Colombian History

Before the arrival of the Spanish, Colombia was sparsely inhabited by indigenous peoples. High in the Andes, the Muisca were master goldsmiths, who may have sparked the myth of El Dorado with their tradition of anointing a new chief by rolling him in gold dust. The legend of El Dorado was an irresistible attraction for a host of European adventurers in search of gilded cities.

The Spanish settled in the region as early as 1510, but it wasn't until conquistador Rodrigo de Bastidas founded the port town of Santa Marta in 1525 that a permanent settlement was established in what is now known as Colombia. He banned the exploitation of the indigenous peoples, but those who followed him had other plans. Explorers like Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada plundered and pillaged their way inland. After quickly dispatching the local Muisca tribes, he established a Spanish settlement in what is now Bogotá.

Despite their near decimation at the hands of brutal Europeans, Colombia's native peoples have left a lasting mark on the country. The extraordinary carved stones in the southwestern settlement of San Agustín speak of empires once rich in gold, emeralds, and the technological skills necessary to erect statues honoring long-forgotten gods. In the Andes and on the coastal plains you'll find modern descendants of these lost tribes living a life unchanged since Christopher Columbus presumptuously claimed Colombia in the name of King Ferdinand of Spain.

Colombians express with some pride that they live in the oldest democracy in Latin America. Colombia has enjoyed a constitutionally elected government for nearly all of its history. This has not, however, brought stability to the country, with two civil wars in the first half of the 20th century and guerrilla activity that has echoed in the countryside since the 1960s.

Since the explosion in the '80s of the international drug trade, Colombia has struggled with the repercussions of this vast and complex issue. It is one of the few countries where it's possible to grow coca, a leaf sacred to many indigenous tribes. Unfortunately it's also used to manufacture cocaine. In the relatively uncontrolled infancy of the cocaine trade, the Colombian cartels grew to become enormously powerful, most notably the Medellín Cartel–-run by the infamous Pablo Escobar–-and the competing Cali Cartel. At the height of the drug-related conflict, the country was devastated by violence on every level including the assassination of three presidential candidates.

With the downfall of Escobar in 1993 and the Cali Cartel two years later, the industry fragmented, with smaller groups choosing a much lower profile to avoid attention. Unfortunately, drug-related violence continues in the poorest peripheries of Colombia’s major cities even today and will see no end until international demand dries up.

In 2002 then-president Alvaro Uribe waged a military campaign aimed at wiping out the guerrillas that at some points spilled over into neighboring Venezuela and Ecuador, bringing the nations close to war. This policy continued in 2010 with his successor, Juan Manuel Santos, but after de-escalation by both sides, peace talks began in Havana in 2012 with the largest guerrilla group, the FARC.

A landmark agreement was reached with the FARC in June 2016 which, along with similar agreements with three other smaller rebel groups, brought the end of the conflict within reach. Over the last decade Colombia has benefited greatly from a fragile peace, as the remaining conflict largely moved away from the larger urban centers. The steady growth of tourism and the local economy has done much to alleviate the conditions that led to crime and conflict and, although inequality remains stark in rural regions, the country has much cause for optimism.

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