Colombia’s Story

What is home?

Colombia is the only country with two coasts in South America. Its beauty touches both the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean. Pure diversity realms Colombia from the Andes Mountains to the Amazon jungle. You can find the world’s tallest Palm trees in Cocora Valley, hear the national anthem play every day at 6 am/pm, or taste the citrus ting of lulo.

While Colombia is home to an abundance of beauty and diversity, it also home to an abundance of suffering. Colombia’s history is one of constant battles, constant bloodshed, and constant displacement. Colonization, slavery, genocide, racism, ethnic cleansing, classism, political persecution, homophobia, corruption, and machismo pierce Colombia’s history. Violence and insecurity invade every Colombian’s life. It is also a place of contradictions, yet full of hope and perseverance.

But the story of Colombia does not begin with the violence of colonization, it instead begins with the story of indigenous people who ascended the Andes mountains and traveled the Magdalena river long before Spanish destruction. Indigenous civilizations thrived before Spanish Colonization and they included the Quimbaya culture, Chibcha culture, Muisca culture, Sinú culture, Tayrona culture, Guane culture, and many more tribes.

The history of destruction and chaos accelerates when the great Caribbean sea hugging Colombia’s north was forced to welcome Spanish Colonizers in the 1500’s. After mass genocide of indigenous colombians, environmental destruction, and forced settlement of enslaved people from Africa, Colombia and nearby countries became the Viceroyalty of Nueva Granada. In the early 1800’s Simon Bolivar and the revolutionaries fought for the liberation of Colombia from Spanish control and Gran Colombia was created.

While generational violence began with Spanish conquest, a root cause of violence in Colombia began in 1849 when the conservative and liberal parties of Colombia were founded. From the war of independence, Simon Bolivar and Francisco de Paula Santander began a series of political disagreements that evolved into a constant political battle between conservatives and liberals. The tension lead to the War of the Thousand Days between conservative Colombians and liberal Colombians in the early 1900’s.

This political tension advanced in the 1940-1950’s. It was heightened by the assassination of left-wing presidential candidate Jorge Eliecer Gaitan who was a likely winner and a defender of the rights of campesinos. He was also a leader for the Colombian fight against American Imperialism such as the imposition of American companies into Colombia, such as the United Fruit Company. His assassination marked the beginning of El Bogotazo and heightened the violent war between conservatives and liberals. While the mayor urban cities had a mix of liberals and conservatives, rural towns were more homogenous and usually aligned with the liberal side or the conservative side. If a resident of a rural town sympathized with the opposition it could mean threats, ostracism, violence, and even death. Because of these political tensions that had geographic boundaries, many Colombians in this time had to flee from the countryside into cities. The internal displacement of Colombians motivated by political persecution in rural areas was a major cause of migratory shifts that impact generations of Colombians today. Cities in Colombia saw an influx of rural families because in the urban cities there were less dangers associated with a person’s political ideology and more job opportunities.

In 1958, after years of political violence, both conservatives and liberals create the “National Front” which lasted until the mid 1970’s. This agreement allowed for the rotation of power between conservatives and liberals by alternating control every 4 years. It was during this time that the creation of guerrillas began to escalate. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) was founded in 1960’s and was the biggest and most influential guerrilla group from its creation to the 2000’s. Other left-wing guerrillas such as the National Liberation Party (ELN) and the Popular Liberation Party (EPL) were also formed around this time. Finally, the 19th of April Movement (M-19) was formed after irregularities in the presidential election of 1970’s. These guerrilla groups were located mainly on the rural side of Colombia and cause another and more visible wave of internal displacement. As they were marching from town to town they would force locals to feed them, dress them, pay them taxes, and house them. They would rape women, recruit minors, and invoke permanent fear. While at the beginning most of these groups were ideologically driven and were formed with political intentions, they were all very different in their trajectories asa time passed. All of these groups had different recruitment methods, organization dynamics, tactics, and even ideologies. They began to instill fear in some part of Colombia and increased their violence as time went on.

As their power grew they initiated attacks in cities and more urban areas of Colombia. FARC was notorious for political persecution and kidnapping as a way of extorsion of powerful Colombians. They would set up traffic check points on national roads which allowed them to intimidate Colombians who were travelling. These conditions made roads less safe and demonstrated their expanding power. Attacks were also reaching major cities such as the catastrophic Palace of Justice siege in Bogotá, Colombia’s Capital, in 1985. This attack resulted in the deaths of 101 people, including 11 Justices of Colombia’s Supreme Court, and in multiple missing people. As the Palace of Justice burned and Colombians watched and heard the tanks through the live coverage on televisions and radio, Colombia moved past the rural/urban security divide. Violence and insecurity pierced every geographical area of Colombia now and living in big cities no longer served as a safe haven.

As the creation of guerrilla groups was escalating in the 1960’s and 1970’s there was also an increase in the creation of paramilitary groups. The paramilitaries became known as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). These paramilitary groups were mainly created by rich landowners who wanted to protect their land from the mobilizing guerrilleros. They were funded by and directed by some of the most wealthy and powerful people of Colombia. At this point, Colombians not only had the tension from the war between liberals and conservatives, but also had tensions from both guerrilleros and paramilitaries. Initially, the AUC enforced safety in areas prone to guerrilla attacks. However, as they became more and more powerful they began acting as the main policing agent in these areas and their control multiplied with time. Because they received their orders and were funded by wealthy and influential people, they began to murder campesinos and became the unofficial shield of Colombia’s upper class.

Insecurity and violence lived in the 1970’s and 1980’s was not only caused by guerrillas and the AUC, but also by the drug war. Prohibition of drugs and other substances was introduced to Colombia and inspired by American prohibition. in the 1970’s marijuana production in Colombia escalated and traffickers situated in Miami controlled the movement of marijuana into the United States. In the late 1970’s marijuana production began to be substituted by cocaine and heroin production. As demand for these drugs increased, cartels began to form which increased violence. The most important cartel in Colombia from the late 1970’s to the mid 1990’s was the Medellin Cartel with Pablo Escobar at its head. Other important cartels formed during this time were the Cali Cartel, Norte del Valle Cartel, and the Cartel de la Costa. The cartels, and specifically Pablo Escobar, became powerful figures in the Colombian conflict. They added another layer of violence, murder, insecurity, and devastation. They were the actors behind multiple carro bombas, assassinations, and disappearances. They not only targeted politicians and law enforcement agents, but they also targeted their relatives, journalists, workers and innocent bystanders. In 1989, presidential hopeful and public enemy of the cartels, Luis Carlos Galán, was shot to death in a campaign rally on the outskirts of Bogotá. His hitman was sent by the cartels. Likewise, the cartels augmented insecurity in Colombia by bombing innocent civilians in places such as malls, agency headquarters, and flights.

In the 1970’s, 1980’s, and 1990’s Colombia was a country simultaneously fighting multiple wars.  On one hand the Colombian government was fighting against terrorism from both guerrillas, like the FARC and M-19. It was also controlling the growing autonomy and derailing power of the paramilitary AUC. Lastly, it was fighting a drug war against drug cartels, and more specifically Pablo Escobar. Due to these different facets of war, many Colombians were forced to migrate. Rural classes were forced to displace to cities. People who worked for the government and/or had political ties were forced to flee the country. Journalists and activists were targeted as well. Even if a person did not have direct reasons to leave the country, the insecurity of every civilian of the country was monumental as atentados, bombs, and gunfire did not spare innocent bystanders. It was during this time that Colombians left the country in masses. People who were in danger of kidnapping or received a high volume of threats were leaving Colombia in a matter of days. While most of the migration during this time is considered forced migration, many of the Colombians who were forced to leave the country did not file for this status. Sometimes if a person had been receiving threats and had enough resources to leave the country, they would opt out of applying for asylum or refugee status as they were afraid of being found.

In the 1990’s and early 2000’s Colombia experienced a shift that ameliorated conditions. On one hand, Pablo Escobar was assassinated in 1993 which decreased the power of the drug cartels. Moreover, in 1990 M-19, the second largest guerrilla group at the time, finalized peace talks, demobilized, and became a political party. In the early 2000’s the FARC minimized their attacks and secluded themselves to rural areas. Finally, the paramilitary AUC was demobilized in 2006. Nonetheless, there is evidence that suggests that the demobilization of the AUC was a fraud, such as the “falsas desmovilizaciones” where AUC members would turn in wood rifles instead of real rifles. The AUC and other criminal groups turned into the BACRIM in the 2000’s.

Due to the reduction of violence and insecurity, Colombians abroad could return to Colombia while others decided to stay in their new homes. Moreover, as Colombia transitioned into a “post-conflict” or “semi-conflict” situation migration shifted from direct causes to indirect causes. In the 2000’s and 2010’s Colombia had multiple indirect causes that ignited migration within Colombia and outside Colombia. Some of these causes were poverty and lack of economic mobility caused by corruption, classism, segregation, and foreign imperialism. Machismo, feminicides, domestic violence, sexual assault, and harassment towards women drove Colombians out. Moreover, the lack of quality public education and job opportunities also cause Colombians to leave.

In 2017, following peace talks between the FARC and the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos, the FARC disarmed themselves and Colombia’s biggest guerrilla ceased to cause violence. Nonetheless, there are masses of victims, displaced people, villages, indigenous communities, families, and missing persons yet to be accounted for.

Migration was, is, and always will be part of Colombia. It has expressed itself through multiple forms, but its continuity persists.