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The Thousand Days War (Guerra de los Mil Días): Colombia’s Pivotal Civil Conflict


Thousand Days War
Government officers and soldiers at a banquet (1899), photograph by Henry Duperly. Credit: Public domain

The Thousand Days War (Guerra de los Mil Dias) was one of the most significant armed conflicts in the history of Colombia. Lasting from 1899 to 1902, this civil war pitted the Liberal and Conservative parties against each other in a struggle for political power and control over the country.

Causes and Origins

The origins of the Thousand Days War can be traced back to the deep political and social divisions that existed in Colombia during the late 19th century. The country was divided between the Liberal Party, which sought progressive reforms and a more secular state, and the Conservative Party, which favored traditional values and a closer relationship between church and state.

Thousand Days War
Children recruited by the liberal forces in Panama. Credit Carlos ChahinCC BY-SA 3.0

In 1886, a new constitution was established, known as the Constitution of 1886, which strengthened the central government and consolidated the power of the Conservative Party. This move further alienated the Liberal Party and sparked tensions that would eventually lead to armed conflict.

The War

The conflict began on October 17, 1899, when liberal rebels staged an uprising against the conservative government in the town of Socorro, Santander. The liberals, led by Rafael Uribe Uribe and Benjamin Herrera, sought to overthrow the conservative regime and institute liberal reforms.

The war quickly spread throughout the country, with both sides engaging in intense and brutal fighting. The war’s name, “Thousand Days,” reflects the prolonged duration of the conflict and the devastation it brought upon Colombia.

Thousand Days War
liberal guerrillas. Credit: Public domain

The war saw significant battles and military campaigns in different regions, including Boyaca, Santander, Cundinamarca, Antioquia, and the Caribbean coast. It was a war of attrition, marked by guerrilla warfare, sieges, and atrocities committed by both sides.

Foreign Involvement

The Thousand Days War also attracted the attention of foreign powers, with the United States and some European countries offering support to the conservative government. The presence of foreign troops further complicated the conflict and increased its intensity.

Human Cost

The war had a devastating impact on Colombian society. It resulted in a large number of casualties, estimated to be between 70,000 to 120,000 people, including combatants and civilians. Many cities and towns were destroyed, and the economy suffered greatly.

The war also displaced thousands of people, leading to a humanitarian crisis as refugees sought safety in other regions of the country. The suffering and loss of life during the Thousand Days War left scars on the collective memory of the Colombian people.

End of the Conflict

After three years of intense fighting, the war came to an end in November 1902, with a peace agreement signed in Neerlandia, Boyaca. The agreement allowed the liberal rebels to lay down their arms, and both parties agreed to share power in a period known as the “National Union.”

The war’s end marked the beginning of a new era in Colombian history, but the wounds of the conflict would linger for years to come. The Thousand Days War is remembered as a tragic and tumultuous period in Colombia’s past, reminding the nation of the importance of dialogue, reconciliation, and the pursuit of peaceful political solutions.

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