Here in Colombia, today represents a significant shift in history that’s almost impossible to ignore, even 70 years later. On April 9th, 1948 Colombia’s future was forever changed. After enduring over 100 years of conflict between its two political parties, an assassination and the subsequent chaos, named El Bogotazo, would contribute to La Violencia. This was a 10+ year period of time in which over 300,000 people were killed, and over two million displaced.
It was 1948 and things were changing. There was finally something to hope for, and this was embodied within Jorge Elicier Gaitán. He was a lawyer from a humble background, the mayor of Bogotá, and the liberal candidate for president. As Mario Murillo stated in his book, Colombia and the United States: War, Unrest and Destabilization: “[Gaitán] represented in many ways a truly revolutionary break from Colombia’s closed political past and was seen as a direct threat by many of the country’s most powerful political leaders, Liberal and Conservative alike.”
I’d like to share an excerpt of my thesis, entitled, “The Lasting Impact of La Violencia on Colombian Art and Society,” in order to demonstrate the importance of this date, 70 years later.
The Assassination of Gaitán and its Aftermath
On April 9, 1948, the Ninth Pan-American Congress was planned for the National Palace in Bogotá, to discuss the Soviet Union’s threat to global well-being. U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall was present alongside Latin American presidents and intellectuals. “Colombian rulers were eager to be seen as important regional players in world events.” However, the Congress never took place.
At 1:05pm, Jorge Eliecer Gaitán left his office for lunch with four doctors. Suddenly, Gaitán fell, shot four times—three bullets in the back and one at the base of his head. Colombians and historians alike have long speculated about the identity of the assassin, and whether he or she was Liberal, Conservative, or otherwise. However, the identity of Gaitán’s murderer is still a mystery unsolved. According to Eduardo Santa, “Those four shots didn’t just perforate [Gaitán’s] body, but they also changed the course of Colombian history.”
At 1:10pm, Gaitán’s assassination was announced over the radio. Almost immediately, the chaos began. According to Felipe Gonzales Toledo, people screamed lividly, losing all control; grown men cried like babies without any ability to restrain themselves. A stream of angry Liberal protesters flowed toward the National Palace, first setting the Governmental Ministry on fire. “Thus began a monstrous orgy of liquor, robbery, fire and blood.” Businesses were attacked, and the angry mobs appropriated food, clothing, and other consumer goods. They torched churches, government buildings, and trains. Gaitanistas, both professional and academic, seized the airwaves and called for an establishment of revolutionary juntas (small armies) against the conservative regime.
On April 9, 1948, a date which historians refer to as El Bogotazo, Colombia’s world was turned upside-down. Those who had long been oppressed were in power: peasants took over land that they had been denied, prisoners killed their guards, and some policemen took the side of the Gaitanistas. There was no organization to the Bogotazo, simply anarchy, destruction, and a desire for vengeance.
With the assassination of Gaitán and the Bogotazo riots, the Conservatives vehemently reclaimed their seat of dominance, leading Colombia into the epoch that would later be known as La Violencia…
Gaitán represented a hopeful future for those who coveted the permanent separation of church and state, as well as progressive, liberal social programs. It is not possible to determine whether Gaitán’s assassination and the subsequent Bogotazo were the direct causes of La Violencia. Nonetheless, these events certainly set the stage for the consequent decades of violence and dysfunction.
This excerpt is one of over 120 pages I wrote, discussing the importance of the Bogotazo and La Violencia on Colombian society, including its collective psyche, economy, and overall well-being. I spent two years of my life dedicated to researching this epoch of Colombian history.
During this time, there were many days that I vomited after staring at photographs of maimed, decapitated, and disemboweled victims. Countless mornings, this ruthless cruelty paralyzed me, and I was not able to get out of bed. Perusing nearly 50 books, analyzing art filled with torment, black tears fell and stained the pages. Some nights, I sat silently beside my boyfriend, drinking whiskey and cokes until my sorrow subsided. Eventually, I became numb.
Certainly, my mental health deteriorated as I immersed my life and mind in a world of tragedy, seemingly interminable suffering, violence, death, and injustice. My closest friends and family members questioned why I would choose a topic that inevitably led to depression.
As I wrote in the first pages of this project: “This thesis is dedicated to the people of Colombia and especially to the victims of La Violencia. It is also written in honor of all the brave individuals of the time who fought against repression with action, art, and the refusal to give up hope for peace.”
This was a narrative that needed to be told, and sometimes the most necessary stories are the most difficult to relay. I was fed up with people dehumanizing the Colombian people, of the trigger response of “cocaine,” “guerrillas,” and “danger” within the first seconds of mentioning the country. There is always more to learn about any event in history, and always much more depth than ignorant stereotypes could ever portray. It was my duty to tell the truth about violence in Colombia.
Colombia became part of who I was, and am. To know what the Colombian people endured, and still maintained hope, proved to me that the human spirit is fiercely resilient. Delving into the madness of genocide not only made me frighteningly aware of the atrocities people commit, but also the enduring faith and beauty within the human heart.
We should never judge others due to what the media has shown us. The “other” is just a different version of ourselves, and tragedy can happen at any time, to anyone.
 Hylton, F. (2006). Evil Hour in Colombia. (p.40). New York, NY: Verso.
 Santa, E. (1983). ¿Que pasó el 9 de Abril?. (p. 105). Bogotá: Ediciones Tercer Mundo.
 Santa, 105.
 Gonzales Toledo, F. (1978, February 26). El Tiempo, 4.
 Bermudez, A. (1995). Del Bogotazo al Frente Nacional: Historia de la decada en que cambió Colombia. (p. 25). Bogotá: Tercer Mundo Editores.
 Hylton, 41.
 Loveman, B. (1993). Constitution of Tyranny: Regimes of Exception in Spanish America. (p. 160). Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.