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This preface was used in the French edition of Out of War, La paix pour les enfants

La Paix

It is hard to say when the Colombian war began but the murder of the popular liberal leader, Jorge Gaitán, on April 9 1948, was a major turning point. Colombian politics had been marred by violence for more than a hundred years and several times the feud between the conservatives and the liberals had erupted into war.*

The 1946 presidential elections left many liberals dissatisfied. The greatest number of votes had been cast for their party but had been split between two candidates — Gaitán was one of these. But the conservative candidate had the greatest number of individual votes, and was therefore declared the winner. The two years following the election were marked by strikes, riots and sometimes murderous assaults – on both sides. Meanwhile Gaitán’s popularity grew, especially among the urban poor. He promised reforms that would help reduce the huge gap between the small wealthy elite and the poor, and seemed likely to become Colombia’s next President.

When Gaitán was gunned down in broad daylight on a Bogotá street in 1948, a real fury was unleashed. Rioters rampaged through the capital and destroyed much of downtown Bogotá. In towns and villages across the country, liberal and conservative supporters took up arms against each other. A brutal, undeclared civil war took hold that was so vicious it became known simply as La Violencia – The Violence. In ten years, more than 200,000 people were killed.

In 1958, the Conservative and Liberal Parties declared a truce and signed the National Front Pact which would allow them to take turns running the government for the next sixteen years. The Pact banned all other political parties, including that of the communists who had fought on the side of the liberals during the war. The communists resented their exclusion from political power, and held onto territory they had gained during the war – mostly in very poor areas of the south and east. Inspired by the success of Fidel Castro’s revolution in Cuba, they began forming “self-protection units” among the peasant farmers. In 1964, the Colombian army and air force launched a massive assault against some of these rebel territories. In response, the communists formed the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (known by their initials in Spanish as the FARC.) The guerrilla war was born and has lasted ever since.

The guerrillas slowly won the sympathy of some intellectuals and of many poor rural people who felt they had no political representation. Among these was the M19 guerrilla group whose first action, in 1974, was the theft of the sword of the national hero, Simon Bolivar. The M19 swore that the sword would not be returned until Bolivar’s promise of a fair and just society was fulfilled. The M19 were popular even with many middle class citizens, until 1985 when they invaded Colombia’s highest court, the Palace of Justice. The army reacted with overwhelming force and more than one hundred people were killed, including eleven supreme court justices.

By the 1980s, although the wealthy elite continued to prosper, Colombian society was disintegrating under the strains of violence and the absence of effective government across vast territories. Illicit drug cultivation and trade thrived and created great wealth for some. The FARC taxed farmers who grew drug crops and with this increased income the war expanded. The guerrilla armies also financed their operations by kidnapping for ransom. The number of kidnap victims grew from almost 550 in the 1970s, to just over three thousand in the 1980s and more than sixteen thousand during the 1990s.

For many years, wealthy Colombians had hired armed groups of civilians – known as paramilitaries – to protect themselves and their property. But the paramilitaries of the 1980s had strong financial backing from drug traffickers, and attacked any “subversives” they suspected of supporting the guerrillas. These included people who worked with the poor or who supported the protection of human rights, like community leaders, teachers, trade unionists, doctors, lawyers and priests, many of whom were killed or threatened and forced to flee the country. The army cooperated openly with paramilitary groups until 1989 when the paramilitaries were declared illegal. Afterwards, some army units continued to give clandestine support.

By the late 1990s, the FARC and the ELN**, another leading guerrilla group, had a combined force of more than 20,000 combatants, and controlled about forty per cent of the country. The paramilitaries had anywhere up to 10,000 and were steadily expanding. Both had large numbers of children in their ranks.

The first attempt to make peace was launched by President Betancur in 1982. He succeeded in making peace agreements with several guerrilla armies, including the FARC. Thousands of former guerrillas laid down their weapons and many of them joined the Patriotic Union (UP) political party. Over the next decade, more than two thousand UP members were assassinated by paramilitaries. Betancur’s peace process was brought to a halt in 1985 by the M19 assault on the Palace of Justice.

In 1989, President Barco persuaded the M19 and several other smaller guerrilla groups to disband and re-enter civilian life. The M19 even returned the sword of Simon Bolivar and in 1990, they helped develop a new national constitution that emerged as one of the most liberal in the world. The chaos created by the war, however, never permitted the new constitution to be applied. Throughout the 1990s, the conflict continued to grow more brutal, fueled by the expanding drug trade and the rival ambitions of guerrillas and paramilitaries.

In 1998, inspired by a broad civil society bid for peace (which included the Children’s Mandate) President Andrés Pastrana launched a third peace-making effort. He began negotiating with the FARC while civil society groups met with the ELN, in the German city of Mainz. Among other promises, the ELN agreed to suspend kidnapping but not long afterwards they abducted the entire congregation of La Maria church in Cali, right in the middle of mass. It was more than a year before all the hostages were freed.

In 1999, Pastrana unveiled Plan Colombia, a massive multi-billion dollar scheme to combat the drug trade, stimulate the economy and strengthen human rights and democracy. With this he has won international support and funds from the United States and the European Union. But many people inside and outside Colombia fear that the Plan contains too much emphasis on military support to succeed in making peace. The peace talks continue, but so do the massacres, mutilations, disappearances and kidnappings.

I interviewed President Pastrana in May 1999 and asked him what was the hardest obstacle to overcome in the effort to make peace. He said that it was the lack of faith that peace was possible. After a virtual half-century of war, after so many betrayals and failures, perhaps it is not surprising that people should have little faith. This is what makes the stories of the young people in this book so important.


* The feud was rooted in strong political differences – conservatives wanted strong central government and had close ties to the Catholic Church. The liberals wanted decentralized government and religious freedom. Both parties had supporters in every province of the country and among rich and poor alike. Whichever party held power gave favors and economic benefits to their supporters, and these were hard to give up when power changed hands.

** Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional or National Liberation Army.

The Colombian conflict