Colombian Guerrilla War Begins Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The civil war in Colombia, generated by the economic disparity experienced by that nation’s citizens, began in the late 1940’s after the Conservative government unleashed a wave of repression against supporters of the opposition Liberal Party. It is considered the longest running war of modern times.

Summary of Event

By 1976, the war in Colombia had been going on for more than twenty-five years. The conflict started in 1948, after the Conservative Party government carried out a massacre of Liberal Party supporters. This part of the war, known as La Violencia, Violencia, La continued for ten years and included an army coup orchestrated by General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla. In 1958, the leadership of the Liberal and Conservative parties reached an agreement to share the responsibility of governing the country, alternating power every national election cycle. This was known as the National Front. This agreement left most of Colombia’s working class and peasantry out of the political process, which prompted politically minded members of the working class to resort to armed struggle. Civil wars;Colombia Colombia;guerrilla warfare Medellín drug cartel [kw]Colombian Guerrilla War Begins (1976) [kw]Guerrilla War Begins, Colombian (1976) [kw]War Begins, Colombian Guerrilla (1976) Civil wars;Colombia Colombia;guerrilla warfare Medellín drug cartel [g]South America;1976: Colombian Guerrilla War Begins[02220] [g]Colombia;1976: Colombian Guerrilla War Begins[02220] [c]Government and politics;1976: Colombian Guerrilla War Begins[02220] [c]Human rights;1976: Colombian Guerrilla War Begins[02220] [c]Terrorism, atrocities, and war crimes;1976: Colombian Guerrilla War Begins[02220] Rojas Pinilla, Gustavo Escobar, Pablo Marín, Pedro Antonio Pastrana, Andrés

The first armed guerrilla group to make its presence known was the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC). FARC The group of disgruntled liberals and communists was led by Pedro Antonio Marín, who had changed his name to Manuel Marulanda Vélez and was commonly known as “Tirojifo” (Sureshot). Not long after the creation of FARC, Catholic priest Camilo Torres established the United Peoples Front because he was rebuffed by the government in his attempts to negotiate an agreement between the government and FARC. A group of students and intellectuals inspired by Che Guevara formed another armed organization, Ejercitos Liberation Nacional (ELN). A third group known as Ejercitos de Popular Liberacion (EPL), inspired by the teachings of Mao Zedong, formed in the western half of the country.

In 1974, the Movimiento 19 de Abril (M-19) guerrilla organization was formed. Movimiento 19 de Abril[Movimiento diez y nueve] The group was named after the date in 1970 on which Rojas, running as a left-leaning reform candidate, was defeated in fraudulent elections. The National Front fell apart in 1974, and a Liberal candidate, Alfonso Michelsen, won that year’s election. By 1976, the guerrilla organizations were engaged in armed conflict with the Colombian army. Human rights groups condemned the army and accused it of systematically torturing and killing civilians.

In 1978, the government issued antiguerrilla legislation known as the Public Safety Statute. Disappearances, torture, and assassinations increased dramatically. The government targeted not only suspected guerrillas but also labor organizers, priests, teachers, and others involved with the poor and working people. In 1982, Conservative party member and Colombian president Belisario Cuartas began a series of peace talks with the guerrilla organizations and introduced a general amnesty plan for those groups’ members. In 1985, FARC formed a political wing, known as the Union Patriotica (UP), and in 1986, it won fourteen political posts. Union Patriotica (Colombia) Within three months, three UP legislators were assassinated. They were the first of more than three thousand UP activists who would be murdered by the military and its right-wing allies. Also in 1985, in one of the most spectacular incidents of the Colombian civil conflict, members of M-19 seized the Palace of Justice in Bogotá and took a large number of hostages. The seizure was in response to the government’s role in the broken cease-fire agreement between M-19 and the Colombian army. More than one hundred people were killed when the army retook the building. In 1986, the peace talks with the guerrilla organizations ended in failure. The armed groups retreated to the mountains.

As the drug trade increased in volume in the United States, Colombia became the site of many coca plantations owned by multimillionaire dealers and growers. To protect their investments, the drug lords formed paramilitary groups and allied themselves with various politicians. The paramilitaries and the Colombian army focused their attacks on the leftist groups and those they considered to be leftist allies, such as labor groups, social workers, and radical priests. FARC began holding onto territory and administering the land it held, taxing the small coca growers who lived there. In 1989, the Colombian government officially declared a war on drugs and detained more than ten thousand citizens. Pablo Escobar, the most powerful drug lord in the country and the head of the Medellín drug cartel, unleashed a wave of bombings and assassinations that included the murder of the Liberal Party’s presidential candidate, Luis Carlos Galán. Galán, Luis Carlos Assassinations and attempts;Colombian presidential candidates The United States began to provide hundreds of millions of dollars and military aid to the Colombian army as part of the U.S. “war on drugs.”

The 1990’s began with M-19 agreeing to a cease-fire and forming a political party called the Democratic Alliance. Its candidate was assassinated during his run for president. A Liberal, César Gaviria Trujillo, Gaviria Trujillo, César won the presidency, lifted the state of siege, and rejected extradition of drug traffickers as a policy. The Medellín cartel declared a truce, and Pablo Escobar turned himself in to authorities. However, the United States continued to insist on Escobar’s extradition, so he escaped from the prison he had built for himself. Another group of drug traffickers began attacks on Escobar’s forces and helped the Colombian military find and kill Escobar.

After Escobar’s death, the remaining rightist paramilitaries formed the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC) to fight leftists. This consolidation of paramilitary forces, and their growing collaboration with the Colombian army, led to increased violence against civilians. There were twenty-five thousand murders in Colombia in 1995 alone. FARC and ELN were the sole remaining guerrilla organizations. FARC controlled a swath of territory the size of Switzerland in the western half of the country. ELN controlled considerably less territory but collected taxes from the multinational oil companies in the country. Both groups had some support from the peasantry in the areas they controlled, but many other civilians just wanted to get away from the violence begotten by the guerrilla groups. In addition, neither FARC nor ELN made much allowance for the Afro-Colombian and indigenous populations of Colombia. From 1996 through 1998, the right-wing paramilitaries began to move into the FARC-controlled areas, terrorizing and expelling the civilians living there.

Conservative Andrés Pastrana won the presidential election in 1998 and began negotiating peace with the guerrilla organizations, especially FARC. Pastrana’s initial concession was to withdraw army troops from five towns in the FARC-controlled territory of San Vicente del Caguán. Peace talks with FARC began on January 7, 1999. AUC responded by issuing death threats to Colombian human rights advocates and demanded that the paramilitaries be included in the peace talks. The century ended with the U.S. Congress endorsing an $860 million military aid package for Colombia. The program included the training of Colombian security forces by U.S. Special Forces.


The Colombian civil war that took place during the last quarter of the twentieth century became a textbook example of a country controlled by the drug trade and the military. No matter which party held power, the military and its paramilitary allies determined the course the government took, while the leftist guerrillas and the civilian population opposed the government’s policies. U.S. financial support for the Colombian military encouraged its disregard for human rights and increased the polarization between the groups the guerrillas represented and those the government represented. As other governments in Latin America shied away from Washington’s policies toward the end of the twentieth century, Colombia’s support of Washington’s policies would become more important. Colombia’s alliance with the U.S. government ensured Washington’s continued financial support of the Bogotá government. Civil wars;Colombia Colombia;guerrilla warfare Medellín drug cartel

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bouvier, Virginia Marie. Civil Society Under Siege in Colombia. Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace, 2004. By assuming a position that favors neither United States policy in Colombia, the Colombian government, nor the various armed actors, the author of this report presents an analytical look at the breakdown of civil society in Colombia.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Molano, Alfredo. The Dispossessed: Chronicles of the Desterrados of Colombia. Translated by Aviva Chomsky. Chicago, Ill.: Haymarket Books, 2005. Molano, a well-known Colombian journalist who sought exile in Spain after threats from the paramilitaries and the Colombian army, presents a personal portrait of life in Colombia’s war zones. The stories portray the fear and danger with which Colombians in these areas deal. The book also provides an overview of the war.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ruiz, Bert. The Colombian Civil War. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2001. Ruiz’s account is a fair-minded attempt to explain the intricacies of the Colombian civil war. The author addresses both the armed actors in the struggle and the civilians whose lives have been altered by the war.

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Categories: History