Education International
Education International


published 9 November 2012 updated 8 February 2016
written by:

The santos governement and the persecution of the public university

Whilst some things have changed since the appointment of Juan Manuel Santos as President of the Republic (2010), echoes of the preceding administration, in which Santos acted as Minister of Defence, remain.

According to Central Unitaria de Trabajadores (CUT), in the first half of 2012, 13 trade unionists have been assassinated. Threats have been issued against 146 unionised workers, among them the President of the Colombian Oil Workers’ Union (USO).

According to the Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES), 259,146 persons were displaced by violence in 2011. Since 1985, 5,445,406 displaced persons have been recorded.

Limited rights

Even though Bill 112 was withdrawn, the spectre of the privatisation of higher education is still evident. Meanwhile, the processes of criminalisation and stigmatisation by the government, mass media and organisations on the edge of the law continues.

In some cases, even university authorities are trying to limit union activity and the right to mobilisation of students, lecturers and university workers.

The most recent episode was that of critical thinker Renán Vega Cantor, lecturer at the National Pedagogical University who was awarded the Libertador Prize for Critical Thinking in 2008.

He had to leave Colombia because of threats against his life. In a recent interview, the economist and historian, Renán Vega - who also represented the teaching staff on his university’s Superior Council – explained his approach: “In the classes I am teaching, I always try to point out to the students the magnitude of the problems of the world, of Latin America and of Colombia.”

Vega added: “Because I try to look for the truth, but also to look for those responsible for the situation in which we find ourselves. This seems very problematical. And it is still a lot more problematical because I claimed the Marxist thinking at a time when nobody was using Marx as an authority”.

International solidarity: “Silence is not the alternative”

The development of the campaign El silencio no es una alternativa(“Silence is not an Alternative”), promoted by the ASPU and the ASOPRUDEA, succeeded in mobilising, around my freedom, various academic sectors, social organisations and NGOs defending political prisoners and human rights. It offers an important moral and material support and counteracts the avalanche of misleading information from the official media.

It is an important lesson around the importance of national and international solidarity, as a support mechanism to guarantee academic freedom in our country.

The reduction of free expression in Colombia, the risks of investigating the themes of the armed and social conflict from a critical perspective and the persecution by state organisations, make the support of the international community, as a guarantor of human rights in Colombia, necessary.

Freedom to investigate

In my case, the commitment undertaken by unions such as the British University and College Union (UCU), National Federation of Teachers, CONADU (Argentina) and other EI affiliates, as well as non-government organisations such as Justice for Colombia, Lawyers without Borders and Labour Relations Lawyers Thompson, was a fundamental factor in justice being administered. It has allowed me to continue my investigation work, despite the harassments I have been the subject of since my release [1].

Political prisoners

Unfortunately, there are over 9,500 political prisoners jailed in Colombia, among them lecturers and students, who claim that their physical and psychological integrity should be guaranteed and that they be offered a fair trial to regain their freedom.

International solidarity can be offered by joint campaigns on behalf of lecturers; by reporting and putting repressive governments under pressure; and by generating a network of academic and economic support allowing the exchanges of lecturers and researchers in vulnerable situations.

The opening of negotiations by President Juan Manuel Santos with the FARC-EP is a glimmer of hope for millions of Colombians longing for a political solution to the current armed and social conflict in Colombia. The bilateral cessation of hostilities would be an important step to move towards a solution and, in this respect, the pronouncements and actions of the international community may contribute to the opening of peace pathways towards social justice in Colombia.

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[1] It is impossible to reference here the important chain of national and international solidarity received for my case, but my gratitude will always remain vis-à-vis all those who participated in one way or the other.

1999: A tragic year for the social sciences

In 1991, two positive events - National Constituent Assembly and the proclamation of a new political constitution – seemed to herald a formative work environment for public universities. Nationally, the new constitution was seen as an historical and political opportunity to change the customs and political ideals of Colombians.

And it was viewed as a chance to exit a deep national crisis anchored, on the one hand, by the continued armed confrontation between the State and insurgents and, on the other hand, by a bipartite and exclusive political regime.

Impact on society

Instead, the armed conflict intensified.  The costs involved – to the detriment of education and housing – were accompanied by a new strict application of neoliberal cuts, in which the market was given the regulating capacity. Rights acquired by workers in the areas of health and labour were cut.

Increased corruption in politics led to a decline in citizens’ confidence in their representatives, in their institutions and in politics itself as the fundamental authority for mediating, negotiating and regulating the differences and conflicts between society and the State.

Weak State responseDrug-trafficking completely frustrated the functioning of the political system [1]. In the meantime, the governing elites and political parties acted with ambiguity, tolerance and indulgence in tackling this phenomenon and its effects on the social, political, economic and cultural environment of the nation. Parallel to this, paramilitarism became State policy of the State, while the military capacity of the guerrillas was increasing [2].


It is in this context that, in 1999, the university community was shaken by the assassination of three lecturers, who had researched in social sciences and, specifically, the themes of Colombian armed and social conflict:  Hernan Henao was an anthropologist and lecturer-researcher at the University of Antioquia (Medellin); Jesús Antonio Bejarano was a professor at the National University; and Darío Betancourt was a lecturer at the National Pedagogical University [3].

Professor Henao

In one of Professor Henao’s last publications, he described the situation of internal displacement in Colombia: “[…] one can see the displaced person as a physically and mentally rootless person; it has no chair to sit down in order to meet again with his life, while the Colombian society that ejected it from its niche does not stop the war machine that it started oiling 180 years ago and did not stop driving it by denying the right of brothers to fight, dialogue and grow” [4].

Although the paramilitaries denied their responsibility in Professor Henao’s assassination, years later in his book, Mi confesión,  paramilitary chief Carlos Castaño declared that he ordered the assassination of Professor Henao because, so he believed, “he had links with the guerrilla movement and had written a book against the paramilitaries that was widespread in Europe”.

Professor Bejarano

Jesús Antonio Bejarano Ávila, assassinated in Bogota in September 1999, was an expert in the settlement of conflicts and participated in the signature of the peace agreements between the Colombian State and the Revolutionary Party of the Workers (PRT), a faction of the Popular Army of Liberation (EPL) and the “Quintín Lame”.

Professor Bejarano wrote numerous essays and articles related to issues of economic theory, history and agricultural problems which he knew very well [5]. For his murder, the State was sentenced to pay compensation to his family. Initially, the military attributed his death to FARC with which he participated in the 1992 peace talks as a government representative. However, this was denied by FARC and, to date, nobody is expected to go on trial for his murder [6].

Darío Betancourt

That same year, historian Dario Betancourt disappeared in April and his remains were found months later in a remote spot of the capital.

Professor Betancourt had developed important works on drug-trafficking, contributing novel approaches for the understanding of the phenomenon [7]. His studies revealed the tight links of the mafia and organised crime with various sectors of the Colombian society.

[1] Jaime Rafael Nieto. “Narcopolítica en la actual coyuntura política colombiana”. In: Estudios Políticos. N° 7 and 8. UdeA. December 1995-June 1996. p. 109. See also: Alonso Salazar. La cola del lagarto. Drogas y narcotráfico en la sociedad colombiana. Medellin: Corporación región-Proyecto ENLACE, 1998.

[2] To read about the actions of the guerrillas until the mid-Nineties, see: Camilo Echandía. “El conflicto armado colombiano en los noventa: cambios en las estrategias y efectos económicos”. In: Colombia Internacional. N° 49-50. University of the Andes. February 2001. pp. 117-134. Jaime Nieto and  Luis Javier Robledo. Guerra y paz  en Colombia 1998-2001. Medellin: Latin-American Autonomous University, 2002. p. 120.

[3] The assassinations of these three people followed those of other recognisedsocial researchers and defenders of human rights that occurred in the previous months, including Elsa Alvarado, Mario Calderón, Eduardo Umaña Mendoza and  Jesús María Ovalle

[4] Hernán Henao. “Los desplazados: Nuevos Nómadas” in  Revista Nómadas No. 10. Bogota: Central University, April 1999.

[5] The first studies of Professor Bejarano were about: “El capital monopolista y la inversión extranjera en Colombia” (Bogota: Red Circle, 1972);  “El fin de la Economía Exportadora y los orígenes del problema Agrario” (Published in three issues in the magazine Cuadernos Colombianos, 6, 7, 8, Bogota: 1975); later on he went into the issues of historiography: See Historia Económica y Desarrollo. La Historiografía Económica sobre los siglos XIX y XX en Colombia. Bogota: CEREC, 1994; and into the theoretical and practical analysis of the dialogue and negotiation processes: See Una agenda para la paz. Aproximaciones desde la Teoría de Resolución de Conflictos. Bogota: Third World, 1995.

[6] El Tiempo, Bogota, September 27, 1999.

[7] Among his publications one should emphasise: Matones y cuadrilleros, Bogota, Third World Publishers-National University, 1990. In collaboration with Martha García; Contrabandistas, marimberos y mafiosos. Historia social de la mafia colombiana, 1965-1992. Bogota: Third World; Mediadores, rebuscadores, traquetos y narcos(Las organizaciones mafiosas del Valle del Cauca entre la historia, la memoria y el relato, 1890-1997), Bogota: Anthropos, 1998.

The “democratic security” and “judicial arrangements” against lecturers

The attacks against the Pentagon and the twin towers in New York on 11 September, 2001 – beyond their cost in human lives and their symbolism – created a favourable climate for the consolidation of the “international fight against terrorism”.

This occurred in the context of a crisis in the world financial system and difficulties in realising the Free Trade Area of the Americas (ALCA) project, promoted by the United States.

Ignoring the existence of an armed and social conflict in Colombia, the State argued that the main threat against its stability and Colombian democracy was terrorism.

Various policies and proposals were organised on these premises, among others: the establishment of “special rehabilitation and consolidation areas” with a view to exercising an effective control on the territory and population areas with a high presence of illegal armed forces, especially guerrilla groups.

Additionally, the Government approved an antiterrorist statute and a “law of criminal alternativity” aiming at capturing persons, structures and civil organisations considered as networks of “support to subversion” [1].

Rights infringed

The application of former President Uribe’s policy of “Democratic Security” increased the infringement of human rights during the first decade of this century. And it strengthened the authoritarian government’s plan to silence critical voices through the “judicial arrangements” implemented realised against opposition leaders and lecturers, such as lecturers William Javier Díaz, Miguel Ángel Beltrán, Fredy Julián Cortés, and sociologist and human rights’ activist  Liliany Obando [2].

At the end of 2008, a special prosecutor in Bogota stipulated that the curriculum vitae of students and lecturers of various public universities should be checked (since 1992) to identify possible guerrilla infiltrators in the public universities.

At the same time, the then Minister of Education, Cecilia María Vélez, asserted in the Congress that, by presidential order, the police would enter university campuses whenever necessary to “guarantee the students’ security”.


This systematic persecution and silencing of critical thinking in the universities had a serious antecedent: the arrest and subsequent assassination of the professor at the Universities of the North and “Simón Bolívar”, Alfredo Correa de Andreis, in September 2004. Correa, a sociologist and engineer, was charged with being an important ideologist of the FARC and tried for the alleged offence of “rebellion”.

As no evidence could be found against him, he was released and, a few weeks later, he was assassinated. Thanks to international pressure and activity of his relatives, this case was investigated and the perpetrators identified.

The inquiries led to the conclusion that Correa’s death resulted from a judicial arrangement orchestrated by the Administrative Department of Security, DAS (intelligence agency depending from the Executive). In its order, the Supreme Court of Justice - that condemned the then director of DAS – pointed out that he [the then DAS director] “acted in collusion with the North Block of the Self-defences, through the José Pablo Díaz Front, commanded by Édgar Ignacio Fierro, alias Don Antonio, in order to initially present Professor Alfredo Rafael Correa de Andreis as a terrorist and then, proceed to his execution”.

This judicial investigation demonstrated that the DAS provided the paramilitary groups of the Coast with the names of trade unionists and lecturers who were then assassinated by these illegal organisations [3].

Alfredo Correa was assassinated because of his commitment to the popular sectors and his socio-economic works about forced displacements in the area of the Atlantic. In them, he revealed the diversion of funds away of the “Colombia Plan”.

At the same time, he denounced the dispossession of lands of hundreds of country people in the colony of Cienaga. In fact, years earlier as vice-chancellor of the public university of Magdalena, Correa had opposed the reforms that pointed at its privatisation.

Judicial arrangement

A judicial arrangement very similar to that used against Professor Alfredo Correa was developed against the author of this article. In Mexico City, in May 2009, at the invitation of the Centre of Latin-American Studies (CELA) of the Autonomous National University of Mexico (UNAM), this author was kidnapped by agents of the Mexican National Migration Institute (INM) and brought with great force to the airport of Toluca City [4].

With covered face, hands cuffed behind my back, I was brought in a private aircraft to Bogota, delivered to the Colombian authorities and presented by the media as“Jaime Cienfuegos. An important member of the International Commission of the FARC [Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia]” who – according to the then director of the Colombian police, General Oscar Naranjo - “intended to infiltrate the universities of Mexico and of other countries of the area, in order to execute the terrorist plans of that insurgent organisation” [5].

I spent over two years in high-security blocks, cohabiting with dangerous criminals, deprived of my fundamental rights and my dignity besmirched by the National Penitentiary Institute. Finally, the Judge recognised I was innocent of the charges, namely “rebellion” and “criminal conspiracy with terrorist objectives” [6].

Throughout the trial, it became clear that my arrest was arbitrary, that I was sentenced on the basis of illicit and illegal evidence, that my constitutional right to the “presumption of innocence” was violated, my academic works utilised as evidence of my alleged political affiliation with the FARC and that tracking was organised against me by Security agencies of the Colombian State.

It also became obvious that I did not have any link with FARC and that I was not “Jaime Cienfuegos”. But this juridical arrangement was possible because – as declared later in the offices of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights by a Mexican intelligence agent who was paid by the Colombian State: “Beltrán was one of the major trophies of the governments of Colombia and Mexico” [7].

With my arrest, the authorities aimed to “demonstrate” the alleged infiltration of the guerrillas in the public universities. At the same time, they were trying to frighten the researchers who were addressing the armed and social conflict in Colombia from a critical point of view [8].

[1] National Government of Colombia. Política de Defensa y Seguridad Democrática. Bogota, 2003

[2] In addition to the mentioned facts, the methodof the “false positives”, or extrajudicial executions was commonly used and consisted of the concealment of victims who were assassinated by error, exceeding of their authority by the police, or simply for their perpetrators to get a material encouragement for their fight against terrorism. The victims were generally defenseless country people or settlers with low resources, who were presented as guerrillas discharged in fights (author’s note).

[3] One year after the murder of Professor Correa, on 1 September 2006 in Bogota, they THE DAS? assassinated the sociologist and lecturer, Edgar Fajardo, critical researcher and militant of the left-wing.

[4] On22 May 2009, the under-direction of the National Migration Institute of the United States of Mexico (INM) wanted to see me for the ratification of a formality for a visa FM-3, as the document I had presented in this country, as visiting lecturer had to be changed. The Mexican INM avoided the applicationof the Treaty of Extradition entered into with the Republic of Colombia on 4 October 1937 that states clearly that nobody can be extradited for political offences or facts related thereto, such as those that were reproached to me by the Colombian Prosecution Department.

[5] Revista Semana, Bogota, May 2009

[6] On14 April 2009, the municipal criminal judge 13 of Bogota launched a warrant of arrest against me for the offences of criminal conspiracy with terrorist objectives, financing of terrorism and management of resources related to terrorist activities and others. On the basis of the information from the Colombian authorities to the media, Interpol issued a Red Circular.

[7] Revista Semana. Com. May 23, 2011 ( http://www.semana.com/justicia/testigo-niega-alias-jaime-cienfuegos-presunto-ideologo-farc/157215-3.aspx)

[8] As evidence of my alleged militancy in the FARC, they presented the article: Colombia: ¿Terrorismo o Insurgencia?” in Fermentum. Revista de la Facultad de Humanidades de la Universidad de los Andes. Venezuela Magazine of Sociology and Anthropology. Year 16, No. 46, Merida (Venezuela). ISN: 0798-3069. Written as co-author with Liliany Patricia Obando, sociologist and student of a master’s degree in Political Sciences of the National University of Colombia who was, at that time, also charged by the Colombian authorities with the offence of “rebellion”. After several years of unfair arrest, she recovered her freedom, as the Prosecution Department could not demonstrate her responsibility. It appears clearly that this was another case of persecution against critical thinking. See Fermentum


In theory and in practice, the debate confronted the existing social and political order, whereby co-administration, free character and academic freedom are guaranteed through the recognition of university autonomy. Although Colombia was not unaware of the influences of the Movement of Cordoba, these guiding principles of the public university were not employed fully.

Indeed, academic freedom and the pluralist vocation were limited by the State: on the one hand, policies trying to privatise the university system while submitting it to market forces;  on the other hand, by the systematic use of violence to silence the critical expressions emerging from the university community as a whole.

These circumstances, by their structural nature, go beyond the governments of the moment and fit into the context of a severe armed conflict that has been going on for more than half a century.

The State’s incapacity to meet the economic, political and social demands of most of the population; the increasing criminalisation of the social protest; and the hegemonic and exclusive exercise of politics by the bipartite, liberal and conservative elites are features of this armed conflict and that have deep economic, social and political roots. [1]

[1] The recent announcements by the government of President Juan Manuel Santos about the opening of a dialogue with the guerrilla movement, the FARC-EP, after years of failed attempts to impose a military solution to the Colombian armed conflict, have put on the negotiations table a political, economic and social agenda, the realisationof which might open the doors to the deactivation of a conflict that has had high costs for Colombian society.

University fight-back

In the last 18 months, the university community, including students, have mobilised against the ill-considered higher-education reform proposal (Bill 112) presented by the current Government of President Juan Manuel Santos. This Bill aims to strip higher education of its public nature and subordinate it to business logic.

Not only did the reaction from the university community oblige the government to withdraw its proposal, it also brought about an interesting organisational dynamic around which other social sectors have gathered.

However, although the university movement showed its creative and innovative capacity in its rejection of neoliberal policies in higher education, the State did not change its overall repressive strategy. It is not surprising that some students and lecturers who participated actively in such protest movements were jailed, accused of so-called “rebellion” and “criminal conspiracy” while others have been menaced by paramilitary groups.

The cases of Omar Alfonso Cómbita(Vice-Chancellor of the Education Centre Santa Ramos and member of Federación Colombiana de Educadores [FECODE]), Omar Marin (member of the Federation of University Students (FEU), Carlos Lugo (singer and author of protest music) and Jorge Eliécer Gaitán (member of Federación de Estudiantes Universitarios (FEU), deprived of their liberty for over a year, are clear examples of persecution against critical thinking.

This climate has been noted by Asociación de Profesores Universitarios (ASPU) in its conclusions of the III National Plenary Session in which it states that: “Rash actions, like menaces, slanders, descriptions, intimidations, harassment at work, disciplinary procedures and various forms of discrimination have been creating an environment of hostility and aggression against the integrity and dignity of the unionised lecturers and the consequential violation of their fundamental rights in various public universities”.

This situation is not new. This article will illustrate how, historically, the Colombian State has repeatedly utilised – either directly or through the encouragement and tolerance of illegal groups – repressive strategies including everything from arbitrary arrests and charges of terrorism up to compiling black lists and the physical elimination of members of the university community, with a view to silencing critical voices and implementing a policy of homogenisation of thinking [1].

[1] Reference will be made to examples of teachers prosecuted and assassinated because of their critical thinking.

The sixties and the seventies: closing, militarisation and “purge” of the public universities

Increasing social tension that caused unrest in the world – national liberation wars, ethnic conflicts, invasions, political revolutions, youth and student movements,  - and the gestation in Latin America of significant political processes of change stimulated by the triumphant Cuban revolution (1959) were mirrored in Colombia.

There emerged, in the unrest of the 1960s, a generation of intellectuals committed to society and its problems and concerned by public debates on national issues. They were open to confrontation with the elites leading the public and private institutions, including the universities.

At the same time, there was opposition to the intervention of foreign foundations and North-American influence in the conception of educational policies.

That generation, from a left-wing political affiliation, saw the public university – as well as some private ones – as a space from where one fought against hegemonic thinking and the practices of the dominant classes.

This was to be done with the fervour and radicalism of an era of uprisings, insurrections, revolts and takeovers by popular and revolutionary sectors in Latin America [1].

In that way, by the end of the Sixties and the first half of the Seventies, the public universities became a sound box of the various social conflicts that characterised these years, converting campuses into locations for student meetings, strikes, union solidarity and clashes with the police.

[1] The Cuban revolution and the figures of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, are some of the many references of the anti-establishment and revolutionary ideals of the youth of the Sixties and afterwards. For Colombia, Camilo Torres Restrepo, the priest, intellectual, sociologist and lecturer, later involved in the armed struggle until the mid-Sixties, represented all the symbolism of rebellion of the university generation next to the quasi-mythical and continental figure of Ernesto “Che” Guevara. See: Camilo Torres: Cruz de Luz. Bogota: FICA, 2006 and Walter Broderick. El Cura Guerrillero. Mexico: Grijalbo, 1977.

Government repression

To confront this environment of agitation and the intensification of the students and lecturers’ movement, individual governments  sent police onto the university campus, repressed student organisations, imposed authoritarian vice-chancellors, and instituted lengthy closures of the universities or faculties, in particular Social Sciences.

Prestigious lecturers, who had exercised their academic and intellectual leadership by participating actively in support of the student movement or assuming critical positions against university policies, were removed from office.

For instance, economist Antonio García [1], recognised for his contributions to social sciences in the agricultural field, was removed because he opposed the military occupation of the Faculty of Medicine. Some departments, like those of Sociology, were closed and their teaching staff dissociated from the university.

[1] Antonio García (1912-1982) is considered one of the Colombian thinkers and essayists with "most respectable depictions about Marxism", in the words of philosopher Herbert Marcuse. Since the mid-20th Century, he was a pioneer in the reflection of problems around the specificity of Latin-American development, democracy and humanist socialism, that was to become the axis of the theoretical and political debate in the subsequent decades.

Community protest

In 1977, harmful economic, labour and educational policies were imposed by the national government. In response, the left-wing social and political organisations convened a large national movement - a type of “Community Protest”.

This event, on 14 September, 1977, marked a moment of inflection in the mobilisation of the popular sectors against the governmental measures. It also highlighted the State’s strong reaction that resulted in a significant number of dead, injured and people under arrest because of clashes with the police [1].

After this important national day of protest and the advent of the government of President Julio Cesar Turbay Ayala (1978-1980), the so-called “Security Statute” was introduced under the auspices of ‘exceptional measures’. Its aim was to limit, by repression, the operation of the social, union and political organisations.

With that legislation, the management of public order was in the hands of soldiers. Verbal court-martials -civilians tried by soldiers- became usual, illegal arrests increased, and leaders, political activists and left-wing activists were tortured and disappeared.

Some lecturers, such as the co-founder of the Faculty of Sociology of the National University, Orlando Fals Borda, and sociologist Maria Cristina Salazar, recognised internationally for their valuable contributions to Investigación Acción Participativa(IAP), were tried and jailed, charged with having links with subversion, solely for criticising the system.

Other intellectuals, characterised by their democratic positions, were obliged to go into exile, among them the 1982 Nobel Prize in Literature recipient, Gabriel García Marquez, and sculptor Feliza Bursztyn.

[1] For a detailed account of that period, see Mauricio Archila. Idas y venidas, vueltas y revueltas. Protestas sociales en Colombia 1958-1990. Bogota: Institute of Anthropology and Histoty of Columbia  ICAH-CINEP, 2003. From the same author and others, see: 25 años de luchas sociales en Colombia 1975-2000. Bogota: CINEP, 2002. Also: Gustavo Gallón (ed). Entre movimientos y caudillos. Bogota: CINEP-CEREC, 1989. An excellent account of what happened on that day can be read in Arturo Alape. Un día de septiembre. Witness on the Civic Testimonio sobre el Paro Cívico. Bogota: Armadillo, 1977.

The spiral of violence against the university: the decades of the eighties and nineties

In the Eighties and Nineties, the Colombian political and social crisis was a time of deinstitutionalisationin various fields in society. Conflicts were not settled by the respective authorities. Private actors used violence to impose their will and standards were abandoned or simply ignored.

Generally speaking, social coexistence was fractured by the deinstitutionalisation and use of generalised violence and, consequently, of the propagation of complex phenomena of social anomie [1].

It is obvious that the character of the crisis was fundamentally political. However, unsettled problems from the country’s history and a politically weakened State led to the appearance of new actors of violence – such as drug trafficking and paramilitarism – that became influential elements of the crisis, along with guerrilla insurgency, at the end of the 1980s.

Violent climateIn this climate of violence, the socio-political scene of the Eighties was extremely adverse to collective action and to the exercise of the freedom of thought, because of the violence that right-wing sectors imposed on the citizens and, in particular, on intellectuals and university leaders [2]. Threats, crimes, massacres and forced disappearances were a constant feature of these bloody years marked by the spiral of drug-paramilitary and hired assassins’ violence [3], the waves of which hit strongly the university campus.


One of the first crimes of the decade was that against the lawyer and National University lecturer, Alberto Alava Montenegro, on 20 August, 1982. Recognised for his commitment to the defence of political prisoners, this professor was murdered by members of the squadrons of the rising MAS (Death to Kidnappers), one of the pioneering organisations of the paramilitary groups, sponsored at its inception by drug-traffickers and sectors tied to the Military Forces.

The assassination of Professor Alava started a cycle of attacks against the university community that peaked critically in 1987. At daybreak on 14 August, in his own house and a few blocks away from the IV Brigade of Medellin, the professor of the National Faculty of Public Health of the University of Antioquia, Pedro Luis Valencia, was riddled with bullets in front of his wife and some of his children.

The professor, at the time a member of the Patriotic Union (a broad politico-legal organisation with a left-wing profile), was about to participate in a peaceful demonstration for the right to life, organised by the students of the University of Antioquia.

On 25 August of the same year, the teaching leader of Antioquia and President of the Association of Schoolteachers of Antioquia (ADIDA), Luis Felipe Vélez, was assassinated.  On the same day, 11 hours later, very close to the place of the murder, Hector Abad Gomez and Leonardo Betancur Taborda were riddled with bullets.

Abad Gomez, a prominent researcher in the preventive medicine, was developing important work in defence of human rights, while Betancur Taborda was the vice-president of ADIDA.

In the last quarter of 1987, the list of assassinated lecturers and students increased. In October, the presidential candidate of the Patriotic Union, Jaime Pardo Leal, who was also a famous jurist and leading authority of the National University, was assassinated. This murder was followed by that of Luz Marina Rodríguez, a Chemistry and Pharmacy student of the National University, headquarters of Medellin.

Others murdered included Rodrigo Guzmán Martínez, vice-president of the National Association of Housemen of the section of Antioquia; Orlando Castañeda Sánchez, student of the VIII semester of the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Antioquia; Francisco Gaviria Jaramillo, final year studentin Social Communication of the same university; and Luis Fernando Vélez Vélez, lecturer and researcher of the University of Antioquia [4].

Were involved in the perpetration of these offences active and retired members of the Colombian Military Forces, paramilitary squadrons organised and financed by landowners, drug-traffickers as well as national and regional politicians?

To date, many of these crimes have gone unpunished and although crimes of this nature diminished for a time they quickly recovered the dynamics of the preceding period, as is illustrated by Table I below.





Category of trade-unionist



25 Aug 87




15 Mar 88




30 Oct 94




27 May 96




10 Jul-96




27 Oct 98




01 May 98




26 May 98




30 Dec 98




27 May 99




04 May 99




04 Dec 99




05 Oct 00




29 Aug 00




27 Apr 00




23 Jan 01




25 Feb 01




22 Oct 01




14 May 01




02 Feb 01




23 Feb 01




16 May 01



Source: National Union School and Association of Lecturers of the University of Antioquia (Asoprudea)

[1] One speaks of anomie when the social rules no longer succeed in limiting the interests and behaviours of individuals and their actions not only exceed the rules, but additionally, contradict and deny them, favouring chaos in the social organisation. See: Émile Durkheim. De la división del trabajo social. Argentina: Schapire, 1987. El suicidio. Spain: Akal Edition, 1998.

[2] María Teresa Uribe. “La universidad en un contexto urbano turbulento”. In: María Teresa Uribe. Universidad de Antioquia. Historia y Presencia (1803-1999). Coord.. Medellin: University of Antioquia, 1998, p. 660 and ff.

[3] The word drug-paramilitarism refers to the phenomenon associated with the creation of armed groups on the margins of the law and sponsored by the drug syndicates, landowners, national and local politicians, in order to defend their illicit trade and to eliminate the political and social opposition; the “sicario”, for his part, is a hired assassin, who kills to order, in return for a salary (author’s note).

[4] Andrea Aldana. “Recuerdo de otras Crisis” on http://periodistasudea.com/quepasaudea/2010/recuerdos-de-otras-crisis/