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In Context


After Brazil and Mexico, Colombia is the third-most populous country in Latin America with nearly 45 million people. Ninety percent of the country's citizens are Catholic, and 58 percent are of mixed racial origin. The remainder are split between white, mulatto, black, Amerindian and multiethnic backgrounds. The official language is Spanish, and a number of indigenous languages are spoken as well.

According to the World Bank's world development indicators for 2008, the annual per capita income in Colombia was 2,740 dollars, and 17.8 percent of the population lived on fewer than two dollars a day, while 7 percent lived on fewer than one dollar a day. These low figures are partly linked to the many forms of violence that have plagued Colombia for centuries. Though the country has managed to sustain the growth of its economy in recent years, the economic impact of Colombia's armed conflict and its participation in the "war on drugs" is significant. According to the World Bank, if Colombia had been at peace for the last 20 years, the per capita income of the average Colombian would be 50 percent higher today, and it is estimated that an additional 2.5 million children would live above the poverty line.


The fourth largest country in South America, Colombia spans a swath of land about the size of California and Texas combined (440,000 square miles) and stretches from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean Sea. The terrain is tropical along the coastland and through the grasslands in the east; the area surrounding its three parallel mountain chains -- the northernmost tip of the Andes range -- is cooler. Urban areas are home to 75 percent of the total population, with 30 cities each supporting a population of 100,000 or more. Bogotá, the capital, has a population of 7.8 million in its metropolitan area.

Government and Politics

A republic, Colombia officially declared independence from Spain in 1810, and its current constitution was adopted in 1991. Like the United States government, the Colombian government is split into three branches -- the executive, judicial and the legislative, which is in the form of a bicameral congress.

Simón Bolívar was elected the country's first president in 1819, and conflicts between his followers and those of his vice president, Francisco de Paula Santander, led to the formation of the two political parties that have dominated Colombian politics for the last two centuries: the Colombian Conservative Party, which seeks a strong central government and maintains a close alliance with the Roman Catholic Church, and the Colombian Liberal Party, which stands for a more decentralized government, with the state assuming control over education and other civil matters.

Today, additional parties at play in Colombia include Social National Unity, Radical Change, Alternative Democratic Pole, Party of National Integration and numerous smaller political movements. Although these movements now challenge the grip of conservatives and liberals on the government, power primarily swung between these two parties throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, often leading to violent conflict. Two civil wars have resulted from the strife between the parties, including the War of a Thousand Days (1899-1903), which claimed an estimated 100,000 lives, and La Violencia (The Violence) (1946-1957), which claimed about 300,000 lives.

Though contemporary armed conflict in Colombia has its roots in these bipartisan battles, the conflict is no longer framed as a war between members of these two parties, but rather one fueled by a number of competing factors. Economic interests are largely at play, with illegal groups seeking access to routes for cocaine trade, corporations seeking to displace peasants to gain access to minerals and oil and other similar scenarios.

A new constitution in 1991 decentralized the government and brought major reforms to Colombia's political institutions. While the new constitution preserved a presidential, three-branch system of government, it also created new institutions, such as the inspector general, a human rights ombudsman, a constitutional court and a superior judicial council. The new constitution also reestablished the position of vice president.

The constitution's influence in Latin America has been widespread: The new constitution emerged from a broad consensus that covered diverse sectors of the political spectrum and represented the plurality of voices beyond the traditional parties that had dominated Colombian politics for more than a century. Among other things, the constitution recognized religious liberty and cultural and linguistic diversity and granted autonomy and land rights to indigenous and Afro-Colombian populations that historically had been excluded.

Photo Caption: The children pick out books from Biblioburro
Credit: Courtesy of Carlos Rendón Zipagauta

» Central Intelligence Agency. "The World Factbook: Colombia."
» Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLA). "Bogota City."
» Global Commission on Drug Policy.
» Human Rights Watch. "Colombia: Displaced and Discarded."
» Online NewsHour. "Colombia's Civil War."
» U.S. Department of State. "Background Note: Colombia."