Colombian Presidential Candidates Are Killed Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The assassination of Colombia’s leading presidential candidate revealed a society increasingly at risk of violence perpetrated by drug lords, paramilitary groups, leftist guerrillas, and common criminals.

Summary of Event

Violence, kidnapping, banditry, bloodletting, revolts, partisan conflicts, and civil wars are all familiar in Colombia, where the geographic complexity of three mountain ranges formed the basis for the development of dissimilar economies and conflicting traditions among regions and ethnicities, making unification of the nation difficult. Only the Roman Catholic Church and the brokered agreements between the 150-year-old Conservative and Liberal parties have provided some elements of peace, national unity, and continuity, but even these arrangements have depended on the acquiescence of local elites and party leaders. Periodically, these understandings have broken down, especially when the dominant party’s factional infighting has allowed the opposition party to win. The nineteenth century saw fifty bloody conflicts, with the War of the Thousand Days (1899-1902) alone taking more than one hundred thousand lives. The twentieth century witnessed the macabre period known as La Violencia Violencia, La (1946-1959), when upward of two hundred thousand people came to violent ends. Assassinations and attempts;Colombian presidential candidates Colombia;political assassinations [kw]Colombian Presidential Candidates Are Killed (1989-1990) [kw]Presidential Candidates Are Killed, Colombian (1989-1990) [kw]Killed, Colombian Presidential Candidates Are (1989-1990) Assassinations and attempts;Colombian presidential candidates Colombia;political assassinations [g]South America;1989-1990: Colombian Presidential Candidates Are Killed[07170] [g]Colombia;1989-1990: Colombian Presidential Candidates Are Killed[07170] [c]Government and politics;1989-1990: Colombian Presidential Candidates Are Killed[07170] [c]Crime and scandal;1989-1990: Colombian Presidential Candidates Are Killed[07170] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1989-1990: Colombian Presidential Candidates Are Killed[07170] Galán, Luis Carlos Gaviria Trujillo, César Pizarro Leongómez, Carlos Barco Vargas, Virgilio Escobar, Pablo Wolff, Antonio Navarro Rodríguez Gacha, Gonzalo Gaitán, Jorge Eliécer Rojas Pinilla, Gustavo

La Violencia was the product of a split in the Liberal Party, in power since 1930, that allowed the minority Conservative Party to win the 1946 presidential election. The latter attempted to replace Liberal officeholders throughout the country. Liberal resistance and the assassination of the charismatic Liberal leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán in 1948 led to three days of burning, looting, and death in Bogotá and wholesale human rights abuses and carnage in the countryside. These events also set in motion profound forces that challenged the tradition of elite rule through the Conservative and Liberal parties. First, La Violencia led the military to end civilian government in 1953 with the coup of General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla, who as dictator had some success in building support among the lower classes. Second, La Violencia gave birth to guerrilla groups that matured and became an enduring force in the Colombian countryside. Finally, criminality became a major occupation in Colombia.

Faced with the prospect of losing power to the military and a persistent level of lawlessness, members of the Colombian political establishment eventually saw the wisdom of patching up their differences. They did so in the historic National Front pact, National Front pact (Colombia) in which they agreed to rotate Liberals and Conservatives in the presidency from 1958 until 1974 and to divide political offices equally between Liberals and Conservatives. They first had to take back power from the military, which they did with the ouster of Rojas Pinilla in 1957.

To some extent the National Front achieved its goals. The Liberals and Conservatives regained control, political competition was reined in, and murder in the countryside continued to drop through most of the 1960’s and well into the 1970’s. There was dissatisfaction, however, among political groups that were not included in the power-sharing agreement. Further, the guerrilla groups spawned by La Violencia did not disappear. They grew in numbers, experience, and ideology, so that by the 1980’s Colombia had six important Marxist guerrilla groups and a plethora of other types. They ruled large areas of the rugged Colombian countryside, although when challenged by the armed forces they usually moved on. Given Colombia’s formidable geography, it was impossible for the military to secure all areas. The Colombian political establishment was also reluctant to give the military too much power, fearing that it would again become a threat to civilian rule, as it had in the 1950’s.

Luis Carlos Galán.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

The guerrilla groups generally were content to bide their time, ambush the armed forces, and live by “taxing” landowners, businesspeople, and multinational corporations by making demands for protection money. Some paid up and some did not. All suffered kidnappings Kidnappings for ransom that sometimes ended tragically. Paramilitary groups also appeared that levied their own measure of revenge against leftists and “social undesirables.” Labor leaders, social activists, homosexuals, prostitutes, and others disappeared; some were later found abused or dead, but others were never seen again. At the same time, a criminal element flourished that astutely cloaked its entrepreneurial activities under the cover of the ongoing ideological and political struggles. It was difficult to know who was to blame for the human rights abuses that began to grow in frequency, especially after 1975.

It is in this historical context that the illegal Colombian drug trade Colombia;narcotics trade Narcotics trade, illegal developed and added the potent new elements of money, power, organization, and weaponry to the old mix of illegality and human rights abuse. The money produced was out of proportion to the Colombian economy. The drug trade earned more in foreign exchange than Colombia’s fabled mountain-grown coffee. It paid for hired killers, protection for cocaine production and processing in guerrilla-controlled areas, immunity from military and police actions, and favorable judicial rulings, legislative actions, and executive decisions. With an enormous amount of wealth and influence at every level of Colombian society, the drug lords began to pursue what they had never had and desperately wanted—acceptance, respectability, and legality.

All Colombian institutions and relationships—political, social, and economic—were at risk of being overwhelmed. Nevertheless, the drug lords were never so unified as to be a “cartel.” They were too individualistic. There was a global oversupply of drugs, and the ensuing competition and turf wars led to a dangerous division in the ranks of drug producers, especially between the Medellín and Cali organizations. The leaders of these organizations—Pablo Escobar, Gonzalo Rodríguez Gacha, the Ochoa family, Carlos Lehder, and Gilberto and Miguel Rodríguez Orejuela—became household names. The Medellín group in particular showed a lack of sophistication in its attempts to gain a place within the Colombian system. In its search for legitimate uses for its money and in its drive for acceptance, it created much turmoil and dislocation.

Various civic leaders and newspaper editors demanded that something be done about the drug trade, and the United States mistakenly viewed action in Colombia as an easy fix for its own drug problem. The Colombian government and the military began to crack down in the mid-1980’s. The crackdown was haphazard at first, concentrating on the guerrillas, but it became more determined and focused as time went on. At center stage was the suspended extradition treaty under which Colombian officials would try to send the more flagrant drug lords to the United States for prosecution. The Medellín “cowboys,” however, brooked no restraint on their activities and responded with a reign of terror and assassination against responsible government officials.

The battle results were impressive. The Medellín drug lords made successful strikes against the police and military, especially in Medellín, on an almost daily basis. Especially intimidating, because of the rank and power of those involved, were the assassinations of Justice Minister Rodrigo Lara Bonilla Lara Bonilla, Rodrigo in 1984 and Attorney General Carlos Hoyos Hoyos, Carlos in 1988. The most menacing, however, was the machine-gun slaying on August 18, 1989, of Colombia’s leading presidential candidate, the Liberal Party’s Luis Carlos Galán, who had spoken out in favor of extraditing drug lords to the United States. Clearly, the “extraditable ones,” as the drug lords signed their declarations, had thrown down the gauntlet to the Colombian political establishment and had defined what was intolerable.

The drug lords also may have had a larger goal of capturing the Colombian state, given that there is some evidence that they had created a political party and were going to field a candidate in the presidential election. By concentrating on the middle and lower Magdalena River Valley, an area in which they, especially Rodríguez Gacha, had invested heavily in land and politicians, they seemed well on their way to creating a fiefdom until the military and guerrillas resisted their efforts. The subsequent murders of two more presidential candidates appeared to be the work of the Medellín organization. Bernardo Jaramillo, Jaramillo, Bernardo from the Patriotic Union (UP), was murdered on March 22, 1990, at the Bogotá airport. Carlos Pizarro Leongómez, from the M-19 Democratic Alliance (M-19), was killed on April 26, 1990, while on an Avianca flight. It is noteworthy that some viewed these two leftists as more serious threats to Colombia than the drug lords.


How Colombian leaders responded to the assassination of Galán and who those leaders were offered important clues to the future of Colombia, including the risks of human rights abuse for different groups. Galán’s murder led Liberal president Virgilio Barco Vargas to refuse to negotiate with the drug lords, to seek settlements with guerrilla groups, to collaborate closely with the United States, and to mobilize the armed forces and police in a determined attempt to exterminate or extradite the most notorious of the drug lords. By 1990, the government had succeeded in killing Rodríguez Gacha and forcing Pablo Escobar to go underground. The drug world’s reaction, as expected, did much to make Colombians think twice about the wisdom of such action.

The next president, Liberal César Gaviria Trujillo, formerly Galán’s campaign manager, showed a more nuanced policy. Drug lords who turned themselves in, such as the Ochoas, were to be tried in Colombia and not extradited to the United States. President Gaviria supported the calling of a seventy-seat congress to change the constitution. Elections to that congress got the Liberals only twenty-four seats, while the political newcomer M-19, led by the former guerrilla and ever-more-popular Antonio Navarro Wolff, gained nineteen and was in position to challenge or to be co-opted by the political establishment. President Gaviria also made more money, weapons, and training available to the military and police, much of these coming from the United States. This allowed him to chase down both drug lords and guerrillas who continued to defy the government. For some, however, more power to the military raised the specter of greater human rights abuses. Finally, leftist guerrillas faced some painful decisions in view of the collapse of the Soviet bloc.

Human rights abuses remained significant in Colombia. In the one-year period ending in February, 1991, 1,451 kidnappings were recorded, of which 725 were credited to common criminals, 698 to guerrillas, and 28 to drug traffickers. Among the kidnapped victims were President Gaviria’s first cousin, whose body turned up three days after his abduction, and the daughter of a former president, who was killed in a failed rescue attempt. In the months of January and February, 1991, more than one thousand drug-related killings took place in Medellín, and throughout the country thirty-one ambushes and sixty-one clashes between the security forces and guerrillas resulted in the deaths of 140 military personnel, 167 guerrillas, and 72 peasants. In 1990, there had been 313 political murders. Colombia’s homicide rate was one of the highest in the world.

Nevertheless, Colombia resolutely survived. By 1990, its per-capita income was 87 percent above the 1960 level. Indices of quality of life—life expectancy, infant mortality, literacy rates, education levels, and housing conditions—had also improved substantially. In the decade ending in 1990, Colombia was the only country in Latin America whose gross domestic product had not declined during a single year. Colombia continued to experience political violence and rebellion, however, as the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC) FARC persisted in opposition to the government throughout the 1990’s and into the early twenty-first century. With Colombia’s military unable to provide security throughout the country, numerous paramilitary forces also emerged, and the general instability produced three million internally displaced persons. Assassinations and attempts;Colombian presidential candidates Colombia;political assassinations

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Braun, Herbert. The Assassination of Gaitán: Public Life and Urban Violence in Colombia. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985. Presents a fascinating account of one of the great figures and pivotal events in Colombian history. Captures the passionate relationship between Gaitán and his followers and the breakdown of elite control. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Giraldo, Javier. Colombia: The Genocidal Democracy. Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1996. Examines the political violence in Colombia in the period 1988-1995. Includes map and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Henderson, James D. When Colombia Bled: A History of the Violencia in Tolima. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1985. One of the best regional accounts of La Violencia available. Goes to impressive lengths to document the terrible realities that explain so much of Colombian violence and human rights abuse. Attention to the larger national context and assessment of the various theories and explanations for La Violencia make this an especially important work. Includes list of local sources and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Livingtone, Grace. Inside Colombia: Drugs, Democracy, and War. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2004. Provides a comprehensive overview of Colombia and its history with the drug trade. Includes maps, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Martz, John D. “Colombia at the Crossroads.” Current History 90 (February, 1991): 69-72, 80-81. Provides a perceptive overview of major events in Colombia in 1989 and 1990, especially concerning political changes, elections, drug trafficking, violence, and human rights abuses.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pearce, Jenny. Colombia: Inside the Labyrinth. London: Latin American Bureau, 1990. One of the best book-length surveys of modern Colombian history available and a good read. Populist in tone and interpretation but well grounded in Colombian sources. Provides solid detail on human rights violations and labor unions, guerrilla groups, and social movements. Bibliography and index.

Colombian Guerrilla War Begins

FARC Offensive Intensifies the Guerrilla War in Colombia

Categories: History