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Formal Name
Republic of Colombia

Local Name

Local Formal Name
República de Colombia

Location: South America

Status: UN Country

Capital City: Bogotá

Main Cities: Medellín, Cali, Barranquilla, Buenaventura

Population: 34,545,000    Area []: 1,138,910

Currency: 1 Colombian peso = 100 centavos

Languages: Spanish, over 100 Indian dialects

Religions: Roman Catholic

Colombia, republic in South America, situated in the northwestern part of the continent, and bounded on the north by Panama and the Caribbean Sea, on the east by Venezuela and Brazil, on the south by Peru and Ecuador, and on the west by the Pacific Ocean. Colombia is the only country of South America with coasts on both the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. The total land area of the country is 1,141,748 sq km (440,831 sq mi). The capital and largest city is Bogotá.

Land and Resources

 The distinguishing topographical feature of Colombia is the Andes mountain chain, situated in the central and western parts of the country, and extending north-south across almost its entire length. The Andes comprise three principal and parallel ranges: the Cordillera Oriental, the Cordillera Central, and the Cordillera Occidental. On the Caribbean coast is the isolated mountain mass known as the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, which includes Colombia's highest point at Pico Cristóbal Colón (5775 m/18,947 ft). The Cordillera Central contains the volcanic peaks of Huila (5750 m/18,865 ft) and Tolima (5215 m/17,110 ft). About 240 km (about 150 mi) south of the Caribbean, the Cordillera Central descends to marshy jungle. The cordillera peaks are perpetually covered with snow; the timberline in these mountains lies at about 3000 m (about 10,000 ft).

East of the Cordillera Oriental are vast reaches of torrid lowlands, thinly populated and only partly explored. The southern portion of this region, called selvas (rain forests), is thickly forested and is drained by the Caquetá River and other tributaries of the Amazon River. The northern and greater part of the region comprises vast plains, or llanos, and is traversed by the Meta and other tributaries of the Orinoco River. Between the cordilleras are high plateaus, a number of which are about 2400 m (about 8000 ft) above sea level, and fertile valleys, traversed by the principal rivers of the country. The principal river of Colombia, the Magdalena, flows north between the Cordillera Oriental and the Cordillera Central, across practically the entire country, emptying into the Caribbean near Barranquilla after a course of about 1540 km (about 960 mi). The Cauca, also an important means of communication, flows north between the Cordillera Central and the Cordillera Occidental, merging with the Magdalena about 320 km (about 200 mi) from the Caribbean. In the west the Patía cuts its way through the Andes to empty into the Pacific. The coastline of Colombia extends for about 1760 km (about 1090 mi) along the Caribbean and for about 1450 km (about 900 mi) along the Pacific. River mouths along the coasts are numerous, but no good natural harbors exist.


Colombia lies almost entirely in the Torrid Zone, a meteorological term denoting the areas of the earth's surface between the tropic of Cancer and the tropic of Capricorn. The climate, however, varies with the elevation. The low regions along the coast and the deep Patía and Magdalena river valleys are torrid, with average annual temperatures of 24° to 27° C (75° to 80° F). From about 500 to 2300 m (about 1500 to 7500 ft) the climate is subtropical, and from about 2300 to 3000 m (about 7500 to 10,000 ft) it is temperate. Above about 3000 m (about 10,000 ft) is the cold-climate zone, where temperatures range from -18° to 13° C (0° to 55° F). The average January and July temperatures in Bogotá are the same: 14° C (57° F). The averages for the same months in Barranquilla are 27° C (80° F) and 28° C (82° F).

Throughout the year, three-month periods of rain and dry weather alternate. Along the Pacific coast precipitation is heavy. At Bogotá the annual rainfall averages about 1060 mm (about 42 in), and in Barranquilla it averages about 800 mm (about 32 in). Dry weather prevails on the slopes of the Cordillera Oriental.

Natural Resources

The mineral resources of the country are varied and extensive. Colombia is the major world source of emeralds. Other significant reserves include petroleum and natural gas, coal, gold, silver, iron ore, salt, platinum, and some uranium.

Plants and Animals

The indigenous flora and fauna of Colombia are as varied as the topography. Mangroves and coconut palms grow along the Caribbean coast, and the forest regions, which cover about one-half of the country, include such commercially useful trees as mahogany, lignum vitae, oak, walnut, cedar, pine, and several varieties of balsam. Tropical plants also yield rubber, chicle, cinchona, vanilla, sarsaparilla, ginger, gum copal, ipecac, tonka beans, and castor beans.

Among the wildlife are the larger South American mammals, such as jaguars, pumas, tapirs, peccaries, anteaters, sloths, armadillos, and several species of monkey and red deer. Alligators, once numerous along the principal rivers, have been intensively hunted and are becoming scarce. Many varieties of snakes inhabit the tropical regions. Birdlife includes condors, vultures, toucans, parrots, cockatoos, cranes, storks, and hummingbirds.


Colombia contains several fertile low-lying valleys, but only about 4 percent of the country's land area, chiefly at higher elevations, is cultivated. Soil exhaustion and erosion, largely the result of slash-and-burn farming methods, are problems in agricultural regions.


The racial makeup of the Colombian population is diversified. About 58 percent of the people are mestizo (of mixed Spanish and Native American ancestry), about 20 percent are of unmixed European ancestry, and about 14 percent are mulatto (of mixed black and white ancestry). The remaining 8 percent is made up of blacks, Native Americans, and people of mixed race.

Population Characteristics, Religion, and Language

The population of Colombia (1995 estimate) is 35,101,000, giving the country an overall population density of about 31 persons per sq km (about 80 per sq mi). About 73 percent of the population is classified as urban. The principal centers of population are in the Magdalena and Cauca river valleys and in the Caribbean coastal region. The concordat of 1973 preserves a privileged status for Roman Catholicism; about 95 percent of the people are Roman Catholic. Small Protestant and Jewish minorities exist. The official language of Colombia is Spanish, although a new constitution adopted in 1991 recognizes the languages of ethnic groups in their territories and provides for bilingual education.

Political Divisions and Principal Cities

 Colombia is divided into 32 departments and one capital district.

The capital and largest city is Bogotá, an industrial center with a population (1992 estimate) of 4,921,264. Other important commercial cities include the trading and textile centers of Medellín (1,581,364) and Cali (1,624,401); Barranquilla (1,018,763), which provides both a seaport and a major international airport; and Cartagena (688,306), a seaport and oil pipeline terminal.


Elementary education is free and compulsory for five years. Much effort has been devoted to eliminating illiteracy, and by the early 1990s nearly 87 percent of all Colombians over age 15 could read and write. Courses in Roman Catholicism are compulsory in all public schools, most of which are controlled by the Roman Catholic church. Protestant churches maintain a number of schools, chiefly in Bogotá. The national government finances secondary- and university-level schools and maintains primary schools in municipalities and departments that cannot afford to do so. In the early 1990s about 4.3 million pupils annually attended primary schools; some 2.4 million students attended secondary schools, including vocational and teacher-training institutions. In the late 1980s Colombia had some 235 institutions of higher education, with a total enrollment of nearly 475,000. Among the largest universities are the National University of Colombia (1867) in Bogotá (parts of which date from the 16th century), the University of Cartagena (1827) in Cartagena, the University of Antioquía (1822) in Medellín, and the University of Nariño (1827) in Pasto.


 The heritage of the Spanish colonial period is more noticeably preserved in Colombia than in any other South American country, and family life and dress often still conform to traditional norms. Although Colombia is a country of many racial mixtures, its culture is diversified more by region than by ethnicity. The Native American civilization was rapidly assimilated into that of the Spanish settlers, whose language nearly all Colombians speak today.

Distinguished Colombian writers include the 19th-century novelist Jorge Isaacs and, in the 20th century, poet Germán Pardó García and novelist Gabriel García Márquez, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1982.

The National Library in Bogotá (1777) contains about 800,000 volumes; it also administers town and village libraries throughout the country. The leading museums are located in Bogotá. The National Museum contains collections relating to the Spanish conquest and the colonial period. The National Archaeological Museum exhibits utensils, stone carvings, textiles, gold works, and other materials found at sites throughout the country. The famous Gold Museum features a noted collection of pre-Columbian gold objects.

For Colombian literature and music, see Latin American Literature; Latin American Music; Latin American Art and Architecture; Pre-Columbian Art and Architecture.


Colombia is primarily an agrarian nation, although it experienced rapid industrial growth in recent decades. In the early 1990s the country undertook an economic reform program that opened its economy to international trade and investment, and it is the only country in Latin America that maintained scheduled payments on loans during a debt crisis in the late 1980s. For these reasons the country enjoys one of the highest credit ratings in the region. Colombia's agricultural sector once was dependent on coffee as its principal cash crop, but has successfully diversified since a decline in international coffee prices in the late 1980s. Its mining sector contributes significantly to the economy, with large deposits of fossil fuels, precious metals, and emeralds, of which Columbia supplies about one-half the world supply. In the early 1990s the estimated annual budget included revenues of $11 billion and expenditures of $12 billion. The gross domestic product was $50 billion, or about $1470 per capita; not included in these official statistics is the economic impact of coca cultivation and the illegal cocaine trade, reportedly with profits worth $300 million annually in the early 1990s.


Coffee is Colombia's principal crop. Colombia is second only to Brazil in the annual volume of coffee produced and is the world's leading producer of mild coffee. The crop is cultivated chiefly on mountain slopes between about 900 and 1800 m (about 3000 and 6000 ft) above sea level, principally in the departments of Caldas, Antioquía, Cundinamarca, Norte de Santander, Tolima, and Santander. More than 150,000 coffee plantations, chiefly small, extend over approximately 1 million hectares (approximately 2.47 million acres). Coffee output totaled about 966,000 metric tons per year in the early 1990s. Most of the coffee exported goes to the United States. While coffee contributed 17 percent of export earnings in the early 1990s, Colombia's diverse climate and topography permits cultivation of a wide variety of other crops. Annual production of principal cash crops in addition to coffee are cacao beans (54,900 metric tons), sugarcane (2.1 million), bananas (1.6 million), tobacco (27,900), cotton (306,600), and cut flowers. Chief food crops are rice (1.7 million), potatoes (2.3 million), cassava (1.6 million), and plantains (2.6 million). Plants producing pita, sisal, and hemp fibers, used in the manufacture of cordage and coarse sacking material, are also cultivated. In the early 1990s the livestock population included about 24.8 million cattle, 2.6 million hogs, 2.6 million sheep, and 2 million horses.

Forestry and Fishing

Much of the forestland of Colombia is inaccessible because of poor transportation facilities, or contains trees of relatively little value. The annual cut of roundwood in Colombia in the early 1990s was about 19.7 million cu m (about 696 million cu ft). Much of the wood is used as fuel.

The coastal waters and many rivers and lakes of Colombia provide a variety of fish, notably trout, tarpon, sailfish, and tuna. The total catch in the early 1990s was about 108,700 metric tons annually, about one-quarter of which consisted of freshwater species of fish.


Petroleum and gold are Colombia's chief mineral products. A number of other minerals are extracted, including silver, emeralds, platinum, copper, nickel, coal, and natural gas. The petroleum operations are under control of a national petroleum company and several foreign-owned concessions. Production of crude petroleum is centered in the Magdalena River valley, about 650 km (about 400 mi) from the Caribbean, and in the region between the Cordillera Oriental and Venezuela; it amounted to about 160.4 million barrels per year in the early 1990s. Much of Colombia's oil is shipped to Curaçao for refining. New oil reserves discovered about 200 km (about 125 mi) east of Bogotá are expected to provide Colombia with energy self-sufficiency into the 21st century, with annual extraction from the reserves of 180 million barrels anticipated by the late 1990s. Colombia is one of the world's leading exporters of coal. Two-thirds of an annual production of 21.7 million metric tons comes from a single open-pit mine, the world's largest, on the Guajira Peninsula. Some 4.7 billion cu m (166 billion cu ft) of natural gas was produced annually in the early 1990s.

Gold, mined in Colombia since pre-Columbian times, is found principally in the department of Antioquía and to a lesser extent in the departments of Cauca, Caldas, Nariño, Tolima, and Chocó. Colombia is the leading gold producer of South America, with an output exceeding 1 million troy oz in the early 1990s. Platinum, discovered in Colombia in 1735, is found in the gold-bearing sands of the San Juan and Atrato river basins. Colombia has the largest platinum deposits in the world, producing about 51,500 troy oz annually. The chief emerald-mining centers are the Muzo and Chiver mines. Still other mineral products are lead, manganese, zinc, mercury, mica, phosphates, and sulfur.


The manufacturing industries in Colombia, stimulated in the 1950s by the establishment of high protective tariffs on imports, are generally small-scale enterprises, producing for the domestic market. Together, they account for about 21 percent of Colombia's yearly national output. Cotton-spinning mills, principally in the cities of Barranquilla, Manizales, Medellín, and Samacá, are important manufacturing establishments. Other industries include the manufacture of foodstuffs, tobacco products, iron and steel, and transportation equipment. Chemical products are becoming increasingly important, and footwear, Panama hats, and glassware are made.


Colombia has many hydroelectric installations, and in the late 1980s about three-fourths of its electricity was produced by such facilities. A drought in 1992 brought about electricity rationing in much of the country. Consequently the government initiated the construction of new thermoelectric power plants and improved natural gas distribution to urban residences. In the early 1990s the country's installed electricity producing capacity was some 10.2 million kilowatts, and its annual output of electricity was approximately 36 billion kilowatt-hours.

Currency and Banking

The basic unit of currency is the Colombian peso (866 pesos equal U.S.$1; 1995). The Bank of the Republic is the sole bank of issue and operates the mint, salt, and emerald monopolies for the government. It also shares responsibility for monetary policy with the government monetary board. More than 25 commercial banking institutions, as well as the government development banks and several other official and semiofficial financial institutions, operate in Colombia. Stock exchanges serve Bogotá, Medellín, and Cali.

Commerce and Trade

The principal export of Colombia is coffee, which typically accounts for about one-sixth of the yearly value of all exports. Petroleum, cotton goods, fresh-cut flowers, bananas, chemicals, sugar, coal, gold, emeralds, and cattle are other leading exports. The most important imports are mechanical and electrical equipment, chemicals, food, and metals. Colombia's annual exports earned about $6.9 billion and its imports cost some $6.7 billion in the early 1990s. The United States is Colombia's main trading partner, and Venezuela, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, Brazil, and Peru also have a significant amount of trade with the country. An original member of the Andean Group (1969), Colombia entered into two other trade associations in 1995, the Group of Three and the Association of Caribbean States (ACS). The Group of Three, composed of Mexico, Venezuela, and Colombia, aims to phase out trade barriers between those countries. The ACS, composed of the members of the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM) and 12 other Latin American nations, was the fourth largest trading bloc in the world in the mid-1990s. In addition, the Andean Group planned to create an Andean Common Market by the end of 1995. These associations assured Colombia an important position in regional trade.

Transportation and Communications

The irregular terrain of Colombia makes the construction of roads and railroads costly. Colombia has approximately 2761 km (about 1716 mi) of operated railroad track. Most of the national railroads are feeder lines to the Magdalena River, the main transport artery of the country, which with the Cauca River is navigable for about 1500 km (about 900 mi). Colombia has no regular passenger rail service. Roads total about 107,400 km (about 66,700 mi), including a part of the Simón Bolívar Highway, linking Caracas, Venezuela, through Bogotá and other Colombian towns, with Quito, Ecuador. Air transport was begun in Colombia in 1919, and the country is now served by domestic and international airlines. In 1946 Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador agreed to establish the Great Colombia Merchant Marine; Venezuela withdrew in 1953. The main seaports are Buenaventura, Tumaco, Santa Marta, Barranquilla, and Cartagena.


The labor force of Colombia numbers about 12 million; about 30 percent is engaged in agriculture, forestry, and fishing, 24 percent in industry and mining, and most of the remainder in service industries. More than 1.6 million people are in organized trade unions, mainly the National Union of Colombian Workers (1.2 million members) and the Colombian Confederation of Workers (400,000 members). The right to strike is constitutionally guaranteed to all employees who are not engaged in public utilities.


Colombia's 1991 constitution, which replaced a charter dating from 1886, provides for a highly centralized republican form of government.


National executive power in Colombia is vested in a president who is elected by direct popular vote to a single four-year term. Suffrage is universal for all citizens 18 years of age or older. The president appoints a cabinet, subject to congressional approval. Under the 1991 constitution, the departmental governors are directly elected.


Legislative power in Colombia is vested in a bicameral Congress composed of a House of Representatives of 161 members and a Senate of 102 members. Members are elected to four-year terms. The 1991 constitution provides penalties for absenteeism and bars members of Congress from simultaneously holding any other public office.


The 1991 constitution provides for three high courts: the Supreme Court, the Constitutional Court, and the State Council. Its 24 justices are elected for life, half by the Senate and half by the House of Representatives. The Supreme Court is the highest court on all matters of criminal law. The Constitutional Court, elected by the Senate to eight-year terms, rules on the constitutionality of legislation and also hears all cases concerning the constitution. The State Council is the highest court for cases concerning the administration of the government. The judicial system also includes superior and lower district courts and provincial and municipal judges. The 1991 constitution bans extradition and establishes an independent system of prosecution. Capital punishment is outlawed.

Political Parties

Colombia has a relatively free and open political system in which a number of parties participate. The two major parties have traditionally been the Conservative party (now known as the Colombian Social Conservative party), favoring strong central government and close relations with the Roman Catholic church, and the Liberal party, favoring stronger local governments and separation of church and state. Between 1958 and 1974 the Liberals and Conservatives were the only legal political parties in Colombia, owing to a 1957 constitutional amendment intended to defuse the explosive antagonisms between them. Under this arrangement, called the National Front, each party held exactly half the number of seats in each legislative house and in the cabinet and other agencies, and the presidency alternated between leaders of the parties. During the 1980s the Liberals held majorities in both houses of Congress. In the 1990 presidential election, the former guerrilla group M-19 emerged as the third leading political party. In the 1994 elections the Liberal Party retained its majority in both houses. The M-19 group lost most of the seats it had won in 1990.

Health and Welfare

Public health standards are improving, although physicians are still in short supply. Most of the country's physicians work in the larger cities. In the late 1980s Colombia had some 926 hospitals and clinics and 861 health centers. Malaria and yellow fever are still endemic in some parts of the country. A social insurance system provides maternity and dental benefits, accident insurance, workers' compensation and disability, and retirement and survivors' insurance to most of the industrial labor force. The system is financed by contributions from employers, workers, and the government.


From one to two years of military service are required of all male citizens in Colombia aged 18 and older. Some 120,000 people serve in the Colombian armed forces.


Relics of one of the most fascinating but little-studied civilizations in the western hemisphere have been found at San Augustín, near the source of the Magdalena River in the Colombian Andes. Little is known about the people who made these stone statues, relief carvings, sepulchral chambers, and shrines, or when their culture flourished. Present estimates date the beginnings of San Augustín to the last five centuries BC.

The stone statues are generally anthropomorphic figures, many with grotesque expressions. They have been found in caves and on mounds, where their presence seems to have had a ritual significance. Frequently, one figure is placed astride the shoulders and back of another. One particularly striking statue, a bird holding a serpent in its beak and thought to be a fertility symbol, is similar in imagery to the emblem of the Aztecs.

Spanish Conquest

In 1502, on his last voyage to the Americas, Christopher Columbus explored a part of the Caribbean coast of the empire of the Chibcha people, now the northern coast of Colombia. He was followed by a number of Spanish conquistadores, who conquered the Chibcha and established the first permanent settlement of Europeans on the American mainland, on the site of Darién in 1510, and the settlements of Santa Marta in 1525 and Santa Fé de Bogotá in 1538. In 1549 the former Chibcha Empire was included in the Audiencia of New Granada. Between 1717 and 1739 the Audiencia of New Granada and the territories that later became Ecuador, Venezuela, and Panama were included in the viceroyalty of New Granada. Lack of economic progress and social and political discrimination against native-born New Granadans caused intense hostility to Spanish rule. Inspired by the successful American and French revolutions of the late 18th century, the people of New Granada joined the revolutionary movement for independence that swept over Spain's western empire in the early 19th century.

Independence from Spain

In the wars that followed, the South American leader Simón Bolívar was the outstanding revolutionary and military figure. His decisive victory over the Spanish royalists at the Battle of Boyacá River on August 7, 1819, resulted in the liberation of the former Audiencia of New Granada. The Congress of Angostura, which followed on December 17, 1819, proclaimed the formation of the State of Great Colombia, to comprise the former Audiencia of New Granada, present-day Panama, and, on their liberation, Venezuela and Ecuador. Following the liberation of Venezuela in 1821, the Congress of Cúcuta, on August 30, 1821, adopted a constitution for Great Colombia, providing for a republican form of government, and elected Bolívar as its first president. The new republic was short-lived; in 1831 New Granada (including Panama) became a separate state.

The history of the country since then is largely a record of the struggle, frequently violent, of liberal and conservative elements to determine government policy. Political and social issues were frequently complicated by bitter controversies involving the property, legal status, and privileges of the Roman Catholic church.

Constitutional Changes

Slavery was abolished in New Granada in 1851 and 1852. A new constitution, adopted in 1853, provided for trial by jury, freedom of the press, and other civil rights. In 1853 church and state were separated. Five years later the provinces became federal states, and the name of the republic was changed to Granadine Confederation. Civil war broke out in 1861 between liberal elements, favoring greater sovereignty for the states constituting the republic, and conservative elements, fighting for a strong central government. Following the victory of the liberals a new constitution was adopted in 1863 providing for a union of sovereign states named the United States of Colombia.

From 1880 to 1930, conservative policies predominated. A revolt of liberal elements was suppressed in 1885. A new constitution was proclaimed in 1886, and the present name of the country, the republic of Colombia, was chosen. The new constitution abolished the sovereign states created by the constitution of 1863 and established the present basic structure of the country. The Roman Catholic church was made the official church. Between 1899 and 1902 the country descended into civil war. This war, known as the War of a Thousand Days, claimed 60,000 to 130,000 lives.

Loss of Panama

In 1903 the Colombian Senate refused to ratify the Hay-Herrán Treaty, which provided for the lease of a strip of territory across the Isthmus of Panama to the United States for the purpose of building a canal across the Isthmus of Panama. A revolt broke out in Panama; U.S. armed forces intervened to prevent Colombian troops from suppressing the uprising, and the United States recognized Panama as an independent state. The resulting strained relations between Colombia and the United States were resolved by the Thomson-Urrutia Treaty, ratified in 1921.

The return to power of liberal elements, which took place in the election of 1930, resulted, in 1936, in constitutional amendments giving the government power to regulate privately owned property in the national interest; establishing the right of workers to strike, subject to legal regulation; disestablishing the Roman Catholic church; and secularizing public education. A new labor code adopted in 1944 provided for minimum wage scales, paid vacations and holidays, accident and sickness benefits, and the right to organize.

World War II and the Postwar Era

During World War II (1939-1945) Colombia severed diplomatic relations with Japan, Germany, and Italy in 1941, and in 1942 with the Vichy government of France. In 1943 the Colombian Senate declared a state of belligerency with Germany, and the republic signed the charter of the United Nations in June 1945, becoming one of the 51 original members.

The postwar era was one of severe political crisis, a direct result of the deepening antagonism between Liberal and Conservative factions. The assassination of Liberal party leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán in Bogotá on April 9, 1948, sparked a nationwide uprising against the Conservative government; some 1500 were killed and more than 20,000 injured. The rebellion disrupted the Ninth International Conference of American States, then in session in Bogotá. The conference succeeded, however, in completing the draft of the charter of the Organization of American States, of which Colombia became a signatory on April 30. With the aid of the loyal army the rebellion was brought under control by the government, which was reorganized to include an equal number of Liberal and Conservative cabinet ministers. Nevertheless, tension and violence mounted steadily during the following months. Liberal members withdrew from the government after a government decree was issued banning meetings and parades, and the Liberal party withdrew its candidate from the presidential elections of 1949, charging the government with election law violations. As a result the Conservative candidate, Laureano Gómez, a political leader and newspaper editor, won the November elections without opposition. He was inaugurated in August 1950.

An Era of Violence

Between Gómez's election and inauguration, the political struggle had entered a new phase. Armed guerrilla bands were in action in many outlying areas of the country. In response, the government declared a state of siege and suspended the 1950 session of Congress. Shortly after the inauguration of Gómez a Liberal party convention declared the government illegal, charging it with suppressing freedom of speech, the press, and assembly, and vowed to continue its boycott of elections. In February 1953 the Conservative party proposed a new constitution, the provisions of which would have imposed on Colombia a totalitarian regime modeled after that of Spain under Francisco Franco. Liberals and moderate Conservatives bitterly opposed the constitution, and in June, when a military junta deposed the Gómez government, both factions gave their approval to the coup d'état. General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla was named provisional president, and in August 1954 he was elected to a four-year term by the constitutional convention. The convention did not meet again until October 1956, during which time the government ruled by decree. When the convention reopened, a number of delegates openly denounced the restrictive policies of Rojas Pinilla. A wave of antigovernment violence followed. However, Congress reelected Rojas Pinilla in May 1957. This inflamed public opinion, and a new military coup deposed him a few days later. The Liberal and Conservative parties then arrived at an agreement to share all government offices equally for 12 years. This plan was approved in a plebiscite on December 1, 1957, and early in 1958 it was extended to 16 years.

The National Front and After

Later in 1958 the Liberal candidate, Alberto Lleras Camargo, a former president, was reelected to the presidency. The Liberal-Conservative coalition, called the National Front, brought a measure of stability to Colombia in the 1960s. The coalition retained a majority in both houses of Congress but could seldom win the two-thirds majority required in both houses for the passage of legislation. As a result the government frequently fell into periods of near-paralysis. President Guillermo León Valencia, the Conservative candidate elected to office in 1964, declared a state of siege the following year in order to overcome the political stalemate. Rule by decree was continued under President Carlos Lleras Restrepo, who was elected on the Liberal ticket and succeeded Valencia in 1966. In the elections of 1970 the National Front defeated a challenge by former dictator Rojas Pinilla, electing Misael Pastrana Borrero as president.

When the National Front coalition came to an end in 1974, Alfonso López Michelsen, a Liberal, was elected president. The Conservatives were granted certain cabinet posts. High unemployment persisted, and incidents of labor and student unrest occurred, as well as isolated guerrilla activity. In 1978, in an election marked by low voter turnout, another Liberal, Julio Turbay Ayala, was elected president by a slim margin; he consequently took five Conservatives into his cabinet. Leftist insurgents became bolder in 1979 as the army failed to subdue them. In 1980 a guerrilla band occupied the Dominican embassy in Bogotá for 61 days, holding many foreign diplomats as hostages. Presidential elections in 1982 were won by the Conservative candidate, Belisario Betancur Cuartas, a former minister of labor. Under an amnesty issued by Betancur, about 400 guerrillas were pardoned; a truce between the government and rebel groups was announced in May 1984. The same month, Betancur launched a crackdown on Colombia's flourishing drug traffic. Through 1985, however, the guerrillas regained strength, and the antidrug crackdown lost momentum as the drug traffickers and rebels joined forces in some regions. In November government troops and guerrillas engaged in violent combat after the guerrillas seized the Palace of Justice in Bogotá and took dozens of hostages. By the end of the siege, 100 were dead, including the president of the supreme court and 10 other justices. Later that month a volcanic mudslide resulted in 25,000 dead or missing.

In the 1986 elections, the Liberals took parliament, and Virgilio Barco Vargas, their leader, became president on August 7. In August 1989, responding to a wave of killings in which Colombia's cocaine cartels were implicated, the government arrested more than 10,000 people and confiscated the property of suspected drug traffickers. After a campaign during which three presidential candidates were assassinated, the Liberal party nominee, César Gaviria Trujillo, was elected in May 1990. He supported a new constitution that took effect in July 1991 and, among other provisions, prohibited extradition of Colombian citizens. Gaviria also lifted the state of siege and offered amnesty to drug traffickers who turned themselves in. Some did so, but the cocaine trade, along with guerrilla activity, continued to disrupt the country. In December 1991, Pablo Escobar, head of the Medellín cocaine cartel, was killed by government security forces when a gunfight ensued after they attempted to capture him. In June 1994 hundreds of people were killed after an earthquake measuring 6.8 on the Richter scale triggered avalanches and floods in southwestern Colombia. Also that month, Ernesto Samper Pizano of the Liberal party was elected president. The government and two guerrilla groups made progress towards peace in 1994, agreeing to talks aimed at the disarmament of and legislative representation for the guerrillas. Other groups stepped up attacks around the country, causing both damage and loss of life. Congressional elections in 1994 resulted in a continued majority in both houses for the Liberal Party. In 1995 Colombia joined two trade associations, the Association of Caribbean States (ACS) and the Group of Three.