Jorge EliécerGaitán was a lifelong politician and a rising star in the Liberal Party. In the 1930’s and 1940’s he had served in various important government posts, including Mayor of Bogotá, Minister of Labor and Minister of Education. At the time of his death he was chairman of the Liberal Party and the favorite in the presidential elections scheduled to be held in 1950. He was a gifted speaker and thousands of Bogotá’s poor filled the streets to hear his speeches. Even though the Conservative Party despised him and even some in his own party saw him as too radical, the Colombian working class adored him.
At about 1:15 in the afternoon of April 9, Gaitán was shot three times by twenty-year old Juan Roa Sierra, who fled on foot. Gaitán died almost immediately, and a mob soon formed to chase the fleeing Roa, who took refuge inside a drugstore. Even though there were policemen trying to remove him safely, the mob broke the iron gates of the drugstore and lynched Roa, who was stabbed, kicked and beaten into an unrecognizable mass, which the mob carried to the Presidential palace. The official reason given for the killing was that the disgruntled Roa had asked Gaitán for a job but been denied.
A liberal radio station announced the murder, exhorting the poor of Bogotá to take to the streets, find weapons and attack government buildings. The Bogotá working class responded with enthusiasm, attacking offices and policemen, looting stores for goods and alcohol and arming themselves with everything from guns to machetes, lead pipes and axes. They even broke into police headquarters, stealing more weapons.
For the first time in decades, the Liberal and Conservative Parties found some common ground: the riot must stop. The Liberals nominated DaríoEchandía to replace Gaitán as chairman: he spoke from a balcony, begging the mob to put down their weapons and go home: his pleas fell on deaf ears. The conservative government called in the army but they could not quell the riots: they settled for shutting down the radio station that had been inflaming the mob. Eventually, the leaders of both parties simply hunkered down and waited for the riots to end on their own.
The riot lasted into the night. Hundreds of buildings were burned, including government offices, universities, churches, high schools and even the historic San Carlos palace, traditionally the home of the president. Many priceless works of art were destroyed in the fires. On the outskirts of town, informal marketplaces sprung up as the people bought and sold items that they had looted from the city. A great deal of alcohol was bought, sold and consumed at these markets and many of the 3,000 men and women who died in the riot were killed in the markets. Meanwhile, similar riots broke out in Medellín and other cities.
As the night wore on, exhaustion and alcohol began to take their toll and parts of the city could be secured by the army and what was left of the police. By the next morning it had ended, leaving behind unspeakable devastation and mayhem. For a week or so, a market on the outskirts of the city, nicknamed the “feriapanamericana” or “Pan-American fair” continued to traffic in stolen goods. Control of the city was regained by the authorities and the rebuilding began.
When the dust had cleared form the Bogotazo, about 3,000 had died and hundreds of stores, buildings, schools and homes had been broken into, looted and burned. Because of the anarchic nature of the riot, bringing looters and murderers to justice was nearly impossible. The clean-up lasted months and the emotional scars lasted even longer.
The Bogotazo brought to light the deep hatred between the working class and the oligarchy, which had been simmering since the Thousand Days’ War of 1899-1902. This hatred had been fed for years by demagogues and politicians with different agendas, and it may have blown up anyway at some point even if Gaitán had not been killed
Some say that letting out your anger helps you to control it: in this case, the opposite was true. The poor of Bogotá, who still felt that the 1946 presidential election had been rigged by the Conservative Party, vented decades of pent-up rage on their city. Rather than use the riot to find common ground, Liberal and Conservative politicians blamed one another, further fanning the flames of class hatred. The Conservatives used it as an excuse to crack down on the working class, and the Liberals saw it as a possible stepping-stone to revolution.
Worst of all, the Bogotazo kicked off the period in Colombia known as “La Violencia,” in which death squads representing differing ideologies, parties and candidates took to the streets in the dark of night, murdering and torturing their rivals. La Violencia lasted from 1948 to 1958 or so. Even a tough military regime, installed in 1953, took five years to stop the violence. Thousands fled the country, journalists, policemen and judges lived in fear for their lives, and hundreds of thousands of ordinary Colombian citizens died. The FARC, the Marxist guerrilla group that currently is trying to overthrow Colombia’s government, traces its origins to La Violencia and the Bogotazo.