The History of Colombia
Below is a brief history of Colombia. To find information other than history for Colombia then visit
the Colombia Country Page.
During the pre-Colombian period, the area now known as Colombia was inhabited by indigenous peoples who were primitive hunters or nomadic farmers. The Chibchas, who lived in the Bogotá region, were the largest indigenous group.
The Spanish sailed along the north coast of Colombia as early as 1500; however, their first permanent settlement, at Santa Marta, was not established until 1525. In 1549, the area was a Spanish colony with the capital at Santa Fe de Bogotá. In 1717, Bogotá became the capital of the Viceroyalty of New Granada, which included what are now Venezuela, Ecuador, and Panama. The city became one of the principal administrative centers of the Spanish possessions in the New World, along with Lima and Mexico City.
In August 2000 the capital's name was officially changed from "Santa Fe de Bogotá" to the more commonly used "Bogotá." On July 20, 1810, the citizens of Bogotá created the first representative council to defy Spanish authority. Full independence was proclaimed in 1813, and in 1819 the Republic of Greater Colombia was formed.
The Republic and La Violencia (The Violence)
The new Republic of Greater Colombia included all the territory of the former Viceroyalty. Simon Bolivar was elected its first president and Francisco de Paula Santander, vice president. Two political parties grew out of conflicts between the followers of Bolivar and Santander and their political visions--the Conservatives and the Liberals--and have since dominated Colombian politics. Bolivar's supporters, who later formed the nucleus of the Conservative Party, sought strong centralized government, alliance with the Roman Catholic Church, and a limited franchise. Santander's followers, forerunners of the Liberals, wanted a decentralized government, state rather than church control over education and other civil matters, and a broadened suffrage.
Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, each party held the presidency for roughly equal periods of time. Colombia maintained a tradition of civilian government and regular, free elections. Notwithstanding the country's commitment to democratic institutions, Colombia's history also has been characterized by widespread, violent conflict. Two civil wars resulted from bitter rivalry between the Conservative and Liberal parties: The War of a Thousand Days (1899-1902) claimed an estimated 100,000 lives, and La Violencia (1946-1957) cost another 300,000 Colombians.
The National Front
In July 1957, former Conservative President Laureano Gomez (1950-53) and former Liberal President Alberto Lleras Camargo (1945-46) proclaimed the "Declaration of Sitges," in which they proposed a "National Front" whereby the Liberal and Conservative parties would govern jointly. The presidency would be determined by regular elections every 4 years; the two parties would have parity in all other elective and appointive offices.
The National Front ended La Violencia, and National Front administrations instituted social and economic reforms in cooperation with the Alliance for Progress. Although the system established by the Sitges agreement was phased out by 1978, the 1886 Colombian Constitution--in effect until 1991--required that the losing political party be given adequate and equitable participation in the government. The 1991 Constitution does not have that requirement, but subsequent administrations have included members of opposition parties.
Post-National Front Years
Between 1978 and 1982, the government focused on ending the limited, but persistent, Cuban-backed insurgencies that sought to undermine Colombia's traditional democratic system. In 1984, President Belisario Betancur, a Conservative who won 47% of the popular vote, negotiated a cease-fire that included the release of many guerrillas imprisoned during the effort to overpower the insurgents. The cease-fire ended when Democratic Alliance/M-19 (AD/M-19) guerrillas resumed fighting in 1985.
An attack on the Palace of Justice in Bogotá by the AD/M-19 on November 6-7, 1985, and its violent suppression by the army, shocked Colombians. Of the 115 people killed, 11 were Supreme Court justices. Although the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) renewed their truce in March 1986, peace with other revolutionary movements, in particular the AD/M-19--then the largest insurgent group--and the National Liberation Army (ELN) was remote as Betancur left office.
The AD/M-19 and several smaller guerilla groups were successfully incorporated into a peace process during the late 1980s, which culminated in a national assembly to write a new constitution, which took effect in 1991. The FARC had declared a unilateral cease-fire under Betancur, which led to the establishment of the Union Patriotica (UP), a legal and non-clandestine political organization. After growing violence against its UP members, when an estimated 1,000-3,000 were killed, the truce with the FARC again ended in 1990.
Following administrations had to contend with the guerrillas, paramilitaries, and narcotics traffickers. Narco-terrorists assassinated three presidential candidates before Cesar Gaviria Trujillo was elected in 1990. Since the death of Medellín cartel leader Pablo Escobar in a police shootout in December 1993, indiscriminate acts of violence associated with that organization have abated as the "cartels" now are broken up into multiple, smaller and often-competing trafficking organizations. Nevertheless, violence continues as these drug organizations resort to violence as part of their operations as well as to protest against government policies, especially extradition.
President Ernesto Samper assumed office in August 1994. However, a political crisis relating to largescale contributions from drug traffickers to Samper's presidential campaign diverted attention from governance programs, thus slowing, and in many cases, halting progress on the nation's domestic reform agenda.
The Pastrana Administration and Peace Process
On August 7, 1998, Andres Pastrana became President of Colombia. A member of the Conservative Party, Pastrana defeated Liberal Party candidate Horacio Serpa in a run-off election marked by high voter turnout and little political unrest. During his administration, high unemployment, increased countrywide guerrilla attacks by the FARC and ELN, widespread drug production and the expansion of paramilitary groups all hindered the Pastrana administration's ability to solve the country's problems.
No single explanation fully addresses the deep roots of Colombia's present-day troubles, but they include limited government presence in large areas of the interior, the expansion of illicit drug cultivation, endemic violence, and social inequities. In order to confront these challenges, the Pastrana administration unveiled its "Plan Colombia" in late 1999, a comprehensive strategy to deal with these longstanding, mutually reinforcing problems. The main objectives of Plan Colombia are to promote peace, combat the narcotics industry, revive the Colombian economy, improve respect for human rights, and strengthen the democratic and social institutions of the country.
The Uribe Administration
President Alvaro Uribe, a Harvard and Oxford-educated lawyer, was elected President of Colombia in May 2002 on a line platform to restore security to the country. An independent, he was elected with 56% of the vote, giving him a strong mandate. Among his promises was to continue to pursue the broad goals of the Pastrana administration's Plan Colombia, but within the framework of a long-term security strategy.
His inauguration on August 7, 2002 brought about violent attacks. Though Uribe was spared, the rockets launched at the presidential palace by FARC terrorists killed 19 people and injured many more. Uribe declared a state of limited emergency as a first step toward strengthening the country's law enforcement and military capabilities.
In the fall of 2002, the administration released the much-awaited Colombian national security strategy, entitled Democratic Security and Defense Policy. The Plan fit within the broader social, economic, and political goals of Plan Colombia. Though much attention has been focused on the security and military aspects of Colombia's situation, the administration also is spending significant time on issues such as expanding international trade, supporting alternate means of development, and reforming Colombia's judicial system.