On May 21, myself and three other Loyola students traveled to the La Candelaria neighborhood of Bogota, Colombia. We hoped to see a museum, but ended up at a political rally for then left-wing candidate Gustavo Petro and his running mate, Francia Marquez.
The four of us were in Colombia through a Loyola study abroad program. It was our last night in Bogota and we wanted to explore the city one last time before heading north to Cartagena.
It took some time to hail a cab, but we got to La Candelaria and eventually found ourselves at a local presidential political rally.
Petro is a leftist politician and former member of the M-19 guerrilla group who has promised economic reforms to the public, 54% of which are under the poverty line. His running mate, Marquez, will be the first Black female vice president in Colombia’s history.
Being on the ground watching the speakers at that rally was surreal. I’ve been to political rallies in the U.S., but I don’t recall seeing anything like this. Here, vendors sold food and cigarettes while rally-goers set off colorful smoke bombs, waving LGBTQ+ pride flags, the Pan-Africanism flag and others.
As the speeches wound down, we decided to grab a quick bite to eat but quickly rushed out to watch the fireworks being set off from the rally.
The fact that we were able to feel safe is a testament to how far this country has come. For the last week, we had been studying the peace building and reconciliation in Colombia.
Much of this centered on the conflict involving the Colombian government, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) — a communist guerrilla group — right wing paramilitaries, drug traffickers and other guerilla groups.
The Colombian conflict traces back to 1948 when leftist presidential candidate, Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, was murdered just a few blocks away from where the 2022 rally took place in Bogota. His death came as tensions between the liberal and ruling conservative parties within Colombia were at a breaking point and sparked a 10 year civil war known as “La Violencia” that ended in 1958.
Tensions were still high in the country leading to a government attack on a rural Communist community and the foundation of FARC in 1964.
FARC wasn’t the only combatant. The left included two Marxist liberation armies which are still active and the 19th of April Movement (M-19), which is no longer active. On the right, paramilitaries were created by the country’s elites to maintain power and fight guerrillas. Intermixed in this conflict was cocaine trafficking, which funded many of these groups.
The human cost of the conflict was devastating. Over 262,000 people were killed during the conflict with the vast majority being civilians. Additionally 120,000 Colombians are still missing. Of the missing, 80,000 people are believed to have been forcibly disappeared while the other 40,000 were kidnapped for ransom and never returned.
Much of the violence in Colombia has historically been right-wing violence against the left and civilians. 46% of those killed during the conflict were killed by paramilitaries. Many leftist leaders and politicians were killed during the violence. These included 5,733 members of the left-wing Patriotic Union Party who were killed between 1984 and 2018. Of these was Bernardo Jaramillo, who ran for president in the 1990 election. Two other left wing candidates in that election — Carlos Pizarro Leongomez and Luis Carlos Galan — were also killed.
Despite this history, there is a great deal to be hopeful about. In 1990, M-19 laid down their arms and became a political party as their main focus was to make Colombia more democratic. In 2006, one of the major paramilitaries — the AUC — was disbanded. One of the biggest events was the signing of a peace deal in 2016 which saw the end of the conflict between FARC and the Colombian government.
That night I realized if we had been here 10 or 20 years ago we wouldn’t feel this safe. Here we were in 2022, blocks away from where Gaitan was killed 74 years ago, watching a leftist politician in Colombia take the stage without an attempt on their life being made.
While things aren’t perfect in Colombia there is still debate on how to move beyond the decades of conflict. Seeing the Colombian people actively work to improve their homeland and promote peace was inspiring to see.
All of this in a country that has gone through so much makes me think that peace can prevail, no matter how dark it may seem at times.