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History, The National Front and After

Virgilio Barco Vargas, Alberto Lleras Camargo, Alfonso Lopez Michelsen, Dominican embassy, low voter turnout

Later in 1958 the Liberal candidate, Alberto Lleras Camargo, became the first National Front president. The National Front coalition retained a majority in both houses of Congress but could seldom win the two-thirds majority required in both houses for the passage of legislation. As a result, the government frequently fell into periods of near-paralysis. President Guillermo Leon Valencia, the Conservative candidate elected to office in 1964, declared a state of siege the following year in order to overcome the political stalemate. President Carlos Lleras Restrepo, who was elected on the Liberal ticket and succeeded Valencia in 1966, also ruled by decree. In the elections of 1970, the National Front defeated a challenge by former dictator Rojas Pinilla, electing Misael Pastrana Borrero as president.

When the National Front coalition came to an end in 1974, Alfonso Lopez Michelsen, a Liberal, was elected president. The Conservatives were granted certain cabinet posts. High unemployment persisted, and incidents of labor and student unrest occurred, as well as isolated guerrilla activity. In 1978, in an election marked by low voter turnout, another Liberal, Julio Turbay Ayala, was elected president by a slim margin; he consequently took five Conservatives into his cabinet.

Leftist guerrillas became bolder in 1979 as the army failed to subdue them. In 1980 a guerrilla band occupied the Dominican embassy in Bogota for 61 days, holding many foreign diplomats as hostages. The Conservative candidate, former minister of labor Belisario Betancur Cuartas, won the presidential elections in 1982. Under an amnesty issued by Betancur, about 400 guerrillas were pardoned; a truce between the government and the rebel groups was announced in May 1984.

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, the growing contraband export of marijuana and cocaine became a major source of income for the Colombian economy. The illegal nature of this trade led to the growth of an enormously wealthy and powerful criminal establishment. In 1984 Betancur launched a crackdown on drug trafficking. Through 1985, however, leftist guerrillas regained strength, and the antidrug crackdown lost momentum as the drug traffickers and rebels joined forces in some regions. In November government troops and guerrillas engaged in violent combat after guerrillas seized the Palace of Justice in Bogota and took dozens of hostages. By the end of the siege, 100 were dead, including the president of the supreme court and ten other justices.

In the 1986 elections, the Liberals took parliament, and Virgilio Barco Vargas, their leader, became president. Barco vowed to promote land reform and to bring guerrillas into negotiations. He also wanted to combat the power of two drug-trafficking cartels, one based in Medellin and the other in Cali. In August 1989, responding to a wave of killings in which Colombia’s cocaine cartels were implicated, the government arrested more than 10,000 people and confiscated the property of suspected drug traffickers. However, despite numerous successes in intercepting cocaine shipments and the chemicals used to refine the drug, the drug trade remained strong.

After a campaign during which three presidential candidates were assassinated, the Liberal Party nominee, Cesar Gaviria Trujillo, was elected in May 1990. He supported a new constitution that took effect in July 1991. It prohibited extradition of Colombian citizens because in past years a number of Colombian drug lords had been extradited to the United States to stand trial. Gaviria also lifted the state of siege and offered amnesty to drug traffickers who turned themselves in. Some did, but the cocaine trade, along with guerrilla activity, continued to disrupt the country. In December 1993 government security forces killed Pablo Escobar, head of the Medellin cocaine cartel, when a gunfight ensued after they attempted to capture him.

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