Short history of Colombia  

This resource was created in September 2021 upon after a partner visit to Colombia. To download this resource as a PDF, click here

Colombia, about twice the size of Texas, is home to over 50 million people. It has 2 coasts, mountains and the 6th most waterways in the world. Most of the people live from the mountains in the middle west to the Pacific Ocean and north to the Caribbean Sea. Indigenous people, including the Tayrona and Musicar have lived here for over 12,000 years. Their population was decimated by disease after the arrival of the Spanish. The remaining population was displaced. Today they make up a little over 4% of the population. Slaves were brought over from Africa to provide labor especially for the large landowners. They were freed in 1851 and mainly live in Choco, where the land was not considered useful. Today their descendants, including mixed races, are just under 7% of the population. 

Colombia declared independence from Spain in 1810, but did not fully gain it until 1819. It was the first democracy in South America. At that time its territory included the modern day countries of Venezuela, Ecuador and Panama. Venezuela left in 1929 and Ecuador in 1830.  

In the 19th century there were several conflicts culminating in a Thousand Day War from 1899-1903 in which 120,000 people died. This was a battle between the 2 major parties which had formed mid- century: the Conservative Party with large land owners and the Catholic Church favoring centralized government and the Liberal Party with merchants and artisans favoring a decentralized government and separation of church and state.

The early 20th century is when the U.S. and U.S. corporations became heavily involved in Colombia. In 1903, with the support of the US government, Panama declared its independence so that the US could build the canal. Colombia did not recognize its independence until 1921 when the U.S. paid $25,000,000 in reparations.

From 1912-29 over 80,000 Indigenous people were killed in the rush to harvest rubber in the Amazon region. In 1928 the Colombian military massacred 1-2,000 strikers of the United Fruit Company (now Chiquita) with the US knowledge. Other companies involved are in the coffee and petroleum industries.

Starting in 1950 the US started providing counterinsurgency training to Latin American forces through the School of the Americas (now Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation), including sending teams of counterinsurgency experts to study Colombia’s armed self-defense communities and in 1962 the US/Colombia “Plan Lazo” was launched in which the Colombian military began recruiting civilians as paramilitary “civil defense” groups. In 1986 Reagan declared the War on Drugs. In 2000 the US and Colombia agreed to Plan Colombia providing $1.3 billion primarily in military aid for the War on Drugs. In 2003 aid expanded to include aid for counter-insurgency and anti-terrorism. From 2002-2008 the Colombia military according to the Special Jurisdiction for Peace killed 6,402 civilians, claiming they were guerrillas or what is known as “false positives”. This is well over 40% of the guerrillas that the military claims to have killed in that time.   

Stepping backward, in April 1948 Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, the Liberal presidential candidate, was assassinated. National rioting in what is called “La Violencia” ensued, killing between 250,000-300,000 people in 5 years. Following a military coup in 1953 the violence subsided. In 1958 the two parties joined forces to create the National Front to run the country with a presidency alternating between conservatives and liberals every four year from 1958-1974. There were mixed results in implementing far-reaching social and economic reforms.

In the 1970’s, and 80’s violent and powerful drug cartels formed armies for protection and to gain power. Businesses hired private armies who assassinated union leaders, human right workers and also fight guerilla groups. In 1997 all of these groups are consolidated to become the AUC (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia).  By law it disbands in 2005 but again becomes fragmented paramilitaries; however, no longer recognized by the government who instead call them gangs. They continue to operate to this day. They are responsible for the most deaths in this almost 60 year stretch of violence.

Meanwhile in the mid 1960’s several guerilla groups formed, including the FARC  (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) which started out defending peasants who were being intimidated and forced from their land that  had become valuable to others. From 1984-1987 there were attempts to negotiate a cease-fire while they created a political party, the Patriotic Union, in the hopes of non-violently participating in politics. The cease-fire ended because over 2,000 of its party leaders were killed between 1985 and the early 1990’s. It is at this point that the FARC became more militant and involved in drug dealing and kidnappings. Again from 1999-2002 there were failed peace talks.  

Peace talks restarted in 2012 and a revised peace agreement was signed in November 2016 after the original agreement was narrowly rejected by voters. The key elements include rural development and security; FARC participation in political system; demobilizing and reincorporation of the FARC into civil society; ending the drug trade; justice for victims; implementation and verification processes including  Congress agreeing to fast-track laws needed to implement the accords. Most of FARC who signed the accords are abiding by them even though the government is moving at a snail’s pace in implementing its part of the agreements.  However, in August 2019 some FARC returned to arms as least 280 members who signed the peace accords had been assassinated as well as 1600 human rights leaders, all of whom were to have been protected.  

Despite the 2016 peace accords, forced displacement continues to be prevalent because of violence among the remaining guerrillas, paramilitary groups, and Colombian security forces. Afro-Colombian and indigenous populations are disproportionately affected. Between 1985 and September 2017, nearly 7.6 million persons have been internally displaced, the highest total in the world (with ½ million more added in the 4 years since then). These estimates may undercount actual numbers because many internally displaced persons are not registered. Historically, Colombia also has one of the world’s highest levels of forced disappearances. About 30,000 cases have been recorded over the last four decades—although the number is likely to be much higher—including human rights activists, trade unionists, Afro-Colombians, indigenous people, and farmers in rural conflict zones and most recently those participating in the national strikes. 

Journalists told us that the pandemic has increased poverty, exclusion, and inequality in Colombia, and the most vulnerable sectors of the population are most impacted. It has brought thousands into the streets to defend basic human rights. As the protests gain momentum so has the violence against those fighting for equity. Systematic violence against journalists, in particular, tries to keep independent journalists from reporting.  One said “I have seen a lot. I saw the student movements in the 70’s, in ’96 in ’03…this [the national strike since April] is the biggest mobilization in all of Colombian history. And it’s also the most violent in any country”—and noted that US government continues to fund the Colombia military and police doing this repression.

Compiled by: Ruth Noel