Colombia's history is one of war and bloodshed. Whether that's the cruelty of the colonial conquests, the fight with Spain for independence, the half century of war between the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC; Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) guerrillas and the paramilitaries, or the narco chaos of the 1980s and ’90s, Colombia has sadly always been synonymous with violence. But things have changed dramatically in recent years, and Colombia today is a far safer place than it has been for decades.
Set where South America meets Central America, present-day Colombia saw the continent's first inhabitants arrive between 12,500 and 70,000 years ago, having migrated from the north. Most – such as the ancestors of the Inca – just passed through. Little is known of the groups who did stick around (eg the Calima, Muisca, Nariño, Quimbaya, Tayrona, Tolima and Tumaco). By the time the Spaniards arrived, the first inhabitants were living in small, scattered communities, subsisting on agriculture or trade. They hardly rivaled the bigger civilizations flourishing in Mexico and Peru.
The area's biggest pre-Columbian sites (San Agustín, Tierradentro and Ciudad Perdida) were already long abandoned when the Spaniards arrived in the 1500s. Ciudad Perdida, the Tayrona jungle city, was built around 700 AD, with hundreds of stone terraces linked with stairways. The Muisca, one of the country's larger indigenous groups, occupied present-day Boyacá and Cundinamarca, near Bogotá (itself named from a Muisca word), and numbered 600,000 when the Spanish arrived.
Colombia is named after Christopher Columbus, even though he never set foot on Colombian soil. One of Columbus' companions on his second voyage, Alonso de Ojeda, was the first recorded European to arrive in 1499. He briefly explored the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and was astonished by the wealth of the local indigenous people. The shores of present-day Colombia became the target of numerous expeditions by the Spaniards. Several short-lived colonies were founded along the coast, but it was not until 1525 that Rodrigo de Bastidas laid the first stones of Santa Marta, the earliest surviving European settlement in mainland South America. In 1533 Pedro de Heredia founded Cartagena, the strategic position and far better harbor of which quickly allowed it to become the principal trade center on the Colombian coast.
In 1536 an advance toward the interior began independently from three directions: under Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada (from Santa Marta), Sebastián de Belalcázar (aka Benalcázar; from present-day Ecuador) and Nikolaus Federmann (from Venezuela). All three managed to conquer much of the colony and establish a series of towns, before meeting in the Muisca territory in 1539.
Of the three, Quesada got there first, crossing the Valle del Magdalena and Cordillera Oriental in 1537. At the time, the Muisca were divided into two rival clans – one ruled by the Zipa from Bacatá (present-day Bogotá), the other by Zaque in Hunza (present-day Tunja) – whose rivalry helped Quesada conquer both clans with only 200 men. Belalcázar, a deserter from Francisco Pizarro's Inca-conquering army, gained control of the southern part of Colombia, founding Popayán and Cali. After crossing Los Llanos and the Andes, Federmann arrived in Bogotá shortly after Belalcázar. The three groups squabbled for supremacy until King Carlos V of Spain finally established a court of justice in Bogotá in 1550 and brought the colony under the control of the viceroyalty of Peru.
The Colonial Era
In 1564 the Crown established a new authority, the Real Audiencia del Nuevo Reino de Granada, which had dual military and civil power and greater autonomy. The authority was run by a governor, appointed by the King of Spain. The Nuevo Reino at that time comprised present-day Panama, Venezuela (other than Caracas) and all of Colombia, except what is today Nariño, Cauca and Valle del Cauca, which were under the jurisdiction of the Presidencia de Quito (present-day Ecuador).
The population of the colony, initially consisting of indigenous communities and the Spanish invaders, diversified with the arrival of African slaves to Cartagena, South America's principal slave-trading port. During the 16th and 17th centuries the Spaniards shipped in so many Africans that they eventually surpassed the indigenous population in number. The emergence of criollos (locally born whites) added to the mix.
With the growth of the Spanish empire in the New World, a new territorial division was created in 1717, and Bogotá became the capital of its own viceroyalty, the Virreinato de la Nueva Granada. It comprised the territories of what are today Colombia, Panama, Ecuador and Venezuela.
From day one of their arrival, tales of gold overwhelmed the conquistador mind. Eventually glimpses of gold artifacts – and stories of much more inland – gave birth to the myth of El Dorado, a mysterious jungle kingdom abundant in gold and, in some versions, surrounded by mountains of gold and emeralds. Long into the colonial period, the struggling Nueva Granada viceroyalty's economy depended on only one thing: gold.
Eventually the legend became linked with the Muisca and their famous Laguna de Guatavita, which has suffered endless efforts to dig up enough wealth to change the world. Not much was ever found, however. Read more in John Hemming's fascinating book, The Search for El Dorado (1978).
In a neat little historical dovetail, during its last years in the jungle the FARC actually turned away from white gold – cocaine – to the more traditional yellow variety as it became more lucrative, with the price of gold rocketing following the global financial crisis.
Independence from Spain
As Spanish domination of the continent increased, so too did the discontent of the inhabitants – particularly over monopolies of commerce and new taxes. The first open rebellion against colonial rule was the Revolución Comunera in Socorro (Santander) in 1781, which broke out against tax rises levied by the Crown. It began taking on more pro-independence overtones (and nearly took over Bogotá) before its leaders were caught and executed. When Napoleon Bonaparte put his own brother on the Spanish throne in 1808, the colonies refused to recognize the new monarch. One by one, Colombian towns declared their independence.
In 1812 Simón Bolívar, who was to become the hero of the independence struggle, appeared on the scene. He won six battles against Spanish troops, but was defeated the following year. Spain recovered its throne from Napoleon and then set about reconquering the colonies, finally succeeding in 1817. Meanwhile, in 1815 Bolívar had retreated to Jamaica and taken up arms again. He went back to Venezuela, but Spanish forces were too strong in Caracas, so Bolívar headed south, with an army, and marched over the Andes into Colombia, claiming victory after victory.
The most decisive battle took place at Boyacá on August 7, 1819. Three days later Bolívar arrived triumphantly in Bogotá. Though some lesser battles were yet to come (including a victory at Cartagena in 1821), a congress met shortly after the Boyacá battle and pronounced the independent Republic of Colombia – comprising today's Venezuela, Colombia and Panama.
The Formation of Political Parties
With Colombia independent, a revolutionary congress was held in Angostura (modern-day Ciudad Bolívar, in Venezuela) in 1819. Still euphoric with victory, the delegates proclaimed a new state, Gran Colombia, uniting Venezuela, Colombia, Panama and Ecuador (although Ecuador and parts of Venezuela were still technically under Spanish rule).
The Angostura congress was followed by another, held in Villa del Rosario, near Cúcuta, in 1821. It was there that the two opposing tendencies, centralist and federalist, first came to the fore. The two currents persisted throughout Bolívar's administration, which lasted to 1830. What followed after Bolívar's departure was a new (but not the last) inglorious page of Colombia's history. The split was formalized in 1849 when two political parties were established: the Conservatives (with centralist tendencies) and the Liberals (with federalist leanings). Fierce rivalry between these two forces resulted in a sequence of insurrections and civil wars, and throughout the 19th century Colombia experienced no fewer than eight civil wars. Between 1863 and 1885 alone there were more than 50 antigovernment insurrections.
In 1899 a Liberal revolt turned into the Thousand Days War, which resulted in a Conservative victory and left 100,000 dead. In 1903 the US took advantage of the country's internal strife and fomented a secessionist movement in Panama, then a Colombian province. By creating an independent republic there, the US was able to build and control a canal across the Central American isthmus. It wasn't until 1921 that Colombia eventually recognized the sovereignty of Panama and settled its dispute with the US.
The Fall of Simón Bolívar
Known as 'El Libertador,' Simón Bolívar led armies to battle the Spanish across northern South America, won the Colombian presidency, and ranks as one of the nation's great heroes. It's therefore surprising how it ended for him: humiliated, jobless, penniless and alone. He said, shortly before his death from tuberculosis in 1830, 'There have been three great fools in history: Jesus, Don Quixote and I.'
How did it happen? A proponent of a centralized republic, Bolívar was absent – off fighting back the Spanish in Peru and Bolivia – during much of his administration, leaving the running of the government to his vice president, and rival, the young federalist Francisco de Paula Santander, who smeared Bolívar and his ideas of being a lifetime president with the 'm' word: monarchist.
In 1828 Bolívar finally assumed dictatorship of a republic out of control, and restored a (hugely unpopular) colonial sales tax. Soon after, he narrowly escaped an assassination attempt (some believe Santander planned it) and a long-feisty Venezuela finally split from the republic. By 1830 Bolívar had had enough, abandoning the presidency – and then his savings, through gambling. He died a few months later in Santa Marta.
The 20th Century: Sowing the Seeds
The turn of the 20th century saw Panama seccede from Gran Colombia, but there was a welcome period of peace, as the economy started to boom (particularly due to the coffee trade) and the country's infrastructure expanded under the defused partisan politics of leader General Rafael Reyes. The brief lapse into a gentler world didn't last long, however. Labor tensions rose (following a 1928 banana strike) and the struggle between Liberals and Conservatives finally exploded in 1946 with La Violencia, the most destructive of Colombia's many civil wars to that point (with a death toll of some 200,000). Following the assassination of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, a charismatic, self-made populist Liberal leader, more widespread riots broke out around the country (which came to be known as El Bogotazo in Bogotá – where Gaitán was killed – and El Nueve de Abril elsewhere). Liberals soon took up arms throughout the country.
Generations of Colombians remained divided into the two political camps and each held a deep mistrust of the opposition. It's believed that 'hereditary hatreds' helped fuel revenge attacks and were the cause of countless atrocities (including rapes and murders) committed over the course of the next decade, particularly in rural areas.
The 1953 coup of General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla was the only military intervention the country experienced in the 20th century, but the coup was not to last. In 1957 the leaders of the two parties signed a pact to share power for the next 16 years. The agreement, later approved by plebiscite (in which women were allowed to vote for the first time), became known as the Frente Nacional (National Front). During the life of the accord, the two parties alternated in the presidency every four years. In effect, despite the enormous loss of life, the same people were returned to power. Importantly, the agreement also disallowed political parties beyond the Liberals and the Conservatives, forcing any opposition outside of the normal political system underground and sowing the seeds for guerrilla insurrection.
Colombia's coffee boom began in the early 20th century and found its exclamation point when the fictional Juan Valdez and his mule became the Colombian Coffee Federation's icon in 1959. (It was voted the world's top ad icon as recently as 2005.) In 2004 Juan Valdez opened more than 60 cafes in Colombia, the US and Spain, and is today by far the biggest coffee-shop chain in Colombia.
Despite competition from low-cost, lower-quality beans from Vietnam, Colombia's high-quality bean industry still supplies 12% of the world's arabica, employs around 600,000 people and earns the country billions of dollars in revenue a year. Yet in an irony that's simply puzzling, coffee in Colombia remains of generally poor quality – forget finding strong espresso outside big cities and content yourself with a watery tinto so beloved by locals instead.
The Birth of the FARC & Paramilitaries
While the National Front helped ease partisan tensions between Conservatives and Liberals, new conflicts were widening between wealthy landowners and the rural mestizo and indigenous underclass, two-thirds of whom lived in poverty by the end of La Violencia. Splinter leftist groups began emerging, calling for land reform and Colombian politics quickly became a brutal quagmire of violence, intimidation and kidnapping; Colombian society remains decimated by the events that followed. Much of what happened subsequently has been documented by international human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch.
New communist enclaves in the Sumapáz area, south of Bogotá, worried the Colombian government so much that its military bombed the area in May 1964. The attack led to the creation of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC; Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, led by Manuel Marulanda) and the more military-minded Jacobo Arenas. They vowed to overthrow the state and to redistribute land and wealth among the whole country, seizing it from Colombia's elites.
Other armed guerrilla groups included a fellow Marxist rival, the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN; National Liberation Army), which built its popularity from a radical priest, Father Camilo Torres, who was killed in his first combat experience. The urban M-19 (Movimiento 19 de Abril, named for the contested 1970 presidential election) favored dramatic statements, such as the robbery of a Simón Bolívar's sword and seizing the Palace of Justice in Bogotá in 1985. When the military's recapture of the court led to 115 deaths, the M-19 group gradually disintegrated.
The FARC's fortunes continued to rise, though, particularly when President Belisario Betancur negotiated peace with the rebels in the 1980s. Wealthy landowners formed the AUC (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia; United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia) or paramilitary groups, to defend their land in response to the FARC's advance. The roots of these groups – all generally offshoots of the military – began in the 1960s, but grew in the ’80s.
Cocaine & Cartels
Colombia is the world's biggest supplier of cocaine, despite exhaustive efforts to track down cartel leaders, drop devegetation chemicals on coca farms and step up military efforts. All for that little erythroxylum coca leaf – which you can buy in its unprocessed form in some Colombia markets. When the first Europeans arrived, they at first shook their heads over locals chewing coca leaves, but when (forced) work output started to decline, they allowed its usage. Eventually the Europeans (and the world) joined in, and in the centuries to follow, Andean cocaine eventually found its way worldwide for medicinal and recreational use.
The cocaine industry boomed in the early 1980s, when the Medellín Cartel, led by former car thief (and future Narcos star) Pablo Escobar, became the principal mafia. Its bosses eventually founded their own political party, established two newspapers and financed massive public works and public housing projects. At one point, Escobar even stirred up secession sentiments for the Medellín region. By 1983 Escobar's personal wealth was estimated to be over US$20 billion, making him one of the world's richest people (number seven according to Forbes magazine).
When the government launched a campaign against the drug trade, cartel bosses disappeared from public life and even proposed an unusual 'peace treaty' to President Betancur. The New York Times reported in 1988 that the cartels had offered to invest their capital in national development programs and pay off Colombia's entire foreign debt (some US$13 billion). The government declined the offer, and the violence escalated.
The cartel-government conflict heated up in August 1989, when Liberal presidential candidate Luis Carlos Galán was gunned down by drug lords. The government's response was to confiscate nearly 1000 cartel-owned properties and sign a new extradition treaty with the US, which led to a cartel-led campaign of terror resulting in bombed banks, homes and newspaper offices, and, in November 1989, the downing of an Avianca flight from Bogotá to Cali, which killed all 107 onboard.
After the 1990 election of Liberal César Gaviria as president, things calmed briefly, when extradition laws were sliced and Escobar led a surrender of many cartel bosses. However, Escobar soon escaped from his luxurious house arrest and it took an elite, US-funded 1500-strong special unit 499 days to track him down, finally shooting him dead atop a Medellín rooftop in 1993.
Amid the violence, the drug trade never slowed. New cartels learned to forsake the limelight, and by the mid-1990s, guerrillas and paramilitaries chipped in to help Colombia keep pace with the world's rising demand.
Caught in the crossfire between paramilitaries and guerrilla forces, and sometimes outright targets in what the UN says is a 'strategy of war,' one in 20 Colombians (about 4 million, says the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre) have become internally displaced since the 1980s, making Colombia at one point home to more displaced persons than any country except Sudan.
For decades hundreds of people were displaced daily, forced out of their homes at gunpoint – usually stolen for the land, livestock or its location on drug transportation routes – but sometimes not until after a loved one was murdered. Most of the dispossessed were left to fend for themselves, living in tarp-covered huts outside the main cities. Those who are able to obtain new land frequently find it in areas with no infrastructure, schools or hospitals. Often, displaced children fall into a world of drugs and crime.
The introduction of the 2011 Victims' Law, which aimed to compensate and return land to those who had it stolen, was the first step in a long process of restitution. Progress has been slow, inevitably, and priority is placed on the safety of returnees rather than huge numbers processed. There's still an enormous distance to go, but arguably the country is moving in the right direction on this front.
Paramilitaries & Guerillas
As communism collapsed around the globe in the late 1980s, the political landscape for the guerrillas shifted increasingly to drugs and kidnapping (kidnapping alone, by one account, brought FARC some US$200 million annually), and paramilitary groups aligned themselves with drug cartels and pursued the guerrillas with the cartels' blessing.
After September 11, terrorism became the new buzzword applied to guerrillas, and even some paramilitaries. One paramilitary group that made the US list of international terrorists, and which notoriously had been paid US$1.7 million by the Chiquita fruit company, were the infamous United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). The firm paid a $25 million fine in US courts in 2007 for its repeated funding of the AUC.
Linked with cocaine since 1997, the AUC was inspired by paramilitary groups previously under the watch of the slain Medellín Cartel leader Rodríguez Gacha. The AUC was later run by brothers Fidel and Carlos Castaño, who set out to avenge their father, who was slain by guerrillas. The AUC, with a force of up to 10,000 troops, attacked campesinos (peasants) it alleged were guerrilla sympathizers. The guerrillas likewise attacked any campesinos they said were AUC supporters.
When the Álvaro Uribe administration offered lenient sentences for paramilitaries or guerrillas who demobilized, AUC handed over their guns in 2006.
In 2000 the US entered the war against the drug cartels, with the controversial 'Plan Colombia,' concocted by the Bill Clinton and Andrés Pastrana administrations to curb coca cultivation by 50% within five years. As the decade closed, and with US$6 billion spent, even the US International Trade Commission called the program's effectiveness 'small and mostly direct.' The worldwide street price for Colombian cocaine hadn't changed – indicating no lack of supply – and, after a few years of dipping coca cultivation, by 2007, a UN report concluded that cocaine production rose by 27% that year alone, rebounding to its 1998 level.
Emerging in the first decade of the century, new harder-to-track cartelitos (smaller-sized mafia groups) replaced the extinguished megacartels (capped with the 2008 extradition to the US of Medellín narco-king Don Berna). The cartelitos relocated to harder-to-reach valleys (particularly near the Pacific coast). Many were linked to FARC, who taxed coca farmers (earning FARC between US$200 to US$300 million annually, according to the New York Times); other cartelitos, however, were linked with paramilitary groups.
Despite all the money thrown at the problem, today Colombia still supplies about 90% of the USA's cocaine – usually transporting it there overland via Mexican cartels.
Fed up with violence, kidnappings and highways deemed too dangerous to use, the nation turned to right-wing hardliner Álvaro Uribe – a politician from Medellín whose father had been killed by the FARC. Uribe ran on a full-on antiguerrilla ticket during the testy 2002 presidential election. While his predecessor Andrés Pastrana had tried negotiating with FARC and ELN, Uribe didn't bother, quickly unleashing two simultaneous programs: a military pushback of groups such as FARC, and a demobilization offer for both sides.
Even Uribe's harshest critics acknowledge much overdue progress was made under his watch. From 2002 to 2008, notably, murder rates fell 40% overall and highways cleared of FARC roadblocks became safe to use.
In March 2008, Uribe approved a tricky bombing mission across Ecuador's border, resulting in the successful killing of FARC leader Raúl Reyes. The bombing mission, however, nearly set the region into broader conflict, with Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez immediately moving tanks to the Colombian border, but things soon settled – and Uribe's approval levels hit 90%.
Uribe's presidency was ultimately tainted by scandal and by 2008, following his public feuds with the Colombian Supreme Court, 60 congressmen had been arrested or questioned for alleged 'parapolitics' links with paramilitaries.
The falsos positivos (false positives) scandal, as documented by the UN in an in-depth 2010 report, showed how the Colombian military was incentivized to increase body count. From 2004, incidences of false positives – where army units killed innocent young men and claimed them as guerrillas killed in combat – soared. As the scandal grew, Uribe fired 27 officers in November 2008, and leading commander General Mario Montoya resigned.
FARC on the Defensive
After the constitutional court in 2010 refused to allow a referendum to let Uribe run for a third term, his defense minister Juan Manuel Santos was voted in by a landslide, and almost immediately claimed the single greatest victory ever won against the FARC: the killing of its new leader, Alfonso Cano.
Within days a new leader, Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri (alias Timochenko), on whose head the US had placed a US$5 million bounty, took control of the guerrilla organization. With a reputation as one of the organization's most bellicose minds, Timochenko stunned the nation by proposing peace talks with the government.
The Colombian government, war weary yet understandably suspicious, took a good deal of convincing that the offer of negotiations for a lasting peace were genuine. When negotiators from the administration finally sat down with representatives of the FARC in Havana in 2012, there was an outcry in the country, with many considering the move a betrayal of the victims of the conflict. This led to a polarizing presidential election and a country split down the middle as to whether the government should be pursuing the talks at all.