Colombia Table of Contents
Public awareness of Colombia's internal security problems increased in the wake of the November 1985 siege by terrorists from the 19th of April Movement (Movimiento 19 de Abril--M-19) of the Palace of Justice, the Supreme Court building, in Bogotá. During the twenty-eight hours of intense fighting, which was referred to as the "twenty-eight hour coup," all thirty-five terrorists were killed, but eleven Supreme Court judges, several dozen other hostages, and more than a dozen troops also were killed. In addition, the artillery shelling and the raging fire that resulted destroyed the courthouse.
According to a public opinion poll taken shortly after the siege, 85 percent of the population of Bogotá believed that the country had reached a crisis point. Within two years, some reports suggested, the violence associated with the country's growing internal turmoil had escalated to a level comparable to that of the late 1940s and early 1950s. Although public consciousness was piqued by the 1985 incident, the incidence of challenges to the public order had been gradually increasing in frequency over the preceding decade. In 1988, however, observers doubted that a semblance of domestic peace could soon be restored.
During the late 1980s, various guerrilla organizations and two powerful groups of narcotics traffickers, who used the country as their base of operations, posed the principal threats to internal security. The frequent corruption of public officials by the lucrative narcotics operations also had become a serious national problem that hindered efforts to maintain domestic order and administer justice. Although the guerrilla organizations had long been active in the country--with some claiming to trace their organizational roots to the epoch of la violencia--the threat posed by narcotics trafficking was not officially recognized as a security problem until the late 1970s. At around this same time, the country's guerrilla groups, having recovered their strength after the military's counterinsurgency operations of the late 1960s and early 1970s, stepped up their attacks. Within months of the inauguration of President Julio César Turbay Ayala (1978- 82), increasing violence had prompted the new executive to authorize a series of measures to broaden the armed forces' role in the struggle against the guerrillas and narcotics traffickers. Most prominent among the new measures was the National Security Statute. The statute expanded the arrest powers of the armed forces and placed punishment for a variety of crimes under the jurisdiction of military tribunals. In addition, in an attempt to curb the guerrillas' use of the press to gain publicity for their cause, the media was subjected to strict censorship. Finally, Turbay invoked the state of siege provision of the Constitution (see Constitutional Development; The Executive , ch. 4).
Throughout 1979 and 1980, critics charged that government policies allowed the military to carry out arbitrary arrests, torture, and "disappearances" in the campaign against subversion. Despite this criticism, however, the Turbay administration continued its tough stance until late 1980--following the tense two-month occupation of the Dominican Republic's Bogotá embassy during which twelve diplomatic personnel, including the United States ambassador, were held hostage. In 1981 Turbay extended an offer of political amnesty to the guerrillas; despite public disavowals and continued fighting, government and guerrilla leaders held secret amnesty negotiations until March 1982. The terms of the amnesty were finally rejected, however, by the guerrillas as well as by the military, which reportedly feared that it would demoralize the troops. Nevertheless, as casualties from the violence reached their highest level in thirty years, the state of siege was lifted on the eve of the presidential elections in 1982.
With the inauguration of the Betancur administration (1982-86), the government indicated its willingness to reach a truce with the guerrillas. The 1984 cease-fire agreement achieved with all but one of the major guerrilla organizations as part of the National Dialogue represented the first armistice ever reached between a government and its domestic insurgents. Analysts viewed the achievement as ineffectual and temporary, however, and the ceasefire repeatedly was violated by both sides. From the perspective of the Colombian military, the worst feature of the agreement was that it did not obligate the guerrillas to surrender their weapons. In 1984 the government was forced to recognize the challenge to its authority posed by narcotics traffickers, when the minister of justice (an outspoken opponent of the drug smugglers) was murdered.
Between the May 1984 reimposition of a state of siege and the inauguration of the Barco administration (1986- ), violence increased dramatically. Efforts to revive the peace process reached a stalemate, and the traffickers became increasingly bold. During the late 1980s, two new elements were introduced into the deteriorating situation when right-wing terrorist groups began carrying out their own vigilante-style attacks--operating, for the most part, with apparent impunity--and the traffickers formed their own paramilitary groups to forestall the government's campaign against them.
Data as of December 1988
Colombia Table of Contents