Between the mid-1940s and the early 1960s Colombia was convulsed by political violence, which according to various estimates claimed between 100,000 and 250,000 lives. This period is known simply as "the Violence," a designation suggesting the inadequacy of any single explanation for the phenomenon; the name also suggests, as the historian Gonzalo Sánchez has noted, the hurricane-like force that made the phenomenon so incomprehensible to its countless victims. While the idiom of the Violencia was political—a struggle between affiliates of Colombia's two dominant parties, Liberal and Conservative—in its regional variations and in its consequences, the Violencia cannot be understood apart from its social and economic grounding.
Colombia's postindependence history had been characterized by frequent episodes of political violence, but these were clearly bounded and usually elite-led conflicts whose social repercussions were limited. The Liberal election victory of 1930, however, triggered a new modality of endemic partisan violence, centered in the countryside and rarely organized (though sometimes manipulated) by political elites. This violence flared anew with the Conservatives' return to power in 1946, first in "backward" regions like Nariño and Boyacá, then throughout much of the interior. This violence both fed, and was fed by, the growing estrangement between party leaders at the national level, which culminated in late 1949 in the dictatorship of Mariano Ospina Pérez. Ospina's use of viciously sectarian Conservative police (nicknamed chulavitas, after the rural subdivision that provided many of them), and the response of lightly organized Liberal guerrillas, raised the level of violence to unprecedented levels by 1949–1950. The uprisings in Bogotá, Cali, Barrancabermeja, and other cities following the assassination of populist Liberal leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán in April 1948 also brought the Violencia to urban centers, albeit fleetingly.
By 1950–1953 most of rural Colombia, with the notable exception of the Atlantic Coast, was engulfed by the Violencia, but its characteristics varied widely. On the vast eastern plains, or llanos, Liberal resistance took on an increasingly redistributive, revolutionary character under Guadalupe Salcedo; this was also true of the movement of Rafael Rangel in the Magdalena River valley of Santander, a region with a long radical tradition. In southern Tolima, Liberal and Communist forces fought the Conservative regime, and not infrequently each other. But throughout much of the country—Boyacá and the Santanders in the northeast, and the coffee-producing regions of northern Tolima, Antioquia, and Caldas—the Violencia defied easy social or ideological characterization: Liberal and Conservative smallholders, sharecroppers, and laborers fought each other with unbridled ferocity, with no more explicit "program" than their respective party affiliations.
The overthrow of the Conservative dictatorship by the military under General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla in June 1953 slowed the Violencia in some regions, particularly on the llanos, but violence in much of Colombia continued unabated. The military itself was responsible for some of the more grotesque episodes of the mid-1950s, including mass executions and aerial bombardments in Tolima. In 1957 the leaders of the two parties reached an agreement, eventually known as the National Front, which permitted a return to civilian rule in 1958 under a rigid scheme of Liberal-Conservative parity at all levels. This agreement, with its corresponding legitimation of the state's role in "pacification" through both socioeconomic and military strategies, made possible the gradual diminution of the Violencia by the early 1960s; just as important, the agreement permitted the effective redefinition of continuing violence as simple delinquency (in the case of bandolerismo, the banditry that plagued the western coffee zones until the late 1960s), or as subversion (in the case of the leftist guerrilla groups whose origins lay in the Liberal/Communist split of the early 1950s).
The cumulative effects of the Violencia by the early 1960s were enormous, not only in the number of lives lost and properties destroyed. The face of Colombia was transformed as the cities filled with hundreds of thousands of rural migrants: new urban markets and a new urban work force propelled Colombian industrialization as peaceful development never could. Rural property was also transformed, as smallholders were displaced by agribusiness (in Cesar and Valle del Cauca), or by town-dwelling merchants (in Caldas); even where smallholder neighbor fought neighbor, the lack of "structural" change masked profound dislocation, which official policies (such as a Supreme Court decision restoring the properties of those who lost them by force or threat) could not reverse.
The historiography of the Violencia has until recently been divided between the empirical and the analytical, each lacking the necessary element of the other, as several writers have noted. Although an understanding of the Manichaean logic of Colombia's political system is accepted as a key element in any understanding of the Violencia, secularly political explanations are no longer considered sufficient; however, ambitious socioeconomic explanations that privilege the structural imperatives of industrialization of agrarian capitalism have also lost favor. Instead, analysis has focused on regional and local cases, revealing a diversity of causal factors rooted in, among other things, class structure and political culture. Of attempts at innovative synthesis, those of Daniel Pécaut and Charles Bergquist are particularly noteworthy: the former emphasizes the "hegemonic crisis" of the state as the violently "prepolitical" invades the political realm, while the latter argues for the Hobbesian logic of nominally political violence between socially indistinguishable smallholders.
Paul H. Oquist, Violence, Conflict, and Politics in Colombia (1980).
Daniel Pécaut, Orden y violencia, 2 vols. (1987).
Gonzalo Sánchez Gómez, "'La Violencia' in Colombia: New Research, New Questions," translated by Peter Bakewell, in Hispanic American Historical Review 65, no. 4 (November 1985): 789-807.
Charles Bergquist, Ricardo Peñaranda, and Gonzalo Sánchez, eds., Violence in Colombia: The Contemporary Crisis in Historical Perspective (1992).
Acevedo C, Darío. La mentalidad de las élites sobre la violencia en Colombia, 1936–1949. Bogotá, Colombia: Instituto de Estudios Políticos y Relaciones Internacionales: El Ancora Editores, 1995.
Ayala Diago, César Augusto. Resistencia y oposición al establecimiento del Frente Nacional: Los orígenes de la Alianza Nacional Popular, ANAPO: Colombia, 1953–1964. Bogotá, Colombia: Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Facultad de Ciencias Humanas, Departamento de Historia, 1996.
Bolívar, Ingrid Johanna. Violencia política y formación del Estado: Ensayo historiográfico sobre la dinámica regional de la violencia de los cincuenta en Colombia. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2003.
Green, W John. Gaitanismo, Left Liberalism, and Popular Mobilization in Colombia. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2003.
Roldán, Mary. Blood and Fire: La Violencia in Antioquia, Colombia, 1946–1953. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002.
Richard J. Stoller