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Bullets, Bloodshed And Ballots;For Generations, Violence Has Defined Colombia's Turbulent Political History

Orlando Sentinel (Florida)

October 31, 1999 Sunday

Pg. G1

By Pedro Ruz Gutierrez

The Colombian government and powerful Marxist guerrillas are now talking, but if history is any guide, don't count on peace taking hold any time soon.

Political violence is not new to that South American nation of 38 million people. In the past 100 years, more than 500,000 Colombians have died in it.

From the "War of the Thousand Days," a civil war at the turn of the century that left 100,000 dead, to a partisan clash between 1948 and 1966 that claimed nearly 300,000, violence has defined that nation.

The causes - poverty, social reform and political maneuvering - remain unchanged through the generations.

"The land - its distribution, its appropriation - is at the heart of the problem that we have been trying to solve for 50 years," Alfredo Molano, a Colombian political scientist and journalist, recently wrote in one of Bogota's leading newspapers.

After the 1948-1966 partisan turmoil known as "The Violence," firefights among rural-based leftist movements, right-wing groups and the government left another 70,000 dead through the mid-1980s. By then, impotent and weak - yet Democratic - administrations negotiated amnesties and short-lived ceasefires with more-brazen guerrillas as the country unraveled. Adding the Medellin and Cali drug cartels in the mid-1980s made the mix explosive.

The modern ingredients of drug production and trafficking, combined with the associated graft and violence, led to the social disintegration of one of the longest-running democracies in Latin America. Colombia has had only five years without democratic rule since 1819.

"The problem of the guerrillas was manageable," said Rodrigo Losada, a political-science professor at Bogota's Javeriana University. "At the end of the 1970s, it got complicated with the eruption in drug trafficking, the intimidation and the corruption."

Assassinations have been common. In 1948, the killing of potential presidential candidate and Bogota Mayor Jorge Eliecer Gaitan elicited the worst blood bath ever to consume the country.

In 1989, another charismatic leader and presidential candidate - Luis Carlos Galan - was gunned down during a televised campaign appearance.

Galan's death, later blamed on the Medellin cartel, epitomized the reign of terror unleashed by drug barons wanted by the U.S. government but protected by a fearful, terrorized country. Frequent murders of government officials, prominent dissidents, former peace negotiators, college professors and journalists continue today.


From the 1970s until the late 1980s, the April 19 Movement (M-19) urban guerrillas wreaked havoc. They took their name from what they considered a rigged election campaign on April 19, 1970. With support within cities - not the countryside - the group brought the country to a standstill, most noticeably in 1985, when it took over the Palace of Justice in a battle with the military that killed 100 people.

The M-19 and other guerrilla groups eventually negotiated cease-fires with the government, briefly disarmed and became a political force in a leftist coalition. But more than 3,000 coalition members, leaders and sympathizers were killed by opponents in the late 1980s.

Despite some short-lived gains, M-19 politicians today do not have much to show. That's why the country's largest force, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC, point to the M-19 as reason not to put down their weapons.

FARC Comandante Ivan Rios argues that demobilization "does not suit us because we do not trust the government."

It was the collusion between guerrillas and the drug cartels this decade that dealt the most serious blow to the country's stability. In the last 10 years, about 35,000 people have died in the fighting among the various factions. Left- and right-wing fighters saw opportunities as the cartels hired armies for protection. With their newfound source of income, the guerrillas gained a growing share of the country's illicit wealth, plus legitimacy with the peasants, neither of which they could achieve politically or militarily.

This marriage of convenience, in which leftist guerrillas sacrificed ideology to survive through capitalism, occurred as the country's social and political decline began in the early 1990s. The disgraced presidency of Ernesto Samper, who ruled from 1994 to 1998, was the most apparent sign that drug money permeated Colombia. Samper was accused of taking $6 million from the Cali drug cartel. Relations with the United States soured greatly.

Klaus Nyholm, director of the United Nations Drug Control Program office in Colombia and Ecuador, compares the current drug fiefdoms to the United States' 19th century "Wild West." But in Colombia, these events are unfolding in the "Wild East," a large swath of plains and Amazon jungle on the country's eastern flank, where most of the coca is harvested.


Contraband has been a way of life since shortly after Colombia gained its independence from Spain in 1819. In the 19th century coastal populations circumvented the central government, which attempted to collect taxes on imports arriving at the country's Caribbean ports.

"There was never much state control in Colombia, which has a long tradition of contraband and smuggling" that continues today, Nyholm said.

Once part of "Greater Colombia," a nation envisioned and founded by the Venezuelan and Latin American statesman Gen. Simon Bolivar, Colombia always has been torn geographically. Bolivar's vision of a strong unified nation crumbled with the breakaway of Venezuela and Ecuador in 1830.

Three mountain ranges dominate the topography and form the political landscape. They separate the major population centers and make transportation outside them difficult and often unsafe because the guerrillas control much of the countryside in between.

Large tracts remain undeveloped while economic and political power is concentrated in the country's more populous, accessible and wealthy valley regions. Two-thirds of the population live in the western-most part of the country where the ranges are, leaving undeveloped, sparsely populated areas as guerrilla breeding grounds.

Bolivar's "Greater Colombia" took in what are now neighboring lands. However, ironically, given Bolivar's reputation for integrity, these days there really is a multinational alliance there - of drug traffickers who operate along Colombia's porous borders.

To many outsiders, particularly businessmen, Colombia offers vast, untapped promise. If corruption and traffickers were eliminated, 80 percent of Colombia's problems would be resolved, they say. Colombia is home to some of Latin America's oldest universities, dating from the 1620s, and has an educated, skilled labor force.

"I believe that when an investor comes to Colombia, he becomes aware that there are problems but there are many more opportunities than problems," said Gianfranco Arfinungo, director of advertising giant J. Walter Thompson's Bogota office. "And there are people and there is talent, which is a very good combination."

Until this year, when economic woes surfaced for the first time, Colombia's economy had been growing at an average of 4 percent annually. But years of fiscal mismanagement, lower prices for Colombia's coffee and oil exports, and high risks for foreign investment stalled the economy. Additionally, inadequate banking and financial reforms contributed to the current recession.

But even the country's sustained economic growth, the only consistent positive note over the years, has not helped most of its citizens. More than half the population lives in poverty, and wealth is highly concentrated in few hands.

According to Social Watch, an international watchdog agency, five major consortiums control 92 percent of the financial sector's assets, and 48 percent of the land is in the hands of 1.3 percent of landowners.

Colombia is the world's second-largest coffee producer behind Brazil and the second-largest flower exporter after the Netherlands. But it tops the list in producing cocaine and exports a growing share of heroin that is flooding U.S. cities.

It holds rich deposits of natural gas, coal and oil fields. If it weren't for all its troubles, the country would be self-sufficient.

"We have had such an unusual experience," said Professor Losada. "With relative economic stability since the 1940s, Colombia may be the only country where the gross domestic product had never diminished."


Despite the adversities, Colombians are resilient.

Culturally, Colombia is one of the richest Spanish-speaking countries. Its Castillian Spanish is highly admired for linguistic purity. Its literature is best exemplified by 1982 Nobel Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Colombia's pride and a world-renowned novelist and journalist affectionately known by the masses as "Gabo." The country's music industry has seen a rebirth as of late with international stars such as pop sensation Shakira and folklore-inspired Carlos Vives singing Colombia's hopes and longings to the world.

Colombians' entrepreneurial spirit and determination are best reflected by the common term rebusque, which describes the view that no matter what, they will survive anything.

President Andres Pastrana is trying his best to change the course of Colombian history. Even his most ardent critics concede that there is a glimmer of hope behind his carrot-and-stick approach to the peace process, which has him strengthening the military with U.S. support while negotiating with the rebels.

There is also a history of anti-U.S. sentiment in Colombia that stems from the United States promoting the 1903 independence of Panama, which was once part of Colombia. But despite that, some Colombians have supported calls for a full-fledged U.S. military intervention because of the scale of the unrest.

The stalemate between the government and guerrilla forces on the battlefield prevents both sides from eliminating the other and has led to the current talks.

Although peace signs and ribbons fill decals, fluttering white flags and large road signs throughout Colombia, peace seems far away. It is a difficult concept to grasp in the face of weekly massacres, kidnappings, the displacement of nearly 1.5 million people.

Moreover, the talks have not included right-wing forces or smaller, leftist groups.

"Peace. It's a cheapened discourse," said Professor Gonzalo Medina, who teaches mass communications at the University of Antioquia in Medellin.

This year, the university has endured three politically motivated slayings on or near campus.

As Medina said, "They kill in the name of peace; they massacre in the name of peace; and people disappear in the name of peace."
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