El Bogotazo & the death of Gaitán

If you want a longer version of the story (also in SP), try this series of 7 videos (the audio isn’t the best though).

El Bogotazo refers to the massive riots that followed the assassination in Bogotá, Colombia of Liberal leader and presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán on April 9, 1948 during the government of President Mariano Ospina Pérez. The 10 hours riot left a death toll of 3,000 to 5,000 people and thousands injured. The aftershock of Gaitan’s murder continued extending through the countryside and triggered a period in the history of Colombia known as La Violencia that lasted until approximately 1958.

Many theories behind the assassination can be found here.

The Riots

Radio Station Últimas noticias, managed by followers of Gaitán, made the following broadcast some minutes later:

Últimas Noticias con ustedes. Los conservadores y el gobierno de Ospina Pérez acaban de asesinar al doctor Gaitán, quien cayó frente a la puerta de su oficina abaleado por un policía. Pueblo ¡a las armas! ¡A la carga!, a la calle con palos, piedras, escopetas, cuanto haya a la mano. Asaltad las ferreterías y tomaos la dinamita, la pólvora, las herramientas, los machetes…


Últimas Noticias with you. Conservatives and the Ospina Pérez government have just killed Dr. Gaitán, who fell by the door of his office, shot by a police officer. People: To arms! Charge! To the streets with clubs, stones, shotguns, or whatever is at hand! Break into the hardware stores and take the dynamite, gunpowder, tools, machetes…“.

After that, instructions to make Molotov cocktails were broadcast.

People from everywhere in the city rushed downtown. Many were homeless people who had come to Bogotá to flee the violent political conflicts of rural Colombia. A large crowd formed outside Clinica Central, the hospital where Gaitan died.

At 1:20 p.m. President Ospina was notified of the murder and called for a council with his cabinet. After dumping the body of Roa outside the Casa de Nariño, the crowd attacked the palace with stones and bricks. Many cars, buses and street cars were burned. A few hours later violence exploded in other cities, including Medellín, Ibagué and Barranquilla.

The leaders of the Liberal Party decided to nominate Darío Echandía to replace Gaitán as head of the party. From a balcony, he pleaded the crowd to stop the violence, but it was useless. The mobs tried to force entry to the Casa de Nariño. They were confronted by the Army, and many were killed. The offices of the government ministry and El Siglo newspaper were set on fire.

Most of the hardware stores were raided, especially in San Victorino district. People armed themselves with pipes, hooks, steel rods, hatchets, saws, and machetes. Some policemen joined the mobs. Others were confused and waited for orders that never came.

About 3:00 p.m, the mobs broke into the police headquarters. The Major in charge, Benicio Arce Vera, came out unarmed to plead with the crowd, and gave orders not to shoot. The mob ran him over and stole weapons and ammunition. According to Arce, in an interview years later to Bohemia magazine, among those who took the weapons was Fidel Castro, (La Habana, April 21, 1983, issue 16). Some writers say that this event influenced Fidel Castro at the age of 21, who had the opportunity to witness the initial violence and take views about the viability of an electoral route for political change. Others view it more darkly since Castro at that age had already been involved in violence in Cuba where he is reputed to have killed, or tried to kill, a number of university rivals (including Rolando Masferrer) by that time (Ros, 2003).

The leaders of the Liberal party were still in the hospital, next to Gaitán’s body, overwhelmed and at a loss as to how the chaos might be controlled. They received a phone call from the presidential palace, inviting them to a meeting to try and resolve their differences and find a solution. However, because of the conflict in the streets, the Liberal leaders were unable to reach the palace – some even received shotgun wounds. Eventually they asked for a military escort, and successfully reached the palace. However, President Ospina was surprised to see the Liberal leaders, since the invitation had been made by some of his ministers without his knowledge. Discussions went throughout the night – but failed to reach an agreement.

Meanwhile, Molotov bombs were devastating downtown Bogotá. Fires destroyed the Cundinamarca Government building, the historic San Carlos palace (containing the oldest portrait of Simón Bolívar, painted by Gill in London, 1810), the Justice Palace, Feminine University, Dominican Convent, St. Inés Convent, Regina Hotel, Veracruz church, La Salle high school, the Vatican Nunciature, and many other important landmarks of the city.

Most stores were looted and the mob’s rage increased by the minute. Many of those making up the mobs quickly became intoxicated from stolen liquor and offered little resistance to the Army’s counter attack. By 6:00 p.m there were over 5,000 people who dided and hundreds of buildings on fire. Prisoners escaped in mass jailbreaks.

Many were killed over struggles for stolen goods. All sorts of merchandise was carried off to the poorer outlying districts. As reported some days later by Semana magazine (issue #78, April 24/1948), people started to sell the stolen objects at extremely low prices, or just exchanged the merchandise for alcohol. In the following days, a market for selling the stolen goods was set up, which was known as the “Feria Panamericana” (Pan-American Fair).

In an attempt to calm the riots, staff of the radio station “Últimas Noticias” — Gerardo Molina, Diego Montaña Cuellar, Carlos Restrepo Piedrahita, Jorge Zalamea, Jorge Uribe Márquez, José Mar and others — planned to start a Revolutionary Council. They broadcast information about the constitution of this council and announced severe punishment to those who took advantage of the riots to commit crimes.

The Central Government, after defeating the mobs that were attacking the Justice Palace, showed little interest in the violence over the rest of the city. However, statements broadcast by Últimas Noticias claiming political power were perceived as a threat. The electricity in that district was shut down, and the Army was sent in to shut down transmission.

By dawn, much of the city was devastated. Waves of unrest and crime spread throughout the country for almost a decade in a civil, bipartisan conflict of mass murder and torture. This period is commonly known as La Violencia, (“The Violence”), during which approximately 200,000 people died. – Wikipedia


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