La Violencia Begins in Colombia Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Dance of the Millions, a period of rapid economic expansion, led to political unrest among rural people that exploded into violence after the assassination of populist leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán in 1948. Tens of thousands of people died during the years of violence throughout Colombia.

Summary of Event

Jorge Eliécer Gaitán was the symbol of hope for the rural poor of Colombia. In a nation torn by decades of partisan strife, the assassination on April 9, 1948, of this populist leader on a street in the nation’s capital, Bogotá, brought a wave of revulsion against the Conservative government then in power. An enraged mob beat the assassin to death minutes after Gaitán fell. The existence of a plot behind the assassination has never been proven, but the immediate consequences of Gaitán’s death were obvious. Violencia, La Civil unrest;Colombia Class conflict [kw]La Violencia Begins in Colombia (Apr. 9, 1948) [kw]Violencia Begins in Colombia, La (Apr. 9, 1948) [kw]Colombia, La Violencia Begins in (Apr. 9, 1948) Violencia, La Civil unrest;Colombia Class conflict [g]Latin America;Apr. 9, 1948: La Violencia Begins in Colombia[02430] [g]Colombia;Apr. 9, 1948: La Violencia Begins in Colombia[02430] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Apr. 9, 1948: La Violencia Begins in Colombia[02430] [c]Crime and scandal;Apr. 9, 1948: La Violencia Begins in Colombia[02430] [c]Social issues and reform;Apr. 9, 1948: La Violencia Begins in Colombia[02430] [c]Economics;Apr. 9, 1948: La Violencia Begins in Colombia[02430] [c]Indigenous peoples’ rights;Apr. 9, 1948: La Violencia Begins in Colombia[02430] Gaitán, Jorge Eliécer Gómez, Laureano Lame, Manuel Quintín Rojas Pinilla, Gustavo López Pumarejo, Alfonso

The international delegation to the Ninth International Conference of American States Ninth International Conference of American States (1948) , including United States secretary of state George C. Marshall, watched with a mixture of fear and shock as violence overwhelmed their host city. The aroused masses directed their hostility against the incumbent Conservatives. Political outrage merged with urban violence to become a bloody civil war that spread into already unstable rural areas. Two hundred thousand people eventually died, and property damage was immense. La Violencia (the violence) swept up displaced indigenous peoples and dispossessed mestizos (a biological or cultural mixture of Indian and European) who had been struggling to survive for decades. The death of their champion darkened already dim hopes for recovery from the ravages of years of disruptive economic change.

Gaitán’s death was not the sole cause of La Violencia. Its origins challenge even the most sophisticated analysis. Some perpetrators of violent acts were angry Liberal Liberal Party, Colombian supporters whose frustrations from their defeat in Gaitán’s presidential campaign in 1946 exploded with his assassination. Others took advantage of their nation’s state of near anarchy to engage in criminal acts. A large number of the participants came from the rural poor, who attacked the Conservative Conservative Party, Colombian government after having been driven to the margins of society by intrusive economic change.

The rapid economic expansion, or “Dance of the Millions,” Dance of the Millions of the 1920’s was an object lesson in economic overexpansion based on imprudent investments. Colombia found the economic means to recover from its disastrous civil war (1899-1902) and the painful loss of commercially important Panama (1903). The nation’s productive coffee lands had found markets in the United States and Europe, and its petroleum potential rivaled those of Mexico and Venezuela. U.S. investors saw a bright future in the land of El Dorado, but they were mistaken. The worldwide depression of the 1930’s spoiled their prognosis, and the repercussions of their massive injections of investment capital into coffee production contributed to the social and economic dislocations that spawned La Violencia.

By the early part of the twentieth century, the Native American Native Americans;Colombia population of Colombia had fared little better than had the Native Americans of the United States. The Chibcha civilization, located around present-day Bogotá, succumbed to Spanish conquest in the 1530’s. The surviving Chibcha and other American Indian groups became laborers in Spaniards’ mines and on their haciendas. Only a few reservations, generally located in isolated zones to the south and east of the richer central mountain areas, provided havens for indigenous communities. These reservations were segregated from the rest of Colombia and provided a subsistence living at best. By 1900, the Indian population amounted to less than 10 percent of the national total.

Under pressure from aggressive, land-hungry coffee planters in the early decades of the twentieth century, the Indians attempted to meet the challenges to their reservations and their cultural traditions. With the influx of foreign investments in the 1920’s, the Dance of the Millions raced through the commercial centers of Medellín and Cali to the previously isolated mountains, where the Indians had maintained their marginal existence. State and local governments, often in collusion with the coffee interests, revised the reservation laws to open the lands for sale in the private sector. Armed with a superior knowledge of the new regulations, an eager following among certain politicians, and large capital reserves, the planters took control of what had been Indian reservation lands and, in the process, reduced the Indians to tenant farmers, wage laborers, or homeless drifters.

Indians tried to resist commercial encroachments. Native leader Manuel Quintín Lame formed a militant resistance movement in south-central Colombia. Although Lame was an Indian traditionalist, he collaborated for several years with communists to form an Indian community, San José de Indias, and to attempt to strengthen nearby reservations. His success was brief, however. In 1931, white landowners had him jailed and, after serving two years in prison, he returned to find San José de Indias destroyed and the future of the Indian people even more dismal than it had been a decade earlier.

Mestizos were a factor in Colombian history from the colonial era and, by the twentieth century, made up probably half of the nation’s population. Unlike the isolated Indians, the mestizos were direct participants in the economy, serving as laborers on the coffee plantations and working as independent peasant farmers. In the last half of the nineteenth century, mestizo peasants moved to unoccupied areas in the southern mountain region of the country and cleared land for farming. They eventually formed squatter communities along this frontier, where they used simple farming techniques to produce corn, beans, and yucca for their own consumption and coffee, tobacco, and wheat for sale in markets. They produced a significant part of the food consumed in Colombia in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Each community centered on a chapel, a market, and perhaps a school or a local government building. The peasants’ lives were hard and their work was difficult, but they had a sense of ownership and independence.

Their lives, however, were beginning to change in ways that brought frustration and disappointment. The expansion of the large coffee plantations soon disrupted and, in some cases, destroyed many of the peasant communities. Using their legal and political connections to full advantage, coffee entrepreneurs secured title to peasant land and forced once-independent farmers to become tenants or wage laborers, or to be expelled from the land altogether. Peasants protested such usurpations but had only minimal success in the frenzied Dance of the Millions of the 1920’s.

In the depression-ridden 1930’s, however, peasant protests spread from local communities into an expansive but amorphous national movement. The Liberal administration of President Alfonso López Pumarejo was sensitive to this unrest and passed the nation’s first land-reform legislation. This law promised to make the national government the chief protector of small properties, but the enforcement of this statute in rural areas involved land surveys, property assessments, and other complexities that the powerful estate owners blocked or delayed.

The rural poor found a new leader in Gaitán, who carried their cause much further than had either Pumarejo or Lame. Gaitán was a mestizo whose law degree and political ambitions elevated him above his lower-middle-class background. He was a hypnotic speaker with a charismatic personality. He appealed to the mestizo, the Indian, and the urban worker, thereby attracting a following that posed a real challenge to the nation’s landed elite. His ideology was a combination of populism and socialism in which the national government was to protect the disadvantaged against the onrush of commercial expansion.

Gaitán maintained his appeal to rural folk from the early 1920’s until his assassination in 1948. His campaign for the presidency in 1946 aroused the hopes of the mestizo and Indian masses, and his defeat was a devastating blow. The bitter rivalry between the Gaitán wing of the Liberal Party and the victorious Conservatives erupted in sporadic violence as early as 1946, but Gaitán’s dramatic death ignited an explosion of violence unprecedented in Colombian history.


The economic dislocations and human suffering caused by the Dance of the Millions of the 1920’s and the depression of the 1930’s were greatly intensified by the epidemic of bloodshed in La Violencia. From 1950 to 1953, the Conservative government of President Laureano Gómez became increasingly unstable as disorder spread into rural areas. Police and military units met stalemate and even defeat in their confrontations with antigovernment guerrillas. In 1953, Gómez went into exile as General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla took charge in Bogotá.

The near paralysis of the national government left many rural districts without police protection. The exact causes of the violence that erupted under these conditions are too complex for easy generalization. Apparently much of the violence came out of local conflicts that varied from region to region.

The dictatorship of Rojas Pinilla generally attempted to impose military solutions in rural areas, but with little success. The army’s battlefield victories were short-lived, as many guerrillas resorted to banditry in some cases in order to survive and in other cases to exact revenge. By the early 1950’s, an ominous phenomenon appeared: roving groups of outlaws who plundered and murdered with no apparent motive. These criminal elements inflicted a reign of terror on many defenseless rural communities.

The generations-old peasant struggle for land met another severe setback in La Violencia. Banditry mutated into land grabbing through violence and threats of violence. Small farmers abandoned nearly 400,000 parcels of land to protect themselves and their families. Although the fate of these farm properties is difficult to determine in every case, large estates gained considerable quantities of land in this process. Colombia lost an important part of its independent productive peasantry in these years.

The impact of the tumultuous four decades that spanned the Dance of the Millions of the 1920’s and La Violencia of the 1940’s and 1950’s on the lives of Colombia’s Indian and mestizo peoples gives little cause for optimism. Although the reservation Indians and the mestizo peasants of the early twentieth century did not enjoy anything approaching an idyllic existence, they were developing means of coping with the spreading commercial economy. The surge of coffee expansion in the 1920’s, however, often deprived them of land, and the civil war of the 1940’s and its transformation into random, criminal violence left many of them on the edge of survival. Several of the small rural communities formed by settlers a half century earlier disintegrated. Violencia, La Civil unrest;Colombia Class conflict

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, 1986. An analysis of the career and activism of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán and the eruption of violence following his assassination. Includes a bibliography and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fals Borda, Orlando. “Violence and the Break-up of Tradition in Colombia.” In Obstacles to Change in Latin America, edited by Claudio Veliz. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970. Broad analysis of the impact of violence on previously resilient colonial traditions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fluharty, Vernon. Dance of the Millions: Military Rule and the Social Revolution in Colombia. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1957. Pioneering study of La Violencia that retains utility in its discussion of political events even though its conclusions on social and economic factors have been superseded by later studies.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Green, W. John. Gaitanismo, Left Liberalism, and Popular Mobilization in Colombia. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2003. Examines the development and sustainment of the populist movement inspired by Gaitán among the peasants and the poor of Colombia. The movement is called Gaitanismo in honor of the leftist activist. Includes discussion of La Violencia. Highly recommended.
  • 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. A well-written examination of the causes and consequences of La Violencia in Tolima. Henderson explains the conflict in a national context and emphasizes its political origins.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">LeGrand, Catherine. Frontier Expansion and Peasant Protest in Colombia, 1830-1936. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1986. Historical analysis of the struggle for land along Colombia’s frontier. LeGrand concludes that peasant farmers generally lost out to agricultural entrepreneurs even in Law 200 of 1936, which she sees mainly as a victory for the large estates.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Oquist, Paul. Violence, Conflict, and Politics in Colombia. New York: Academic Press, 1980. An interpretive study that employs social science methodology to explain the violence from 1946 to 1966. Oquist stresses the importance of interclass conflict and the breakdown of the national government.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Palacios, Marco. Between Legitimacy and Violence: A History of Colombia, 1875-2002. Translated by Richard Stoller. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2006. A history of Colombia focusing on the nation’s struggles with violence and turmoil. Includes extensive discussion of La Violencia and its aftermath.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sánchez, Gonzalo, and Donny Meertens. Bandits, Peasants, and Politics: The Case of “La Violencia” in Colombia. Austin: University of Texas Press, Institute of Latin American Studies, 2001. Examination of La Violencia within the broader sociological context of banditry and revolution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sharpless, Richard E. Gaitán of Colombia: A Political Biography. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1978. Clearly written and based on careful research. Sharpless places Gaitán within the national political and cultural trends and gives considerable emphasis to his connections in rural areas in his early career.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zamosc, Leon. The Agrarian Question and the Peasant Movement in Colombia: Struggles in the National Peasant Association, 1967-1981. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986. A leftist sociologist’s study of peasant activism in land reform since La Violencia. Although sympathetic to the peasants, Zamosc sees their factionalism as one of the many problems in the process of land redistribution.

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