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Irreconcilable factions: 1830-1948

In Colombia, more than in any other Latin American republic, political life consists of an unending clash between Liberal and conservative interests. The two Colombian factions far transcend the usual levels of disagreement over issues such as the power of the church. Here liberal and conservative become more like banners of local allegiance in a dispute which sometimes escalates into civil war.

Things start relatively peacefully when Santander returns from exile and becomes (from 1833 to 1837) president of the new state - which goes through a bewildering variety of names (the republic of New Granada 1831-58, the Granadine Confederation 1858-61, the United States of Colombia 1861-66, the republic of Colombia from 1866).

Santander's presidency is followed by many decades of violent liberal-conservative hostility. A civil war in 1899-1903 (known as the War of a Thousand Days) causes some 100,000 deaths and has a disastrous side-effect in the loss of the northern part of the country - which becomes, with US assistance, the independent republic of Panama.

The most extreme period of liberal-conservative conflict in Colombian history, lasting from 1948 to 1957, is believed to have resulted in at least 200,000 deaths and has become known as la violencia. Violence erupts throughout the whole country in April 1948 after Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, a liberal leader, is assassinated in broad daylight on a street of the capital, Bogotá.

The violence continues to escalate, with extreme brutality perpetrated by both sides, during the regimes of two successive dictators (Laureano Gómez 1950-53, Gustavo Rojas Pinilla 1953-57), until a military junta takes power on an interim basis in 1957.

This disastrous period is followed by one in which conservatives and liberals agree at last to collaborate in a form of coalition government. Known as the National Front government, it operates from 1958 on the principle that the presidency and all other government and civil service positions are shared in turn and on an exactly equal basis.

The National Front government holds firm for a period of sixteen years (four successive presidencies). It brings economic advantages to Colombia but also increasing resentment that the two halves of a long-established oligarchy are apparently using the recent crisis to hold on to power.

From 1974 elections become once again genuine contests between the two national parties. They have since remained so, with the Liberal party prevailing slightly more often (the most recent Liberal president is Andrés Pastrana Arango, elected in 1998). But if violence in Colombia has receded from the political scene, it has featured recently to a tragic degree both in nature and in crime.

Natural and man-made disasters: 1985-1999

In the last two decades of the 20th century Colombia suffers more than its share of natural disasters. In November 1985 a dormant volcano erupts in the region west of Bogotá, burying under a deep layer of silt the town of Armero and its surrounding district. As many as 20,000 die. In January 1999, about 100 miles to the southwest, a volcano demolishes the town of Armenia - again with a large loss of life.

In the meantime Colombians themselves do much to make life in the country dangerous, through the combined terrorist activities of Marxist guerrillas and drug cartels, based mainly in Medellin.

In 1985 guerrillas enter the Palace of Justice in Bogotá and hold a number of hostages, until the building is raided by Colombian troops with the loss of about 100 lives including several Supreme Court judges.

In 1984 the Minister of Justice is assassinated at the instigation of drugs barons, ruthless in their use of murder to protect their immensely profitable trade. Their power is reduced somewhat when Pablo Escobar, leader of the Medellin drugs cartel, is captured. In July 1992 he escapes from prison, but in 1993 he is cornered on the roof of a house and is shot. Power shifts to the Cali cartel, believed to control 80% of the drugs smuggled into the USA. The battle continues.

Meanwhile the Marxist guerrillas gain in strength, in partnership with the drug cartels which provide them with weapons. The main group, known as FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), is calculated to number about 20,000.

The guerrillas occupy their own territory, a jungle region in the south of the country, from which they sally forth to attack military and police posts and to protect cocaine plantations. By 1999 FARC has captured some 350 military personnel, who are being held hostage in secret jungle camps. And the number of Colombian deaths from the conflict during the 1990s is estimated to be at least 35,000.

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