Depending on how you date it, Colombia’s civil war has either been going on:
- Since the early 1960s, when the national military, with US backing and training, began to attack Communist-allied peasant communities. For a while, it was Colombia, not Cuba, Guatemala, or Chile, that seemed to be the American analog to what Washington was doing in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, with counterinsurgent intelligence officers and Green Berets moving from one country to another. In 1964, the US-trained Colombian armed forces enacted a scorched-earth campaign (that included the use of napalm), razing rebellious villages and setting up “strategic hamlets.”
- Since 1948, when the murder of a very popular left-liberal presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán kicked off a 10-year period of intense fighting between “liberals” and “conservatives” that resulted in the deaths of an estimated 200,000 people in the countryside. It was during this period that many peasant communities began to affiliate with the Communist Party, in the form of armed self-defense committees (the precursors to the FARC, the largest and oldest insurgent group), setting the stage for the Cold War assault described above.
- Or since the 1920s, when pitched and violent conflict between dispossessed peasants and landlords in the coffee-producing regions of Sumapaz, Tequendama,and Tolima pushed the Liberal Party to the left, eventually making possible the rise of Gaitán.
In other words, Colombia’s civil war is nearly a 100 years’ war. Similar to what had occurred in other areas of Latin America, this long cycle of conflict worsened after World War II, as the promise of social democracy collided with the emerging Cold War international security state. Nearly every country in Latin America experienced accelerated polarization: Reform was met with repression; repression led to radicalization.
Colombia, however, is distinct: In most other Latin American countries, the end of the Cold War brought about a resolution of this long arc of militancy. Civil wars (in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua) ended. Anti-communist dictatorships (in, among other places, Chile, Argentina, and Brazil) yielded to constitutionalists.