Colombia is a country in South America, bordering on Panama, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, and Brazil, with coasts on both the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea. It has a population of 40 million, and four cities with populations over 1 million: Santa Fe de Bogotá (the capital), Medellín, Cali, and Barranquilla.

Most of Colombia lies in the Andes, and there are many mountains in excess of 5,000 meters, including Pico Cristóbal Colón and the volcanoes of Huila and Tolima. Bogota is cool year round, while Medellin is very hot: climate depends largely on altitude. There are three ridges of mountains that go through Colombia, and they are known as the Cordillera Occidental, Cordillera Central, and Cordillera Oriental. To the east of the mountains, the selvas spills into the basins of the Amazon River and Orinoco River: these rain forests are the homes of wildlife and of the FARC revolutionary forces. More on them later.

The Backstory

Although ancient civilizations inhabited Colombia thousands of years ago, we know little about them, besides a few ruins and artifacts found in San Augustín. Colombian history effectively began when Christopher Columbus arrived in 1502 and claimed the area for Spain. Bogota was founded in 1538 and became the capital of the viceroy of New Granada, who ruled over most of northern South America. The close administration made Colombia one of the wealthiest parts of Latin America, but this wealth came at the expense of deep class divisions between the Spanish and the natives, to the point where even New Granada-born Spanish were subjugated.

Simón Bolívar defeated the Spanish at the Battle of Boyacá in 1819, freeing New Granada. He founded the state of Gran Colombia, which included modern-day Panama, Venezuela, and Ecuador: it was only the second independent state in South America, following Paraguay. Bolivar was power-hungry, however, so his second in command Francisco de Paula Santander ousted him in 1831, took Colombia and Panama, and called them New Granada.

A few years later, Liberals started entering the government and demanding a more federalist government. In 1855, they amassed enough power to pass a new constitution, and New Granada became the Granadine Confederation. Conservatives, who were in favor of centralized rule, fought the Liberals in a civil war from 1861 to 1863, which only resulted in an even more fragmented state called the United States of Colombia.

Finally, in 1880, the Liberals elected Rafael Núñez, a Conservative in Liberal clothing. He changed Colombia into a unitary republic, gave it its modern name, and presided over the government for a decade and a half. After he died, the two sides went at it again in the War of a Thousand Days.

In the meantime, a group of pesky gringos were trying to build the Panama Canal. Colombia's government wouldn't let them, so the U.S. sponsored a revolution in Panama and held back the Colombian military. Conservative Rafael Reyes then became president and instituted a more authoritarian government that would rule over the country until 1930.

Colombia sided with the U.S. in World War II. After the war, political tensions began to really heat up, as the two parties found themselves neck and neck for the first time. A moderate Conservative government was eventually elected, but the assassination of Liberal leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán in 1948 started an ongoing rebellion called la violencia.

The problems continued through the fifties, and disillusionment with the ruling parties led to the rise of left-wing guerrillas in isolated parts of Colombia, with FARC as the largest group. After a coup ousted President Gustavo Rojas Pinilla in 1957, the Liberals and Conservatives formed a coalition called the National Front, but because they were still competing with each other and with the rebels, the government remained paralyzed through the FN's end in 1974, even as new groups like the Fidel Castro-inspired ELN arose in the boonies.

The Nose Candy (and the guns that go with it)

The Andes are a great agricultural region, and Colombia grows some delicious coffee and beautiful flowers. There's also a lot of coca, the plant which can be processed into cocaine. During the seventies and eighties, Colombia was ahead of Bolivia but behind Peru in total cultivation: sometime in the early nineties, Colombia edged ahead, after a government crackdown made Peru less attractive. Conservative president Belisario Betancur Cuartas tried to stop Colombia's cocaine production in 1984, but failed, as the growers and the guerrillas were becoming increasingly interconnected.

By the 1990's, the civil war in Colombia was going nowhere. Enter Liberal president Ernesto Samper Pizano, who took office in 1994. He worked to make peace with the rebels, until it was revealed that he had taken $6m in campaign money from drug lords: the scandal led to his impeachment in 1996, although he was not removed from office. The ONDCP at the White House was incensed, and Bill Clinton cut off aid to Colombia shortly after Samper was let go. Samper's term ended in 1998, and the U.S. restored its military aid program.

The U.S. government's Plan Colombia supplies Colombia with over $1 billion a year in fumigation services and military hardware. However, even today, Colombia is the cocaine capital of the world: 95% of the world's cocaine is processed there, and half of the world's coca is grown there. As long as the violence continues, and as long as Colombian sovereignty is at stake, the drugs will continue to flow by air, land, and sea to California, Texas, and Florida, and stopping them will be like choking a greasy water balloon.

Incidentally, Colombia is also one of two countries in the Western Hemisphere that grows opium, the precursor for heroin. (The other is Mexico.)

The Government (or semblance thereof)

Colombia has a president elected to a single four-year term, as well as a bicameral Congress divided into a 161-member House of Representatives and a 102-member Senate. The military consists of both conscripts and professionals: high school graduates are exempt from combat duty. Shopping is in Colombian pesos, which trade around 1,500 to the U.S. dollar.

Government-owned oil, platinum, emerald, and gold mining operations keep the state's coffers filled: GDP is around $2,500 per capita, although the class divisions are so intense that only a few people actually make that much. In rural areas, classical landlord-tenant patronage systems still exist, which have been a breeding ground for socialist thought and the main fuel of the rebel movement.

principal sources: RAND, Colombian Labyrinth, and Encarta for some dates

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