For those who have held power in Colombia, over a hundred and fifty years, or more, of bipartisan rule, the country has been a paradigm of democracy and civilian administration in Latin America. How could this image have been sustained in a land that, following the fourteen years of its War of Independence, experienced in the remainder of the nineteenth century eight general civil wars, fourteen local civil conflicts, two international wars with Ecuador, and three barracks’ coups? How could it have been sustained when, in the twentieth century, Colombia, besides witnessing many local risings, has waged war with Peru; and in 1948 became the scene of one of the most serious of modem insurrections, an insurrection followed by the country’s longest war, which has been given the elusive title of “la Violencia”? How can the image be maintained when one considers that negotiations are taking place today in Colombia with what is generally considered the oldest guerrilla movement in Latin America? The question itself might well serve as the rationale for a study of the ideological mechanisms by which the true processes of the country’s history have been concealed.

What is immediately apparent—in contrast to this established view of democracy—is that Colombia has been a country of permanent and endemic warfare. The principal problem that must be faced, then, is to define the nature and the historical variations of this warfare. As a preamble to the following discussion, I shall approach this point in what is perhaps too schematic a fashion.1

I. The Stages of Warfare

We might begin by stating that during its life as a republic Colombia has gone through three stages of guerrilla warfare, which can be differentiated according to three basic variables. These are: the broad context in which the wars happened; the character of the actors taking part in each of them; and the motives and aims that have produced the conflicts.

Civil wars constitute a first type. Their principal purpose was to balance out the internal rivalries of the ruling class. The pretexts might be many and varied: the position to be assigned to the church in its relations with the state; the abolition or nonabolition of slavery; the nature of political organization—federal or centralist; and, in general, matters very similar to those that often divided Latin American oligarchies in this period. What is typical of wars of this sort is that segments of the ruling class took part in them, supplying not only political, but also military, command. In the leaders several qualities were combined: membership in a political directorate, possession of the rank of general in an army, and a well-defined social position (hacienda owner, or merchant, in most cases). These were, in the final analysis, conflicts between gentlemen of a single lineage. For this reason, at the end of the wars, we find the participants making reciprocal agreements for the preservation of their properties. After the rout at Palonegro, for instance, which was one of the decisive battles of the War of the Thousand Days, wealthy liberals placed their possessions under the protection of conservative friends.

A second stage of warfare, or, more accurately, a second type of war, appeared in the mid-twentieth century. This we know by the ambiguous and many-faceted name la Violencia. It broke out in the context of the permanent state of crisis in which Colombia has existed from the 1940s onward—an increasingly open confrontation between the ruling and the ruled classes.

A common trait exists between the course of this war and that of the civil wars of the first stage, in that ideological management is exercised in both cases by segments of the ruling class, through political parties. There is also, however, a decided difference, which gives the Violencia its ambivalent nature: the actual military conduct of the fighting is assumed by the people, and by the peasantry in particular. No single political leader from the oligarchy acted as military commander during the Violencia. This disjuncture of ideological control and military command is the fullest explanation for this particular conflict’s double direction: its expressions of anarchy, on the one hand, and its destabilizing potential and its actual disruptive effects for society as a whole, on the other.

The most important changes responsible for the shift from the first stage to the second appeared over the early decades of this century. First came the notable social diversification of the country, which could be seen in totally new occurrences, such as the rise of the workers’ movement, and the appearance of organized peasant struggles, under the direction or influence of new parties that to a degree disrupted the existing bipartisan hegemony, proclaiming themselves to be parties of class (the Partido Socialista Revolucionario, the Partido Comunista, the Unión Nacional de Izquierda Revolucionaria, and the Partido Agrario Nacional). Second, there was the effect of Gaitanismo throughout the political structure, as the political leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán tried to convert the Liberal party into a popular party opposing the oligarchy. And third, but no less important, was the impact of the popular rising of April 9, 1948, which constituted, according to the then president, Mariano Ospina Pérez, the most dangerous moment in the republic’s history. April 9 literally terrified the leaders of both parties. And although the rebellion spread throughout the land in the name of the Liberal party, in reality it went beyond what was acceptable to the party; and many well-off liberals even became the victims of pillage and personal attack. Together these changes signalled the masses’ breaking into the political arena, and their organization in support of broad social movements that often overflowed the narrow confines of bipartisan rule, or at least threatened to do so. In addition, the growing urbanization of the country offered the oligarchy a safe haven from which to exercise influence without exposing itself physically in the struggle. This was, however, only an apparent advantage, since its price would be the relative autonomy of the armed peasantry.

The third and final stage is one that begins to develop in the course of the second, and especially from the 1960s on. We are still passing through this stage; its outcome is not yet clear. Returning to our initial guidelines, we might say that in this new phase, the ruling classes have lost both the orientation and management of ideology, and also political and military command. Moreover, the ideology and politics of the third phase have become engaged in wider struggles for world power. The declared aim is no longer simple incorporation into the state, as in the previous civil wars, when one of the dominant groups might be temporarily excluded from bureaucratic control; but rather the abolition, pure and simple, of the existing regime by political and military forces that allege to speak for the subjugated classes as a whole.

With this general framework in place, we can now pass on to consider the course of research on the Violencia in Colombia.

II. The Traditional Literature on the Violencia

It is useful to start with the uses and meanings of the term itself. As it is used to denote the social and political agitation that shook the country from 1945 to 1965, which left between 100,000 and 300,000 people dead, the term in itself poses many problems and leaves room for ambiguities. Sometimes the term is intended simply to describe or suggest the unprecedented amount of barbarity that the conflict displayed; at other times, it points to the conglomeration of processes that characterized this struggle—that mixture of anarchy, peasant insurgency, and official terror, in which it would be futile to seek to establish which component played the largest part. Finally, in most cases, in official pronouncements, the word fulfils a particular ideological function: to conceal the social content or the class effects of the political crisis. Beyond these senses are the meanings allotted to the term by the ordinary people who suffered its effects. Those peasants of the eastern Llanos, for example, who were able to react in a consistent and organized way, characterized the events more as belonging to a movement of their own than as governmental activity; and they referred to their own movement as “la Revolución.” Conversely, people in the interior of the country, in the coffee region, who were far more divided in their reactions and possessed of a deep feeling of impotence, perceive the Violencia as a Great Historical Process, which was extrinsic to, and transcended, those who participated in it. As a recent study by Carlos Ortiz shows, this attitude allows responsibility to be depersonalized. The fatalism of such expressions as “The Violencia killed my family” or “The Violencia took away my land” seems to suggest a resigned acceptance of a social and political process—as if this were part of the natural (or possibly supernatural) order of things. Indeed, in this way some varieties of messianism managed to establish themselves in areas formerly afflicted by the Violencia.

In reality, any study of the Violencia should begin (and this has not been done) with a reconstruction of the genealogy and implications of the manifold meanings of the term itself.

If we now begin to survey writing on the topic, we can make out two phases, which can be characterized by the degree of correspondence they exhibit between questions posed and answers provided. The first lasts until the mid-1970s, and includes numerous texts whose content oscillates between two undesirable extremes: on the one hand, a purely narrative-descriptive focus; on the other, outright speculation. In other words, we find here writings that offer few questions to be resolved, or little material to sustain whatever questions are asked. By contrast, in the last ten years—the second phase—a growing balance can be seen between the attempt to provide documentation and empirical foundation, on the one hand, and interpretation, on the other. There is a more organic relationship than before among the three components that constitute the basis of any piece of social research: theory, methodology, and sources.

Now let us survey the works belonging to the first phase.

Apologetic writing

This includes the most plentiful but also least satisfactory material, written mainly in the 1950s. In it can be found the essential perceptions of the Violencia held by the elite and the institutions associated with it, such as the church and the army. Here we see governmental spokesmen and the party in power denouncing the crimes of the liberal guerrillas, and their supposed links with Communism, thereby justifying the policy of “war by fire and the sword.” The voices of liberalism, for their part, emphasize the fraudulent origins of the government and the various sorts of repression visited on adherents of liberalism through military agencies, such as the sanguinary Chulavita police, who took their name from a place in the Department of Boyacá and whose ferocious deeds made them infamous. Liberals also suffered from attacks by private gangs, armed and funded by functionaries or political bosses, whose purpose was to terrorize the rural population so as to neutralize any possibility of protest, prepare the ground for the seizure of goods and harvests, or to silence legal investigations of their controllers’ crimes. These gangs were called pájaros and they operated mainly in the Cauca Valley, coordinated by a leader called “El Cóndor.”

These writings generally have more in them of party proclamation than of analytical intent, and their presentation of events is essentially Manichean. So, for instance, what is seen by some as a wall for containing forces that threaten to destroy the nation, a “revolution of the new order,” appears to others as the pure and simple expression of dictatorship, and as an excuse for implanting a corporative regime, in the image of Falangist Spain.

Nonetheless, however one-sided and sectarian they may appear, writings of this sort are valuable raw material for studying the ideological components of the conflict and the collective experiences that stamped an objective dynamic on a process that in large measure strikes us today as irrational. We might say that these writings form a mass of old material of which new questions can be asked. In fact, the lack of any analysis of the efficacy of the politico-ideological notions contained in this writing is one of the most glaring gaps in the literature of the Violencia.2

The testimonial literature consists of accounts by actors in, or victims of, the events themselves. For the most part, these accounts relate short periods of personal or collective experience in a specific region. We have here, therefore, something quite distinct from the judgments of outsiders, or the distant perceptions of academics or politicians. These accounts draw on the immediate experience of participants in their manifold social roles: the guerrillero, certain of his cause, and anxious to convey the idealism of his struggle; or the soldier, proud of his part in a war that he, for different reasons, thinks legitimate; or the priest, forced to take sides in matters alien to him. The testimonial accounts that exercised greatest influence on later analytical writing are precisely those that most closely define these social prototypes. For instance, the guerrilla leader colonel Eduardo Franco Isaza certainly provides, in his vivid memoirs Las guerrillas del Llano (Caracas, 1955), a complete view of the interactions of rebels, stockraisers, and the army; but the fundamental attraction and strength of this book may lie less in its factual content, however rich this may be, than in the empathy that it projects in its treatment of vague but perceptible ideals such as justice, democracy, and liberty—qualities that sustained and gave meaning to the fight carried on by the author and his followers.

For his part, Colonel Gustavo Sierra Ochoa, an officer of the army unit that fought the liberal peasants of that same region, provides an analysis of guerrilla tactics in his Las guerrillas en los llanos orientales (Manizales, 1954), and sketches out opposing strategies. This is the first military text in Colombia to recognize the necessity of meeting the armed manifestations of the Violencia not with repressive measures alone, but also with political and social preventive action; and this realization makes Sierra Ochoa the precursor of counterinsurgency tactics that have been put into practice since the 1960s. This set of opposing views—the guerrillas’ and the army’s—can be rounded out with the unique example of the penetration of one by the other, which is the central thread of Zarpazo: Otra cara de la Violencia (Bogotá, 1967), by Evelio Buitrago Salazar. The author was an army sergeant who infiltrated one of the best-known bands operating in the west of Colombia in the early 1960s, took part in their guerrilla activities, urged them on from time to time, and engineered their destruction from within.3

Another account, whose author rather than content makes it unusual, is by the priest Fidel Blandón Berrío. Under the pen name of Ernesto León Herrera, he produced Lo que el cielo no perdona (Bogotá, 1955), which is a narrative of the vicissitudes of the peasantry and the liberal guerrillas in the south of Antioquia. In this, the most Catholic province of a Catholic country, the priest sided with the persecuted, at a time when the church hierarchy held that the only path for a Christian was to embrace the government’s cause.

For some parts of the country, accounts of this sort, and others that shift between chronicle and novel, still constitute the only documentary source, even though nearly all of them were written in the 1950s. Into the chronicle-novel category falls Jaime Vásquez Santos’s Guerrilleros, Buenos días (Bogotá, 1954), which deals with the Violencia and the liberal guerrillas in Yacopí-Territorio Vásquez, between 1949 and 1953.4 It was only after 1973 that somewhat detailed accounts began to appear of the zones under Communist influence during the early period of the Violencia. The most notable of these are Ciro, páginas de su vida (Bogotá, 1974), and Cuadernos de campaña (Bogotá, 1973) by Manuel Marulanda Vélez (“Tirofijo”), who is still the supreme commander of the pro-Soviet Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC). Both works describe resistance in the south of Tolima, including such matters as the process of organizing fighting groups, conflicting relations with the liberals, internal discipline, and political aims.

As this overview clearly shows, the testimonial literature displays a marked emphasis on the military aspects of the Violencia. This is probably true of the memoirs of any war. But also to be found here is information on the social bases of rebel recruitment, and, occasionally, detail on the daily existence of the irregular forces.

The new literature and its founders

Special mention should be made of La Violencia en Colombia: Estudio de un proceso social (Bogotá, 1962) by Germán Guzmán Campos, Orlando Fals-Borda, and Eduardo Umaña Luna. This is a valuable work on many counts. It is the first attempt to provide a comprehensive, descriptive account of the Violencia, founded on first-hand information. (The authors had the opportunity, as an official commission, to travel through the regions most affected by the conflict.)5 This text became, until the mid-1970s, virtually the sole source of empirical data from which numerous essays were constructed. Between 1962, when it was published, and 1975, one might say that there was only reinterpretation of this work. It was basic, even though its analysis was weak; and with its publication, the Violencia became for the first time a research problem at the university level. Several key discussions resulted from this important book.

The first of these is the debate about the “origins” of the Violencia. On the one side are those who give primacy to matters of politics and party (the struggle for bureaucratic loot and contests within the ruling class). The other side consists of people who argue for socioeconomic influences, or the class character of the Violencia.6 The point is less simple than it might seem, because in the Colombian case the traditional political parties do not clearly represent social sectors, since they divide society vertically rather than horizontally. They are types of primary identification; people are “born liberal or conservative.” They are more like, therefore, deeply rooted subcultures than distinct programs for the conduct of the state or of economic development.

The second large debate deriving from the book by Guzmán and his colleagues is connected to the first. It concerns the economic effects of the Violencia. Its general point of departure is recognition of a presumed bourgeois and democratic character in the liberal regime in office before the Violencia, and particularly in that of the so-called Revolución en Marcha of Alfonso López Pumarejo (twice president of Colombia, 1934-38, and 1942-45). This line of discussion proposes two analyses of the conflict. The first is that it resembled a process of “refeudalization” of Colombia. This point of view finds its strongest expression in the suggestively titled work of Francisco Posada, Colombia: Violencia y subdesarrollo (Bogotá, 1969). The other argument proposes that the phenomenon of conflict itself was a process of peasant expropriation and of capitalist expansion. Here a forced comparison is made between the Violencia and the primitive accumulation described by Marx in reference to sixteenth-century England. With certain added nuances, this is the line taken by, among others, Mario Arrubla and Salomón Kalmanovitz in their early work on the economic transformations of Colombia in the twentieth century.7

These two lines of argument have often misinterpreted, skipped over, or underestimated a social and political movement whose significance is crucial for interpreting the Violencia: Gaitanismo. Until recently this movement was viewed as a simple variant within the liberal party. Now, however, it is beginning to be seen more as something distinct from bi-partisanism—as an antioligarchical movement (opposed to both the liberal and the conservative oligarchies). In other words, the political discourse of Gaitán himself has begun to be taken seriously. And although the point continues to be contended, recent research tends to put greatest stress on the first wave of Violencia, which took place during the administration of the liberal Alberto Lleras Camargo, and which was apparently directed selectively and principally against the strongholds and activists of Gaitanismo. Obviously enough, if the Violencia erupted not only as, and in, opposition to the Liberal party, but more specifically to the Gaitanista movement, interpretation and periodization of the conflict’s origins are placed on a totally different footing. This thesis seems to be gaining strength; and its reinforcement would clear the way to other questions, such as that of the degree to which Gaitanismo survives still, transformed through the liberal guerrilla movement. One line of inquiry that has already been opened up follows the continuity between the leadership of the innumerable revolutionary juntas spawned by the assassination of Gaitán on April 9, 1948, and the leadership of the first nuclei of liberal resistance in the eastern Llanos, the south of Tolima, Santander, and Cundinamarca. Most suggestive, also, is the fact that the conservative offensive launched by the government of national unity, in which the liberals participated even after April 9, took on the nature of a crusade against the nueveabrileños (those who rose in arms on that day), before it became generalized after the second half of 1949, casting the whole Liberal party into opposition.

Taken as a whole, the works referred to in the preceding paragraphs introduce the topic of the Violencia and economic development.

The third key question to emerge from the work of Guzmán and associates is the one posed by the revolutionary priest Camilo Torres in his brilliant essay on the effects of the Violencia on peasant mentality.8 His concern was to seek the enduring impact of the Violencia on the common people, and especially on the political conscience of the peasantry. His finding was that the peasants participation in the conflict, and especially in the process of resistance, had contributed to breaking down their traditional, submissive mentality, their isolation, and the atomization. In this way he defined the necessity of analyzing the Violencia not only from above, as domination, but also from below, as rebellion.

Other authors have taken a different view of this same set of problems, showing how the agrarian unrest that arose once again in the late 1960s spread into regions that had been little affected by the Violencia, and how in those areas that had suffered its most dramatic impact one could observe, conversely, a certain degree of acquiescence, or, in the best of cases, a distrust of mass action as a means of realizing the peasantry’s basic claims. The latter view was the one taken by Pierre Gilhodès, the author of the first study to present the meaning of the Violencia in the broader context of peasant struggles in Colombia.9

It is now time to move on to the basic trends of the most recent and creative stage of studies on the Violencia, which began to appear in the mid-1970s.

III. The Rediscovery of the Violencia

In the last few years the Violencia has begun to be considered one of the basic axes of mental activity for the social sciences in Colombia, and will probably continue to be so for the rest of the present decade. A refreshing list of publications, two national meetings (April 1982, in Bogotá, and June 1982, in Chiquinquirá), and the recent Primer Simposio Internacional (June 1984) are a forceful demonstration of the growing interest of researchers and the public in the topic.

This revived interest, particularly noteworthy among the new generations, is a response, in part, to cumulative advance in research, and to a constant opening of new horizons, which can be explored nowadays with better techniques and a more developed theoretical apparatus. But it is in good measure also linked, at least in the past two or three years, to the confluence of political events, which has thrust into plain view and revealed the interrelationships of such subjects as guerrilla activity, paramilitary machinery, amnesty, peace, rehabilitation, agrarian reform, political reform and revolution in Latin America. Taken as a whole, these are matters that seem to bring us back, paradoxically, to the central concerns of the country twenty years ago—that is, precisely to the assemblage of problems typical of the 1960s, when the end of the Violencia was being proclaimed.

What are the underlying trends of the most recent studies, and of those now in progress?

First, one can see a shift from analysis of the Violencia as the product of particular political circumstances in the period 1945-65, toward long-term views in which the conflict is regarded as a structural element of the political and social development of the country. There is no attempt in this to deny or suppress the peculiar circumstances of its various stages; but rather to scrutinize its continuities and discontinuities within the broad range of civil wars in Colombia.

Progress has been achieved, along this path, in reformulating not only the interpretation of the Violencia, but also the history of the country as a whole. Characteristic of this approach is David Bushnell’s reply, during the Primer Simposio Internacional sobre la Violencia10, to repeated enquiries about the origin and character of the traditional parties, Liberal and Conservative. “In Colombia national party politics existed even before there was really a national economy or culture.”11 If this were shown to be so, it would not demonstrate, as Bushnell himself suggests, a notable precocity of parties, but perhaps the difficulty of defining the people’s adhesion to these collective groups as true party-like attachment.

Also quite recent and evident is preoccupation with such topics as the social bases of civil wars, the linkage between agrarian structures and internecine conflicts, forms of organization, the persistence of certain geographical settings, and in general the permanence of irregular warfare in Colombia. These questions have been tackled, from different viewpoints, by the following: Charles Bergquist, Café y conflicto en Colombia, 1886-1910 (Bogotá, 1976);12 Alvaro Tirado Mejía, in Aspectos sociales de las guerras civiles en Colombia (Bogotá, 1976); Malcolm Deas, in several of his essays 13; and Carlos Eduardo Jaramillo, in an investigation in progress on the War of the Thousand Days.

Alongside this backward-looking movement exists another that looks ahead, and which has close connection with the present political situation. The essay of Medófilo Medina on “La resistencia campesina en el sur de Tolima”,14 rather than analyzing the Violencia in that region, sets out to trace in the period of the Violencia the origins of the FARC. (It is this guerrilla group, it may be noted, that recently signed a truce with the government of President Belisario Betaneur.)

It would perhaps be too scholastic an exercise to seek to establish whether the new questions being raised by research on the civil wars of the nineteenth century are affecting the search for new topics of study in the Violencia, or whether the reverse is true. It can be affirmed, however, that the most innovative approaches in both fields are clearly combining to build a bridge between them, thereby creating an enormous field of collaboration between nineteenth-century specialists and twentieth-century scholars, between historians of the past and historians of the present.

The second general tendency in recent literature on the Violencia is the growing displacement of global treatments by regional studies, by thematic concentrations, or by scrutiny of specific sets of circumstances. By way of illustration, we can survey three groups of works.

To begin with are those that at the regional, or even subregional, level have tried to define the relationship between agrarian structure, class structure, and social conflict. In this line is, first, Fajardo’s study of the Department of Tolima, where he shows that, while in some municipalities the end result of the Violencia was the abandonment of fincas and the departure of the peasantry in favor of a new rural middle class, nevertheless in other subregions the dominant trait was the counteroffensive of the landowners whose latifundia, after being fragmented or weakened in the course of previous agrarian unrest, were reconstructed precisely within the shelter provided by the Violencia.15 Second, other works set out to explore one of the commonest modes of rural expropriation—that practiced by an emerging class of coffee merchants. This is especially noteworthy in the Department of Quindío. The most important treatment of the topic is Jaime Arocha’s study, followed by the even more detailed work of Carlos Ortiz.16 In the third place are the works that try to unravel the interconnections among local, regional, and national politics. The clearest example of this approach is perhaps James Henderson’s book, whose central thread is the political history of Líbano and Santa Isabel, two small towns in the north of Tolima. Unfortunately, an excessive caution in conceptualization has prevented the author from elucidating all the results implicit in his rich empirical data.17

A second group of works combines thematic unity and regional perspectives. One of the books in this category is that of Gonzalo Sánchez G. and Donny Meertens on the three-way relationship of bandoleros, gamonales, and peasants in the central coffee zone of the country during the events of 1958-65. There, in distinction to Eric Hobsbawm’s model, which stresses the social content of banditry and its connection with vague, though definable, aspirations of peasants, the schema emphasizes the contradictory linkages of bandits with local power structures, and the connections of both with the central power. In contrast, also, to previous Colombian writing on the topic, which gave excessive value to the instrumental character of bandits with respect to political parties, the authors bring out the internal tensions of this relationship, and also its ambivalences—which eventually lead to a qualified autonomy of the bandits with respect to their initial political protectors. This gives rise among the bandits to a process of potential rebellion, which ultimately brings them close to other forms of contemporary political struggle.18 From a different point of view, that of extracting lessons for perfecting counterinsurgency methods, Richard Maullin followed the political career of Dumar Aljure, the last of the important bandits engendered by the Violencia. From the military point of view—and this also was of particular interest to Maullin—the boundary between the guerrillero and the bandit is hard to determine.19

It is works of this sort, with more precise and defined aims, that rather paradoxically allow an easier comparative approach to phenomena that are quite specifically Colombian. From the starting point of his thoughts on the Colombian situation, Hobsbawm has been able to raise new questions and new research topics. What is the degree of banditry that a given society can sustain in the economic sense? What is the influence of the greater or lesser development of commercial networks on the survival of banditry? Are the current typologies satisfactory for a full comprehension of banditry in all its varieties? What is the explanation, if the point of departure is this single source—the Violencia—for differential developments on the one side toward contemporary guerrilla warfare, and on the other toward banditry? What is the relationship between the Violencia, as a frustrated revolution, and the successful revolutions of this century?20

Naturally enough, other large themes have received exemplary treatment: for instance, the relationship of the working class and Violencia is explored by Daniel Pecaut in one of the most noteworthy of the unpublished works.21 Its content goes beyond what the title suggests. From a study of that relationship, Pecaut launches a reinterpretation of the entire contemporary political history of Colombia. By contrast, we still lack works on the connections between other important pairs of topics: church and Violencia, and army and Violencia, for example.22

When we turn to conjunctural works, it is immediately clear that the last five years have seen a remarkable renewal of professional studies of the events of a crucially important day in modern Colombian history: April 9, 1948—the date of the assassination of the popular leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán and of the outbreak of one the largest insurrections in the history of Latin America. Until quite recently, however, historians and sociologists referred to these events in pejorative terms: the “mob,” “riot,” or “risings” of April 9. This attitude simply obscured the true diversity of both happenings and actors. It was a means of avoiding analysis. The works of Herbert Braun, Arturo Alape, and Gonzalo Sánchez G. have brought into the open a new dimension of the events that took place not only in Bogotá (the “Bogotazo”) but also in the most remote provincial regions, including rural areas. These studies have contributed to reestablishing the true historical significance of that day’s events, and have laid the foundation for new reinterpretations of both the preceding period and of what followed. They have, indeed, gone far toward changing our general panorama of the Violencia.23

Obviously enough, all these new approaches to the subject have led to the growing use of new sources: judicial and notarial archives, the archives of alcaldías, town councils, gobernaciones, and of haciendas and entrepreneurial associations; private collections; and oral interviews—to mention only the commonest sources exploited by the new historiography of the Violencia.

The last attempt at synthesis, Paul Oquist’s Violencia, política y conflicto en Colombia (Bogotá, 1978) was to a degree quickly superseded by the revision of topics and the vast accumulation of data that have occurred in the past decade.24 Despite this, Oquist must be given credit for having laid out explicitly and for the first time the necessity of distinguishing among the regional variants of the conflict, and also for having formulated what he called an “integral theory.” This theory rested on his controversial thesis of the “collapse of the state,” which he used to try to explain the confluence, in a single period, of disparate regional processes. We have synthesized this notion elsewhere, as follows:

Oquist’s thesis of the “partial collapse of the state” somewhat resembles the thesis of the “progressive dissolution of the state” proposed by Daniel Pecaut, although the mechanisms in each process are quite different. Oquist’s “collapse” is explained by the disintegration of institutional structures, such as the judicial, military, and parliamentary apparati, and so on. Pecaut’s “dissolution,” conversely, is closely connected to the dwindling of the state’s ability to intervene as mediator and unifier of (and between) the ruling classes—while, concurrently, the strength of the most powerful organizations of employers, coffee producers, and industrialists increases. Oquist’s “collapse” results from an abnormal degree of confrontation between the traditional parties. Pecaut’s “dissolution” is the outcome of the growing implantation of a liberal model of economic development that robs the state of its autonomous character, as its power is split up among “various economic corporations.”25

Put simply, recent contributions on the Violencia raise two problems that are both political and methodological: the connection between regional variation and national unity (or, to put it more exactly, paraphrasing Marco Palacios, the need to pose the “regional question as a national problem”); and the search for an adequate way of formulating an inseparable link between the real fragmentation of what is being studied—the Violencia, in all its multiple expressions—and the permanent challenge of synthesis. In fine, we must recognize multiplicity and unity as integral parts of a single process.

The third visible general trend in the new historiography on the Violencia is a gradual drift away from a certain economicism that predominated in the very early 1970s, and that found its clearest expression in a dilemma often incorrectly formulated by scholars throughout Latin America. In the particular case that concerns us, it appeared as the pigeonholing of the topic within the rigid confines of Violencia and feudalism, or Violencia and capitalism. Much political debate and a long process of maturation in social research have been necessary before enough weight was granted, even hesitatingly, to political, ideological, and cultural determinants in the study of such obviously complex phenomena as the Violencia. That is not to say, obviously, that we now possess too much research on the socioeconomic effects of the Violencia, and in particular on the relationship between the Violencia and transformations in agrarian structures. Quite the contrary—analysis of the processes of regional differentiation in this respect still has far to go. The papers presented by Catherine LeGrand and Charles Bergquist at the Primer Simposio Internacional contributed to a definition of the terms in which this discussion should be cast. LeGrand showed that in part the Violencia has its origins in the process of colonization begun in the nineteenth century, and that, in contrast to firmly held beliefs, that process was more a concentration of property than a movement toward democratization. Bergquist traced the to and fro of a movement in which the loss of consensus among the ruling classes over resistance to the democratic struggle of the peasantry was offset by the individualist nature of the peasants’ effort—which left the way open to clientilista domination through the traditional parties during the Violencia.26

To clear up confusions arising from the dead-end polarization of either Violencia and class-struggle, or Violencia and party conflict, it would perhaps be best to recast the original question, and move from an inquiry about the class, or nonclass, character of the Violencia to one about its class effects—which certainly occurred, even when and where the Violencia took on the form of a purely bipartisan struggle. Someone was left, at the end of the day, holding the properties or harvests of the conservative, or liberal, peasants who had fled; and that someone, within a general process and over some period of time, happens to be a class or a social group that was present during the conflict, or that took form during the fighting.

IV. Culture and the Violencia

As a final topic, some mention should be made of the cultural and artistic manifestations of the Violencia. One of the aims of the Primer Simposio Internacional was indeed to establish contact between social researchers and artists who have worked with the topic—in the belief that such a dialogue would lead to desirable progress in this relationship.

The impact of the Violencia on Colombian art has been clear, despite the fact that we still lack sound studies of its significance.

In the plastic arts, for example, as Germán Rubiano has noted27, the Violencia has been a subject de rigueur for the leading painters, many of whom have presented in their work an eye-witness record of the events through which they lived. A brief list of such paintings provides something close to a chronology of the events: 9 de abril by Alipio Jaramillo; Masacre 10 de abril by Alejandro Obregón; Viudas y huérfanas by Pedro Nel Gómez; Violencia—a series of engravings by Luis Angel Rengifo; Colombia llora a un estudiante—alluding to and denouncing the military regime of Rojas Pinilla (1953-57), by Ignacio Gómez Jaramillo; Genocidio y Violencia by Alejandro Obregón (1963).

This chronicling function is far clearer still in the work of a painter only recently discovered, at the age of 74, by the critics—Débora Arango. Her paintings include: La masacre del 9 de abril—based on the broadcast of events of that day; El cementerio de la chusma; La salida de Laureano alluding to President Laureano Gómez, whom Colombians identify as responsible for the Violencia; Huelga de estudiantes; Las tres fuerzas que derrocaron a Rojas—referring to his fall; La república—presumably done in 1960.

In the subject matter of most of these works we find a stress on the dead—the victims. Rarely do the executors, the beneficiaries, or the rebels appear. The Violencia is shown almost wholly as tragedy, as an impersonal and destructive force. Only in more recent works, such as some of those by Carlos Granada, for example, are there suggestions that it was also a rebellion.

Something similar has occurred in literary developments. Laura Restrepo, in an essay whose themes have unfortunately not been pursued, declaied that “the Violencia has been the obligatory point of reference for almost three decades of narratives; no author has failed to touch on the theme, directly or indirectly; the Violencia is almost present, explicitly or beneath the surface.”28 This should not perhaps be surprising. Nonetheless, with the exception of a few titles, such as La mala hora, of Gabriel García Márquez (Madrid, 1962); El Cristo de espaldas, by Eduardo Caballero Calderón (Buenos Aires, 1952); Cenizas para el viento, by Hernando Téllez (published in 1984, but based on essays written decades before); and El Gran Burundún-Burundá ha muerto, by Jorge Zalamea (Lima, 1959), most of the more than fifty novels on the subject are of greater evidential and descriptive interest than of literary and artistic note.

A greater historical distancing will perhaps make for a higher aesthetic perception of the Violencia, although here, too, as in the plastic arts, an immense hindrance to aesthetic progress has been the perception of the conflict as defeat and tragedy. This is something that Gustavo Alvarez Gardeazábal, the author of one of the best-known novels on the Violencia, Cóndores no entierran todos los días (Barcelona, 1972), has shown, in drawing a negative parallel between the Violencia and the Mexican revolution. While the latter is viewed as a heroic gesture, in which the victors were the revolutionaries, whose deeds took on a legendary quality, the Violencia is perceived still as a national disgrace, about which it is better to be silent. This is first because the victors, who were also the promoters of the Violencia, now assumed a common responsibility by means of the National Front: “Power was shared, but the past also, and no judgment was to be made about it.”29 And second, one might add that it is because the vanquished resigned themselves to accept the victors’ vision.

By contrast, in the theater and the cinema—the two artistic forms that the topic of the Violencia reached quite late—the greatest successes have been achieved. Guadalupe años sin cuenta (first staged in June 1975) is one of the most successful works of the present-day Colombian theater. Its subject matter is not the horrors of the years of conflict, but the contradictions of the historical process. The factual basis is the story of liberal resistance in the eastern Llanos of Colombia, where Guadalupe Salcedo became the leading symbol of liberal insurgency. The films Canaguaro, with the same topic as the play just mentioned, and Cóndores, drawn from the novel by Alvarez Gardeazábal, are likewise the outstanding products of Colombian cinema.

For the creation of new aesthetic approaches to the Violencia, several elements need to be combined. These include: a greater distance between the events themselves and their artistic treatment; better techniques and resources, so as to transcend historical information without suppressing it; the availability of new and less schematic interpretations of the Violencia; and a greater capacity to universalize episodes within it, and to loosen them from their context.

Thus far, we have brought up topics in which some firm progress has been made. Besides these, one might make an inventory of what is missing—of fields of study whose exploration is already overdue. These include the relationships between the Violencia on the one hand, and on the other: myths, legends, and beliefs; religious feelings and messianic movements; everyday life; women; native people; psychiatry; and so on.

Historians, sociologists, psychologists, and anthropologists all are faced, in the Violencia, with a vast field open to their concerns—a continent awaiting exploration.


Translation of this article was made possible in part by funding from The Tinker Foundation, New York City.


The following paragraphs synthesize the argument of the author’s essay “Raíces históricas de la Amnistía o las etapas de la guerra en Colombia,” in Gonzalo Sánchez, Ensayos de historia social y política del siglo xx (Bogotá, 1985), pp. 215-275.


Among the most often cited works in this category are:

  • taking the conservative view: Rafael Azula Barrera, De la revolución al orden nuevo (Bogotá, 1956); José María Nieto Rojas, La batalla contra el comunismo en Colombia (Bogotá, 1956); Alonso Moncada, Un aspecto de la Violencia (Bogotá, 1963); Francisco Fandiño Silva, La penetración soviética en América Latina y el 9 de abril (Bogotá, 1949).

  • taking the liberal view: Abelardo Forero Benavides, Un testimonio contra la barbarie política (Bogotá, 1953): E. Cuéllar Vargas, Trece años de Violencia (Bogotá, 1960).

The reader seeking further information on sources of this type may find the list prepared by Russell W. Ramsey useful (but the commentaries less so); “Critical Bibliography on La Violencia in Colombia,” Latin American Research Review, 8:1 (Spring 1973), 3-44.


An English translation exists of this work, entitled Zarpazo, The Bandit (Memoirs of an Undercover Agent of the Colombian Army) (University, Ala., 1977). The translation is by M. Murray Lasley, with introduction and notes by Russell W. Ramsey.


Another important source exists for the history of the Violencia in this same region, although it is unknown even to specialists on the subject in Colombia. It is the unpublished personal journal of one of the guerrilla chiefs, Saúl Fajardo, entitled “Memorias de un bandolero ad-hoc” (1952). It can be found at the Biblioteca Nacional in Bogotá.


Germán Guzmán was one of the six members of the Comisión Nacional Investigadora de las Causas Actuales de la Violencia, created May 27, 1958, by presidential decree. This group consisted of two army officers, two political leaders, and two priests.


For greater detail on the subject, see Daniel Pecaut, “Reflexiones sobre el fenómeno de la Violencia,” Ideología y Sociedad (Bogotá) 19 (1976); also, idem, “Classe Ouvrière et Système Politique en Colombie: 1930-1953” (Ph.D. Diss., Paris, 1979), pp. 777-790. See also the first chapter of Paul Oquist’s work Violencia, conflicto, y política en Colombia (Bogotá, 1978), pp. 21-35. This has been translated as Violence, Conflict, and Politics in Colombia (New York, 1980). For a suggestive discussion on the topic of periodization, see Jesús A. Bejarano, “Campesinado, luchas agrarias e historia social,” Anuario Colombiano de Historia Social y de la Cultura, 11 (1983), 251-298.


Salomón Kalmanovitz, “Evolución de la estructura agraria colombiana,” Cuadernos Colombianos (Medellín) 3 (1974), 353-405; Mario Arrubla, Estudios sobre el subdesarrollo colombiano (Medellín, 1979). Adoption of this point of view does not detract from the accomplishment of these two researchers, whose historical writings on the topic have been among the most influential to appear in the past two decades.


Camilo Torres Restrepo, “La Violencia y los cambios socio-culturales en las áreas rurales colombianas” in Memoria del Primer Congreso Nacional de Sociología (Bogotá, 1963), 95-152. An English translation is Social Change and Rural Violence in Colombia,” in Irving Louis Horowitz, ed., Masses in Latin America (New York, 1970).


Pierre Gilhodès, “Agrarian Struggles in Colombia,” in R. Stavenhagen, ed., Agrarian Problems and Peasant Movements in Latin America (New York, 1970), 407-451. See also by the same author, La Question Agraire en Colombie (Paris, 1974).


The Primer Simposio Internacional sobre la Violencia en Colombia (hereinafter Primer Simposio Internacional) was held between June 24 and 30, 1984, in Bogotá. It was sponsored by the Departamento de Historia of the Universidad Nacional de Colombia, and the Centro Cultural Jorge Eliécer Gaitán. Researchers attended from Colombia, the United States, Canada, Mexico, and the United Kingdom. Gonzalo Sánchez and Ricardo Peñaranda acted as general organizers.


David Bushnell, “Partidos políticos y guerras civiles en Colombia,” presented at the Primer Simposio Internacional (Bogotá, June 1984). A volume containing a selection of the papers read at this symposium is being prepared for the press.


Bergquist’s book, originally his doctoral dissertation (Stanford University, 1973), is possibly, as David Bushnell points out in his introduction to the Spanish translation, the first explicit reading of the historical and economic meaning of political and military data on the civil wars. It was published by Duke University Press under the title Coffee and Conflict in Colombia, 1886-1910 (Durham, 1978).


The most notable of Deas’s writings on the subject are: “Poverty, Civil War, and Politics: Ricardo Gaitán Obeso and his Magdelena River Campaign in Colombia, 1885,” Nova Americana (Turin), 2 (1979); and “Algunas notas sobre la historia del caciquismo en Colombia,” Revista de Occidente, 127 (1973), 269-298. His paper at the Primer Simposio Internacional specifically addressed the relationship between civil wars and the Violencia.


A paper read at the Primer Simposio Internacional. The impact of the present political situation on the selection of topics for research is also clear in the present writer’s essay, referred to in n. 1 above, on “Las raíces históricas de la Amnistía.”


Darío Fajardo, Violencia y desarrollo (Bogotá, 1979).


Jaime Arocha, La Violencia en el Quindío (Bogotá, 1979)—originally “La Violencia in Monteverde, Colombia: Environmental and Economic Determinants of Homicide in a Coffee-Growing Municipio” (Ph.D. Diss., Columbia University, 1975). Ortiz presented his views in a paper read at the Primer Simposio Internacional.


James Henderson, Cuando Colombia se desangró (Bogotá, 1984). The English title is When Colombia Bled: A History of the Violencia in Tolima (University, Ala., 1985). In listing contributions on the regional differentiation of the Violencia, one should include Urbano Campo, Urbanización y violencia en el Valle (Bogotá, 1980), and the unpublished monograph of Wilson Granados on the Violencia in Urrao, Antioquia (Departamento de Sociología, Universidad de Antioquia, Medellín, 1982). We still lack, however, a lull study of one of the most important guerrilla groups during the Violencia, the one led by Rafael Rangel in Santander.


Gonzalo Sánchez and Donny Meertens, Bandoleros, gamonales y campesinos (Bogotá, 1983).


Richard Maullin, The Fall of Dumar Aljure, a Colombian Guerrilla and Bandit (Santa Monica, Calif., 1968).


Eric J. Hobsbawn, “Historiografía del bandolerismo”—a paper read at the Primer Simposio Internacional (Bogotá, June 1984). Two of Hobsbawm’s books, Primitive Rebels (Manchester, 1959) and Bandits (London, 1969), and two articles, “The Anatomy of Violence,” New Society, 28 (Apr. 1963), 16-18, and “Peasant Movements in Colombia,” International Journal of Economic and Social History,” 8 (1976), 166-186, have had a major influence in the analysis of the Violencia.


Pecaut, Classe Ouvrière et Système Politique.


Some useful works nevertheless exist. For the relationship between church and Violencia, see, for example, Rodolfo de Roux, Una iglesia en alerta (Bogotá, 1983); and for that between army and Violencia, Russell Ramsey, Guerrilleros y soldados (Bogotá, 1981), and Pierre Gilhodès, “El ejército analiza la Violencia,” a paper read at the Primer Simposio Internacional.


Herbert Braun, “The Pueblo and the Politicians of Colombia: The Assassination of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán and the Bogotazo” (Ph.D. Diss., University of Wisconsin, Madison, 1983). Also, Arturo Alape, El Bogotazo (Bogotá, 1983); and Gonzalo Sánchez, Los días de la revolución: Gaitanismo y el 9 de abril en provincia (Bogotá, 1983).


Originally presented as a doctoral dissertation, “Violence, Conflict, and Politics in Colombia” (University of California, Berkeley, 1975).


Gonzalo Sánchez and Donny Meertens, “La Violencia, el estado, y las clases sociales,” Anuario Colombiano de Historia Social y de la Cultura, 10 (1982), 254.


A synthesis of LeGrand’s propositions can be found in her article, “Labor Acquisition and Social Conflict on the Colombian Frontier, 1850-1936,” Journal of Latin American Studies, 16 (May 1984), 27-49. The article is a foretaste of a book-length treatment of the subject that will appear under the title of Frontier Expansion and Peasant Protest in Colombia, 1850-1936 (forthcoming, University of New Mexico Press). Bergquist’s conclusions are laid out in the chapter on Colombia in his forthcoming comparative study of labor movements in Latin America.


Germán Rubiano, “El arte de la Violencia,” Arte en Colombia, 25 (1984), 25-33, first presented as a paper at the Primer Simposio Internacional.


Laura Restrepo, “Niveles de realidad en la literatura de la Violencia colombiana,” Ideología y Sociedad, 17-18 (1976), 7-35. See also Gerardo Suárez Rondón, La novela sobre la Violencia en Colombia (n.p., 1966). An enlarged list of novels is to be found in Lucila Inés Mena's article “Bibliografía anotada sobre el ciclo de la Violencia en la literatura colombiana, Latin American Research Review, 13:3 (1978), 95-107.


Gustavo Alvarez Gardeazábal, “La novela de la Violencia,” a paper given at the Primer Simposio Internacional. A first version of the paper appeared under the title of “México y Colombia: Violencia y revolución en la novela, in Mundo Nuevo, 57_58 (1971), 77-82.

Author notes


This article was originally presented as a paper at the annual meeting of the Conference on Latin American History (Chicago, December 1984). The author thanks Donny Meertens for her help in preparing the manuscript.