Colombian Liberal Party and allied militias
|Commanders and leaders|
|Casualties and losses|
2,900 soldiers and 1,800 police officers dead (1948–57)3,000–5,000 conservative paramilitaries dead
|15,000 rebels dead (1948–58)|
|170,000 civilians killed (1947–60)|
La Violencia (Spanish pronunciation: [la βjoˈlensja], The Violence) was a ten-year civil war in Colombia from 1948 to 1958, between the Colombian Conservative Party and the Colombian Liberal Party, fought mainly in the countryside.
La Violencia is considered to have begun with the 9 April 1948 assassination of the popular politician Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, a Liberal Party presidential candidate for the election in November 1949. His murder provoked the Bogotazo rioting that lasted for ten hours and killed some 5,000 people. An alternative historiography proposes as the start the Conservatives' return to power following the election of 1946. Rural town police and political leaders encouraged Conservative-supporting peasants to seize the agricultural lands of Liberal-supporting peasants, which provoked peasant-to-peasant violence throughout Colombia.
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La Violencia took place between the paramilitary forces of the Colombian Liberal Party and the Colombian Conservative Party, which organized as armed self-defense groups and as guerrilla military units. Both also fought against the paramilitary forces of the Colombian Communist Party (PCC).
The conflict caused millions of people to abandon their homes and property. Media and news services failed to cover events accurately for fear of revenge attacks. The lack of public order and civil authority prevented victims from laying charges against perpetrators. Documented evidence from these years is rare and fragmented.
The majority of the population at the time was Catholic. During the conflict there were press reports that Catholic Church authorities supported the Conservative Party. Several priests were accused of openly encouraging the murder of the political opposition during Catholic mass, including the Santa Rosa de Osos Bishop Miguel Ángel Builes, although this is unproven. No formal charges were ever presented and no official statements were made by the Holy See or the Board of Bishops. These events were recounted in the 1950 book Lo que el cielo no perdona ("What heaven doesn't forgive"), written by the secretary to Builes, Father Fidel Blandon Berrio. Eduardo Caballero Calderón also recounted these events in his 1952 book El Cristo de Espaldas ("Backwards Christ"). After releasing his book, Blandon resigned from his position and assumed a false identity as Antonio Gutiérrez. However, he was eventually identified and legally charged and prosecuted for libel by the Conservative Party.
As a result of La Violencia there were no liberal candidates for the presidency, congress, or any public corporations in the 1950 elections. The press accused the government of pogroms against the opposition. Censorship and reprisals were common against journalists, writers, and directors of news services. In consequence many media figures left the country. Jorge Zalamea, director of Critica magazine, fled to Buenos Aires; Luis Vidales to Chile; Antonio Garcia to La Paz, and Gerardo Molina to Paris.
Since the 1920s, when the Conservatives had control of government, and even into the 1930s, when Liberals regained control of the government, there were violent clashes between peasants and landowners, as well as workers and industry owners. The number of yearly deaths however, were far less than the estimates of those in La Violencia.
In the 1946 election, Mariano Ospina Pérez of the Conservative party won the presidency, largely because the Liberal votes were split between two Liberal candidates. Some consider La Violencia having started at this point because the Conservative government began increasing the backlash against Liberal protests and small rebel groups. There were an estimated 14,000 deaths in 1947 due to this violence.
On April 9, 1948 Liberal Party leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán was assassinated by Juan Roa Sierra on the street in Bogotá, via three shots from a revolver. Gaitán was a popular candidate and would have been the likely winner of the 1950 election. This began the Bogotazo as angry mobs beat Roa Sierra to death and headed to the presidential palace with the intent of killing President Ospina Pérez. The murder of Gaitán and subsequent rioting sparked other popular uprisings throughout the country. Because of the Liberal nature of these revolts, the police and military, who had been largely neutral before, either defected or became aligned with the Conservative government.
Initially, Liberal leaders in Colombia worked with the Conservative government to stop uprisings and root out Communists. In May of 1949, Liberal leaders resigned from their positions within the Ospina Pérez administration, due to the widespread persecution of Liberals throughout the country. Attempting to end La Violencia, the Liberals who controlled congress and had begun impeachment proceedings for President Ospina Pérez, on November 9, 1949. In response, Ospina Pérez dissolved the congress, creating a Conservative dictatorship. The Liberal Party decided to stage a military coup, and it was planned for November 25, 1949. However, many of the party members decided it was not a good idea and called it off. One conspirator, Air Force Captain Alfredo Silva, in the city of Villavicencio, had not been notified of the abandonment of the plan and carried it out. After rallying the Villavicencio garrison, he disarmed the police and took control of the city. Silva proceeded to urge others in the region to join the revolt, and Eliseo Velásquez, a peasant guerrilla leader, took Puerto López on December 1, 1949, as well as capturing other villages in the Meta River region. In this time, Silva was caught and arrested by troops from Bogotá coming to take back control of Villavicencio.
After Alfredo Silva's disappearance, Velásquez assumed power of the forces in the Eastern Plains that, by April of 1950, included seven rebel zones with hundreds of guerrillas known as the "cowboys". While in command of the forces, Velásquez suffered from a superiority complex, leading him to commit abuses including body mutilation of those killed. Without sufficient arms, during the first major offensive of the Conservative army, the Liberal forces took major losses and confidence in Velásquez was lost. New populist leaders took control of the different groups of rebels and eventually came together to impose a 10% tax on wealthy landowners in the region. This tax created divisions from the wealthy Liberals and the Conservative government used them to recruit counter guerrillas. The Conservative army then increased its offensive attacks; committing atrocities along the way, they burned entire villages, slaughtered animals, and massacred suspected rebels, as well as set up a blockade of the region. The rebels were able to combat the offensive with small, covert, attacks to capture outposts and supplies. By June of 1951 the government agreed to a truce with the guerrilla forces and they temporarily lifted the blockade.
A few months after the truce, larger army units were sent to the Eastern Plains to end the Liberal revolt, but they were still unsuccessful. In this time, the Liberal leadership in Bogotá realized the Conservatives were not giving up power any time soon, and they wanted to organize a national revolt. In December of 1951 and January of 1952, Alfonso López Pumarejo, the former Colombian president and leader of the Liberal Party, made visits to the Eastern Plains to renew his alliance with the "cowboys". When López Pumarejo returned to Bogotá he issued declarations stating that the guerrillas were not criminals but were simply fighting for freedom, and in response the Conservative dictatorship shut down the newspapers and imposed strict censorship. 1952 passed with only small skirmishes and no organized guerrilla leader, but by June of 1953 Guadalupe Salcedo had assumed command.
In other parts of Colombia, different rebel groups had formed in throughout 1950; they formed in Antioquia, Tolima, Sumapaz, and the Middle Magdalena Valley. On January 1, 1953 these groups came together to launch an attack against the Palanquero Air Base, with the hope of using the jet planes to bomb Bogotá and force the resignation of the Conservative dictatorship. The attack relied entirely on surprise to be successful, but the rebel were spotted by the sentry posts and were quickly hit with machine gun fire. The attempt was a failure, however it did incite fear into Bogotá elites.
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Most of the armed groups (called guerrillas liberales, a pejorative term) were demobilized during the amnesty declared by General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla after he took power on 13 June 1953. The most prominent Guerrilla leaders, Guadalupe Salcedo and Juan de la Cruz Varela, signed the 1953 agreement.
Some of the guerrilleros did not surrender to the government and organized into criminal bands or bandoleros, which caused intense military operations against them in 1954. One of them, the guerrillero leader Tirofijo, had changed his political and ideological inclinations from being a Liberal to supporting the Communists during this period, and eventually he became the founder of the communist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or FARC.
Rojas was removed from power on 10 May 1957. Civilian rule was restored after moderate Conservatives and Liberals, with the support of dissident sectors of the military, agreed to unite under a bipartisan coalition known as the National Front and the government of Alberto Lleras Camargo and which included a system of alternating the president and power-sharing both in cabinets and public offices.
In 1958, Lleras Camargo ordered the creation of the Commission for the Investigation of the Causes of "La Violencia". The commission was headed by the Bishop Germán Guzmán Campos.
The last bandolero leaders were killed in combat against the army. Jacinto Cruz Usma, alias Sangrenegra (Blackblood), died in April 1964 and Efraín Gonzáles in June 1965.
Due to incomplete or non-existent statistical records, exact measurement of La Violencia's humanitarian consequences is impossible. Scholars, however, estimate that between 200,000 and 300,000 lives were lost; 600,000 to 800,000 were injured; and almost one million people were displaced. La Violencia directly or indirectly affected 20 percent of the population.
La Violencia did not acquire its name simply because of the number of people it affected; it was the manner in which most of the killings, maimings, and dismemberings were done. Certain death and torture techniques became so commonplace that they were given names—for example, picar para tamal, which involved slowly cutting up a living person's body; or bocachiquiar, where hundreds of small punctures were made until the victim slowly bled to death. Former Senior Director of International Economic Affairs for the United States National Security Council and current President of the Institute for Global Economic Growth, Norman A. Bailey describes the atrocities succinctly: "Ingenious forms of quartering and beheading were invented and given such names as the 'corte de mica', 'corte de corbata' (aka Colombian necktie), and so on. Crucifixions and hangings were commonplace, political 'prisoners' were thrown from airplanes in flight, infants were bayoneted, schoolgirls, some as young as eight years old, were raped en masse, unborn infants were removed by crude Caesarian section and replaced by roosters, ears were cut off, scalps removed, and so on." While scholars, historians, and analysts have all debated the source of this era of unrest, they have yet to formulate a widely accepted explanation for why it escalated to the notable level it did.
The death of the bandoleros and the end of the mobs was not the end of all the violence in Colombia. One communist guerrilla movement, the Peasant Student Workers Movement, started its operations in 1959. Later, other organizations such as the FARC and the National Liberation Army emerged, marking the beginning of a guerrilla insurgency.
From the point of view of members of the FARC and the PCC, the Liberal and Conservative elites, though they had instigated the original violence, soon grew to fear the consequences of it and thus formed a loose alliance to preserve their shared desire for political hegemony from possible revolutionary challenges.
As was common of 20th-century eliminationist political violence, the rationales for action immediately before La Violencia were founded on conspiracy theories, each of which blamed the other side as traitors beholden to international cabals. The left were painted as participants in a global Judeo-Masonic conspiracy against Christianity, and the right were painted as agents of a Nazi-Falangist plot against democracy and progress.
After the death of Gaitán, a conspiracy theory circulating among the left, that leading conservatives and militant priests were involved in a plot with Nazis and Falangists to take control of the country and undo the country's moves toward progress, spurred the violence. This conspiracy theory supplied the rationale for Liberal Party radicals to engage in violence, notably the anti-clerical attacks and killings, particularly in the early years of La Violencia. Some propaganda leaflets circulating in Medellín blamed a favorite of anti-Catholic conspiracy theorists, the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), for the murder of Gaitán.
Across the country, militants attacked churches, convents, and monasteries, killing priests and looking for arms, since the conspiracy theory maintained that the religious had guns, and this despite the fact that not a single serviceable weapon was located in the raids. One priest, Pedro María Ramírez Ramos, was slaughtered with machetes and hauled through the street behind a truck, despite the fact that the militants had previously searched the church grounds and found no weapons.
Despite the conspiracy theories and propaganda after Gaitán's killing, most on the left learned from their errors in the rioting on 9 April, and stopped believing that priests had harbored weapons.
The claims by both camps of the existence of some sort of conspiracy made the political environment toxic, increasing the animosity and suspicion of both parties.
Conservatives likewise had been motivated to fight against a supposed international Judeo-Masonic conspiracy by eliminating the Liberals in their midst. In the two decades prior to La Violencia, Conservative politicians and churchmen adopted from Europe the Judeo-Masonic conspiracy theory to portray the Liberal Party as involved in an international anti-Christian plot, with many prominent Liberal politicians actually being Freemasons.
Although the rhetoric of conspiracy was in large part introduced and circulated by some of the clergy, as well as by Conservative politicians, by 1942 many clerics were critical of the Judeo-Masonic conspiracy theory. Jesuits outside of Colombia had already questioned and published disputes of the authenticity of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, pushing the concept of a global Judeo-Masonic conspiracy. Colombian clergy were also increasingly influenced in this matter by U.S. clergy; and Pius XI had asked U.S. Jesuit John LaFarge, Jr. to draft an encyclical against anti-Semitism and racism. Allegations of a Judeo-Masonic conspiracy played most prominently in the politics of Laureano Gómez, who directed the Colombian Conservative Party from 1932 to 1953. More provincial politicians followed suit, and the fact that prominent national and local politicians were voicing this conspiracy theory, rather than just a portion of the clergy, gave the idea greater credibility while it gathered momentum among the party members.
The atrocities that had happened at the outset of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 were seen by both sides as a possible precedent for Colombia, causing both sides to fear it could happen in their country; this also spurred the credibility of the conspiracies and the rationale for violence. Catholics everywhere were shocked by the wave of anticlerical violence in the Republican zones in Spain in the first months of that war where anarchists, socialists and communists burned churches and murdered nearly 7,000 priests, monks, and nuns, and used this to justify their own mass killings of Jews, Masons, and socialists.
Azcarate quotes a figure of 300,000 dead between 1948–1959...[page needed]
Political violence is not new to that South American nation of 38 million people. In the past 100 years, more than 500,000 Colombians have died in it. From the 'War of the Thousand Days,' a civil war at the turn of the century that left 100,000 dead, to a partisan clash between 1948 and 1966 that claimed nearly 300,000...
On April 9, 1948, Gaitán was assassinated outside his law offices, in downtown Bogotá. The assassination marked the start of a decade of bloodshed, called La Violencia (The Violence), which took the lives of an estimated 180,000 Colombians before it subsided in 1958.