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© 2007 ProQuest-CSA LLC. All rights reserved. © 2007 Getty Images, Inc. Like most of its neighbors, Colombia was colonized by the Spanish in the 1500s.
© 2007 ProQuest-CSA LLC. All rights reserved. © 2007 Getty Images, Inc. Spain ruled Colombia until the early 1800s, when Colombians united behind military leader Simón Bolívar to fight for independence. In 1819, they drove the Spanish out for good.
© 2007 ProQuest-CSA LLC. All rights reserved. © 2007 Getty Images, Inc. Colombians of Spanish descent (Creoles) then fought among themselves over how power should be shared between the central government in the capital, Bogotá, and Colombia’s many regional governments.
© 2007 ProQuest-CSA LLC. All rights reserved. © 2007 Getty Images, Inc. In 1839, fighting broke out when supporters of a weak central government (federalists) accused their opponents (centralists) of seeking to turn Colombia into a dictatorship. The ensuing war, the War of the Supremes, lasted for three years.
© 2007 ProQuest-CSA LLC. All rights reserved. © 2007 Getty Images, Inc. At the end of it, two major camps had emerged in Colombian society: Conservatives—a pro-status-quo coalition made up of the old centralists, wealthy landlords, Catholic priests, and slave owners Liberals—a pro-change group made up of the old federalists, the poor, and mixed- race and indigenous Indian families
© 2007 ProQuest-CSA LLC. All rights reserved. © 2007 Getty Images, Inc. Over the next hundred years, supporters of the Liberal and Conservative political parties fought several more wars, including the War of the Thousand Days (1899–1902), in which 100,000 people died.
© 2007 ProQuest-CSA LLC. All rights reserved. © 2007 Getty Images, Inc. Liberals and Conservatives also fought an undeclared war, known simply as La Violencia, in which at least 200,000 people were killed. La Violencia broke out in 1948, when the murder of the popular Liberal leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán sparked riots in Bogotá.
© 2007 ProQuest-CSA LLC. All rights reserved. © 2007 Getty Images, Inc. Gaitán had championed the rights of all of Colombia’s disadvantaged people, and his death provoked uprisings by peasants and poor Liberals throughout the country.
© 2007 ProQuest-CSA LLC. All rights reserved. © 2007 Getty Images, Inc. By 1953, political elites, including many Liberals, feared that continued fighting would provoke a popular revolution in which they would lose their privileged positions. So the Liberal and Conservative parties ended the war and, in 1958, agreed to share power.
© 2007 ProQuest-CSA LLC. All rights reserved. © 2007 Getty Images, Inc. For the next 16 years, control of the Colombian presidency alternated between Liberals and Conservatives, with all other parties banned. Some left-wing Colombians now looked to illegal guerrilla groups to achieve their political objectives.
© 2007 ProQuest-CSA LLC. All rights reserved. © 2007 Getty Images, Inc. The most famous of these guerrilla groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), consisted mainly of peasants who had fled to uninhabited rural lands during La Violencia. They fought to force the Colombian government to redistribute land from the wealthy to the poor.
© 2007 ProQuest-CSA LLC. All rights reserved. © 2007 Getty Images, Inc. In the 1960s, paramilitary groups emerged to protect private property against guerrilla attacks. The paramilitaries were sponsored by Colombia’s wealthiest landowners.
© 2007 ProQuest-CSA LLC. All rights reserved. © 2007 Getty Images, Inc. A large coalition of paramilitary groups, the United Self-Defense Groups of Colombia (AUC), became an influential and highly feared force in Colombian society.
© 2007 ProQuest-CSA LLC. All rights reserved. © 2007 Getty Images, Inc. Fighting between the guerrillas and paramilitaries was always bloody, but the rise of a lucrative drug industry in the 1970s and ’80s increased the violence by allowing both groups to buy sophisticated and highly destructive weapons.
© 2007 ProQuest-CSA LLC. All rights reserved. © 2007 Getty Images, Inc. Thousands of civilians were killed, as the guerrillas and particularly the paramilitaries targeted each other’s supporters.
© 2007 ProQuest-CSA LLC. All rights reserved. © 2007 Getty Images, Inc. For a time in the mid-1980s, Colombians felt optimistic that the civil war was nearing an end. On the invitation of Colombian president Belisario Betancur, the FARC formed a political party, the Patriotic Union (UP), to negotiate on its behalf.
© 2007 ProQuest-CSA LLC. All rights reserved. © 2007 Getty Images, Inc. But then paramilitaries—still funded by rich landowners and increasingly by drug lords—murdered about 3,000 UP candidates, prompting the FARC to abandon its political experiment.
© 2007 ProQuest-CSA LLC. All rights reserved. © 2007 Getty Images, Inc. Throughout the 1990s, the guerrillas and paramilitaries increased their involvement in the drug trade, eliciting the suspicion that they had become more interested in making money than implementing their ideas about social justice.
© 2007 ProQuest-CSA LLC. All rights reserved. © 2007 Getty Images, Inc. Because so much Colombian cocaine was finding its way onto American streets, U.S. president Bill Clinton committed significant funds to a program intended to render Colombian land unfit for growing coca (the leaf from which cocaine is made).
© 2007 ProQuest-CSA LLC. All rights reserved. © 2007 Getty Images, Inc. But spraying poisonous chemicals from planes is a notoriously imprecise operation— legitimate plants (and animals) are often killed off in addition to the coca.
© 2007 ProQuest-CSA LLC. All rights reserved. © 2007 Getty Images, Inc. Before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, U.S. funds were earmarked for the fight against drugs. After September 11, U.S. president George Bush relaxed the rules, allowing his Colombian counterpart, Alvaro Uribe, to use U.S. money, equipment, and personnel against the guerrillas.
© 2007 ProQuest-CSA LLC. All rights reserved. © 2007 Getty Images, Inc. By effectively entering Colombia’s civil war on the side of the government, the Bush administration turned President Uribe into a staunch ally in the war on terror but stirred up resentment not just among the guerrillas but also among peasants, who saw American machinery destroy their livelihoods.
© 2007 ProQuest-CSA LLC. All rights reserved. © 2007 Getty Images, Inc. While there appears little hope for an agreement between the government and the guerrillas, a controversial amnesty bill enacted in 2005 has encouraged the members of several paramilitary units to lay down their arms.
© 2007 ProQuest-CSA LLC. All rights reserved. © 2007 Getty Images, Inc. However, murders attributed to paramilitaries persist, and Colombia remains the most dangerous place in the world to be a union leader or a social critic.
© 2007 ProQuest-CSA LLC. All rights reserved. © 2007 Getty Images, Inc. The FARC, meanwhile, continues to kill soldiers, police officers, and civilians in hit- and-run attacks and bombings.
© 2007 ProQuest-CSA LLC. All rights reserved. © 2007 Getty Images, Inc. The Colombian government faces a difficult task neutralizing the guerrillas and active paramilitary units, who continue to thrive on the drug trade.
© 2007 ProQuest-CSA LLC. All rights reserved. © 2007 Getty Images, Inc. Even if the government could destroy the coca industry, it would likely fail to meet the conflicting demands of both the paramilitaries (and their wealthy patrons) and the guerrillas (and their poor supporters).
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