How One Man’s Murder Inflamed a Continent

How One Man’s Murder Inflamed a Continent

Why you should care

Because Colombia is still coming to terms with a nearly 70-year-old murder and even older inequalities. 

Three shots pierced the air — and soul — of Colombia on April 9, 1948. The country’s most beloved leader lay dead, and the ensuing riots and looting consumed Bogotá, escalating into a brutal war that has killed nearly 250,000 people to date. Known as the Bogotazo, the murder and protests shocked a nation and cemented the Cold War in the Americas.

“There are days that last 100 years, and this is one of them,” says Cesar Augusto Ayala, dean of the history department at National University of Colombia. The motive for assassinating Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, a shoo-in to become the next president, remains unclear: The lone gunman was lynched by a mob minutes after he committed his crime. Some believe he acted alone, while others point to a Soviet — or even American — conspiracy.

Gaitán, the populist leader of the Liberal Party but by no means a Communist, wanted to redress gross inequality in his homeland. But after his death, a reactionary, borderline fascist faction of the Conservative Party emerged and repressed liberals like never before, deepening what became known as La Violencia, a decade of tit-for-tat warring between both sides.

Even after political forces found a way to coexist at the top, liberal guerrillas took their fight to the countryside, convinced that the oligarchs, regardless of their political colors, would never share power.

Peasant-backed militias morphed over the years in pursuit of communist goals, organizing into powerful insurgencies that continue to fight in what remains the longest civil conflict in the world. A conflict the government is now trying to end after almost 70 years by negotiating with rebels about essentially the same issues Gaitán sought to redress democratically.

The instability shaped the Cold War in the Western Hemisphere.

American leaders initially blamed the Soviets for the mayhem in Bogotá — a conspiracy theory that has since been largely discredited. But the Bogotazo “was an extraordinarily scary moment that seemed like an entire society could be overturned,” says Herbert Braun, a Latin America history professor at the University of Virginia. It showed everyone, including Americans, “that instability was the rule of the game” and that it could be capitalized on by the Soviets, regardless of the root cause.

A group of people gathers in front of the building where Gaitán was murdered.

A group gathers in front of the building where Gaitán was murdered.

Source Photographic Archive of Sady González/Biblioteca Luis Angel Arango

That instability shaped, more than sparked, the Cold War in the Western Hemisphere. Latin America was already aflame over inequality, reflected in the deaths of hundreds of thousands subjected to the region’s dictatorships in the subsequent decades, and a paranoid Washington was also already engaged in its own anti-Soviet witch-hunts at home and elsewhere.

But the U.S. was completely caught off guard in Colombia, so much that then-Secretary of State George Marshall was actually present during the Bogotazo, hiding with other regional leaders as they finalized the creation of the Organization of American States. As luck would have it, a young Fidel Castro was also on hand, and decided then that urban revolution in Latin America was not viable — a critical pivot that would eventually lead him to take over Cuba from the countryside.

In an interview in 1983, Castro told Colombian writer Arturo Alape that the Bogotazo was a “volcano that erupted” amidst a repressed and hungry population, and that no one stood a chance of organizing the resulting chaos. A statement confirming the CIA’s assessment, written 20 years after the Bogotazo and declassified in 1994, that the event “may have influenced” Castro’s “adoption in Cuba in the 1950s of a guerrilla strategy,” as opposed to urban revolutions.

Men with machetes taking part in the Bogotazo pose for a photograph.

Men with machetes participate in the Bogotazo.

Source Photographic Archive of Sady González/Biblioteca Luis Angel Arango

Three weeks after the Bogotazo, continental leaders had formed the OAS into their most powerful anti-communist front. But internally, Colombia never recovered from the trauma or its underlying root cause. It holds the dubious distinction of being the seventh most unequal country in the world, according to the World Bank, comparable to Haiti. U.S. data estimates that 0.4 percent of Colombians own 62 percent of the best farmland.

These are the issues at the core of ongoing peace negotiations between the government and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), whose origins can be traced to the liberal guerrillas who consolidated after Gaitán’s death. Its historic leader, Pedro Antonio Marín Marín (aka Manuel Marulanda Vélez), now dead, was a liberal insurgent leader who emerged from La Violencia. “The inability of the elites to bring rural insurgent groups back into the civilian electoral processes” is at the heart of peace talks, Braun says.

In the wake of the Bogotazo, both a rural and an urban Colombia emerged, Ayala says. Urban elites sought refuge in the cities, but “they abandoned the countryside to do as it pleased,” which is why the national government wields little influence there. Indeed, much of what is driving the current negotiations harks back to Gaitán’s assassination. So, Gaitán’s Colombia, nearly seven decades later, is finally reaching a bit of the social justice he fought and died to secure.

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