Page last updated at 09:58 GMT, Wednesday, 9 April 2008 10:58 UK

Colombia marks a deadly date

By Henry Mance

Just as many Americans recall the date of President John F Kennedy's assassination, 22 November 1963, older generations of Colombians regard 9 April 1948 as a momentous moment in their country's history.

A tram lies overturned and burning in central Bogota in the aftermath of the Gaitan assassination (Photo: Bogota Museum)
Gaitan's death heralded an era that came to be known as the Violence

On that day, Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, the radical populist leader and Colombia's probable next president, was shot dead.

Sixty years on, that assassination remains widely seen as a trigger of the country's violent history, in particular the emergence of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc).

"In the first half of the 20th Century, Colombia was extremely peaceful," says Eduardo Pizarro, a sociologist who currently heads the National Commission for Reparation and Reconciliation (CNRR).

"9 April marked a rupture: the country went from being the example of democratic stability in Latin America to being the example of unending violence."

Gaitan's death came at the height of his exceptional political career. Unlike any previous Colombian politician, he had mobilised a mass following, with fiery rhetoric denouncing the country's oligarchy and demanding social reform.

Having united the Liberal Party behind him, he seemed certain to win the 1950 presidential elections.

Then, as the politician left his office in the capital, Bogota, for lunch on 9 April, Juan Roa Sierra, a 26-year-old schizophrenic, fired three bullets into his torso.

City in meltdown

The chaos that unfolded was captured by Manuel H Rodriguez, at the time a young photographer of bullfights.

Jorge Eliecer Gaitan making a speech (Photo: Bogota Museum)
If they kill me, avenge me
Jorge Eliecer Gaitan

"When I heard the news on the radio, I just grabbed my camera. The people were already very resentful of the Conservative government," he remembers.

"When Gaitan was killed, the city just exploded."

Whether the assassin acted as part of a broader conspiracy is still unclear.

But Gaitan's supporters - gaitanistas - needed no evidence to blame the government.

"If they kill me, avenge me," Gaitan had frequently told his supporters, and they took his order to heart.

"Roa Sierra sought refuge in a pharmacy but the crowd got him out," Mr Rodriguez recalls.

"They dragged him by his tie towards the presidential palace, hitting and stabbing him, as a sign that the president was responsible for Gaitan's murder."

The crowds soon went further, setting alight trams and looting shops.

Also at the scene was Fidel Castro, then a student attending the Pan-American Conference taking place in Bogota.

"As if mad, people began to run through the streets shouting, 'They killed Gaitan'," the future Cuban leader recorded.

By the evening, "the city was virtually on fire. In reality, it's incredible that we weren't killed."

Hundreds of people were less fortunate, and Fidel Castro later admitted that he himself had fired several rifle shots.

His first experience of political violence would prove formative in the Cuban Revolution launched several years later.

Land problem

Events in Colombia unfolded fast. While the riots were limited to central Bogota, tensions between Liberals and Conservatives were quickly inflamed across the country.

An estimated 300,000 people were killed in clashes over the next several years, a period known simply as La Violencia - the Violence.

Jorge Eliecer's picture is Colombian 1,000-peso (55 US cents) banknotes
Gaitan's image appears on Colombian banknotes

"Gaitan was a revolutionary. The Conservative government took advantage of his death to mount a reign of terror to destroy the opposition," argues Carlos Lozano, director of the Communist newspaper Voz.

Among those radicalised during the Violence was Manuel "Sureshot" Marulanda.

Then a gaitanista peasant, Mr Marulanda took up arms against Conservative forces and went on to found the Farc, which he still leads.

"The Violence closed the route to democracy. The memory is still alive for the Farc," says Mr Lozano, who is regarded as having intimate knowledge of the guerrilla leadership.

Manuel Marulanda and other Liberal guerrillas were concerned with land redistribution, an issue that Gustavo Petro, a left-wing senator, believes subsequent governments have failed to address.

"The land problem," he says, "is still fundamental to the resolution of the violence."

According to Mr Petro, "If Gaitan had governed, Colombia would have become part of the phase of Latin American populism which triumphed in Argentina and Mexico.

"As well as land reform, that populism created citizenship, industrialisation and a strong state, which Colombia could never attain precisely because of Gaitan's murder. Today's violence is the same violence that originated in that era."

Complex history

But Malcolm Deas, a history lecturer at Oxford University, warns against seeing Colombia's conflict as growing inevitably out of the events of 1948.

A burned out building in central Bogota in the aftermath of the Gaitan assassination (Photo: Bogota Museum)
The 60th anniversary is a chance to gain a new perspective on La Violencia

"Most Liberal guerrillas negotiated peace deals with the government. By the 1970s there were very few guerrillas left. What changed that was the drug trade and the influence of Central America, including Nicaragua's Sandinistas," he says.

"There are links between the old violence and the new violence, but they're complex," Mr Deas argues.

"You can't eternally remember one assassination, especially in a country where there have been so many."

As the conflict between the Farc and the state drags on, others believe the anniversary of Gaitan's assassination should serve as pause for thought.

"There's an attempt at denial, in the sense of showing that there's no continuity between 9 April and the post-1960s violence," says Mr Pizarro.

"But there is more continuity than we want to recognise, despite the change from Liberal-Conservative violence to a post-Cuban Revolution form of violence."

Mr Pizarro notes that Colombian conflict is one of the longest-running in the world.

"It would be very interesting for Colombians to reflect on what 9 April really meant and how to eradicate this drawn-out conflict."

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific