Colombia Modern History

By | January 31, 2023

Colombia is a country located in South America. With the capital city of Bogota, Colombia has a population of 50,882,902 based on a recent census from COUNTRYAAH. Strong social contradictions after World War II led to indiscriminate violence in 1948–1958. The situation was established when the two major parties agreed to share power. The left was excluded from politics, but the social problems persisted, and guerrilla movements like Farc and ELN emerged in the 1960s. As drug production increased, the state found itself embroiled in war with both left-wing guerrillas and drug cartels. Several failed peace attempts were made.

After World War II, the old contradictions between liberals and conservatives were sharpened (see Older History). The Conservative Party, which was backed by the big landlords and the church, opposed economic, social and political reforms that would open Colombia to the outside world and reduce the country’s social divisions.

  • ABBREVIATIONFINDER: List of most commonly used acronyms containing Colombia. Also includes historical, economical and political aspects of the country.

The social tensions were great, especially in the countryside. The 1948 assassination of the popular left-liberal leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán in Bogotá became the igniting spark of the ten-year period that has come to be called La Violencia (the violence), which over ten years would reap over 200,000 lives.

The conflict was between liberal and conservative, but lacked clear dividing lines. There were no regular battles and no organized resistance to power. The political goals were vague. Robber-like groups used the chaos to steal and terrorize. Check best-medical-schools for more information about Colombia.

The violence was most intense until 1953, when General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla seized power with the good memory of both parties. Four years later he was deposed and the Liberals and the Conservatives signed an agreement, the National Front, to restore order in the country. From 1958, they split in the seats of Congress and alternately held the presidential post.


The cooperation created calm on the surface, but at the same time laid the lid on the social conflicts and excluded ordinary people from political influence. Thus, the growth of modern parties and an efficient, professional state apparatus were prevented. The fact that the left was excluded contributed to the emergence of armed guerrilla movements. Both the Marxist guerrilla Colombia’s revolutionary armed forces (Farc) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) were formed in 1964 (see also Conflicts-Colombia). Before the end of the decade, more than ten armed guerrilla movements were active in the country.

The national front came too long to damage people’s confidence in political and government institutions. The agreement was formally terminated at the time of the 1974 election, but in practice it was only broken twelve years later.

In the 1970s, the so-called drug cartels grew. Colombia became the largest exporter of marijuana to the United States, and in the wake of the marijuana trade, cocaine production followed. Indigenous peoples in the Andes have chewed coca leaves for thousands of years, but during the 1980s, the processing of coca leaves exploded into cocaine, in line with rising demand in the United States.

The drug cartels were powerful criminal organizations that manufactured and smuggled drugs, and practiced deadly violence. The largest were the Medellín cartel and the Cali cartel. The leaders gained political, social and economic influence. They bribed politicians, civil servants and journalists, they bought land and football teams and invested in the construction and real estate industries. Pablo Escobar, the leader of the Medellín cartel, invested large sums on charitable causes, making him popular with the poor, while at the same time being a feared and ruthless gangster king. The drug trade was so profitable that Escobar may have been the world’s richest person for a while.

right Militias

Violence in the country increased through the emergence of right-wing militia, backed by big farmers and cocaine smugglers, fighting Farc and other leftist guerrillas. In connection with peace talks in the mid-1980s, the Farcgerilla formed a political party, the Patriotic Union (UP). However, the party was subjected to a wave of violence such as right-wing militia, drug cartels and, to some extent, the army was also behind. In a few years, several thousand members were murdered.

In 1985, the guerrilla movement entered the M-19 Justice Palace. The army responded with violence and hundreds or more people were killed or disappeared. The palace was completely destroyed, and it is not yet entirely clear what really happened (although a Truth Commission in its final report in 2009 wrote that everything indicates that Pablo Escobar was involved).

Under growing pressure from the United States, the government realized that it must wage war on both the guerrillas and the drug mafia, and that the latter began to be the greatest threat to stability. In 1984, the Medellín cartel tried in vain to persuade the government to agree to the freedom of prosecution of its leaders in exchange for the cartel paying off the country’s foreign debt.

The conflict worsened in the late 1980s, and since the United States demanded that twelve leading cocaine dealers be extradited, the Medellín cartel declared “war” against the state. Over 200 police officers were killed, hundreds of bomb attacks were carried out and presidential candidates were assassinated. The government responded with a military offensive that caused the Medellín cartel to be crushed and Pablo Escobar killed in 1993. The other large cartel, based in Cali, was also fought.

Increased drug trafficking

However, the authorities’ victories proved to be short-lived. The drug smuggling spread to several less visible cartels and in addition, opium poppies began to be planted, especially in the Andes in the south. During the 1990s, drug trafficking and the guerrilla war grew together. Drugs became an important source of income for the guerrillas.

The right-wing militaries, so-called paramilitary groups, which became increasingly active were also involved in the lucrative trade. Many of them had evolved from the civilian army that the army trained in defense against guerrillas. But they were later converted to private armies, often in the service of drug mafias.

The government managed to make peace with some guerrilla groups from 1989-1991, among them the M-19 who dropped the weapons and converted into a political party. The peace agreements paved the way for political reform. A Constituent Assembly with broad political participation wrote a new constitution, which marked the start of a democratization of the country. Minority rights were constitutionally protected, the president’s power was limited, the regions gained greater autonomy and it became easier to form new parties.

After nearly four decades of armed conflict, hopes were raised when Conservative Andrés Pastrana won the 1998 presidential election with the promise of peace. Pastrana took a series of measures, Plan Colombia, which would stop the drug trade. Colombia received extensive military support from the United States (see Foreign Policy and Defense) to significantly reduce cocaine production. That also happened in the long run, but a large part of the resources came to be used to attack and weaken Farc leftist guerrillas.

peace talks

Pastrana, however, first took the dramatic step of meeting Farc’s leader Manuel Marulanda in his hiding in the jungle. Prior to the peace negotiations, which began in 1999, the state of Farc gave control of an area in southern Colombia, as large as Denmark. Pastrana was supported by the UN, EU and US. However, the talks ended in stalemate and the support of the population waned when it became clear that Farc was using the area as a sanctuary where the guerrillas built up their forces and kept kidnapping. At the same time, Farc continued to threaten people and attack villages.

Pastrana interrupted the negotiations in 2002 since the guerrilla hijacked an aircraft and kidnapped a senator. The army was ordered to occupy the area controlled by Farc.

The voters were frustrated that the peace process had failed. Support for both traditional parties dropped dramatically. The 2002 presidential election was a convincing victory for a Liberal defender, Álvaro Uribe, who promised a tougher fight against Farc.

With Uribe’s victory, a military offensive was launched against the two remaining left guerrillas, Farc and ELN. They were forced to retreat and the state regained control of large land areas. Soon the country’s most important roads were relatively safe during daytime. A wealth tax was introduced to finance the war and a kind of spy system was set up where the civilians who informed about guerrilla activities were rewarded. The public largely supported Uribe’s hard line.

Peace treaty with the right militia

In 2003, the government signed a peace agreement with the paramilitary groups gathered in an umbrella organization called Colombia’s United Self-Defense (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, AUC). The high militias would lay down their weapons against the promise of punishment. Peace talks were also initiated with ELN in 2005, but they soon stopped.

Through a temporary halt in aid in 2003, the United States forced a guarantee from Colombia not to extradite US citizens suspected of war crimes to the International Criminal Court (ICC). For its own part, Colombia negotiated an exception in the ICC and only in 2009 could war crimes committed in the country be taken up by the court.

A constitutional amendment adopted in 2005 enabled President Uribe to stand for re-election. When the election was held in 2006, he won by a clear majority.

In the same year, when the disarmament of the AUC was also formally completed, an extensive scandal began to roll up, called parapolítica (by paramilitary and politics). The paramilitaries had helped many politicians to power by murdering opposition politicians, threatening voters and funding electoral campaigns with drug money. A large number of congressmen and other politicians were prosecuted, most from parties that supported President Uribe. The work of the Congress largely stopped for some time.

The AUC also had strong ties to the military and companies. Banana company Chiquita admitted in a US court in 2007 that it had paid huge sums to AUC and was sentenced to fines. A number of paramilitary leaders were extradited to the United States and several were sentenced to long prison sentences for drug offenses and money laundering.

The guerrillas pressed

A law adopted after the peace agreement with the AUC meant that those who put down their weapons and confessed to crimes escaped with a maximum of eight years in prison, even for crimes such as mass murder and torture. At the same time, they would compensate the victims by surrendering their assets. In practice, few people admitted crime, and many AUC groups continued with serious crime.

Farc was hard pressed in 2008. Gerillan’s second man was killed in a bomb over the border with Ecuador (see further Foreign Policy and Defense), Farc leader Manuel Marulanda died (according to Farc in a heart attack), and the army freed 15 important Farc prisoners. Among those exempted were former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, who during his six years in the jungle has become a symbol of everyone kidnapped in Colombia.

President Uribe’s supporters wanted him to run for re-election for a third term and proposed a referendum on such a constitutional change. The Constitutional Court said no to this in early 2010. Thus, former Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos of the Uribe faithful U-Party became a favorite for the presidential election that year.

Santos wins the presidential election

The March congressional election was a great success for non-friendly parties. Santos, who was in charge of continuing Uribe’s politics, also won a convincing victory in the presidential election. In the second round of elections in June, he defeated the Green Party candidate Antanas Mockus with 69 percent of the vote.

When Santos took office as president, he hoped to create a new political dynamic to address society’s enormous social problems. He promised greater transparency in politics and zero tolerance for corruption. When it emerged that the security police had collaborated with high-mileage groups and used illegal methods, Santos decided to discontinue the then security service and replace it with a new one.

When President Santos wanted to start peace talks with Farc, he was met with harsh criticism from the right-wing. He was called a traitor by his representative Uribe who believed that the guerrillas once again had a chance to recover under false pretenses. Uribe formed the Democratic Center (CD) party to challenge its former ally in the next congressional and presidential elections.

Peace talks begin

In October 2012, the first official peace talks were held in ten years, in Oslo. The talks were then held in Cuba’s capital Havana. In May 2013, a land reform agreement was reached against the unjust distribution of land that was behind the conflict in Colombia. In November of that year, Farc promised to abandon violence in exchange for participation in the political process. It was an important breakthrough. In May 2014, agreement was reached on a third point: the parties agreed to work together to put an end to the manufacture and trafficking of drugs.

During his first presidential term, Santos was pressured by protests against economic difficulties, the health care crisis and, above all, against free trade agreements and the problems of small farmers. Nevertheless, the progress of the peace talks was considered to be the most crucial to his chances of being re-elected as president.

Uribe accused before the 2014 elections Santos and Farc of using their talks to conspire about how Uribe’s newly formed Party Democratic Center (CD) would be countered. In the March 2014 congressional elections, the government lost its mandate but retained its majority and the U party remained the largest, albeit by a marginal margin before the CD. Uribe was elected senator, although he was under investigation for suspected conspiracy with paramilitary groups.

Santos reign

The result seemed to strengthen Santos’ position ahead of the presidential election in May, when the most serious challenger was the CD’s candidate, former Finance Minister Óscar Iván Zuluaga. In the first round of elections in May 2014, Santos also saw himself beaten by Zuluaga. However, in the second round of elections in June, Santos won by nearly 51 percent of the vote against 45 for Zuluaga.

At the end of 2014, Farc announced for the first time a unilateral ceasefire with no time limit. New violence erupted in early 2015 and the peace process seemed threatened, but during the summer the parties made new approaches.

In September, the parties reached a new breakthrough in the negotiations, when they agreed to set up special courts for crimes committed during the conflict and also issue an amnesty. President Santos for the first time shook hands with Farc’s supreme leader Rodrigo Londoño (“Timochenko). Towards the end of the year, clarifications on this fourth item appeared on the agenda regarding, among other things, compensation for the victims.

Finished agreement

In June 2016, an announcement was reached that the final, decisive point was reached: a mutual ceasefire and disarmament. The following month, the government and Farc announced that they had reached port and had a final agreement. In late September, Farc held a conference where the delegates unanimously approved the agreement and on September 26, Santos and Timochenko signed it. Thus, the parties formally put point by point for the armed conflict.

But Santos had promised a referendum on the deal and when held, 50.2 percent of voters unexpectedly voted against it. It was now unclear what would happen instead.

But the ceasefire was extended and the government began talks with the opposition, hoping to find a compromise solution. Just days after the referendum, the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced that Santos won this year’s Peace Prize, which many saw as an important confirmation.

The government and Farc soon presented a revised peace agreement that took into account some of the opposition’s objections. The agreement was approved by Congress on November 30, but the opposition boycotted the vote. No new referendum was held.

In early 2017, the peace plan began to be implemented. The more than 6,000 guerrillas went to 26 special collection camps set up to surrender their weapons there, under the supervision of the UN and foreign observers.

When the disarmament of Farc was completed, former guerrilla soldiers gathered in August 2017 for a congress and the group was transformed into a political party. The delegates decided that the party would be called Alternative Joint Revolutionary Force – which also gives the abbreviation Farc in Spanish.

Colombia Modern History