1948: The Bogotá Riots and Colombian Civil War

In 1948 agents of the Conservative government of Mariano Ospina Perez assassinated the popular Liberal party leader Jorge Eliecer Gaitan. Some saw Gaitan as a threat because he had begun to expand the Liberal Party beyond its oligarchic tradition reaching out to middle and working class Colombians who were drifting toward more radical political ideas. His assassination unleashed a violent riot on the streets of Bogota known as “El Bogotazo” in which 1,500 people died and 20,000 were injured.

Riots following the murder of Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, Bogota. Photograph by Sadie Gonzalez.

“La Violencia,” a partisan civil war between the Conservative and Liberal political parties, followed the assassination of Gaitan. For 10 years a bloodthirsty civil war between bands of Liberal and Conservative guerrillas engulfed the countryside.   By the time of the truce in 1958, over 200,000 people had been killed and many more had been forcibly displaced.

The stage had been set for further violence as the disaffected and war traumatized peasants, forgotten by the politicians, joined new insurgent movements in the 1960s. In the Americas, only the death tolls in the Mexican Revolution and the US Civil War surpassed the bloodshed in Colombia.