Between 1948 and 1958, the Republic of Colombia was the scene of widespread and systematic political violence, known as La Violencia. An estimated 200,000 people were killed during this period, including 112,000 between 1948 and 1950 alone.[i] Two million others migrated, mostly to Venezuela, or were forcibly displaced from their homes. No single analytical framework can adequately capture the various reasons why violence erupted and escalated. However, the majority of historians agree that intense partisan rivalries between Colombia’s two traditional political parties—the Colombian Liberal Party and the Conservative Party—provided the initial catalyst.
Paul H. Oquist and Jonathan Hartlyn argue that partisan violence created a rift between Liberals and Conservatives, which ultimately triggered a breakdown of existing institutional structures and a partial collapse of the state.[ii] John C. Dugas notes that economic motivations for violence gradually superseded political drivers as mobs and bandits took advantage of the chaotic environment to steal, rape, and carry out vendettas against their neighbors. Mary Roldán in turn focuses on regional patterns of violence, which suggest a high degree of organization. She argues that partisan conflict allowed latent regional and local conflicts to come to the fore. Rather than representing the culmination of partisan hatreds, she suggests that La Violencia “represented a fundamental struggle — and ultimate failure — to impose a hegemonic regional project of rule predicated on notions of cultural, ethnic, and racial difference.”[iii] Norman A. Bailey attributes la violencia to Colombian elites competing with each other to mobilize the peasantry.[iv]
Regardless of these differing explanations, all conclude that partisan conflict represented the beginning of la Violencia. Some trace the roots of the conflict to 1930, the year that liberal Enrique Olaya Herrera came to power after a period of Conservative Party dominance. Liberals “celebrated” their victory at the polls with massacres, assassinations, looting and the destruction of property and burning of churches, especially in Santander and Boyacá.[v] The location of violence was important, as these same areas would be the sites of anti-Liberal violence following the unexpected 1946 election of Conservative Mariano Ospina Pérez. The minority Conservative party primarily won the election due to internal divisions between moderates and populists within the Liberal party, which had fronted two presidential candidates.[vi] Local partisan violence soon became the overriding national political issue as inflation and growing numbers of strikes created a climate of social unrest. Violence on both sides was fueled by fears of political exclusion, with Liberals anticipating a Conservative power grab and Conservatives afraid that losing the presidency would mean permanent marginalization.[vii] In this chaotic environment, Liberal leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán was assassinated on April 9, 1948, triggering a dramatic escalation of violence.
Although violence continued through the end of the 1950s, atrocities peaked between 1948 and 1953, with another spike occurring in 1956. Oquist describes patterns of partisan violence in late 1947 and early 1948 as sporadic and localized, not dissimilar from previous incidents surrounding the Liberals rise to power in 1930.[viii] However, by the mid-century, local armed groups were more economically integrated and politically mobilized.[ix] These groups unleashed a wave of urban violence in the wake of Gaitán’s assassination in April 1948. A three-day uprising, called El Bogotazo, left Bogotá in ruins and the central government scrambling to quell the violence. The death of Gaitán marked the end of the populist movement and the beginning of an undeclared civil war. 1948 saw a significant surge in violence, with an estimated 43,557 deaths.[x] During this time, Liberal-backed guerrilla bands grew in size and ferocity, and the government employed the military to fight the growing insurgency.
Tensions between the two traditional parties led to the dissolution of the Liberal-controlled congress and Liberal abstention from the 1949 election, allowing the conservative candidate, Laureano Gómez, to win the election without competition. Seriously ill, Gómez discharged the duties of the presidency to Roberto Urdaneta Arbeláez, who oversaw the country until Gómez reassumed the presidency in 1953. The worst of the violence took place under Gómez’ rule from 1950-1953, until Army Commander Gustavo Rojas Pinilla took power in a successful military coup. Army and police units joined by irregular Conservative militias fought Liberal and Communist guerrillas and more loosely organized “bandits.” While la Violencia by this point had developed into a centralized and state-supported campaign of violence, regional and local authorities also employed peasants to promote their own private terror, for example to secure their political positions and carry out local vendettas.[xi] In some areas of the country, the conflict escalated local grievances over land and resources.[xii] Large landowners mobilized their tenants against each other, while some peasant factions began mobilizing against the highly unequal hacienda system.[xiii] Levels of violence drastically decreased after General Rojas took power in 1953. The newly installed government granted a general amnesty, which was accepted by 6,5000 guerrilla fighters.[xiv] The Rojas Pinilla government initially enjoyed political backing from all partisan factions except for the most reactionary and radical parties (Gómez’s wing of the Conservative party and the Communist party), which is reflected in decrease in civilian deaths during this period. However, violence continued in 1954 and 1955 as army troops clashed with organized peasants and some guerrilla groups either radicalized or moved into banditry. The departments of Caldas, Valle, Antioquia, Cundinamarca, Tolima, Huila and Carca in particular witnessed continued fighting.[xv]
The establishment of the consociational National Front between the two traditional parties in 1957 facilitated the return to civilian rule. Political leaders agreed to alternate between Liberal and Conservative presidencies for a period of sixteen years and to evenly distribute all government positions between the two parties as a way of limiting partisan violence. As the central government reestablished its authority, it gradually isolated rebel and bandit leaders. However, a number of Communist guerrilla groups resisted army efforts to eliminate them, and in the early 1960s joined together to form the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).[xvi]
As in most cases of widespread violence against civilians, the casualty data on La Violencia is weak. Oquist notes that most fatality numbers are based on guesswork.[xvii] However, one important source of information is the national survey research on violence conducted by Dr. Carlos Lemoine of the Compania Colombiana de Datos (COLDATOS). Using municipal level-data, Lemoine drew a representative sample of municipalities affected by violence and in 1973 administered a national survey. Of the 5,800 respondents, 15.6% had suffered deaths in their families, property losses, or displacement. Of these 874 individuals, half had lost one or more relatives in their immediate family. For each fatality, detailed information about the location and circumstances of the death were collected. Lemoine then used this data and available demographic information to estimate the total number of victims and geographic distribution of violence. Using this method, he arrives at an estimate of 180,253 fatalities – which Oquist notes is likely to be an under-estimate of the actual number.[xviii]
Broken down by year, Lemoine arrives at the following estimates:
Data cited in Oquist 1976, 4 – 5.
The first year of Gomez’ presidency (1950) thus seems to have been especially violent, with Lemoine’s estimates pointing to 50,253 deaths. Similarly, Gott notes that at least 50,000 out of la Violencia’s total 200,000 deaths occurred during this period.[xix] These numbers are not disaggregated into deaths of civilians versus armed groups, but the distinction of civilian/combatant is particularly difficult for a peacetime case like la Violencia. According to Bailey, the killings during this period also spread throughout the entire country.[xx]
Lemoine’s numbers also reflect the initial decline and subsequent spike in fatalities under the Rojas military government. After 1953, the total number of deaths drops to 900 in 1954, before escalating again to 1,013 in 1955 and 11,136 in 1956.[xxi] Historians agree that the character of violence changed during this period, although explanations differ. With the surrender of thousands of guerrilla fighters, la Violencia increasingly devolved into criminalized and economically motivated violence and banditry.[xxii] However, genuine peasant rebellions also gave rise to communist zones, or what Bailey describes as “soviet republics.”[xxiii] The spike in 1956 can be traced back to clashes between the Colombian army and Liberal and Communist-organized peasants.[xxiv] The resumption of civilian rule in 1957 with the National Front power-sharing agreement slowly reduced the violence that continued to rage in the countryside, with 2,877 deaths and 3,796 deaths in 1958, respectively. Based on Colombian police estimates, low-level violence continued throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s, with estimated deaths below 5,000 a year.[xxv]
A significant turning point occurred in 1953, when Rojas Pinilla’s military junta declared a general amnesty, which 6,500 guerrilla fighters accepted. Hartlyn argues that national-level party leaders sought an end to the violence because they had not anticipated the rapid escalation of civil conflict. As violence spread, they “began to fear its consequences as well as displacement by the very military government they had helped bring to power.”[xxvi] Party leaders were willing to compromise and rein in the army, paramilitary groups, and the civilian police force for the sake of reestablishing political order.
The National Front government effectively ended the large number of killings by mitigating traditional partisan rivalries (the initial cause of la Violencia) and establishing a power-sharing agreement between Liberal and Conservative parties. The return to civilian rule and the inter-party cooperation facilitated the re-consolidation of state authority in nearly all areas of the country. However, while the National Front resulted in a dramatic reduction of violence, the agreement excluded third parties and, according to some analysts, restricted democratic competition. Consequently, the Colombian Communist Party (PCC) and Communist guerrilla groups, such as the Colombian Armed Revolutionary Forces (FARC), continued to operate in the countryside and gain more followers.[xxvii]
While the early 1960s saw a dramatic reduction in violence, it is arguable that the National Front sowed the seeds for future conflict.[xxviii] It served as a temporary conflict management mechanism, but did so by institutionalizing the exclusion of leftist groups. From that moment on, much of the country’s experience of violence shifted from organizations centered on partisan identification, toward those organized around class differences. This paved the way for the FARC and the emergence of paramilitary groups.
We code this case as ending through strategic shift, accompanied by a change in leadership, with domestic moderates exerting influence in a context where the violence had stalemated. Further, we note that the violence can be classified as mass popular violence, targeting multiple victim groups, with significant involvement of non-state actors, and that the initiators were not the primary perpetrators.
Bailey, Norman A. 1967. “La Violencia in Colombia.” Journal of Inter-American Studies 9 (4): 561-575.
Dufort, Philippe. 2014. “The Dual Function of Violence During Civil Wars: The Case of Colombia,” Colombia Internacional 81: 205-235.
Dugas, J. C. 2009. “Colombia.” In Vanden, H. E and Prevost, G., ed. Politics of Latin America. New York: Oxford University Press.
Gott, Richard. 1971. Guerrilla Movements in Latin America. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.
Guzmán Campos, Germán, Orlando Fals-Borda, and Eduardo Umaña Luna. 2005. La Violencia en Colombia. Bogotá: Taurus.
Hartlyn, Jonathan. 1993.”Civil Violence and Conflict Resolution: The Case of Colombia.” In Roy Licklider, ed. Stopping the Killing: How Civil Wars End. New York: New York University Press pp. 37-61.
Oquist, Paul H. 1980. Violence, Conflict and Politics in Colombia. New York: Academic Press.
Roldán, Mary. 2002. Blood and Fire: La Violencia in Antioquia, Colombia, 1946-1953. Durham: Duke University Press.
[i] Oquist, 1980, xi.
[ii] Ibid; Hartlyn 1993.
[iii] Roldán 2002, 29.
[iv] Bailey 1967.
[v] Ibid., 565.
[vi] Hartlyn 1993, 38.
[vii] Hartlyn 1993, 38-39.
[viii] Oquist 1980, 118.
[ix] Hartlyn 1993, 39.
[x] Oquist 1980, 6.
[xi] Roldán 2002, 286.
[xii] Hartlyn 1993, 40.
[xiii] Dufort 2014.
[xiv] Hartlyn 1993, 40.
[xv] Bailey 1967, 561.
[xvi] Hartlyn 1993, 41.
[xvii] Oquist 1980, 4.
[xviii] For further information on Lemoine’s methodology, see Oquist, 4-5.
[xix] Gott 1971.
[xx] Bailey 1967, 567.
[xxi] Oquist 1980, 6-7.
[xxii] Bailey 1967, 567.
[xxiii] Bailey 1967, 568.
[xxiv] Hartlyn 1993, 40.
[xxv] Oquist’s fatality estimates for 1958-1960 stem from police information, which began to be systematically compiled in 1958. He cites the following source: Republica de Colombia, Policia Nacional, Criminalidad en 1964 (Bogotá, 1965), pp. 50-51.
[xxvi] Hartlyn 1993, 49.
[xxvii] Dugas 2009, 508.
[xxviii] Email exchange with Roddy Brett, November 11, 2014.