The world’s most promising under-developed country is still fighting a Vietnam-style war against the vicious bandidos who kill thousands of peasants every year

IAN SCLANDERS September 7 1963


The world’s most promising under-developed country is still fighting a Vietnam-style war against the vicious bandidos who kill thousands of peasants every year

IAN SCLANDERS September 7 1963


The world’s most promising under-developed country is still fighting a Vietnam-style war against the vicious bandidos who kill thousands of peasants every year


Maclean's Washington editor

Special report from the explosive half of our hemisphere

ENTERING THE PRESIDENT’S PALACE at Bogota, the capital of Colombia, is like straying onto a Hollywood set for a Technicolor epic about bygone royalty — a set with white marble pillars, broad redcarpeted stairs, crystal chandeliers, and guardsmen wearing brass helmets with ornamental spikes. A military aide-de-camp led me up the stairs and through a long corridor and each guardsman did an intricate bit of rifle juggling and heel clicking as we passed.

At the end of the corridor I was ushered into a magnificent room furnished with Spanish antiques. President Guillermo Leon Valencia, a trim aristocrat with white hair, finely chiseled features and sad brown eyes, was at his desk. He rose and stretched out his hand. When we settled down for a talk, I asked him what he considered to be Colombia’s worst problem. “Bandits,” he said.

It seemed to me odd and startling that this sophisticated, highly civilized man, the son of a famous poet, was gravely concerned about something as primitive as banditry. Yet I’d already learned that in remote regions in Latin America bands of incredibly vicious robbers are not illusions on a television screen but a frightening fact.

In most countries, these bandidos are a grotesquely distorted human protest against the lack of land to grow food on. Colombia is an exception to the rule. So rich are its resources that Alliance for Progress engineers and economists regard it as the Latin American country with the greatest promise of showing early and impressive results from Alliance projects. Yet it has more bandits than any other Latin American republic. Colombian bandits killed two thousand men, women and children in 1.962, by the lowest estimate I heard, and forty-four hundred by the highest. They obliterated whole villages, leaving no witnesses alive. They struck at hundreds of

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Some bandits have been bribed to be “good”; others get bored and sneak back into the hills

lonely farms. They ambushed a busload of pilgrims journeying to a shrine and hacked their heads off with machetes. They overpowered and mas-

sacred the soldiers at an army outpost.

“They are hard to cope with,” President Valencia told me, “because the country folk they prey on are too afraid of them to co-operate with the authorities.” No wonder: as often as not, the bandits torture their victims. They literally crucify some people, nailing them to crosses, walls and trees. There is no atrocity they can imagine that they do not try.

What sort of monsters are they? Judging from the five hundred shot

or captured by police and soldiers in the last year, most are in the late teens or twenties. The majority are mestizos. a mixture of Indian and Spanish. They are not from city slums but from Colombia's formidable mountains and from the humid lowland jungles.

Why are they bandits? Valencia answers that some are ordinary criminals motivated by plunder. Others, as he sees it, are political terrorists, more motivated by ideology than greed. He claims that the latter are dominated

by communists and supported by Castro’s Cuba, but the evidence on which he bases the claim is fairly flimsy.

Whether the bandidos are political or nonpolitical, they owe their origin to the turbulent politics of Colombia and its terrible but undeclared civil war. This war, which was strangely unnoticed by the rest of the world and virtually ignored by the foreign press, burst into full violence in 1948 and was not resolved until 1957, when Colombia’s two major political parties, the Liberals and the Conservatives, made an agreement to pass the control of the government back and forth between them every four years.

Colombia's population is three million less than Canada's but the civil war took 225,000 lives, or six times the number of Canadian battle deaths in World War II, It was touched off by Conservative extremists who wanted a fascist dictatorship and Liberal extremists who sought sweeping reforms on socialist lines. While the army was on the side of the Conservatives the bulk of the fighting was done by civilians of peasant stock who rallied to one side or the other as guerrillas.

Thousands of today’s bandits began as boys whose parents were slaughtered by raiding guerrillas and who fled to the hills and jungles and survived by robbing isolated settlements. “Their schooling,” a priest said recently, “was ten years of crime.”

Tcofilo Rojas, nicknamed el tiburón — the shark — w'as possibly the most dreaded bandit jefe, or leader. When he was killed by the police a few' months ago, at the age of twenty-six, it was said that he had tortured or hacked to death thirty-five hundred people. At the age of thirteen, Rojas escaped to the hills when Conservative guerrillas shot his father and burned his house. He committed his first murder w'hen he was eighteen. In 1959 Alberto Lleras Camargo, Guillermo Valencia's predecessor as president, offered to pardon Rojas and give him a hundred thousand pesos ($10,100 U. S.) as a rehabilitation fund if he would abandon crime. Rojas accepted, and for a while was a peaceful citizen. In this interlude a sociologist interrogated him.

“What are the most vivid memories of your childhood?” the sociologist inquired.

“The burning of houses,” said el tiburón.

A law-abiding year bored Rojas so much that he sneaked back to the hills to resume his pillaging. His disappointed benefactor, Lleras, then remarked that there are “bandits who cannot adjust to normal lives” and who, until wiped out, would “scourge and plague the humble farmers among whom they can establish a rural Mafia.”

When Lleras, a Liberal, was elected president in 1958 there were perhaps a hundred thousand bandits. He promised amnesty to those who handed over their weapons, and thousands did. Most of them stayed reformed, so that the policy of mercy paid off. This encouraged the dickering with Rojas, the most notorious of the holdouts.

But Lleras didn’t bank on mercy alone. He organized a special army unit, the Lanceros, to reinforce the

police. The bandits were so elusive that the Lanceros seldom caught up with them, and so dangerous that there were districts where the soldiers wouldn’t patrol on foot — only in armored transports. Lleras finally increased their efficiency by providing a couple of helicopters for scouting and strafing.

But when Lleras completed his term as president in 1962, there were still fifty to sixty thousand bandidos. And because la violencia, as Colom-

bians call the bloodshed, has its roots in old political hatreds, it was intensified when Lleras, the Liberal, was succeeded by Valencia, a Conservative. Valencia met the situation by obtaining more helicopters from the United States, and the accelerated bandit hunt now resembles the U. S. helicopter drive against communist guerrillas in Vietnam. Valencia expects it to be effective but it may take years. So, when residents of Bogotá go motoring, they generally stick to the main

highways and shun the back roads. And they prefer to get home before dark.

I thought at first they were overcautious; but I don’t now. For on an expedition into the hills, a weekend visit to a coffee finca fifty or sixty miles from Bogotá, I barely missed an encounter with a pack of killers. My hostess needed eggs and asked me whether I’d like to accompany her to a nearby village while she bought some. I could, she said, see the peas-

ants marketing their produce in the public square. It was Sunday, the big marketing day. When we reached the village the square was filled with carefully stacked mounds of fruit and vegetables, boxes of eggs, and crates of live poultry, but the mounds and boxes and crates were unattended. “I can’t understand where the people have gone,” said my hostess. It turned out that they’d skedaddled for safety, just minutes before our arrival, when desperadoes murdered five men in the square.

While brigandage in Colombia is a rural phenomenon, the havoc wrought by the civil war can be discerned in the cities, too. In Bogotá, for example, hundreds of gamines — homeless boys and girls — roam the streets begging and pilfering. Most of them sleep in doorways, wrapping newspapers around them for warmth when it’s chilly. There are orphanages in Bogotá but they are overcrowded. The Rev. Luis Alberto Castillo, who runs a children’s shelter, says that even if the orphanages had room to spare, the gamines have been on their own so long that they would prefer starvation to the routine of an institution.

Yet the urchins are far from happy with their present plight. A year ago, led by a thirteen-year-old, Benjamin Zabala, they paraded through the streets of Bogotá beating the tops of garbage pails together to attract attention and displaying crudely lettered and badly spelled signs that said, “We are hungry”; “We suffer from cold"; “We want work”; “Gamines are also Colombians.”

Are children maimed on purpose?

A newspaperman talked with Gaston Santos, an eleven-year-old marcher. “Everybody hates us,” the boy said. “Nobody helps us. Nobody wants to take care of us. All we can look forward to is begging and being a nuisance.”

His statement was pretty accurate. Whether they are guilty or not, the gamines are blamed for much of the pocket-picking in Bogotá, where pickpockets are so prevalent that there are residents who have their tailors put pockets in places difficult, to get at — and put buttoned flaps on these pockets. The pickpocket label has not enhanced the popularity of the homeless children. And while adult beggars are, in a sense, their companions in misery, they despise and harass the children because the gamines can wheedle handouts from people who ignore adult panhandlers. Indeed, to meet their competition, there arc adult panhandlers who acquire children who are blind, are minus an arm or a leg or maybe both arms or both legs, or otherwise handicapped. They drag the little creatures around to stir sympathy and stimulate the tinkle of coins in their tin cups. Suspicious Bogotanos wonder whether the demand for these poor brats by beggars and the incidence of kidnapping in Colombia are related, and whether they were maimed accidentally or purposely.

This fear is an example of the tense atmosphere in a nation that is shocked and scarred by violence and owes such peace as it has to an unnatural political truce between parties that hate each other. In this atmosphere, there

is unceasing apprehension about what might happen.

Yet, mixed with the tension and uneasiness, and with the anxiety and hardship caused by acute unemployment and inflation, there is confidence that Colombia’s ordeal, which began with the assassination of the Liberal demagogue, Jorge Eliéccr Gaitán, on April 9, 1948, will have a happy ending-

U. S. experts who have been examining Colombia’s economic prospects as part of the Alliance for Progress program told me the confidence was justified. “It's very encouraging for a change,” said one of them. ‘‘We're not dealing here with a country that doesn’t have enough resources, and it isn’t that Colombia has too many people. The problem, in a nutshell, is that Colombia has too few trained people. With more trained people, improved incentives for workers and a reasonably sound administration, this can be a prosperous nation. It's one of the truly promising underdeveloped countries.”

In spite of Colombia’s mountains — it has regions where the geography seems to be perpendicular instead of horizontal — it can fill its own food requirements. It is the world’s secondlargest coffee exporter (after Brazil) and has exportable surpluses of cotton, cocoa and other crops. Besides its farms, Colombia has both Atlantic and Pacific fisheries, rubber and hardwood in its forests, the finest emeralds in its mines, and petroleum, coal, iron, copper, lead, mercury, gold and silver. Its hydroelectric potential is enormous. To draw tourists, it has magnificent scenery and sports that range from Swiss-type chalets and ski runs in the high Andes to African-type safaris and big-game hunting in the jungles.

The development of its resources has been seriously impeded by strongly entrenched oligarchs, an army that often protects vested interests by fighting social reform, venal politicians, an appallingly low rate of literacy (forty percent), the bandit hordes, and the decade of undeclared civil war.

That war and the men behind it are the subjects Colombians talk about most. I heard repeatedly how Gaitán, the demagogue who was assassinated, won the loyalty and affection of the brown - skinned mestizo peasantry in a land that is color conscious, by tearing open his white shirt in Congress to show that he had brown skin. Gaitán was perhaps the most popular figure in Colombia since Simon Bolivar, the great liberator, occupied the palace now occupied by Guillermo Valencia. When he failed to gain the Liberal Party’s nomination for president in 1946 he ran as an independent Liberal, receiving more votes than the official candidate. Because the Liberal vote was divided, the Conservative candidate, Mariano Ospina Perez, was elected. But Gaitán could look forward to being the Liberal choice in the 1950 election and a shoo-in for the presidency. He could look forward. that is, until he was gunned down. His assassin was a youngish man. But was he mentally ill, a fanatical communist, a fanatical fascist, or a professional killer hired by the Conservatives or Liberals? An enraged mob lynched him before he could say.

The inclination of the Liberals is to pin the guilt on the Conservatives. There are Conservatives who say Liberals themselves arranged the murder to rid their party of a firebrand. There are others who blame communists and point out that a conference was then being held in Bogotá to draft the charter of the Organization of American States. They say the purpose of the communists was to wreck the conference. If so, they didn't succeed, but what is now spoken of as the Bogotaza, the worst riot in Latin American history, wrecked quite a bit of Bogotá. It broke out as word of Gaitán’s death spread through the city. Gaitán’s admirers poured into the business section, shouting, brandishing clubs, firearms, torches. They burned every building that seemed to have any connection with the Conservative Party.

Most stores in Bogotá have iron curtains that can be pulled down like window blinds and padlocked at the bottom to rings embedded in cement. The storekeepers pulled them down and locked them when the rioting started. But then heavy trucks appeared on the scene with plow-like devices attached to them. With these, they tore the locks off the iron curtains and the rioters poured into the stores to strip the shelves of merchandise. The trucks must have been equipped in advance of the Bogotaza. Who equipped them? Where were they from? Bopotaiios still speculate endlessly about this.

It was days before police and soldiers managed to bring the rioting under control and by then thousands were dead and the furious reaction to the assassination of Gaitán was turning into civil war outside of Bogotá. In the hope of stopping this, the Conservative president, Ospina Perez, formed a coalition cabinet in which Liberals and Conservatives were equally represented. But it was too late. The Liberal peasants who idolized Gaitán, and had expected his promises of sweeping socialistic reforms to bring them a new life, attacked their Conservative neighbors to avenge him. The trouble grew and grew, and the Liberals resigned from the govern-

ment. An arch foe of the Liberals, Laureano Gómez, replaced Ospina Perez late in 1949. Gómez, a pal of the Spanish tyrant, Franco, was proNazi in World War II. Now he set up a dictatorship to make Colombia a fascist corporate state. To achieve his goal he had to control the army, which meant pandering to the chief of staff, General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla. Rojas loved money and had a talent for worming his way into jobs in which a man who was not impeded by scruples could profit handsomely. Gómez was apparently willing to close his eyes to graft, provided Rojas stayed in the background, but when Rojas, who loved strutting almost as much as money, moved into the foreground and began to steal the stage, Gómez lost his temper. He decided to banish Rojas, but Rojas got wind of it and directed a coup d’etat that overthrew Gómez and sent him into exile in Spain. Rojas then became dictator.

He tried to copy the Argentine dictator Juan Perón. Perón had put his pretty wife, Evita, in charge of national charities; Rojas appointed his daughter head of a national welfare fund. It was not a popular move. When she went to the bullfights on Sunday the crowd whistled at her — the equivalent of booing in Englishspeaking countries. She left. The next Sunday, she returned to the bullfights, and again the people whistled. But this time police in plain clothes were scattered among the spectators at Rojas’ order. They pulled out their revolvers and shot a number of the whistlers. The incident came to be known as the Bullring Massacre, and it sped the end of Rojas’ career. There were other incidents in Bogotá, among them bloody suppression of student riots at University City. But while a few students were dying in Bogotá, and a few whistlers were being shot at the bullring, peasants were dying by the tens of thousands in the Liberal-Conservative guerrilla war beyond the mountain peaks that rim Colombia’s capital. And in Spain, the moderates of both Colombia’s parties were secretly negotiating to save their country.

What they worked out was a deal whereby Liberals and Conservatives

would take turns in office. For four years there would be a Liberal president who would appoint to his cabinet six Liberals, six Conservatives and a minister of war, then for four years there would be a Conservative president with a half-Liberal cabinet. The agreement was for sixteen years, to go into effect whenever Rojas could be divested of power and constitutional government restored. The conspirators quietly obtained promises of support from officers of army, navy and air force, but had to wait for an opportune moment to put the plot in motion. This moment came in 1957 with a new student outbreak in Bogotá and other centres. Troops surrounded the president’s palace, and the top brass marched in and handed the despised dictator his walking papers. He fled the country.

For the next few months a military junta held the reins, but as soon as things settled down there was an election — a strange election in which, under the agreement, nobody but a Liberal could be voted into the presidency. Lleros C'amargo, the party choice, moved into the splendid old palace, and steered Colombia back to democracy.

In 1962, his four-year term was up, and Guillermo Valencia, a middle-ofthe-road Conservative, took over. Valencia has since discovered that the president’s office is filled with frustration. The bandits, he sighs, are a grim, stubborn problem — the louder the public clamor for their heads, the more elusive and cunning they grow.

Then there’s inflation: living costs

have climued more than twenty percent this year. And there are the delays in getting Alliance for Progress projects rolling. Colombians attribute these to U. S. red tape, and the U. S. retorts that the fault lies in Colombia’s shortage of competent technical planners.

Once the Alianza projects roll full steam ahead, if they ever do, the whole picture may be brighter. For a significant rise in the per capita income, now a miserable two hundred dollars a year, should be one result and would tend to halt inflation by restoring economic stability and the value of the now devalued peso. And the projects might just possibly accomplish what soldiers, undercover agents, helicopters and machine guns haven’t: the elimination of bandidos.

“Rural Colombia,” a newspaperman in Bogotá told me, “is in about the same stage of development as the western states were in the U. S. when they were called the wild west. The wild west had its cattle rustlers, its holdup men, its stagecoach and train robbers. They disappeared when the western states attained a new level of development. With the help of Alianza, we think the rural regions in Colombia will also attain a new level of development, and that roads will be paved and running water and electricity will be taken to the villages. Who ever heard of a bandit clomping down a paved road on his horse and robbing a farm that has indoor plumbing and an electric milking machine?” ★