by a more democratic pattern of land ownership and exploitation, a
feature that was to become even more relevant as the process of Antioqueño
Colonization (Parsons, 1949) advanced during the eighteenth and early nineteenth

centuries. Hence, a less-aristocratic, more entrepreneurial mining-merchant elite
evolved in Antioquia, in opposition to the traditionalist and stagnant society of

The tobacco boom of the mid-nineteenth century, and the emergence of Cali
as an economic centre in the twentieth century served to displace Popayán from its
place as regional centre. But Medellín, through the important role played in the
financing, cultivation and commercialisation of coffee, has remained as a very
important economic, demographic and political centre. The people in the region, in
common parlance referred as Paisas, are regarded as the very embodiment of the
bourgeois economic mentality, in ambivalent coexistence with a patriarchal,
catholic, traditionalist and deeply regionalist cultural identity.
The forest lands of the Pacific Chocó, characterised by the exuberance of its
vegetation and the extremely high levels of rainfall, has been traditionally very
scarcely populated. The majority of the people are descendants of the African
slaves, and many keep forms of collective ownership of the land and cooperative
exploitation of the forestry, fishery, and slash and burn agriculture supported by
their ecological niche, and keep alive cultural practices reminiscent of their West-
African origins. As has been the case for the indigenous communities, these
traditional forms of socio-economic organization have been under the permanent
pressure, often of violent nature, of more advanced forms of capitalist exploitation
of the natural resources.
The Eastern Plains have also been an area of low population density. The
reason is that much of the land in these areas has been traditionally used for
extensive cattle raising. In recent years, this activity has uneasily accommodated
itself with the introduction of highly mechanized capitalist production of rice,
sorghum, palm oil, and in some areas with the extended cultivation of illicit crops,
especially coca leaves. That has also been the faith of other forested regions of the
country, the Putumayo and the Amazonia, zones that [were] “visited by few
Spanish-speaking Colombians until the Twentieth century. And even now (…) are

only partly integrated into the national polity and economy” (Safford and Palacios,
2002: 9)
To these differing social, economic and demographic trends, one must add
two other elements that also help to understand the recent history of Colombia,
including the different manifestations adopted by its inveterate violence.

The first one has to do with the fact that the Catholic church, that has played
such important role as a means of social control and as a complement to the State,
has not had an even presence across the country.
The second trend, logically linked to the previous, is that as a consequence
of the capitalist development that has taken place in the context of a dependent
economy, Colombia increasingly became characterised by a centre-periphery
The centre of this bipolar system is comprised by the Republic of Coffee
( that we have thoroughly analysed in another paper) 1.The concomitant processes
of industrialization, urbanization and conflictive political modernization helped to
model this developmental core.
But by the same time this centre was consolidating, in the periphery
“thousands of Colombians were clearing forests. Precious wood was being
plundered in the Chocó and Urabá, and herons in the plains of Arauca were being
hunted illegally for feathers much in demand by Paris fashion houses. The rise of
the automobile spurred a demand for rubber, which prompted ruthless exploitation
in the Amazon basin” (Safford and Palacios, 2002: 278).
A violent frontier society emerged in these areas of the country that occupy
more than half its territory. The presence of the State in these areas was, and
remains, almost non-existent and hence, its ability to structure the conflicts over
the appropriation of the natural resources has been very limited.

1 Medina Gutiérrez, Fernando “Colombia in the threshold of modernization: Structural change,
social conflict and the origins of contemporary political violence”. Article under review.

During the second half of the Twentieth Century, and as a consequence of
the failure of the Agrarian Reform to change the highly concentrated and
exclusionary land tenure patterns, Colombian peasants have attempted their own
reform through the means of incessant waves of colonization that have come to
cover almost a quarter of the country’s territory.

For our present purposes, it will suffice to point out that, in a clear contrast
to the influence it has historically exercised in the areas of Antioqueño colonization,
the role of the Catholic Church in these areas of open frontier and recent
colonization has been very marginal. On the contrary, Antioquia remains as a
Church and Conservative bastion. Catholicism has also been influential in areas
around Pasto, Popayán, Tunja and Bogotá.
A divided society, in the midst of a dialectical and often violent process of
integration and fragmentation, has evolved as a result of these historical trends. In
demographic terms and as a result of this pattern of occupation of the country’s
land, at present nearly 2/3 of the population live in the 15% of the territory lying
above 1,000 meters. On the other hand, less than 1% of the population lives in the
56% of the territory comprising the Eastern Plains and the Amazon Basin.
Violence has played a major role in the creation of this divided society. Paul
Oquist (1980: Ch 2.) has rightfully said that

“in Colombia, physical coercion has been a significant structuring process in the
distribution of territory among indigenous groups prior to the arrival of the Spanish,
in the Spanish conquest, in the construction and maintenance of the Spanish
Colonial Empire, in the Latin American Independence movement, in the multiple
civil wars and political conflicts of the first century of independence, an in the
twentieth century (…)” (Oquist, 1980: 21).
In the next section we will move to analyse the antecedents and
consequences of the manifestations of political violence that took place by the mid-
twentieth century in two different regions of Colombia: The Department of central
Tolima. But one aspect of Colombia’s society should be emphasized here: Within
the context of a fragmented land, bursting with a myriad of conflict prone,

contradictory interests, and with structural conditions that facilitate their violent
expression, the first interaction among many of its isolated communities and
peoples was violence itself.
La Violencia undoubtedly represents one of the most ferocious and protracted
processes of civilian confrontation in the western hemisphere, and at its peak
witnessed the presence of at least thirty thousand civilian combatants.
Geographically, the violence at one time or another affected most of the country,
with the exception of the Atlantic and Pacific littorals, the Departments of Nariño
and Cauca, and the largely unpopulated areas of the jungles in the south and
southeast of the country.
La Violencia, the bloody and cruel confrontation that erupted as a result of inter-
party rivalries and caused around 200,000 deaths “represents what is probably the
greatest armed mobilization of peasants (as guerrilla, brigands or self-defence
corps) in the recent history of the western hemisphere, with the possible exception
of some periods during the Mexican Revolution” (Hobsbawm, Eric, 1963:16).
In the abundant historiography on this period of the Colombian history, as well
as in the day-to-day language of the ordinary people in the country, La Violencia
has been capitalized to indicate a specific period, but also implying some degree of
agency attribution, up to the point that it has become usual to blame La Violencia
for all the killing, torturing, wounding, destruction and misappropriation that took
place all over the country.

2. When Colombia Bled: La Violencia in Tolima

Regardless of the conflicting interpretations that different analysts of La
Violencia have advanced, there seems to be a wide consensus in the sense that,
in order to understand such a complex and protracted phenomena, it is necessary
to pay attention to its regional variations, as well as to the different phases it went
through. That is precisely the purpose of the present section in which we will
concentrate in analysing the dynamics of the first phase of La Violencia (1946-53)
in one area of the Colombian core, the department of Tolima.

The reasons for choosing this area are manifold, and will become apparent
as we advance in our task.

“Of all Colombian departments, [Tolima] suffered most intensely and it experienced
every variety of the complex warfare. Although predominantly rural, it was quite
near the nation’s political center (…) Tolima was small in both area and human
population, but possessed a diversity of terrain and population that made it
representative of afflicted parts of the nation” (Henderson, 1985: 15).

Tolima’s geographical position (See Map 3.), and the fact that its territory is
crossed from south to north by the Magdalena rRver, made it some of a crossroad.
In terms of topography, present day Tolima comprises a long valley surrounded by
the Central and Eastern Cordilleras of the Andes. The mountains occupy 60
percent of the territory, and more than half its population live among them.
The Tobacco boom of the mid-nineteenth century centred on the tolimense
northern town of Ambalema, and in the heydays of this boom, that lasted until the
late 1870s, the fertile lands along the river that had lain fallow during the colony
were put into tobacco production “and newcomers poured into Ambalema to set up
factories, export houses and even banks (…)” (Henderson, 1985: 45).
By the mid-1880s tobacco, quinine and indigo exports were in full decline,
as also was the Radical Liberal regime. The beginning of Nuñez’s Regeneration
(1886) coincided with two concomitant trends: the widespread cultivation of coffee
in the cool uplands of Tolima’s western cordillera, and the Antioqueño settlement in
the northwest. New villages like Herveo, Fresno, Casabianca, Villahermosa,
Líbano, Santa Isabel and Anzoátegui were founded by the colonizers. The fact that
their economy depended on a cash-export crop like coffee and that, as it was the
case in other areas of Antioqueño colonization, landholdings in the region tended
to be of a moderate size, somehow set these municipalities apart from the rest of
the department.
If the Tobacco boom and the Liberal policies to which it is historically linked
had a ‘liberalizing’ effect in the llano of northern Tolima, the cultivation of coffee had

a ‘conservatizing’ effect in the areas of Antioqueño colonization. The major
exception was the tolimense municipality of Líbano.
Ibagué, the capital of the department was also a Liberal centre, as was the
southern municipality of Chaparral. As many academics have pointed out,
Colombia’s bipartisanship is but the reflection of a society in which the posts of
leadership, the key decisions and the main economic, social, cultural and political
resources remain concentrated in elite hands. The culture of ‘hereditary hatreds’
that evolved as a result of the cruel confrontations of the nineteenth century Civil
Wars, also helps to explain the resilience of the traditional parties, and the partisan
coloration of regional Colombia. This strong political affiliation that was inherited as
some kind of birthmark was reinforced by the physical isolation that still prevails on
the countryside, and was even greater by the mid-twentieth century.
One of these regions, with its own history that became its tragedy, was the
municipality of Santa Isabel. In the early days, it was a mere stopping point on a
mule trail over the Central Cordillera. The discovery of petty gold and silver mines
marked the arrival of a disorderly group of adventures who then became settlers
and started the cultivation of coffee, around 1895. In 1907, it became a municipio,
and was granted 10,000 hectares of public lands to be allotted to new settlers. By
this time, some large coffee estates had been established, alongside with some
middle and small sized ones.
The settlers of the municipality, having come from Salamina, in the
department of Caldas, brought with them their Conservative militancy. In 1916,
Bishop Ismael Perdomo of Ibagué, engineered the settlement of hundreds more
Conservative families in Santa Isabel. With money raised through share
subscriptions, he bought the hacienda ‘La Yuca’, and divided it into 360 farms of 25
hectares each and sold them to belligerent Conservative families who lived in
happiness and prosperity for most of the 1920s.
The source of the tragedy that was to affect this community laid in the fact
that its territory bordered in the north with that of Liberal Líbano. (See Map 3). The
history of this municipality made it ripe for the kind of political fanaticism that
characterised the early stages of La Violencia.

The climate of mutual mistrust and hatred between the followers of the two
traditional parties was exacerbated by the spoil systems they put into practice as a
pillar of their patron-client organization.
But before the time came to settle all the feuds that had been building up,
the Tolimenses had to witness other serious and often violent conflicts of an
entirely different nature. In April 1922, a remarkable leader appeared in southern
Tolima to lead the Indians in a long campaign against white encroachment: Quintín
Lame, a self-educated Indian from neighbouring Cauca who organized several
dispersed indigenous groups living in the Indian reservations of the southern-
central cordillera.

“The Indians were mobilized within the structure of their traditional tribal
organizations to resist further incursions and to reclaim land that had been lost (…)
Violence ensued between latifundistas and Indians and colonists (often sent by
latifundistas to take the land). The departmental and national governments began a
systematic repression of the Indian movement, which included jailing the Indian
leaders” (Ocquist, 1980: 92).

In the 1920s and 1930s, “the defensive struggle of these groups changed
when they received the support of the Marxist movement strongly influenced by the
indigenism of the Peruvian Mariategui. (…) The first Secretary of the Communist
Party [and its first Presidential Candidate, Eutiquio Timoté] was an Indian from
Cauca who had strong ties with the cacique Quintín Lame (…)” (Gilhodes, 1970:

The de facto invasions of haciendas and government land were their most
common tactic. In 1930, Indians invaded the town of Coyaima and several
haciendas of the region. In 1931, they were attacked by landlords and vigilante
groups in Llanogrande, where 17 died and 37 were wounded. In 1939, the
indianse-established the resguardo of Ortega and part of that of Chaparral, and
even managed to keep control of the Yaguara area within the latter. (On this, see
Ocquist, Op.cit: 92).

Tolima was also the scenario for some of the most serious agrarian conflicts
that emerged around the Coffee Haciendas. In eastern Tolima, it often acquired a
very violent expression as a result of which many campesinos were killed, their
homes chopped down, and their unions disbanded.

Something similar could be said in regard to the labour conflicts that
characterised the first decades of the Twentieth century. But perhaps the event that
most clearly reflects the climate of unrest that prevailed during these years of rapid
and uneven structural change is what came to be known as the ‘Revuelta de los
Bolcheviques del Líbano’ (Libano’s Bolsheviks revolt).
Under the leadership of an artisan shoemaker, Pedro Narvaez, a group of
people, mainly artisans dissatisfied with what they considered to be the lack of
interest on the part of the traditional parties on the plight of the small businessmen,
started to coalesce. By 1927 they established contact with the Socialist
Revolutionary Party (PSR) and began to explore Marxist-Leninist thought.

“The vision of a society run by the workers became a beautiful and consuming one.
They began closing correspondence with slogans such as ‘Yours in Lenin and
Oppressed humanity’, ‘A Cordial Communist Greeting’ and ‘Brothers in Father
Lenin’. Roman Catholic ritual was supplanted in their homes by the new religion
(…) and the infant daughter of two artisans was baptized ‘in the Holy Name of
Oppressed humanity’ at the ‘Altar of the Universal Fraternity of United Workers’”
(Henderson, Op. cit: 69).

All this would not be more than a historical oddity, had not it turned into
something much more serious. Led by a Central Conspiratorial Committee
coordinating the activities of those disaffected with the government, and armed
with weapons supplied by the PSR,an army of shoemakers, carpenters, tailors,
butchers, and a woman who run a boarding house began their attack on July 29,
1929. To their misfortune, the revolutionary leaders had decided to call off the

revolt a day before it was to happen, but the news did not arrive on time to remote
The citizens of the cabecera had been warned about the attack, and they
were ready to fight when awakened by the bombs. “For more than an hour, they
battled the insurgents and finally drove them back (…) One hundred and sixty
prisoners were taken by the militia” (Henderson, Op. cit: 72).
These events, as well as the scope of the reformist measures adopted to
peacefully deal with them and embodied in the ‘Revolution on the March’, were
seriously magnified by the lenses of ideology.

“Marxism, or rather what seemed like it to some among the Colombian upper class,
had entered the picture in the form of the constitutional amendments and laws of
1936. Property and the Church were being directly challenged, or so it appeared,
and in the eyes of many Conservatives it was now Christ against Lenin” (Dix, 1967:

Within this context, the 1946 Presidential election acquired a transcendental
importance. The Liberal Party’s convention nominated Gabriel Turbay, a party man
and a centrist. Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, considering the convention unrepresentative,
launched his own candidacy. The Conservatives, on their part, chose Mariano
Ospina Pérez, member of one of the wealthiest families in Antioquia, former Chief
Executive of FEDERACAFE and a political moderate. The electoral results gave
the triumph to the Conservative candidate with 565,849 votes, against 441,199 for
Turbay and 358,957 for Gaitán. In this context, a Party that since the 1930s had
become a minority, came back to power in the middle of a climate of agitation and
Gaitán, the liberal rebel, had made a name for himself as some sort of
Tribuno del Pueblo. From a very popular origin, and educated in the National
University, he won a scholarship who took him to Mussolini’s Italy as a Criminal
Law student of world renown Professor Ferri. Back in Colombia, he started his
political career in convulse western Cundinamarca, where conflicts between grand
landowners and plot cultivators and day laborers were taking place in regard to the

distribution of the gains of the growing coffee economy. He bravely denunciated the
assassination of striking workers of the United Fruit Company in the town of
Ciénaga, Magdalena, in what latter came to be known as the massacre of the
In 1946, political violence re-emerged in the eastern cordillera departments
of Boyacá, Santander and Northern Santander. These departments, occupying 20
percent of the country’s territory, and containing about a fifth of its population, were
the most politically polarized and had been the scene of much political violence
during and after the break of Conservative hegemony in 1930. In this sense, early
violence in these areas was nothing different than the expression of old political
enmities. But later on, when the Congressional elections of 1947 approached,
violence became a fundamental tool for curbing Liberal support, as well as for
Ospina’s attempt “to clamp the lid on change, and indeed to reverse advances
made by such groups as urban labour” (Dix, 1985:108).
As part of these measures, In June 1946, under the auspices of the Jesuits,
a new labour federation was created: The Unión de Trabajadores de Colombia -
UTC (‘Worker’s Union of Colombia). Under the influence of the Conservative party
and backed by many industrialists, it became the favoured instrument in the labour
policies of the new regime, and a source of division and weakening of the labour
movement as a whole.
The other means devised by the Conservatives in order to contend social
unrest was the restructuring of the police. The purpose of this move was clearly
stated by Gómez:

“We have inherited an enemy police force that thinks it is still in service to the
Liberal Party rather than to the government. To transform this body isn’t the labour
of a day. The press, Congress, and Liberal leaders all rise up in anger before any
firing of a policeman, no matter how just the action may be. The task is, therefore,
very arduous. But we must attack it, because one get power in order to govern, and
society cannot remain defenceless” (Henderson, Op.cit: 108).

This process of police ‘conservatization’ had a terrible impact in the levels of
violence in the country. When Liberal leaders proposed that the police was
removed from presidential control and placed under the jurisdiction of the Chamber
of Representatives they controlled, the Minister of Government José Antonio
Montalvo lashed out the plan, which he called an attempted subversion of
government authority that would be answered with ‘blood and fire’ if necessary.
The Liberals responded by encouraging their followers to take up weapons, and
the police arms flew freely into the hands of Conservative civilians. Violence
followed swift.
From that point onwards, the facts evolved rapidly and became more and
more violent. In February 1948, the Liberals withdrew from the ‘National Union’
Cabinet denouncing how “the violence that [up to 1946] was sporadic…has been
converted into a political system that pursues, without vacillation, the sole end of
modifying by terror the volume of the parties’ respective electoral strengths”
(Liberal Committee of Representatives, quoted by Ocquist: 1980: 117).
At the climax of this period of confrontation, fear, expectation and violence,
Gaitán delivered his most famous speech. Addressed to a group of around 100,000
silent onlookers waving white handkerchiefs, it signaled a crucial moment in
Colombia’s history:

“Señor Presidente. Today we do not make economic or political demands. We ask
only that the actions of our country not bring shame upon us. We ask for the
building of peace and civilization. We ask that the prosecution by the authorities
stop. Thus asks this immense multitude. We ask a small but great thing: That our
political struggles be governed by the Constitution. Do not believe that our silence,
this impressive silence, is cowardice! We, Señor Presidente, we are not cowards.
We are the descendents of the heroes that annihilated the tyrants of this sacred
soil. We are capable of sacrificing our lives to save the peace and liberty of

Señor, stop the violence. We want human life to be defended, that is the least a
people can ask for…Señor Presidente, our flag is in mourning; this silent multitude,

this mute cry from our hearts, asks only that you treat us…as you would have us
treat you. We say to you finally, Your Excellency; Fortunate are those who
understand that words of peace and harmony should not conceal sentiments of
rancour or enmity. Badly advised are those in the government who conceal behind
kind words their lack of respect for all people. They will be marked in the pages of
history by the finger of infamy” (Ruíz, 2001: 101)

As always, the ‘Caudillo del Pueblo’, the short and muscular man who had
made the cause of the humble his cause and so many times had stood, fist
upraised, pledging to defend the mass of the poor and the excluded against the
venal oligarchs and the shameless plutocrats, ended his speech with an emotional
challenge: “If I lead, follow me; if I falter; give me strength, if they kill me, avenge
me! !A la carga!”
And so they did! Because, when at 1:00 P.M. on April the 9 th, 1948, a
spineless man shot Gaitán dead when he was leaving his office in downtown
Bogota, all the fury of La Violencia exploded. Known as the Bogotazo outside
Colombia, and simply as the Nueve de Abril inside the country, the insurrection
started with the battle cry !Mataron a Gaitán, Mataron a Gaitán!. By the end of the
day, the crowd had destroyed much of the city centre.

“Nearly every government building in Bogota was reduced to rubble. Churches,
long the symbol of the Conservative Party, were ransacked and set ablaze (…) the
world press managed to record the horrors of the Bogotazo, as did the hundreds of
foreign dignitaries in Bogota for the Inter-American Conference. Secretary of State
Marshall and Secretary of Commerce Averell Harriman saw it and reported it all
back to President Truman (…) Although no reliable accounting of the dead can
ever be made, the number generally accepted by most historians is over 2,000
dead and about 5,000 injured (…) The bloodshed and destruction caused during
the Bogotazo was recorded in modern history as the greatest riot in the Western
Hemisphere” (Ruiz, 2001: 56 and following).

The police in Bogotá did not confront the rioters, and many Liberal
policemen joined the mob and distributed arms among them. The leaders of the
revolt seized the offices of the Radiodifusora Nacional through which they
broadcasted incendiary harangues:
(1) “The Conservatives and the government have just assassinated Gaitán…
comrades of Cauca and the Santanderes, now is time to unsheathe your
machetes because it is time to be glorious as you were in times past…At
this time Bogota is a sea of flames, as was the Rome of Nero (…) The
buildings of the assassin government are burning. The people are raising
an uncontrollable cry for vengeance of their chief …Arm yourselves; take
the hardware stores and arm yourselves”.
(2) “Here is the commander of the University with you again; all the young
people are with us. The National Police and the Army are with our
movement. The building of El Siglo burns, and this gang of assassins and
calumny is no longer more than a handful of ashes, just as the Palacio de la
Carrera [presidential palace] will soon be, along with Señor Ospina. We tell
the country that Bogota has fallen …Look for weapons wherever you may
find them; break into stores where arms are sold; unsheathe your machetes
and with blood and fire let us take the government”
(3) “Liberal police of Tolima: Because of the irreparable demise of the most
illustrious man in Colombia, Doctor Jorge Eliecer Gaitán, vilely
assassinated by the godos today, we must unleash a revolution without
parallel in the country (…) Seize the government without fear; pull down this
infamous Conservative government. Long live the Liberal party! Forward!”

Laureano Gómez managed to escape from Bogotá at the height of the
Bogotazo, but his house on the outskirts of the city was reduced to ashes. For the
next fourteen months, he found refuge in Franco’s Spain. Violent incidents also
occurred in Barranquilla, Montería and Bucaramanga. There were mini-coup
d’etats in Barrancabermeja, Puerto López and some towns of Valle and Caldas.

In Ibagué, Departmental Governor Gonzalo París Lozano created a
‘Revolutionary Committee’ led by the President of Tolima’s Liberal directorate,
Germán Torres Barreto. Among the many actions of the furious mob, the 504
inmates held at the Panóptico [high security jail] of Ibague were freed.
In the middle of this serious governance crisis, the elites of the two political
parties probed to be unable to forge an agreement on how to deal with this
situation of widespread social and political unrest.
After the assassination of Gaitán, the Conservative government launched a
campaign of political prosecution that at some points reached the levels of a
political genocide. The unremarkable electoral results brought about by the use of
official violence did not discourage its use. On the contrary, for the hard-liners, it
only proved the need to escalate the actions. The new strategy included a
concerted attempt to attain a dominant position in public sector employment, as
well as the control of the official bodies in charge of bidding, hiring and investing in
public works.
The escalation of partisan conflict reached new heights by the end of 1949.
The Liberal Party used its majority in Congress to anticipate the presidential
election that was to take place the next year. The Liberal candidate, moderate
Dario Echandía, tried to work out a compromise for a bipartisan government on the
basis of Ospina’s proposal that two Conservatives and two Liberals would rotate
the presidency on an alternating basis for four years, beginning in 1950. But the
opposition of the extremists within the two parties made the agreement impossible.
In October, Lleras Restrepo declared ‘We will have nothing to do with members of
the Conservative party from this time forward, relationships already broken in the
area of public order must likewise be broken in the private sphere’. Short
afterwards, Gómez announced the rejection of any power-sharing with the
‘subversive’ Liberal party.
The Liberals withdrew from the presidential contest and attempted to
impeach President Ospina. But the government reacted swiftly establishing the
martial law and closing the Congress, as well as all the representative bodies in the
country. Press censorship was imposed, public meetings forbidden and
departmental governments brought under the direct control of the president.
Laureano Gómez was elected president a few days later, amid total abstention on

the part of the Liberals. The defeat of the Liberal party was to reduce its presence
in national politics for the next five years.
The political system broke down, and millions of Liberals were left without
any representation in Bogota, without a voice that could denounce the abuses and
violence to which they were increasingly subjected, without a clear line of action.
But they did not remain passive. On the grounds of the experience acquired in the
War of the Thousand Days, as well as that accrued in the long decades of struggle
they built efficient means for survival and resistance. These self-defence nuclei
planted the seeds for the revolutionary guerrillas, some of which signed the 2016
“Peace Agreement between the Government of Colombia and the Revolutionary
Armed Forces of Colombia-FARC”.

In Conclusion

In order to understand the high levels of illegality and violence that prevail in
Colombia today, it is necessary to adopt a structural and critical approach that
taking as a departing point the economic geography of the country, adequately
incorporates the process of economic, social, demographic, cultural and political
transformation endured during the first half of the twentieth century. This approach
will allow us to:

(i) trace the historical evolution of the agrarian conflict that played such
a determinant role in the escalation of social unrest and violence that
preceded that trigger of open civil war known as El Bogotazo.
(ii) Show how a political system typified by an elitist, factional and fanatic
bipartisanship emerged as an expression and safe guardian of a
social system characterized by the existence of cumulative
cleavages, and in which the sources of economic, social and political
power were concentrated in the hands of a tiny minority
distinguishable from the mass of the population on the grounds of its
ethnic, cultural and even religious outlook.

(iii) Analyze the structural foundations and historical evolution of the
process of deep partisan identification on the part of the lower
classes, both rural and urban, in regards to the two traditional,
Nineteenth century Liberal and Conservative parties. In as far as that
process rested on the existence of an unequal distribution of
resources, especially land, in what was then mainly an agricultural
society, lower classes fanatic bipartisanship was but another
expression of that markedly unequal economic, social and political
system we have described above.
(iv) Within this context, by the late 1930s and early 40s, political
fanaticism fueled by powerful and totalizing ideologies, created a
situation of increasing polarization of the polity that impaired the
adoption of measures that could have helped to divert the conflicts
stemming out of the modernization process into less violent, more
accommodating channels.
(v) When the centralization of the State power and the strengthening of
its repressive capabilities rendered the Nineteenth Century Caudillo-
type of civil war unfeasible, new forms of political violence appeared.
By the late 1940s, some of these took the form of paramilitary
organizations that, with the backing and under the direction of
important sectors of the economic and political elites, sought to
eradicate what was perceived as a subversive threat to the social
(vi) These forms of violence from above were increasingly resisted from
below with the use of those resources, material and cultural, that the
lower classes, mainly rural, could marshal. As we will further review at
a later stage of the present work, from the tactic point of view, some
of the forms of organization and mobilization adopted by the rural
lower classes had a clear origin and resembled experiences they had
acquired during the Nineteenth and early Twentieth century civil wars.

(vii) As a result of these processes, from 1946 onwards a protracted civil
war ensued that, with varying intensity, shifting geography and
progressively clarifying nature, was to drag the country for almost 20


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