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Among the cultures scattered in the Andean region before Europeans arrived were the Tayrona, Sinú, Muisca, Quimbaya, Tierradentro, and San Agustín. The first recorded Spanish visit occurred when Alonso de Ojeda stepped ashore on the Guajira Peninsula in 1499. As Spain took control over much of the country, colonial towns began to prosper—including Cartagena (founded in 1533).
Throughout the 18th century, the Spaniards held tight control over the land. Protests for autonomy increased during the turn of the 19th century, but it was actually events in Europe that would spark Colombia’s independence. As with many other Spanish colonies, it was the news that Spain had been attacked by Napoleon that forced the issue to the surface. In Colombia, the news divided the country. Many cities or regions formed their own autonomous governments, which is why this period is sometimes nicknamed “la Patria Boba,” or “the foolish fatherland.” In the end, the great unifier of these various groups was the Venezuelan liberator Simón Bolívar. His troops defeated the Spanish at Battle of Boyaca on Aug. 7, 1819.
Colombia’s struggles with political division were far from over. Conflict between the Conservatives and the Liberals ignited in 1948 with La Violencia (The Violence), which resulted in the death of 300,000 people. A 1953 military coup by General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla helped bring an end to the bloodshed, but did not result in the hoped-for reforms. In the end, the Conservative and Liberal parties collaborated to launch a counter-coup against the general in 1957. The two parties—now called the National Front—agreed to alternate power for the next 16 years.
The National Front agreement ended in 1974 with the election of Liberal President Alfonso López Michelsen, but some semblance of the two-party system continued. Meanwhile, left-wing guerrilla groups were surfacing: the National Liberation Army (ELN), Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and the April 19 Movement (M19). Drug cartels in Medellín and Cali were also gaining power and influence at this time—often through violence, but also through newfound wealth. The relations between the burgeoning cartels and guerilla groups eventually became violent.
In 1991, government control was strengthened with the signing of a new constitution and the surrender of Pablo Escobar, the head of the Medellín cocaine cartel. After Escobar was killed by police, and after other key drug kingpins were arrested, many of the large cartels began to break up into small groups that turned on each other.
The 1990s also saw a change in public sentiment about politicians’ relationship with the cartels. Although it was widely understood that corruption was rampant, many had been hesitant to speak out. But in the late 1990s, accusations arose that claimed President Ernesto Samper’s campaign had been financed by drug money. Independent conservative Andres Pastrana, who had blown the whistle on Samper's Cali connections, won the 1998 election. It was Pastrana who first unveiled “Plan Colombia,” a comprehensive plan that continues to this day to combat drug trafficking, strengthen the democratic process, and improve Colombia’s human-rights record.